©Bert Gildart: It’s been 22 years since Janie and I first taught in a remote Gwich’in Indian village located in Alaska on the south side of the Brooks Range. Known as Arctic Village, locals, who number about 100, could sometimes be difficult to meet, as Janie learned when she first picked up the mail. Back in Fairbanks (about 250 miles south), we’d been told before boarding the bush plane, that the postmaster’s name was “Peter,” so that is what she called the stern-appearing man working behind the counter.
“Hello, Peter,” she called out the first couple mornings. “Came to collect my mail.”
“Peter” would hand Janie the mail, but said nothing. And so she stepped back to the dirt roads, wondering if the man spoke only Gwich’in. She was frustrated but determined and, so, devised a plan. Janie made some cookies, inserted them into a clear plastic sandwich bag, and then next morning started out the door of the small teacherage, saying, “I’m going to get Peter to say something! Anything!”
Fifteen minutes later she entered the compact log structure, asked “Peter” for the mail and handed him a sack of oatmeal/raisin cookies. This time the man’s reaction was different.
“Thank you,” he responded with a grin. “But my name is not Peter. I’m Lincoln; Lincoln Tritt. Peter is my brother, and he is on vacation.”
From that time forward a relationship began to develop, which Janie helped foster. Janie offered to take Lincoln in the old school truck (second was the only forward gear that worked!) to the dirt runway that served as the village’s tiny airport, and slowly her “mail-collection service” began generating trust. It was genuine, for we loved village life and returned often, and as the years passed and we became fixtures in the Gwich’in Indian community at large, we developed close friendships with Lincoln and, of course, with others.
Once, following an extensive riverboat trip, we met Lincoln in Old Crow, Yukon Territory. And when Janie and I completed a one-moth hike through the Arctic Refuge, Lincoln called the Fairbanks radio station saying they should dedicate the hour to us, which they did.
More time, and Lincoln paid us a visit in Montana, living with us for over a month (he forgot his hat and left it on our sofa) – and I believe we came to know Lincoln Tritt well. He was a talented musician, a gifted speaker (he spoke at colleges such as Tulane!) and, despite his lack of academic education, he was a cross-cultural philosopher with extraordinary insights. He was also a writer, and he often shared his work with us…
From Lincoln’s writing: My cousin Mary’s cabin is out in front of trail that leads into the village. She has a dog that barks at people from the moment they come into view… The bear is a powerful animal and this power is not limited to physical strength. As soon as the dog becomes aware of the bear’s presence, it becomes silent. Once such energy made us aware of things that happen around us, but not much anymore. Today, we live in a physical world where constant noise and activities prevent us from noticing anything.
Tragically Lincoln died of a heart attack this past October, and sadly we are just now learning about his passing. When he passed we were on the road, out of touch, as we often are, with much of the world. As well, Lincoln lived in northeastern Alaska, some 2,500 miles away, and communication with that part of the world is often nonexistent.
L to R: Lincoln inside his small cabin in Arctic Village; Lincoln, in Fairbanks, Alaska; Lincoln is in this picture, present as are all the other Gwich’in in this image at
Old Crow, Yukon Territory, to show
his support for the protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
And so we are a bit late in mourning his loss, but for the past few nights we have been obsessed with our recollections of this remarkable man. And though there is much to recall, let me summarize a bit about what we know, asking that our thoughts be considered as the much needed catharsis for two Lincoln admirers still in shock. Others, of course, know him in different ways and those ways may be much more profound. I assemble these thoughts from some of his writings and from our visits with him, both in his cabin in Arctic Village and with him here in Bigfork, Montana.
More from Lincoln’s writings: When a person gets the idea that I am better than others or that I know more than others, then that person no longer listens… and can become “hopelessly lost.”
Lincoln was born in Salmon River (Sheenjik Village), Alaska, and said that according to his mother’s memory he was born October 18, 1946.
“I traveled with my family of four,” he told us, “with dog team from Salmon River Village to Fort Yukon during the record cold winter of 1946-47.” Lincoln said that over the next 13 years he lived with his family in Arctic Village and in Fort Yukon. Lincoln continued, saying that Ft. Yukon was also his introduction to segregation (at the time Fort Yukon was a remote Army outpost) and to the start of his guarded faith with his fellow human begins.
Lincoln’s writings: When I was growing up there were very few distractions in the village. This quiet and contentment helped our senses to develop slowly and without fear. This way we are more focused on what we see and hear. From the sense of awareness came our ability to listen. Today people listen to words without concentrating on the ideas or meaning that the words are supposed to convey.
As Lincoln grew his parents sent him to boarding school, and he believes they did so to help him develop a sense of all that was going on around him. When he graduated he joined the Navy because he thought it would keep him out of Vietnam, “but that,” said Lincoln, “is exactly where they sent me.”
Lincoln enjoyed playing Country and Western, but he loved gospel, and once joined the local church choir in playing Amazing Grace.
Lincoln told Janie and me that it was those experiences that prompted him to consult the Gwich’in elders, and to study his grandfather’s journal. In an attempt to synthesize what he was learning he began taking college courses. As well, he worked on his music, and to help, Janie purchased a sophisticated tape player and recorded some of his work. He had a grand voice (U-TUBE VIDEO) and he loved the country western music to which he was exposed as a youngster. But he was at his best when he sang gospel music, and we’ll never forget the time when the tiny Episcopal congregation in Arctic Village allowed us to record Amazing Grace, sung in Gwich’in. Lincoln, of course, was a part of the ensemble.
Lincoln wrote: While learning about things I began to notice two words: want and need. Then I applied these words to my material possessions. When I was done with my inventory I realized how little I needed and everything else became junk… Now I can work on turning myself into a Gwich’in. I try to live the way my ancestors lived because it gives me peace and freedom.
Lincoln’s life was considerably more complex than what the blog format facilitates, though generalities exist. Certainly, he was a dreamer (as am I), but he was also a man of superior intelligence who, had he chosen to do so, could have made his mark at any level in the wider society. Nevertheless, his contributions, though sometimes subtle, were always profound, and will invariably manifest themselves…
Arctic Village, where Lincoln now rests, beside the Chandalar River
We plan to visit Arctic Village one day soon – and when we do, Janie is going to return Lincoln’s hat. She says she intends to place it carefully on the final resting spot of this wonderful man…
Lincoln, it was a privilege to have known you.
THIS TIME LAST YEAR:
The Flight of Chief Joseph
A LINK TO BOOKS YOU MUST HAVE IF VISITING MONTANA OR GLACIER NATIONAL PARK
Both, of course, by Bert Gildart. Click the links below and I believe you’ll agree the photographs all tell stories.