I stood with my family on the land that they homesteaded. Our land. I was about fourteen and I felt proud as my dad began to talk about the property and how he had developed it. My feelings and views began to broaden over the next few minutes, years, and decades, as I began to understand the complexities of our relationships to each other, and to place. Our guests that day were native folks, friends from a neighboring community. Dad was talking about the cabins and trails he had built on the land that was given to him by the government.
My father exercised his rights as a United States citizen and claimed some of the last acres of land made available under the original Homestead Act of 1862. He proved his ability to live on the land and develop a business, earning title to a portion of raw, rural Alaska, not realizing or thinking too much about who had been there before. My father’s rights afforded him freedom, but he was only allowed to exercise his rights because others’ rights had been taken away. Homesteaders were granted land because the United States claimed something that had previously belonged to another. I grew up knowing that I was the beneficiary of stolen goods.
“There are old trails here…” our guest spoke up suddenly. He was talking about the traditional trail systems that connected the Ahtna people of the Copper River area. There were already trails in place, and they each had their own name, protocol and history. They were like a network of veins, carrying lifeblood through the region. “There are already trails here…” he said again.
Misunderstanding hung in the air.
I knew what my Ahtna friend was saying, for I had sat with him and his girlfriend one time, at the end of a long night. He cried. His heart was broken over the recent past. So many things seemed wrong. “We were strong!” He had shouted. He told a story of how his people used to run alongside caribou, hunting with only a knife. He grieved the many losses in his life. The hurt in his eyes was easy to see. I understood my father’s position as well, for I had walked this land with him and seen his eyes light with the vision he had inside. It appeared as if one’s loss was the other’s gain; one’s pride was another’s pain.
I saw two good men, each with a different story, a different vantage point and way of being. Each thought the other a guest on the place they were standing. Years later my dad came upon an old Ahtna trail while out exploring. Though ancient and overgrown, he knew it was a path the original inhabitants had walked. He saw slashes on trees where people marked their passing. There is an unwritten story of every place, no matter where we stake our claim. There were already trails here. ~
Homestead Girl is a patchwork quilt of poetic essays that covers the human condition, from the perspective of a woman who came of age in rural Alaska. The short prose pieces are stitched together with a thread of love for our ancestral heritage, and a prayer that the people of Alaska, and beyond, will pay attention to the earth based cultures that are rapidly changing. The author believes that “Alaska is the last chance (in America) we have to get it right, in terms of our relationship to the land and her people.” The book is less memoir, and more a collection of stories that speak to the matters of life and death that we all deal with, but each perceive differently according to where we are standing. Homestead Girl invites the reader to examine the human experience from her vantage point.
Homestead Girl has been warmly received by those who have experienced the dynamics of the native/non-native interface in rural Alaska. Fred John Jr., an Athabascan elder and writer, offers the following: “Pence writes about things that we sometimes feel but don’t always know how to express.” The author’s style of writing emerged from listening to the words of traditional elders, like Fred, who spoke sparingly, but with depth and meaning. To be fair, not everyone appreciates that style of communication. Addley Fannin, book reviewer for the Fairbanks Daily News Miner, found the work to be “schmaltzy”. But, as another reviewer (Mary Odden, author of upcoming book Mostly Water) noted, Homestead Girl reads like “a love letter to her past.”
“A trailblazer. Willing to be brave…this is the voice to watch.” —Ron Stodghill, author of Where Everybody Looks Like Me
“Her poetic prose offers rest and honesty. You will find solace in her company. Take a walk with this courageous woman… you will be better for it.” —Judy Ferguson, author of Windows To The Land, An Alaska Native Story
“Her words come alive in many of us.” —Fred John Jr., Ahtna Athabascan Activist and Storyteller
“I love this book. Thoughtful, poetic and quietly powerful, Chantelle’s memoir gave me a soulful glimpse into life in the Alaskan wilderness — both the beauty and the pain of a life lived on the edge of colliding cultures and blending values. Chantelle’s honest portrayal of her life as a white woman and daughter of homesteaders is a deep, personal exploration of ancestral inheritance and the personal price of collective conditioning and remote political decisions that are carried on for generations, for good and for ill. Compelling and deeply felt, I read it in one sitting.” —Jane Brunette, author and mentor at Writing From The Soul
Chantelle has been a voice from rural Alaska for over a decade. A frequent contributor to the Alaska Dispatch News, her work has also appeared in the Copper River Record, Zetetic Record, and Alaska Wellness. In 2015 she received an Individual Artist Award from the Rasmuson Foundation. Her first book, Homestead Girl: The View From Here, was published by Copper River Press (2016).