ligika | catalyze


The reconstructed story of the life of Saityen, a Nendaaghe Hut’aane Koyukon man originally from the Upper Nendaaghe River Valley
By Adeline Peter Raboff (Gwich’in/Koyukon Athabascan)
This piece is dedicated to the life and work of Ruthie Tatqaviñ Ramoth-Sampson and for Katherine L. Arndt

Saityen was known by many names; Sayyen by Iñupiat storytellers of the Middle Kobuk River (Charles Piġliġiaq Custer, Truman Siqupsiraq Cleveland,) Saityet (Joe Immałurauq Sun) and Saityen (Barbara Qalhaq Atoruk) on the Upper Kobuk River, and Satnik and Sannik (Simon Panniaq Paneak, Justus Mekiana) was his Nunamiut name. (Storytellers further west and north add too many elements that are not in the upper Kobuk version. Therefore, the author has omitted them.) His name in Koyukon might mean something associated with the word ‘knife,’ tsaaye. This person was also known as Nitsehduu (Stephen Peter) of the Neets’ąįį Gwich’in.


s a young boy, Saityen was displaced from the Nendaaghe River (Noatak River) sometime after 1820. He came from a community who called themselves the Nendaaghe Hut’aane Koyukon people. They were exclusively caribou hunters.

Unbeknownst to Saityen’s people, geologic events took place across the world that caused a period of sudden unexpected cooling. The initial cooling was so severe that it caused some family groups, fearing starvation, to abandon their land to join relatives far to the east, around 270 miles as the crow flies. Unfortunately, this left a weakened community of Nendaaghe Hut’aane on the upper Nendaaghe. This was not good.

Trade with Siberians carrying Russian goods began as early as the 1600s, but increased markedly in the early 1800s with the Russian American Company’s presence in Alaska. Long before the establishment of Aleksandrovsky Redoubt on the Nushagak River in 1819-1821, even Alaska Natives in the far north were aware of the European presence and the goods that they traded in.

Coupled with Russian, American, and British ships north of the Bering Straits, European goods hit Alaska like a tsunami. Alaska Native regional leaders began to compete for the most favorable trade routes. This caused tension and strife within each community and with adjoining groups. The Nendaaghe Hut’aane were right in the middle of an Iñupiat trade route that went north-south and east-west. It was a touchy situation. Between 1800 and the 1860s, Alaska Native groups were already displaced or in the process of being displaced.

A major group of Nendaaghe Hut’aane Koyukon who had been ousted from the Nendaaghe northern estates region along the lower Ipnavik and Etivluk rivers on the coastal plains, circa 1820 (likely at Atłiq and Tukuto Lake), now joined the Saakił Hut’aane along the Hulghaatne (upper Kobuk River).

From upper Kobuk oral renditions, it seems that the Nendaaghe stayed at the extreme headwaters of the Nendaaghe and Hulghaatne rivers and the Walker Lake area of the country. According to Justus Mekiana, these events took place during his grandfather Mapiaaq’s time, as well as the time of Simon Panniaq’s grandfather. Together they placed the Nendaaghe Hut’aane in the upper Aalaasuraq (Nigu), Etivluk, Killik, and Aalaasuk (Alatna) river valleys.

From Hulghaatne began a war of attrition. Some of these raids and counter raids are well documented in “The World System of the Iñupiaq Eskimos: Alliance and Conflict” by Ernest S. Burch, Jr.. The perpetrators are often referred to as Kobuk people, which then caused Burch to question whether it was the Kobuk Koyukon or Kobuk Iñupiat people. All of these stories are told strictly from the Iñupiat perspective.

When the refugee Nendaaghe Hut’aane first arrived among their midst, the Saakił Hut’aane were at first eager to help their Nendaaghe neighbors and relatives regain their Nendaaghe estate. They probably helped through the gathering of food, clothing, and weapons, with planning stages talking about the best routes and what time of year to carry out these raids. And in Saityen’s case, taking in orphans. Young men joined as mercenaries. These things were no small matter.

At first there was cooperation. As the years went on, having so many extra people in the region stressed resources. The relationship with their Iñupiat relatives and trading partners to the west began to deteriorate. Many of their young men who joined in these raids as mercenaries died. For a small community of 300-650 people, losing such a number of young men meant hardship and vulnerability. As the years passed, dealing with the Nendaaghe in their midst became an increasing burden.

No one knows how Saityen was orphaned, or that part of the story was deliberately not passed down. It is known that Saityen happened to make it to safety, and he was raised by an Upper Hulghaatne Saakił Hut’aane Koyukon family. Evidently this family had some status, because Saityen was never described as a “poor orphan.” Saityen was raised with his adopted brother Qatïya’aana.

Growing up among the Saakił Hut’aane would have meant that Saityen knew all, or most, of his adopted parents’ relations, all the children his own age, those younger and older, and that he shared a life and identity with them. If growing up there was anything like among the Gwich’in, it would have meant he was kicked out of the house long before the first morning light appeared in the sky. Saityen and Qatïya’aana would have been out with all the other little boys playing around and learning about the cosmology of the Koyukon, and the stars and navigation long before breakfast.

Saityen also shared in the subsistence round of activities. As a child he would have helped his mother collect the right willow branches to make fish nets, and later when the fish surged up the river, he would be among all the other little boys pulling and pushing in the loaded nets and processing the fish for winter. He would help pick edible plants and roots, and in the fall be picking berries. All the time learning what was and was not hutlaane, rules of behavior and relation to the greater spirit of the universe. With Qatïya’aana and all the boys in their age group, Saityen would have been laughing and giggling long into the summer nights, practicing with their bow and arrows.

Also, during these formative years he would have heard again and again the stories of his people, the creation myths, hunting stories, stories of tribal conflicts, the cosmology of their world, and the stories of the deyenh (commonly known as shaman or medicine men.) All were morality tales of how to live one’s life. As he got older the star lore and navigation by the stars became more important for him to remember and use.

When he became old enough to go hunting for caribou and sheep with the men in the upper Etivluk, Aalaasuraq (Nigu), Killik, and Aalaasuk river headwaters, and sometimes out onto the open arctic plains, he began to join the life of the men on an expanded scale. They added to his ever-deepening knowledge of proper conduct, and the concepts of the energy of life. The men would have known Saityen and joked around with him.

Later when he became a dena, a real human being, he moved back to the Nendaaghe River area where he was reported by Immałurauq Sun to have relatives. Here it’s important to interject that by this time it was dangerous for Nendaaghe Hut’aane men, and even Saakił Hut’aane men, to be hunting on the middle upper Nendaaghe River or to go through the area to hunting grounds further north. It was an area that was no longer in “possession” of the Nendaaghe Hut’aane Koyukon. There were remnants of the community who stayed in the area between the headwaters of the Etivluk, Aalaasuraq, Killik, and Aalaasuk river headwaters. There was a small community there known later by Iñupiat speakers as Narvaŋuluk. They maintained relationships with the upper Kuukpik river Iñupiat, the Kaniaŋiq, Killiq, and Qaŋmaliq, and with the Too Loghe Hut’aane Koyukon further east at the headwaters of the Eł Tseeyh no’ (John River.)

Saityen would have been at trade gatherings and acquired sighok’elaayh — trading partners — among other Koyukon groups to the east, west, and south, Iñupiat to the north, and Gwich’in to the east. He would have known several dialects of Koyukon and Iñupiaq, and a bit of Dinjii Zhuh kyaa, the language of the Gwich’in. Saityen was a young man who was known in the region.

Saityen was then married to Nachats’an (probably a Gwich’in translation of her Koyukon name) the daughter of Aldzak, a “big man” with a caribou corral of his own, and responsible for the lives of extended family. At the time, most marriages were arranged along three exogamous maternal lines. Nachats’an was from the Noltseene marriage group, later translated as Naats’ąįį among the Gwich’in communities. This was a major alliance and social connection for Saityen. It bound him to the Nendaaghe Hut’aane Koyukon, and made him a community leader. He was recognized as a “big man” among later Iñupiat story tellers. Saityen became a successful hunter and leader, a Kkohkkee in his own right, and sought another wife.

Saityen’s second wife came from Hulghaatne, where he had spent a large part of his formative years. He probably grew up knowing his second wife, her family, and whose Koyukon name has been lost, but according to Simon Panniaq, her Iñupiat name was Ilikuk. Later she became known among the Di’hąįį Gwich’in as Shijuu Tr’oonii “I don’t have any more younger sisters,” and years later after her third marriage, Shigyaa Tr’oonii “I ran out of snares [to catch men].” Because of Saityen’s status, this marriage was patrilocal.

This caused Simon Paneak and Justus Mekiana to say that Saityen had an “Indian” wife and an “Eskimo” wife. These events happened in Panniaq and Justus Mekiana’s grandfathers’ times, which may mean that one or both men knew Saityen.

Young Gwich’in women were often married between 14 and 17 years of age. At the time of the main events of this story Saityen would likely have been between 20 and 23 years of age.

Saityen did not have a choice as to which side he would be on. He was a Nendaaghe Hut’aane dena.

Meanwhile, life in the Hulghaatne and the headwaters region became more adversarial. The deyenh of both communities began to compete, and increasingly there was bad blood. Disease and death were often looked upon as the “work” of deyenh from other communities and regions.

In May of 1838, smallpox arrived at St. Michael’s Redoubt on Norton Sound just before and with the arrival of a Russian American Company transport. The company made every effort to inoculate Native communities, but given the transport of the times, it was too late for the Lower Yukon.

The Yup’ik, Iñupiaq, and Koyukon communities of the region were amassing and preparing for the spring trade gatherings. The disease raged throughout the summer and into early 1839 in more distant regions. From company estimates, by fall nearly half the Indigenous population of the immediate region was taken away by smallpox.

Given the prevailing attitude that diseases and death could be sent to distant locations by deyenh, not only did the Russians themselves suffer repercussions, the scene played out between adjoining groups and communities even in more distant locations.

Looking at the proximity to the smallpox disease, and the trade routes of both communities, Saakił Hut’aane in the Hulghaatne traded to the south and west — towards the epidemic. Nendaaghe Hut’aane would have been more likely, even then, to trade at Niġliq near the mouth of the Kuukpik River, away from the smallpox. The majority of Nendaaghe were in more remote locations, not necessarily in a congregated group. The Too Loghe Hut’aane who also traded at Niġliq, Noolaaghedoh (Nulato), and Noochu Loghoyet (Yukon/Tanana confluence) were further east along the Gwazhał Cordillera (Brooks Range).

The fear, anxiety, and rumor of disease caused an already volatile situation to erupt into an all-out confrontation sometime between 1838 and 1839.

Saityen did not have a choice as to which side he would be on. He was a Nendaaghe Hut’aane dena.

The weakened state of the Saakił Hut’aane became apparent and they immediately sent for help from their downriver Akuniqmiut Iñupiat neighbors. As it turned out, that was only a temporary stop gap. The Nendaaghe were ejected from the Hulghaatne River area for good.

Surviving Nendaaghe went north and east. Once again, a small group went across the open tundra to join family, trading partners, and to become household slaves and mercenaries among the Western and Eastern Gwich’in. Others joined relatives among the Too Loghe Hut’aane. The main body of Nendaaghe stayed along the mountain headwaters, as before.

The altercation of 1838/39 along the Hulghaatne River was a tragedy. It amounted to a large violent family feud where fathers, uncles, brothers, sons, mothers, daughters, and sisters were torn apart. They all knew one another, some never saw each other again. There were many tears.

Each community became more vigilant in watching who came and went upon their estate and their hunting region. Each community was diametrically opposed to the other.

The Saakił Hut’aane meanwhile began to see that they had invited the wolf to a fight. The Akuniqmiut Iñupiat began to see the weakened state of the Saakił Hut’aane community, and realized without a doubt that the Hulghaatne was theirs for the taking. Accordingly, they made an ultimatum, “you either leave the Hulghaatne or become Iñupiat in language, speech, and customs — and stay.”

The larger body of Saakił Hut’aane chose to leave the Hulghaatne. They went south to the mouth of the Koyukuk and along the north bank of the Yukon River.

The people who stayed became Iñupiaq in every sense of the word, and they never looked back. The Saakił Hut’aane Koyukon who stayed became the Kuuvaum Kaŋiaġmiut Iñupiat community and the Koyukon Hulghaatne River became the Kobuk River. They were also known for many years by others in the region as Itqiliaġruitch. That word, however, is going out of usage.

Now, it so happened that the Saakił Hut’aane were accustomed to hunting in the upper Nendaaghe in June after their summer trading, but before the fish runs, much as the present day Kuuvaum Kaŋiaġmiut Iñupiat of the upper Kobuk have done. They followed familiar routes through the passes.

Qatïya’aana did not take into account the changed nature of the relationship between the now newly Iñupiat people of the upper Kobuk, and the Nendaaghe Hut’aane Koyukon people. He followed his usual route through what was now enemy territory. He unwittingly risked his own life and that of his companion, Kataksiñaq.

Meanwhile it fell upon Saityen as a young Kkohkkee (leader) to defend the area of Ivisaaqtnilik (Portage Creek). His small community group was in the upper reaches of the Aalaasuk River, it was from there that he maintained his guard. He was accompanied by his nephew Qïvlïuraq. Together they killed anyone other than Nendaaghe Hut’aane people who came up the Ivisaaqtnilik by way of ambush.

It was in such circumstances that Qatïya’aana along with his hunting partner, Kataksiñaq, took his usual route through Ivisaaqtnilik intending to go up the Aalaasuk from there. Saityen and Qïvlïuraq ambushed them in the early hours of the morning. Unbeknownst to him, Saityen shot his brother Qatïya’aana outright, but his hunting partner Kataksiñaq ran off without proper clothing and died of exposure later down the Manïïlaq River. It was later reported by Saityen’s nephew, Qïvlïuraq, and his two wives, that when Saityen discovered what he had done, he wept.

The story tellers do not say this, but given the nature of relationship between Saityen and Qatïya’aana, Saityen likely buried his brother in the ways of their father.

It was the practice of the day that when a person took another person’s life, they must fast for three days and stay away from the community. It was said that they wrapped themselves in rabbit skin blankets and lit no fire. Saityen and two other companions were in a hut away from the community together.

Saityen prayed for the departing spirit of Qatïya’aana, that he may not stay around in this earthly plain, but join the creative forces of the greater universe, and to another life.

Qatïya’aana followed his usual route through what was now enemy territory.
Somehow word got around on the middle Kobuk River that Saityen was up Ivasaaqtnilik ambushing unsuspecting hunters from the Kobuk. A man by the name of Aakałukpak from the Akuniġmiut people of the Salmon River area began to get a group of men together. Reportedly they were from the Igliqliqsiuġvik area. They intended to kill Saityen and his men.

They traveled up the Kobuk and as they got near Salmon River they came upon a woman and her son, whose name was Uularaġuaraq, and they conscripted him. If he did not agree to come with them they would have killed him as he stood. His mother was against this and told him, “You have nothing against those people up there [meaning no relatives of his were killed there], therefore you may only use three arrows.” It was agreed Uularaġuaraq would come along and use only three arrows, no more.

They traveled on up the Kobuk through an unnamed pass to the Noatak headwaters and through Ivisaaqtnilik (Portage Creek). Since Saityen was in seclusion and in mourning, there was no one there to stop them. As they came over the pass to the Aalaasuk they saw the womens’ hut and instructed Uularaġuaraq to dispatch the woman who was within and they proceeded to the settlement. They attacked the villagers in their sleep.

When Uularaġuaraq entered the hut, he was expecting a lone woman, but he became alarmed to see three warriors sleeping around the central hearth. He shot two men dead, but Saityen jumped up and grabbed a wooden bucket as a shield. At that moment, Saityen and Uularaġuaraq recognized each other from their youth. They feigned a few times then Uularaġuaraq shot Saityen in the groin, and since he was out of arrows he ran towards the settlement and his other companions.

Meanwhile, the Igliqliqsiuġvik men had killed everyone in the settlement and were in the process of taking down their cache of caribou and sheep meat from a high platform. Uularaġuaraq warned them that he had only wounded Saityen.

Saityen was crawling in the willows and brush with his arrows and killed one man on the platform. The Igliqliqsiuġvik men then turned their attention to Saityen and started shooting at him. He was able to avoid a few arrows until one hit him in the upper lip and nose. Saityen then put down his bow and arrows and turned away from them. In the old days when a man did this it meant that he was done fighting. Aakałukpak and his companions could see that he would die anyway so they left him.

Before Saityen came, Kkohkkee went into seclusion, and he had instructed his wives to hide away from the community. They came out after the Igliqliqsiuġvik men had left and were nursing their husband. According to Stephen Peter Ch’igiioonta’, he spent three days in a coma before he was revived and came back to consciousness.

He wished to die on a small elevated knoll, so they packed him up to that site.

It was reported by Panniaq that Sannik (Saityen) composed a dirge (which Panniaq could sing) for his younger wife, Ilikuk and died upon that knoll, which is called by the Nunamiut, Sannikmik, in honor of Saityen. He was said to have left two young wives behind, and their children. The arrows could not be extracted and scabs formed around them. Saityen died within a few days upon the knoll.

Then Saityen’s wives obeyed his last wish and went to join Drit Ditsiigiitł’uu Khehkwaii (community leader) at the mouth of the El tseeyh no’ (John River). Saityen knew his wives would live.

Nachats’an Jessie and Shijuu Troonii Ilikuk Lucy then became two of Drit’s seven wives. Saityen had two children who survived, with Jessie Nachats’an, Andrew Gaasheeky’uu Saityen and with Lucy Ilikak he had John Saityen. Both Jessie and Lucy had many other children with Drit Ditsiigiitł’uu Khehkwaii.

Now Drit was a jealous man and chose not to honor the name of Saityen. Mostly because he was Di’hąįį Gwich’in and Saityen had been Nendaaghe Hut’aane Koyukon. He didn’t want a Koyukon man to be remembered as a Gwich’in hero. Therefore, he renamed him Nitsehduu, “Scab on the Nose,” and it is in that context that the story about him and his family was shared among the Gwich’in. When Aldzak, his father-in-law heard of this later, he cringed he was no longer Kkohkkee in his own estate, but a refugee among the Di’hąįį Gwich’in with no standing. As for Aldzak, he and his son Shiizin kept their Nendaaghe Hut’aane names, as did a few others, like Aanaraq, Juuzii, and Allaa (Ella).

Regardless of his young age, Saityens’ line did not stop with him. The line and legacy of Saityen continued through Andrew, with Phoebe Biibii, Andrew Saityen Stevens the grandmother of the Malcolm’s of Eagle, Alaska and her sister Sarah Ghoo, Andrew Saityen Tritt, the grandmother of the Tritts of Arctic Village, Alaska. Through his son John Saityen, in William, Katherine, and (Sarah) Ellen. In Ambrose Elzee William Saityen, through William Saityen. In Peter Weasel Eye Joseph, Sarah Abel Ch’idzeh, Caroline Moses Ch’igoozhrii, and through Katherine Saityen Dzeegwaajyaa. And finally, in Simon Frances, Jennie Thomas William, and many others in Canada through Ellen Thomas Shaaveezhraa (Chivera).

Adeline Peter Raboff, a Neets’ąįį Gwich’in of Arctic Village, Alaska is an oral historian, ethnohistorian, and writer who lives in Fairbanks, Alaska.