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Richard James Sr.

Birch Creek, Alaska

    I am Richard James Sr., Gwich’in Athabascan, Birch Creek. My Family was traveling in the woods the day I came into the world. I was born in a tent one winter day, maybe that is why I never settle in one place for too long.

    I grew up living off the land. Birch Creek was named for the birch trees surrounding the village site. In our oral history, the birch tree became the most important tree to our people because it allowed itself to be used for so many things by our people. I use birch for all of my carving, it takes a long time to find just the right birch tree with the right kind of wood to work with. If you listen carefully and quietly, sometimes you can hear the birch tree tell you if it is the right wood for you. My grandfather used to take me with him when we went looking for birch to carve. Sometimes we would look all day for the right birch tree, if we didn’t find it, we would go looking again the next day and try to listen for the right tree.

    My grandfather, Birch Creek James, lived a long, hard life, he passed away in 1979 at the age of 111. When I was young growing up he used to carve wood all of the time. I asked him to show me how to carve a spoon. He showed me how and soon I had my own carving knife and hatchet to cut my own wood.

    After I was done with my first spoon, I took it to my grandfather to show him. He took it, looked at it and said, “That’s no good, I’ll use it in the stove tomorrow morning.” I left and tried even harder on the next one. When I showed him the spoon, he looked at it and again said, “That’s no good, I’ll use it in the stove.” The spoon was tossed aside to the floor. This went on for several years. All of my work I took my grandfather to see how I was doing. On every piece, he would look at it and say, “That’s no good, I’ll use it in the stove” and toss it to the floor.

    When I was 17 I worked long and hard on a spoon. When I was done I took it to my grandfather, he looked at it and said the same thing he always said, “That’s no good, I’ll use it in the stove tomorrow morning.” He tossed it aside. I went home disgusted with my carving. I took my hatchet and carving knife, went to the river and threw them in. I said to myself, “If I can’t make anything good enough for my grandfather, I can’t make anything good enough for anyone else. I quit carving.”

    December came, one day I had just returned from the trap line when my grandfather came to me, “I haven’t seen anymore of your carving. What happened?” So I told him, “I threw my carving knife and hatchet away, none of my work was good enough for you except to be firewood, so I quit.” My grandfather looked at me long and hard, then left.

    The next day he came over and brought with him a big box. He opened the lid. Every piece of carving I had ever made he had saved. He took the first piece of wood I had carved and said, “See this one, it is a beginner’s work.” Then piece by piece he went thru everything I had ever carved. He showed me one and said, “That’s a very good piece, better than mine.” I wanted to cry, I was so full with feelings. He had saved every spoon I had ever carved.

    I asked my grandfather, “Why did you always tell me it was not good, that you would use it for firewood?” My grandfather replied, “I wanted you to keep working on your carving and become the best carver ever. I didn’t want you to become just satisfied. You became what I wanted, you are a great carver.”

    The next day when I arrived back from the trap line, my grandfather met me and gave me a box. In it were a new hatchet and a new carving knife. I have been carving ever since.

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