Below the stand of spruce where Jonathon Solomon's family camps and fishes every summer, three flat-bottom river boats were tied to the bank. A fourth swung across the current into the evening shadows and cut its outboard motor. Its passengers, Indians and Eskimos from villages north of the Arctic Circle, climbed the sandy bank with their duffel bags, and the helmsman, a young Athabascan Indian with long black hair and a red headband, started the half-hour journey back upriver to Fort Yukon for another load.
Already the fish camp was crowded. Fish-drying racks had been covered with tarps and black plastic to shelter cook fires in case of rain during the next two days. In a clearing, logs had been arranged in a hexagon.
Large canvas tents and a scattering of smaller tents and plastic tarps surrounded the cook fires. Food was being unpacked, shotguns and sleeping bags arranged in preparation for a gathering unlike anything the participants could remember. A century ago, Eskimos and Indians fought wars over caribou hunting grounds. Now, village leaders from northern Alaska and Canada had called an international summit to draft a treaty that would protect both the arctic caribou and the people's ancient right to hunt them.
Some of the delegates had met before, in hotel ballrooms and community halls, trying to develop a consensus document to take to the Alaska and Yukon Territory governments, then on to their respective national capitals.
But this meeting would be different. In the isolation of a Yukon River forest, the three-day gathering was to be a running feast of local game and fish, an open-air camp revival meeting for the cause of Eskimo and Indian subsistence rights.
The new arrivals set about making camp with determination, felling trees for firewood, shaving spruce boughs with an ax to lay a green carpet in the tents. Athabascans from the Yukon Flats joked that their Eskimo visitors from the barren tundra didn't know the first thing about cutting trees.
"I'm going home tomorrow. Too many mosquitoes," responded Isaac Akootchook, an Eskimo from the Arctic Ocean village of Kaktovik, where mosquitoes abound in late summer.
"Too cold up there for mosquitoes," said Solomon, host of the gathering.
"You got to cut down more trees, get more wind in here," Ben Nageak of Barrow told Solomon. Nageak, looking like a young Teddy Roosevelt, warded off mosquitoes with a cigar and roared like a tiger when he laughed.
The first night, they ate caribou-and-potato stew, and then Solomon draped a gold towel over one end of a plywood table. A cassette recorder played "My Pretty Fraulein" and other fiddle tunes, music brought to the Yukon River Indians by trappers and prospectors in the 19th century. Cribbage gave way to blackjack, and soon a dozen players crowded around, their stacks of American and Canadian dollar bills held down by green shotgun shells.
Nearby, a caribou head dangled from a rope over a fire, roasting slowly. There was still fur around the nose, the tiny teeth clenched in a sneer. Jawbones, cheeks and eyebrows were said to have the tenderest meat, not toughened during the many miles of migration. By morning, the head had been devoured.
For the next two days, more than 30 delegates surrounded the clearing, sitting back on lawn chairs, logs and five-gallon outboard gasoline cans. They spoke in English, though many of the delegates chatted among themselves in their Eskimo and Indian languages.
They spoke of the Porcupine River caribou herd, 120,000 strong, which migrates each year without regard for the Alaska-Yukon border. Native backers of the proposed U.S.-Canadian treaty want humans to be able to show similar disregard for the mapmaker's line between nations.
Eskimos and Indians complained of the difficulty of visiting relatives across the border. Some continue to cross informally in the fall to pursue caribou. Norma Kassi, a young Indian from Old Crow elected in May to the Yukon Legislature, said Canadian officials had made her fill out long forms when she tried to bring dried caribou meat into Alaska for the meeting.
"You should have told them it was born in Alaska, and you were bringing it back," said Paul Williams of the village of Beaver.
Delegates from all sides agreed on the need to protect the herd's range, particularly from oil development on the calving grounds in the United States east of Prudhoe Bay. But the international border asserted itself on the subject of preferential hunting rights.
Yukon natives, working toward an aboriginal rights settlement, expressed fear about the land claims they had settled with the U.S. government in 1971.
"If we gave up our hunting rights," said Jonathon John, chief of the Alaska community of Arctic Villages, gesturing toward the wild game around the cook fires, "then we're all criminals."
With each break in the talks, feasting ensued, with roast caribou, caribou stew, whitefish and northern pike stuffed with rice and baked in foil, roasted muskrat and sweet caribou intestines, last summer's king salmon boiled in a galvanized washpan, freshly plucked black ducks, moosehead soup. There was unending coffee and no alcohol.
Solomon, chairman of the caribou convention, spends part of every summer in fish camp netting a year's supply of salmon for his family despite a busy political life on statewide rural affairs boards. Each morning of the conference, he disappeared in his river boat and returned before breakfast with a load of fish.
Solomon said he staged the meeting down the river as an enticement: "Hell, if we held this meeting in Fort Yukon we wouldn't have had half the people show." Others said it was unusual to hold a meeting out-of-doors like this. But a few recalled times that natives left their villages to meet in the Bush, where the mind settled more easily on first things.
"That's what Washington, D.C., should do," said Victor Mitander, a Canadian Indian who grew up in Dawson City. "Have a two-week session together up here in a fish camp along the Yukon."