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Teaching and Learning

Home  >  Teaching and Learning  >  Two Old Women  >  Discussion Questions
Chapter 4 - A Painful Journey

 Chapter Summary: The two old women make the dangerous and exhausting voyage to the old camp, and almost give up at one point. They push on and finally arrive at their destination. Sa’ reveals this is not the first time she has been left behind. She tells the story of her youth, and how she rebelled against The People by hunting and trapping like a man. She also explains how she stood up to the chief and was left behind with an old woman.

Discussion Questions for Chapter Four:

A distant and lone wolf howls at night when the old women sleep. What do you think this could mean? Or how is the lone wolf related to the situation of the two old women? (p. 46)

Points to consider:

  • The wolves represent danger that lurks in both the distance and the future.
  • The howl creates an atmosphere of solitude and abandonment.
  • The wolf, since it is alone, might also be an old wolf, banished from the pack, much like the two old women.

What does Ch’idzigyaak mean when she thinks that the two of them are “fighting the inevitable?” (p. 47)

Points to consider:

  • Ch’idzigyaak at times can’t see the point in trying to survive. She can’t stop thinking about their age and the impossible task of surviving without The People.
  • The “inevitable” is death due to starvation or cold. She can’t imagine that the two old women stand a chance.

Why do the women decide to move on even though they want to stay? (p. 49)

Points to consider:

  • They move on out of a sense of urgency to get to their destination.
  • They also know the resources can’t sustain them.

Why do the women not worry about dangerous ice once they found the creek? (p. 51)

Points to consider:

  • The women are too exhausted and elated to pay attention to the signs of dangerous ice.
  • Although nothing happens to the two old women, the readers get to learn about dangerous ice. This is a great place to point out how Wallis continues to place traditional knowledge, or ways of knowing, throughout the text.

Explain the emotions the women felt when they reached the old campsite. (p. 52)

Points to consider:

  • The two old women experience a mix of emotions from joy to deep sorrow.
  • The women now understand something new about each other and their abilities, but at the same time they experience a sense of betrayal by The People who have put them in this life-threatening situation.

Describe the illustration on p. 53 and the significance that moment holds for the two old women. (p. 53)

Points to consider:

  • This illustration shows one woman holding the other as they approach the skeleton of the ancient camp.
  • The illustration represents a pivotal moment. Here the two old women have reached their destination. They are now in a place of abundant resources and their chance for survival has increased, but there is much work ahead.

Sa’ says, when they reach the old camp, “It is better not to think of why we are here.” What does she mean by this? (p. 54)

Points to consider:

  • Here again is another place where the power of thought is reinforced. When Sa’ asks her friend not to think of why they are there, she is telling her to not dwell on the negative.
  • The advice is intended to keep the two old women from thinking about the past and begin thinking about the present and future.

What do you think the “many signs of rabbit life” in the willows included? (p. 55)

Points to consider:

  • This question is designed to engage students with some experience with the outdoors. The novel presents many opportunities to allow young males (who might otherwise not engage with the story) to share and bring their knowledge of the wilderness to the classroom.
  • Signs of rabbits include tracks, bark removed from willows, and low-lying trails through the brush.

Explain the bond of friendship from when the old women lived with the band and how it is different after their travels and hardship. (p. 55)

Points to consider:

  • The two old women didn’t really know each other prior to being left behind.
  • After the travel, hardship, and heartbreak, the two old women have a powerful emotional and mental connection (to the point that one often knows what the other one is thinking).

Why did the two old women initially not talk to each other that first night at the old camp? (p. 56)

Points to consider:

  • The two were so emotionally exhausted they didn’t know what to say to each other.
  • Instead of conversing, the two old women were dwelling on their thoughts.

Why was it difficult for Ch’idzigyaak to believe her daughter had left her? (p. 56)

Points to consider:

  • She couldn’t admit to herself that her daughter did all that she could do without risking her life or the life of her son.
  • As her “flesh and blood,” she felt her daughter should have come to her aid. (These thoughts show that Ch’idzigyaak still had to learn to forgive.)

What is the story that Ch’idzigyaak tells about when she was young and people in her band were starving? (p. 57)

Points to consider:

  • She tells the story of watching her grandmother get left behind.
  • Her grandmother could no longer walk and the band was desperate and starving. Her father and brothers returned to the old woman, and killed and burned her to keep anyone from eating her corpse.

Thoughts are believed to be extremely powerful in many Alaska Native cultures, including the Gwich’in people. Why do you think Ch’idzigyaak’s mother tells her that she was afraid people would “think of eating people” during the famine? (p. 58).

Points to consider:

  • Ch’idzigyaak says she turned her head away when someone looked at her, in fear that someone would “take notice” and think about eating her when The People were desperate and starving.
  • Again, the story emphasizes the power of thought in Gwich’in culture.
  • Wallis’ stories of cannibalism in this novel have engendered some debate and criticism of her writing as some consider her suggestion of cannibalism amongst the Gwich’in (or other Alaska Native groups) to be offensive.
  • A discussion of cannibalism and what this means to a person’s survival (with reference to the people in Alive and the Donner Party) may engage those students who have difficulty engaging with the subject matter in the text.

Why do you think Sa’ didn’t understand her mother when she asked her if she had “become a woman?” (p. 59)

Points to consider:

  • Sa’ cares only about the activities of the males and has taken no interest in the role of womanhood within the tribe, nor of her own physical changes as a young woman.
  • This revelation can provide for a powerful discussion about the roles of gender in our society. What roles are still strictly male or female? How are those people who break from the roles viewed?

Why did Sa’s actions anger the people? (p. 61)

Points to consider:

  • Members must follow the rules for the tribe to continue on as they always have. To question or break the rules would be viewed as disrespecting the ways of The People.
  • Her success as a woman hunter might have threatened or intimidated the males who were not as successful as she was.

What does Sa’s comparison of the men being no better than wolves mean? (p. 62)

Points to consider:

  • Here is another reference to wolves, which actually don’t make an appearance in the novel, other than howling in the distance. (You might ask students why they think this is the case – a quick answer is that you could spend your lifetime in the wild and never see a wolf up close.)
  • The wolves shun the weak and old, like the men do. If the men are like wolves, they will also fail to learn from their mistakes or learn to use their elders’ wisdom.

Why does the chief call Sa’ strange? (p. 63)

Points to consider:

  • He calls Sa’ strange because she acts like a man and refuses to follow and obey the rules of the band.
  • She may also be viewed as strange because of how successful she is at hunting and because she does not fear the chief or the other men.

What role does banishment serve in a tribe or community? Is this a just punishment? Would it work in today’s society? (p. 65)

Points to consider:

  • Tribal people for tens of thousands of years used banishment as a punishment for those who broke the rules. In many ways, banishment serves as more of a deterrent than jail or physical punishment because banishment means a person will be cut off from family and loved ones forever.
  • The threat of banishment carries no weight if the individual does not feel connected to the community as a whole. Perhaps this is why banishment would be ineffective in our modern justice system.

Why did Sa’ call her husband foolish? (p. 66)

Points to consider:

  • He was foolish initially because he broke the tribe’s laws of marriage and was banished from the band.
  • When he chose to “fight” a bear, he fought against a force of nature that would be impossible to win against.

How was Sa’s marriage/husband different from Ch’idzigyaak’s? (p. 66)

Points to consider:

  • Sa found her husband and actually fell in love with him.
  • Ch’idzigyaak’s marriage was arranged by her family.

Why do you think Ch’idzigyaak was forced to be with an older man? Does this still happen in Alaskan cultures, or other cultures? (p. 66)

Points to consider:

  • In traditional times, arranged marriages helped reinforce the bonds between tribal groups and families. They also ensured family lines could be clearly established.
  • Arranged marriages no longer happen in Alaska, though this was still a common practice as recent as the last century in some places in Alaska.

What is the role of arranged marriages in a culture? Why do you think a group like The People would practice this tradition? (p. 66)

Points to consider:

  • The answer above also applies to this question.
  • In many other cultures throughout the world arranged marriages often have much to do with commerce and a family’s financial situation. For example, the number of child brides across the world is actually on the increase in recent years.

How did sharing stories of their early lives affect their feelings about each other? (p. 67)

Points to consider:

  • The two become even closer and grow to understand each other even better.
  • Sharing their backgrounds allows them to appreciate their differences.

Why you think the women grew depressed during the coldest, darkest part of winter? (p. 67)

Points to consider:

  • This dark part of the winter can be extremely lonely.
  • The dark and solitude allows them too much time to think, and those thoughts cause problems for them.

Why did the women fear the wolves that howled in the distance? (p. 67)

Points to consider:

  • While the wolves probably wouldn’t attack them, the sound of their howls scares the women. They are alone and vulnerable.
  • The wolves also represent the other threats to the women and the resources they have acquired.

The People rarely spent time in idle conversation. Why might this be an important part of a relationship, to not just communicate but also to socialize? (p. 68)

Points to consider:

  • Socialization is what makes us human. To share our feelings, our fears, and our laughter is vital to staying connected with others.

Does the story hint that the people were missing socialization as a part of how the group communicated? (p. 68)

Points to consider:

  • The People had stopped talking just to talk and instead only talked to communicate out of necessity.
  • Actually sharing and discussing might have kept them from this situation in the first place.

Why do you think leaving the snares unchecked might bring bad luck? (p. 69)

Points to consider:

  • Allowing an animal to die in a trap and then go to waste would be a sign of disrespect towards the animal and nature itself.
  • Disrespecting nature would inevitably bring someone living within nature bad luck or even death.

Draw, build, or describe the bird snare. (p. 71)

Points to consider:

  • Crafting or drawing a bird snare will allow students to engage with the text. This can be especially effective with “hands-on” learners.
  • Here is another place where Wallis shares a survival/hunting technique.


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