UAF 1993 239 18 Hero Compat

Bella Francis

Gwich’in Elder and Culture Bearer

Gwich’in elder and culture bearer Bella Francis (1928-2007) was born in 1928 on the Porcupine River in an area known as Orland Park, about a day-and-a-half boat ride from Fort Yukon. She continued to live in the Yukon-Koyukon region throughout her life, until illness forced her to relocate to Fairbanks.

Bella married Simon Francis Sr. in 1947 and together they raised their children in a traditional subsistence way of life. In 1957, Bella and her husband, along with several other families, established a small community called Canyon Village. Canyon Village was created to provide access to a healthier and more traditional Gwich’in way of living, something the founding members felt was lacking in Fort Yukon. Bella and Simon both served as community leaders, establishing a school to teach Gwich’in children traditional lifeways. However, increasing expenses in maintaining the village resulted in its abandonment in 1967. As they moved to other villages, Bella and Simon continued their advocacy on behalf of Gwich’in way of life and traditional values.

Bella passed along teachings to her children and her community. She was knowledgeable about hunting, trapping and fishing, preserving food, making clothes, and living off the land. A strong proponent of sharing and helping others in need, in a 1993 interview she lamented that, “[helping others] just doesn’t happen anymore like it used to.” When asked if she wished her grandchildren could live on the river like she did, Bella remarked: “I’ll say, yeah! They know nothing now. And then they would know a lot of things!”

Did you know Bella and have a story you’d like to share about her? We’d love to know more about her and about the powerful women in your life. Share your images and stories with us on Instagram and Facebook by tagging us (@anchoragemuseum and #ExtraToughWomenAK) and we’ll add them to our ongoing digital curation project. Stay tuned for new posts and in the meantime, be sure to check out the exhibition, now open.

Photo credits: University of Alaska Fairbanks, Alaska and Polar Regions Collections, Roger Kaye Photograph Collection, UAF-1993-239-19 and UAF-1993-239-18.

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