Communities across the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta are mourning the loss of a longtime Alaska Native leader.
Joe Lomack of Akiachak died on Saturday at the age of 87. He was the traditional chief of the Association of Village Council Presidents, which represents more than 50 villages in southwest Alaska.
Lomack, who was born in the Kuskokwim River village in 1924, was relied upon for his intimate knowledge of traditional medicine and surviving on the tundra.
He was also one of the first health aides in the region, and although the Bureau of Indian Affairs only paid him 25 cents a day as a maintenance man when he was young, decades later he was treasured in both Western and Native cultures for his knowledge about how past generations survived difficult times.
In an interview with Sophie Kasayulie in October of 2005, Lomack told numerous stories of survival, including one about how he dealt with a diphtheria outbreak as a health aide.
“When the diphtheria epidemic hit, we were nearly decimated,” said Lomack. “Military and state doctors assisted me during that time. A person would contract the illness in the evening and die the next day. Because so many people were dying, the bell ringer ceased to notify people by ringing the bell.”
Lomack also has a lot of stories about how to keep alive during famine by eating moss and other foods that people typically don’t think of as edible.
“During shortage of food, even the undesirable mice would be consumed in order to survive,” said Lomack. “Across the river at my fish camp, there is a pit with dried fish roe that was buried some time ago by my mother. I’ve looked for it, but haven’t been able to find it. I’ve heard that although fish roe has been buried for years, it’s still nutritious and edible for years. Men who went out hunting would take a single fish egg inside their month and refrain from hunger for a period of time.”
In that 2005 interview, Lomack also told a lot of stories about his first contact with western culture.
“An elder chuckled and said that playing checkers taught us how to make strategic moves, and therefore develop our minds,” said Lomack. “When we first learned how to play checkers, we lost most of the time, but with more practice and more wisdom, the elder said we would begin to win more games.”
Lomack also had stories about the time when reindeer were introduced to the region, used for food and for hauling heavy loads. He also talked about the relationship Natives had with sled dogs.
“Sled dogs were strictly advised by our elders not to be physically abused. Dogs were able to save their owners’ lives, and the dogs had a keen sense of detecting thin or open water on the frozen river. When they detected dangerous conditions, they would bark a warning and divert the sled toward the shoreline, therefore saving the life of the owner,” said Lomack.
More of Lomack’s 2005 interview can be found on this link:
Memorial services for the elder will be held in the Akiachak school gymnasium on Thursday at 2:00 p.m.