At some point in her adolescence, Velma decided to go live by herself in a small cabin in the wilderness. Her father had built the cabin, which was located about 12 miles outside her village, and he used it for hunting and trapping.
While living at the cabin, Velma learned all kinds of skills, including fishing, hunting, and trapping. Her mother joined her for a summer and taught her more of the traditional survival skills her Gwich'in Athabascan ancestors had perfected.
These skills, along with her experiences in the cabin, found their way into her first book, Two Old Women.
Although Wallis never finished high school (she received her GED), her brother recognized her talent and encouraged her to write Two Old Women. He also helped her to get it published, and his instincts were right. Two Old Women became the most popular book of its kind in the history of Alaska, selling more than 1.5 million copies. Sadly, Wallis' brother died of AIDS years ago, but his encouragement lives on. Wallis recently published another, different kind of story, Raising Ourselves, which confronts the alcoholism and cultural struggles faced by many residents of rural Alaska.
In an interview in Frontiersman, Velma Wallis said, "Even though I put myself out there for a lot of criticism...I had to do it. Number one because I had to heal, I had to find a way out of this darkness that descended upon me after my brother died." Her courage has helped other Native Alaskans to deal with their own experiences as well.
Wallis believes that alcoholism is a crippling disease that has caused immense struggles for her community, and she's interested in the growing interest she sees in ancestry and the traditional lifestyle of the Gwich'in. Her writing, both in addressing current problems and highlighting the strengths of the Gwich'in cultural traditions, help both herself and others to heal and move forward.
In addition to Two Old Women and Raising Ourselves, Wallis has also written another book based on Athabaskan legend, Bird Girl and the Man who Followed the Sun.
Tolman Hall has produced a literature unit study for Two Old Women that addresses themes of independence, forgiveness, and respect for the elderly. It's appropriate for grades 5-10 and includes vocabulary lists, reading comprehension quizzes, essay prompts, and a variety of cross-subject projects.
For more information about Velma Wallis and her writing, check out the following articles:
"'Two Old Women' Author Publishes Memoir" by Eowyn LeMay Ivey
Kirkus Review of Two Old Women
"From One Young Woman to Two Old Women" by Caroline Williams