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Teaching and Learning

Home  >  Teaching and Learning  >  Two Old Women  >  Discussion Questions
Chapter 1 - Hunger and Cold Take Their Toll
 Chapter Summary: In this chapter The People are starving and desperate. The Chief and the council decide to leave the two frail old women, Sa’ and Ch’idzigyaak, behind. Ch’idzigyaak’s daughter and grandson secretly leave a bundle of moose hide string and a hatchet for the two old women. Alone and scared, the two old women resolve to survive or “die trying.”

Discussion Questions for Chapter One:

Based on how the two old women received their names, how did The People give names to their children? (p. 3)

Points to consider:

  • Ch’idzigyaak’ was named because she reminded her parents of a chickadee bird when she was born.
  • Sa’ was named after a star, because her mother stared at the stars during her daughter’s birth.

Why do you think The People were taught to not tolerate weakness? (p. 4)

Points to consider:

  • Weakness in one individual could weaken the whole group.
  • Efforts to sustain a weak individual could result in using energy and resources needed by the entire tribe.
  • The tribe members were taught this, but they don’t practice what they have been taught which foreshadows their loss of cultural wisdom.

Why do you think The People put up with the two old women’s complaints for so long without reprimanding them? (p. 4)

Points to consider:

  • They may have understood the importance of having their elders around, but had forgotten the traditional ways of The People.
  • The People had lost their ability to communicate how they felt.

Why were the people not shocked at the chief’s decision? (p. 5)

Points to consider:

  • The people were too hungry and cold to react.
  • They knew the Chief had to do something about the two old women.

Why do you think many people expected the two old women to be left behind? And why would some think this was “for the best?” (p. 5)

Points to consider:

  • They knew this was how wolves treated their elderly.
  • The People knew that in times of starvation other bands chose to leave the elderly behind to move faster and without the extra burden.

In leaving the old women, what were The People losing?

Points to consider:

  • In leaving the two old women behind the band was losing a significant source of wisdom.
  • The People were leaving behind a piece of themselves.

Why did the women disguise their shock? (p. 7)

Points to consider:

  • They wanted to appear strong to the band, perhaps in hope the chief would change his mind. Appearing weak would only strengthen the resolve of the group.
  • The two old women couldn’t believe they would suffer the fate they had witnessed when they were younger.

What was their initial reaction to the news that they would be left behind? (p. 7)

Points to consider:

  • They knew that to be left alone “in a land that understood only strength” meant only death.
  • The news left them shocked, with no actions or words to defend themselves.

Why didn’t Ozhii Nelii defend her mother? (p. 8)

Points to consider:

  • She knew the band would leave her behind as well.
  • Speaking out would jeopardize her son, too.
  • The desperate state of the band made speaking out all that more dangerous.

What do you think Ozhii Nelii also feared the starving people might do to her, perhaps more than being left behind with her mother and son? A fear she could not chance? (p. 8)

Points to consider:

  • In their famished state, Ozhii Nelii fears that speaking out might prompt The People to consider other measures to survive.
  • Her fears hint towards a fear of cannibalism.

What do you think could be more terrible that being left behind to die in the cold? (p. 9)

Points to consider:

  • The idea of the band acting out against opponents with violence is a genuine concern for all those involved.
  • Tempting the hunger and desperation of the band could lead to a more terrible end than being left behind.

Why is Shruh Zhuu’s different behavior from other boys in the tribe important to the story? (p. 9)

Points to consider:

  • His behavior establishes his bond with his grandmother, as well as shows his respect for women.
  • His defiance will allow him to leave his hatchet for the two old women.

How long had the rules for men and women been this way and why? (p. 9)

Points to consider:

  • The rules had been this way for generations.
  • To break the rules meant to go against the way of The People and to question authority.

How are the attitudes towards the rules of The People similar or different from the people in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery?”

Points to consider:

  • In “The Lottery” the community blindly follows tradition without question.
  • Members of the community are sacrificed for the “benefit” of the rest of the community without questioning the purpose of that tradition.

Why do you think Shruh Zhuu was allowed to question the ways of The People only when he was young? (p. 10)

Points to consider:

  • Youth and innocence allowed him the chance to question, though his questions weren’t taken seriously.
  • The questions of children weren’t taken seriously. Adults weren’t allowed to question the ways of The People.

What could happen in a society where people weren’t allowed to question the ways of its leaders and people? (p. 10)

Points to consider:

  • If people don’t question the actions or ways of their people they might lose their path (like The People have).
  • Fearing questions and not questioning the actions of leaders can allow leaders more power and authority than a group originally intended.

In many Alaskan Native cultures, the power of thought is as strong as words, and sometimes stronger. How do Shruh Zhuu’s thoughts and actions indicate this same belief? Are there other places in the story that do this? (p. 11)

Points to consider:

  • The novel contains many instances where words and thoughts carry great weight.
  • Thinking something might actually make that happen.
  • Shruh Zhuu fears his thoughts might cause the men to act out with violence towards him or the two old women.

How does Shruh Zhuu’s weapon have significance for the survival of his people and himself, as well as the two old women? (p. 11)

Points to consider:

  • A boy’s weapon held power and significance because that weapon could mean the difference between death and survival.
  • The weapon symbolizes the livelihood of a man. Without the tools for hunting and protection, The People can not survive.

Shruh Zhuu wishes, as he leaves the two old women, that he could do something miraculous. Was deciding to leave them his hatchet miraculous? (p. 13)

Points to consider:

  • The hatchet will allow them to obtain their first meal.
  • Without the hatchet, the women might not have found the strength to live. In using the hatchet successfully, the two old women find strength in their abilities.

Did Ch’idzigyaak’s daughter do what her mother had taught her, when she chose not to question the people? Why or why not? (p. 13)

Points to consider:

  • Her daughter knew that the band would leave her and her son behind. She also knew not to speak out.
  • Had Ch’idzigyaak not taught her daughter the ways of The People, she might have spoken out and been left behind or worse.

Ch’idzigyaak taught her daughter to be strong. Was she strong in leaving without protest? Or was she strong in leaving a bundle of babiche?

Points to consider:

  • Her daughter shows strength in being able to leave and stay silent. Speaking out might have been easier initially, but she weighed the costs of protesting against the chief.
  • Leaving behind the babiche could have meant death, had she been caught. The decision to leave behind such a valuable material was risky and took a great deal of strength.

Was leaving the two old women, even though they could still walk and see, a break with tradition? (p. 14)

Points to consider:

  • This decision could be considered a break with tradition, because the two women prove later on that they weren’t feeble.
  • Sa’ believes the choice has to do with the younger generation looking for “easier ways” out of difficult situations.

What does Sa mean when she says, “Let us die trying, not sitting?”(p. 16)

Points to consider:

  • Sa’ refuses to accept death sitting down. She wants to prove The People wrong.
  • To die trying would mean they would be trying to survive and use their knowledge, while “sitting” would be a blind acceptance of their fate.

What would be wrong with the women accepting their fate? How would this go against what their culture has taught them? (p. 16)

Points to consider:

  • They come from a culture of survival and personal strength; to give up would mean to reject that training and their culture.
  • Accepting their fate would go against all they had learned in their long lives.

How have the two old women “earned the right to live?” (p. 16)

Points to consider:

  • The two old women have experienced a full life, but they are not yet ready to die.


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