Alaska life

November 30 Earthquake

Scott Waterman's clock fell and stopped when the earthquake hit at 8:29 am on November 30th.
Scott Waterman’s clock fell and stopped when the earthquake hit at 8:29 am on November 30th. Photo by Scott Waterman

The 7.0 earthquake on November 30 near Anchorage was terrifying. I took the day off, so I was beading when it hit. Our dog, Danny Boy, ran downstairs right away. It kept going and was shaking hard, so walked over to the balcony door. I put my hands on the door to hold myself up and prayed. It kept going and going and I heard the house shaking and things falling.

It finally stopped. I was shaking and started sending messages to check on my husband and girls. I went outside when the aftershock hit. Danny Boy and I just waited outside. I saw the neighbors outside too and asked if they were okay. One neighbor’s dog ran away when the earthquake hit, so I tried helping to them to catch her. I went back in the house and surveyed the damage. It was dark, scary and surreal.

My husband is a driver and was making deliveries. His big work truck moves a lot already, so he didn’t feel the earthquake. However, he saw trees swaying and a street light shaking hard. He also saw a flash of light toward the airport. It must have been when the electricity went out. When he went to make a delivery, he noticed lots of people evacuated from the building. That’s when he figured out something happened. When he got to a transportation company to do a pick up, the people there told him they were glad he was alive. People were scared and panicked when the aftershock hit. That time, he felt his truck moving side to side, which was scary. Then, it took him about two hours (usually 10-minute drive) to get home. Traffic was slow due to more people on the roads and traffic lights being out.

My oldest daughter works at a daycare. They had all of the kids go under tables. There were about 15 kids there. One child was really scared and clinging to her. In her scared voice, the girl asked, “What’s happening?!” And kept crying. Many parents came to pick up the kids right away, then they closed the center. It also took her a while to drive home because of the traffic.

My youngest daughter was at school. After the main earthquake, the alarm started going off. They evacuated the school. There was a lot of damage. Many of the long fluorescent lights were broken and hanging for the ceilings. It was really dusty in the school. Lots of kids were crying.

The streetlights were out and the traffic was slow near East High School after the 7.0 earthquake hit in Anchorage on November 30. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
The streetlights were out and the traffic was slow near East High School after the 7.0 earthquake hit in Anchorage on November 30. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

She said, “The main earthquake was during passing period, so people were still coming into class and people were in the bathrooms. At first, no one was taking it serious until the teacher yelled at us to get under the desks. There were people yelling and screaming in the hallways when the power went out. The power came back on and the alarm turned on. The teacher yelled at us to leave the school. There was dust everywhere in the classroom and the parts of the ceiling fell. I noticed that some of the lights had been hanging from the ceiling and everyone was rushing out of the building. Then, everyone was moved to the commons shortly after waiting outside for a little while. We were only able to go in from two doors and they had all the hallway doors closed. They were trying to shush everyone and had us all sit down. One of the principals was talking into a bullhorn, but no one could really hear. An aftershock happened, and many people stood up. Many people were talking and over the announcements they said the same message every couple of minutes that parents could pick their kids up on the northern lights side.”

Broken bathtub tiles in my home. Thankfully, we did not sustain major damage. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Broken bathtub tiles in my home. Thankfully, we did not sustain major damage. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

The power was out, and my car was in the garage. I had to walk over to pick her up, which thankfully is just down the street. Not having a car worked out though, because it would have taken longer if I drove. The street lights were out, and the traffic was really slow. The line to pick up kids was long and slow.

I was so thankful my family was okay and am grateful for the bonding with my neighbors, friends and family since then. A few things broke when they fell off shelves. Our house has some cracks in the drywall and bathtub tile but is thankfully okay overall. Some friends had much more extensive damage.

My friend, Ayyu Qassataq’s home, received much more damage and was recently declared a total loss. People have asked how they can help, and there are many ways to help with local non-profit agencies who are helping in the earthquake recovery. A Go Fund Me page has been set up to support Ayyu and her family.

Organizer Lena Jacobs, said “Our dear friend Ayyu and her children’s home was severely damaged during the 7.0 earthquake in Anchorage, Alaska on November 30, and was recently declared a total loss – the cost to tear down and rebuild is less than repairs would be. She is continuing to work with her home insurance company, but it will be quite a process – with deductibles of $45k for damage repairs and $9k for living expenses, donated funds will be used to help with immediate and long-term costs associated with moving and rebuilding.”

Ayyu’s friends are hosting a fundraiser dinner, dance and silent auction on Sunday, December 15 – “Ayyu Qassataq + Family Earthquake Relief Fundraiser Dinner/Dance“. They are seeking monetary, food and silent auction donations and volunteers. Check out the Facebook event page to get all of the latest details.

A fundraiser will be held for Ayyu Qassataq and her family on Sunday, December 16.
A fundraiser will be held for Ayyu Qassataq and her family on Sunday, December 16.

I asked my friends to share their reflections of the earthquake. My cousin, Rhonda Pitka, was at the 11th floor of the Hilton Hotel. She decided she’s not staying at anything higher than 3rd floor from now on.

My friend, Freddie R. Olin IV, said “What at first sounded like a steamroller going down Ambassador Drive on ANMC campus turned into a bit of a shaker – I coolly and calmly stooped under my desk, coffee in hand. I was not letting that mofo go. Nope. No can do.” Lol! I saw some memes about Alaskans and their coffee. Check out the social media images and memes are being collected by the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson. My friend, Beka, noticed how many people went home to check on their jarred fish. Alaskans have their priorities. 🙂

“It was beautiful to pray with my children and dog on our front lawn and reflect that Mother Earth was in charge that day. I think we all thanked Her for a week off of school and were spared any larger devastation like so many others have encountered. I was especially thankful our dog didn’t run away and to actually feel the earth move under my feet and witness nearby lamp posts and trees swish around for that brief time. I’m glad we all got to hug and enjoy the moment together prior to going to school and I’m kind of glad I didn’t have my phone nearby, so I could fully appreciate the experience.” – Donna Bach (Yup’ik)

“Angela, this is an event I will never want to repeat.” – Lina Mariscal

“A lady in Wasilla said ‘now that every shelf is cleared, it’s a good time to clean the house’.” – Linda Demientieff (Koyukon Athabascan)

“I was on the 12th floor of Westmark with Tina and Ernest. Bro and I were out on the balcony when it started. I screamed so hard and long that my voice is still not back to 100%. Thank God for my sister, she pulled me in and made me leave the building, running down all 12 flights of stairs. It’s been three days since my last nightmare. I am trying my best to get over it and not let it keep me from going back to Anchorage, but I must say-it will be awhile until then.” – Vanessa Edwards (Koyukon Athabascan)

“Many things broke in our house, and I don’t plan to replace any of it. I cut my hands cleaning up all the glass, from items fallen off of shelves, flying out of cupboards, and picture frames from walls. It was very loud from the noise of everything breaking, the dogs hid under the snow machine trailer for an hour. We heard the transformers behind our house blow, I’ve never heard electricity, but I immediately knew what it was. Then the noise of ambulance sirens. I will remember the sounds from that day above everything else. Although it was scary, it also made me feel really alive, made me reflect on life, and the earth… and all these crazy tectonic plates we live on. I didn’t have my glasses or contacts on that morning. I’m blind as a bat (-7.00), so it makes sense that the sounds are what stood out the most!!” – Jamie Kleas

“Extremely lucky today. I’m so glad I was not at home which really took a hit and I probably would have been screaming: couldn’t get in the front door, actual shelves flew off, glass shattered all over the living room, kitchen, and bath; drawers flew open and are filled with shattered glass from glasses falling out of cabinets. And my babies…..my books….all over the place! The lion my son brought back from Afghanistan lost his leg. It’s amazing the items unharmed….jar of salmon on top of fridge landed in the living room….on the other side of a bookshelf, intact!…. my pic of Grandma Holden in a Waterford frame flew off the entertainment center….not a scratch on her. A glass ornament I blew at a glass factory in Corning, NY right after 911 took a dive off the top shelf and only the top hook part broke off. Mother and Child that Grandma Marilyn Moody gave me dove off a shelf and landed underneath one….without a scratch on them. All those bookshelves had things all over the top of them, and look at them now. 🙁 going to be a long weekend.” – Marie Jeno

Books fell in Marie Jeno's home during the November 30th earthquake. Photo by Marie Jeno
Books fell in Marie Jeno’s home during the November 30th earthquake. Photo by Marie Jeno

My friend,, said, “Reflecting back: so glad I picked up my Bipsy Boo from school and brought her to her mom yesterday morning. Regret: drove across town (O’Malley to Muldoon) to check on my house and belongings instead of staying put with my sis and niece. My nerves were so shook that I barely did anything except stay still, and stay alert, lol. After putting a backpack and back up in the car together I basically cleaned up a small mess and just sat on my couch with my coat and purse on. So thankful for today. So thankful everyone is OK. So much love to everyone who experienced this earthquake. This is all the more reason why we must always respect our lands and waters. Recycle if you can, use less if you can, consume less if you can, and utilize water and food wisely (no wasting). #PartLandPartWater #AlwaysNative” – Ella Sassuuk Tonuchuk (Yup’ik)

Enaa baasee’ to my friends and family who have shared their stories and to those assisting with the fundraiser for Ayyu Qassataq and her family. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services has a list of resources available. Don’t be afraid to seek help as you are coping after the natural disaster. Doing things I love, like beading, has helped me to stay calm since the earthquake. I’m relieved the aftershocks seem to be subsiding.

Wigi Tozzi shared this photo of earthquake damage near Jewel Lake and Raspberry. The land there subsided about four feet. Photo by Wigi Tozzi
Wigi Tozzi shared this photo of earthquake damage near Jewel Lake and Raspberry. The land there subsided about four feet. Photo by Wigi Tozzi
Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Indigenous People to Follow

I want to give a shout-out to some writers, podcasters, photographers, creators, beaders and Native royalty to consider following in honor of Alaska Native and American Indian Heritage Month.

Alice Qannik Glenn (Iñupiaq) started a podcast, called Coffee and Quaq, this summer. She describes it as:  “Coffee & Quaq provides a platform for the generation of Alaska Natives who continue practicing cultural traditions, but also enjoy the modern commodities of the millennial era like Mario Kart, iPhones, and Tang.  Coffee & Quaq? It’s a great time to be alive.” Her latest episode was, LGBTQ in the Native Community. I’m looking forward to what she’s creating! She is the first Alaska Native podcaster I know of!

Jen Jul (Athabascan) is documenting her life and building up her business in Denmark as a social media strategist on her new blog, My Kind of Jen. She’s trying to make a life for herself with her family and new life. Give her a follow on Facebook too. She’s an excellent photographer too. I worked with her over 25 years ago in a college summer job. 

Susie Lee Edwardson (Haida) of Haida Life created a “Native YouTubers” Twitter account @NativeTubers. You may recall she shared a list of Native Vloggers, Gamers and Organizations on the Athabascan Woman Blog a couple years ago. I love how she shares her language journey and teaching Haida. @NativeTubers is a great way to share content of indigenous vloggers/sharers! 

While you’re on Twitter, give a follow to Speak Gwich’in To Me. Jacey Firth has been sharing her Gwich’in language journey in Canada. Check out this documentary about her here!

While you are on Twitter, give Indigenous Beads a follow. @IndigenousBeads is a new host every week with about six regulars. I have hosted it a few times over the past year or so. The hosts share beadwork, process, how people can purchase their items, and much more. If you are a fan of beadwork, you’ll want to give them a follow. It’s a great way to converse with other beaders across the Nation.

If you are looking for inspiration from Indian Country, follow up-and-comer Tanaya Winder on Girl On Fire. She is a writer, educator, motivational speaker, and performance poet from the Southern Ute, Duckwater Shoshone, and Pyramid Lake Paiute Nations. Tanaya came up to Alaska earlier this year, and shared her spoken poetry, book and sang with Frank Waln. I love how she uplifts people with her strong voice. She fill people up (especially young Indigenous people) with light in the way they need to be filled up, which is healing. She even has a TedTalk!

 

Photo by Cordelia Kellie of the Nalliq Blog

Follow Cordelia Qiġñaaq Kellie (Iñupiaq) on Nalliq. She shares her perspectives. Cordelia shared this in her latest post was:  Stories in Representation: First figurative sculpture of Dena’ina installed in Anchorage

“Soldotna Artist Joel Isaak, who is Dena’ina, wrought the bronze statue to represent a well known Dena’ina community member, Grandma Olga Nicolai Ezi from the Tyone Lake, and Copper River regions. Born in 1875, she was the matriarch of her family and was married to Simeon Ezi, a chief of the upper Cook Inlet, including Anchorage and the Matanuska Valley and was known as Cheda, or Grandmother, by the region.”

Here are a few articles to read in the news about Alaska Native people:

  • Check out the interview with Irene Bedard (Iñupiaq) in the Anchorage Press. Thank you to her sister-in-law, Vera Bedard, for pointing it out. Vera says, she “talks about Pocahontas, Smoke Signals, Native issues advocacy, and really everything else!” According the article, Bedard will spend much of her time in Alaska through the spring as artist-in-residence with Perseverance Theatre, which is celebrating its 40th season, and its first since nearly going under in 2018.
  • Lt. Gov. Valerie Davidson (Yup’ik) shared her story as a sexual abuse survivor on KTUU, in an article entitled, ‘In my childhood the monsters were very real’ — Lt. Gov. Valerie Davidson talks about childhood trauma. She is using her voice to bring light to this critical issue. She says,”I think it gets fixed by us bringing light to the issue and shining the harsh light of judgement and reality every time that that injustice happens, because we deserve justice, just as everybody else does, and it’s not OK that that continues to happen.” I appreciate and admire her strength in speaking up for so many people who suffer in silence. I’m a Val fan and love seeing an Alaska Native woman as lieutenant governor!
  • Bob Sam (Tlingit) and other Alaska Native people visited the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. Photo journalist Daniella Zalcman shared the story on the Pulitzer Center, entitled Carlisle and the Indian Boarding School Legacy in America. I was there with the Alaskans. It was a very powerful experience, while I attended the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.
  • Emil Notti (Koyukon Athabascan) said a movie should be made on Percy Blatchford (Iñupiaq). Emil shared some pretty amazing stories of Percy’s life, and it really seemed like he was a Native James Bond in his time. I was happy to see this article by Michael Hankins, which was published in the Last Frontier Magazine and it was republished by the ECHO. It is entitled, Percy Blatchford – Alaska Legend.
  • Read about two Alaska Native teens, John Fredson and Esaias George, getting official credit for assisting historic Denali ascent in the Anchorage Daily News.

I can definitely go on about awesome people doing great things (or who have done), but I’ll stop here for now. Here’s one last shout-out to the new Miss Indigenous Northern Arizona University, Shondiin Mayo (Koyukon Athabascan/Navajo). Congratulations Shondiin on your new title and I know you will be a great role model!

The new Miss Indigenous NAU 2019 Shondiin Mayo was crowned recently. Photo courtesy of Miss Indian Northern Arizona University
The new Miss Indigenous NAU 2019 Shondiin Mayo was crowned recently. Miss Indigenous NAU 2019 First Attendant Brandi Espuma (Tohono O’odham) is also pictured. Photo courtesy of Miss Indian Northern Arizona University

 

Athabascan in the Spotlight

Athabascan in the Spotlight – Alberta John

Albert and Paul John. Photo courtesy of Alberta John
Alberta and Paul John. Photo courtesy of Alberta John

This summer, the Athabascan Woman Blog is featuring an Athabascan in the Spotlight. Thank you to Paul John (Koyukon Athabascan) for nominating his wife, Alberta (Tritt) John. Alberta John is Lakota Sioux and Gwich’in Athabascan who was born and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska. Her mother, Grace Simon, is originally from McIntosh, South Dakota and transplanted to Alaska in the 1970s. Alberta’s maternal grandparents are Charles and Emma VillageCenter. Alberta’s father, William Tritt, Sr., is originally from Ft. Yukon, Alaska. He was adopted to Rev. Paul Tritt, Sr. and Julia Tritt of Venetie, Alaska. Alberta is an Administrative Assistant in the transportation industry. Alberta and her husband, Paul, own Dineega Clothing, an Alaska Native apparel company based in Fairbanks. Alberta’s Lakota name is Uŋžiŋžiŋtka hu oblaye uŋ, which means Prairie Rose of Flat Lands.

In this interview, Alberta shares her story of her family and how to deal with grief.

Interview with Alberta John:

I am the oldest girl with five brothers and eight (now seven) sisters. My late sister, April, and I were close; she was two years younger than me, so she was my first best friend in life. We did so many things together. We helped our parents with our younger siblings.  We shared a lot of laughter and tears. We loved to plan family cookouts and coordinated lunch dates. We both shared a love of books and adventures, and ultimately we planned her last days together. My siblings and I were all there to help her when she needed us and fortunate for us her spirit lives on through her children. A wonderful and loving mother, she leaves behind two sons and a daughter. We all remain a close-knit family and we will ensure that her legacy lives on.

Lakota Naming Gathering. Photo courtesy of Alberta John
Lakota Naming Gathering. Photo courtesy of Alberta John

In October 2013, we found out April was extremely ill.  As a family we banded together to help her get better. She was immediately admitted into the hospital where she would spend close to two months. That December, the doctors told us that this might be our last Christmas with her, so we might as well make the best memories of it. We called our huge family from my dad’s side and my Uncle Edward came up from Seattle to spend it with us. It was the best Christmas in ages! We enjoyed all the traditional and modern foods that were cooked. There was laughter, hugs and tears with her and with everyone that showed up, that we forgot why we had gathered together. It was great!

Alberta, her sister, April, and mother Grace. Photo courtesy of Alberta John
Alberta, her sister, April, and mother Grace. Photo courtesy of Alberta John

Life after that for April was touch and go for months. In mid-March, after she spent a week with her two youngest children, I received the hardest call ever from her doctors, to get to her immediately if I wanted to say goodbye. After a heart-wrenching drive to Anchorage, we said our goodbyes and sent her with all of our love and prayers to our Heavenly Father. She passed away surrounded by her family and all the love anyone could ever ask for.

The coming days, weeks and months afterwards were very difficult and emotional. Planning a burial to honor your loved one is a very hard process. It was good to have someone who already has gone through it and is not related to you, by your side to help you through it all. In all honesty, you don’t remember much, and things would probably would have been forgotten. But if asked again to be the responsible one and do that all over, would I have said yes? Yes, I would have; she was my sister, coach, cheerleader, confidante, co-prankster, book lover, adventure taker, food critic and ever loving best friend for life and I will miss her every single second of every single day.

There are many promises that I kept for her; bury her next to her late baby, keep things as normal as possible for the younger kids, continue to think of others before ourselves, celebrate the Holidays, go on bike rides, try to enjoy the sunsets, try new foods, laugh, love, smile, go for walks, keep our mom happy and not so sad after she passes because she will always be with us and take her children in and love them like my own.

My husband was my rock through it all. When I informed him that my late sister asked us to adopt her children he did not hesitate to agree, he said “of course, we’ve loved them from the moment they came into this world, we’ll love them more in our home.” As we began the process of Tribally adopting the two youngest ones (a nephew and niece), my niece decided she wanted to live with her dad who was the only parent she had left, and she didn’t want to leave him. Although I was breaking my sisters promise, I told her, ‘Whatever makes you happy, but just know, our home is always open to you,’ and off she went to her dad and there she stayed. Thankfully, she still lived in town and we got to help raise her.

If there is anything that I learned from a huge and devastating loss of a loved one, it is this: grief is strange and powerful, it comes at you. . . like huge waves in the ocean, you never know when it will hit you and when it retreats, you take a deep breath and wait for the next wave, hoping that you survive.

For the first YEAR of your loss, you cry off and on, let the tears fall when they arrive.  Do not bottle them up. It will return like a waterfall.

Talk about your grief. Talking to a grief counselor helped in so many ways I never knew about the things they mentioned. It’s okay to talk about your grief, it’s not something to be ashamed about or too proud to hold in.

You are NEVER the same person as you were before your loss, you have to try and live life without your loved one, that it feels like you lost a limb and are learning how to swim without it. It’s okay. It’s like that old saying, Time Heals All Wounds.

Yes, you are still you, yes, life will get better, but you have to choose to live. You have to choose life. You have to choose love. If you need to, find someone you can talk to, one who will just BE there, not give advice, not make you feel like you need to “get over it”, but just be a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen, a hand to hold. Someone who understands your loss with you.

I had the best support system; I had numerous people who were there for me – they were my hand to hold, shoulder to cry on, and listening ears. Without them, I wouldn’t have survived. I’m so very thankful for my husband for always standing by me, holding my hand, holding me tight, and letting me cry; without him I wouldn’t have made it. It’s been a long four years of grief after losing my sister. But with Faith, Family and Love, I did it. If I can do it, so can you. I would also like to include this article that I found on grief, although our grief was different, it still explained the loss so perfectly. Many blessings to all those who are grieving and stay strong because it will get better.

[Alberta found words on mourning by Kay Warren to be very helpful. It gave her an understanding about the grieving process. She also appreciated the words of advice on how people should respond to people who are going through the grieving process. Alberta summarized the advice below.]

“Please don’t ever tell someone to be grateful for what they have left until they’ve had a chance to mourn what they’ve lost. It will take longer than you think is reasonable, rational or even right. But that’s ok. True friends – unlike Job’s sorry excuse for friends – love at all times, and brothers and sisters are born to help in time of need (Prov. 17:17 LB). The truest friends and ‘helpers’ are those who wait for the griever to emerge from the darkness that swallowed them alive without growing afraid, anxious or impatient. They don’t pressure their friend to be the old familiar person they’re used to; they’re willing to accept that things are different, embrace the now-scarred one they love, and are confident that their compassionate, non-demanding presence is the surest expression of God’s mercy to their suffering friend. They’re okay with messy and slow and few answers….and they never say, ‘Move on’.” – Alberta John (Lakota Sioux/Gwich’in Athabascan)

***

Enaa baasee’ to Paul for submitting Alberta to be an Athabascan in the Spotlight and sharing some much-needed advice on dealing with loss and going through the grieving process.

Do you have someone you admire, like a culture bearer, artist, storytellers, activist, role model, community doer, language warrior, leader, hunter, gatherer, parent, or grandparents? Find out more about how to submit a nomination here: http://athabascanwoman.com/?p=4248.

Athabascan in the Spotlight

Athabascan in the Spotlight – Elaine Alexie – Teetł’it Gwich’in

Elaine Alexie. Courtesy photo

This summer, the Athabascan Woman Blog is featuring an Athabascan in the Spotlight. Elaine Alexie is Teetł’it Gwich’in from Alberta, Canada. I have been following her for a few years, and am excited to feature her on the Athabascan Woman Blog. She and I share a love of beading. We both learned our sewing and beading skills from our mothers. Her mother is her biggest supporter and continues to be an inspiration.

Here’s my interview with Elaine:

Can you tell me about yourself?

My name is Elaine Alexie and I am Teetł’it (Tee-tlit) Gwich’in. I currently reside on Treaty 6 and Metis homelands in Alberta, Canada with my loving partner Adam. My home community is Teetł’it Zheh or Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories (NWT), Canada. Teetł’it Gwich’in is loosely translated as, ‘the people of the headwaters’ or ‘above the water’ people. Our ancestral territory extends from what is now described as the Peel River Watershed in the central area of the Yukon Territory to the Mackenzie Delta region of the Northwest Territories in Northern Canada.

I was born in the NWT and raised in Teetł’it Zheh within my large and extended Teetl’it Gwich’in maternal families of both Vittrekwa (Don’t Cry/Esau) and Alexie (Martin/Sha un Nakhya). Like many other families, I have many aunties, uncles and cousins all around. I come from a large family of creators and makers.  In some ways, I like to consider myself more of a Yukoner as I spent a majority of my childhood out on the land with my family at our winter/spring camp at Tr’atr’aataii Njik, which is approximately 80 miles upstream on Teetł’it Gwinjik, the Peel River, on the Yukon side. 

My great grandmothers and their daughters had many skills including hide tanning, sewing, medicine knowledge, birch bark basket-making, dog team handling and working with fish and meat, among other things. I am a descendent of strong people and I am proud of that. – Elaine Alexie (Teetł’it Gwich’in)

Elaine Alexie. Courtesy photo

I left home in my mid-teens to go to high school in other regions of the NWT. At the time, this was the only option. After school I had the opportunity to work on the protection of the calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I spent lots of time touring with other Gwich’in to the Lower 48 and lobbying the US Congress to protect the calving grounds. I also worked in other areas of land protection and Indigenous rights in Canada, including the protection of the Peel Watershed and Dene resistance to the revived Mackenzie Pipeline proposal. These experiences taught me a lot about community organizing and communication.

I have always had a fondness and love for traveling in my peoples lands and I did it a lot growing up at my family’s seasonal camps. Later on, I rafted and canoed rivers during the summer seasons. A big part my who I am is connected to water. This interest led me to get my certifications and training for being a raft tour guide.

I worked in film and TV production as a producer for several years but was laid off during the recession in 2008. Fortunately, that same summer I was accepted to the University of Victoria in British Columbia and my river rafting dreams slowly would diminish from there.

To get my degree done faster, I did summer school sessions, so I wasn’t able to continue my love for being on the water or to work in that area. My university experience became another door that opened many other doors, and I trained in the area of political science/Indigenous studies. I enjoyed it so much I continued on for my master’s degree in Political Science. My degree was thesis-based, so I worked with my elders and led a community-based research project on my people’s use of traditional governance. This project grounded land-based practices and explores how it informs our indigeneity that is essential to our self-determination. I find research amazing and I really enjoy it, when done right and respectfully. I enjoy working with community knowledge holders and building projects with them. I currently work at the University of Alberta in the Faculty of Native Studies in northern research engagement and part of my job is to build research partnerships and relationships with communities across Northern Canada.

Can you tell me about any recent projects you’re working on or maybe one you finished? 

Elaine Alexie beading a Gwich’in style baby belt. Courtesy photo

I have one major project on the go right now: a Gwich’in style beaded baby belt. I am using mostly seed beads on stroud and velvet. I have acquired some vintage pony beads to incorporate for the tassels, so I am excited about that. I have been researching old styles of Gwich’in baby belts by visiting museum collections and looking at resources online. This past winter, I visited the Royal Alberta Museum, Bata Shoe Museum and Royal Ontario Museum to see Gwich’in pieces in their collections. I’ve seen a very old baby belt dated to at least late 19th century and a Hudson’s Bay flour sac was used as a liner. Old! This demonstrates that certain materials were not within reach and people used everything they could to make things with whatever they had available. That’s pretty special.

I have a deep appreciation of the work my Gwich’in ancestors have done with beads, the many forms of hand stitch, and the use of certain fabrics. – Elaine Alexie (Teetł’it Gwich’in)

Beaded purse top by Elaine Alexie. Courtesy photo

I really admire the old-style beading and the use of velvet. I appreciate the use of certain bead colours no longer in production and the formation and use of floral motifs. It is also not very easy to bead on velvet, so it takes some skill. Each beaded flower motif tells a story and that is something special to pay attention to. This reflects our peoples surroundings or in some way, interpretations of the beauty of our cultural landscape, as our ancestors have seen it.

Beaded flower for a purse by Elaine Alexie. Courtesy photo

I am fascinated by all this and want to continue the art of my peoples beadwork and continue the use of the old style in a variety of ways. One project that relates to this topic is a bag I completed with the help of my sister, Shirley, and mom, Dorothy. I sewed it together in a two week period, alongside tanning caribou and moose hides with my mom, and it was deeply gratifying. As exhausted as I was physically at the end of our days working on hides, I managed to sew and bead in the evenings.

Surprisingly, I found doing these different tasks went hand in hand. What influenced my desire to do this bag was an old school bag my mom owns that is about 70 years old. This bag was fully beaded in the traditional way – on blue velvet and old Gwich’in beading floral motif pattern. It is simply beautiful, and I’ve admired it all my life. The bag was considered my mom’s bible bag to store her bible and hymn books, and she would occasionally take it with her on her weekly visit to church.

Beaded purse by Elaine Alexie. Courtesy photo

For the bag I worked on, I freestyled the beading based on learning about certain floral patterns and cut out a pattern to bring it together. My sister is a master at the sewing machine, so she showed me the best way to sew it together. Our mom watched and instructed us on certain things to pay attention to. It was a great thing to do with several family members. I am super proud of it because it was made from scratch and drawn from a vision I had. That is, a vision that was inspiration based on Gwich’in items that I’ve researched through books and viewed in person.

There are so many other skills I want to develop in my lifetime, like working with quills and natural dyes, harvesting and using birch bark, and learning how to make sinew and babiche. The list is endless. – Elaine Alexie (Teetł’it Gwich’in)

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Elaine Alexie’s new business and collective is called, Shinli’ Niintaih, which means my strong hands.

Over the years and to offset my loneliness for my land, home, family and culture, I took up beading and making things to keep myself busy. This has been on and off over the years, but I really picked it up in university. I continue to work on projects while working full time and have started a small business on the side, Shinli’ Niintaih: my strong hands, a name that my mom and I came up with.  I gravitate to this concept because of my life-long love of learning new skills. I love that. My work and many other things that I am invested in begins with the understanding around the concept of Shinli’ Niintaih.

Shinli’ Niintaih in my people’s language means “strong hands” or “my hands are getting strong.” It means that to be a strong person starts with your hands, so by making things drawn from our homelands, we get stronger. My hands always get stronger by working with them. – Elaine Alexie (Teetł’it Gwich’in)

I have started a Facebook and Instagram page for Shinli’ Niintaih, so people can follow my research and journey in making things with my hands. You can follow @ShinliNiintaih. From time to time, I will sell items I make, so if people want to purchase they can. An incentive that really got me to begin Shinli’ Niintaih was what started as making gifts to family and friends over the years became larger as more people came to me for custom pieces. A portion of my jewelry making sales will go toward youth cultural resurgence projects in my home community. My website is www.shinliniintaih.com.

Shinli’ Niintaih is also a community collective. To support other Teetł’it Gwich’in artists, I help them by selling their work online. All of the proceeds from their sales goes to them. I believe strongly creating opportunities for people to generate and keep the art forms alive is incredibly vital for knowledge transmission, and the relationships that result, in Indigenous communities. A key component of material culture creation is not just in the tangible process but the making of kinship along the way.

My philosophy and approach to social media is that I am always happy to share knowledge with other Indigenous community members and youth. I love to connect with other artists in an open, uplifting and supportive way, and to share my love for making things.

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About five years ago, Ned Blackhawk gifted me the famous book, ‘Northern Athapaskan Art’ by Kate C. Duncan. I was floored, because the book is now out of print and I felt I hit the jackpot. I have always had an interest in making things and having cultural influences all around me growing up was something I was always used to. This book help to start my interests in looking at my peoples art forms more closely and I have been able to start my journey in researching the many forms of Athapaskan material culture and artistic practice. I have so much gratitude to the researchers who have recorded the oral knowledge of the elders in the communities on the knowledge they carry. There is so much more work to do. I hope to do my PhD in the next few years on this very topic within my peoples practices to help preserve knowledge and the practice of Teetł’it Gwich’in art forms.

Elaine Alexie’s beading space. I love seeing other people’s beading spaces! Courtesy photo

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Enaa baasee’ to Elaine Alexie for sharing on the Athabascan Woman Blog! It was great to learn a little bit about her background, process and inspiration for her work. I know it takes a lot of time, trial and error and dedication to learn about beading. I love seeing her style and uses of colors and materials.

Do you have someone you admire, like a culture bearer, artist, storytellers, activist, role model, community doer, language warrior, leader, hunter, gatherer, parent, or grandparents? Find out more about how to submit a nomination here: http://athabascanwoman.com/?p=4248.