Alaska Native culture

Traditional Ways of Life

I shared a picture of a young Gwich’in woman, Quannah Potts, on the Athabascan Woman Blog Facebook page. Quannah Potts says, “This year, I was blessed with shooting my first caribou and our future generations should have the same privilege of being able to hunt and live their ways of life.”

Someone said, “Although using rifles and snowmobiles, ATVs and the like is hardly ‘traditional’…..”

I responded by thanking him for his comment… It brings to light one of the reason I write and share on my blog. The act of spending time on the land and providing for her family is traditional. The tradition of giving parts of the caribou from first catches to Elders or other families is traditional. Alaska Native would not have survived 10,000+ years if we were not adaptable. We moved around on the land with the seasons and the availability of plants, animals, currents, cycles and conditions. We were not static people living in one certain way. I would not expect people to be driving around by horse and buggy from a century+ ago. The only people who can critique Quannah on whether or not she is traditional is her mother, grandparents and community Elders.

I’ve had conversations about what is traditional and contemporary. I say living our ways of life is traditional whether or not we use contemporary tools.

When we give our first catch to Elders or other family members despite shooting with a rifle – that’s traditional.

When we sometimes sing and dance despite it being with a fiddle – that’s traditional.

When we celebrate a memorial potlatch despite it being in a school gym vs. a community hall – that’s traditional.

When we pick berries despite using an ATV or boat – that’s traditional.

When my family fishes despite using a commercial fish net vs. a fish trap – that’s traditional.

When I bead slipper tops on smoked moose skin despite being on hard bottom moccasins – that’s traditional.

When I use beads in my beadwork introduced in the past couple of centuries despite it not being quills – that’s traditional.

When I learn and share the Denaakk’e language despite being on a paper book, by video or audio recording – that’s traditional.

When I share stories despite it being on a blog vs. oratory – that’s traditional.

What would you add? We need to continue sharing our perspectives, stories, culture, language and ways of life. Enaa baasee’.

Alaska Native culture

Molly of Denali Has Arrived

Angela Gonzalez at a Molly of Denali premiere party. Photo by Lena Jacobs

It’s finally here! A groundbreaking PBS Kids cartoon, Molly of Denali, premiered across the country on July 15. I have been looking forward to the show since I heard about it a couple years ago. Producers, animators, storytellers and funders teamed up with Alaska Native writers and cultural advisors to make Molly come to life.

With the support of her family and friends, Vera Starbard hosted a Molly of Denali Premiere Party in Anchorage. It was great to hear some insights on episodes she and others wrote. From what I’ve heard from friends and colleagues who have worked on the show, much thought has gone into every single detail of the show. It was great to hear kids and adults singing along to the catchy theme song! Vera asked trivia questions for adults and children. It was a fun way to celebrate the huge accomplishment of the show’s debut.

Vera Starbard shares trivia about Molly of Denali at a premiere party she hosted. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

At a time when representation matters more than ever, it was great to hear words in the three cultures represented by Molly (Dena’ina Athabascan/Gwich’in/Koyukon Athabascan) in languages of Dena’ina, Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa and Denaakk’e. With repetition, kids across the nation will learn words in these Alaska Native languages. I also love listening to Molly’s voice, because I kept thinking she sounds like my relatives. I also loved seeing the mannerisms and sayings by the characters in the show, like when Aunt Midge said ‘real good’ just our Elders.

It is awesome people of color are represented. One of the reasons I do the Athabascan Woman Blog is to change the narrative by sharing stories and perspectives of Athabascan and Alaska Native people. The writers, creators and producers of Molly of Denali are truly changing the narrative at the very beginning by reaching kids. If my friends and relatives are any indication, the show is reaching kids, adults and Elders. I love all of the details, like multiple family pictures on the walls and the beadwork on the characters’ clothing.

Keenan watches Molly of Denali. Photo by Rona Vent

“My kids just watched the blueberry episode. My son Skyler said, ‘It’s cool they made a show about Natives.’ My daughter Skarlett and her friend Ava were singing along with the theme song. All three of them went to pick blueberries down the road from my house. They went 3X today. Also my son, Keenan, who’s 3 years old said he likes Molly and asked to watch Molly again. Thank goodness I recorded the series, so he can re-watch it.”Rona Vent (Koyukon Athabascan) of Huslia and Fairbanks

“My son is so excited and has been counting the days down daily. He’s so excited that it’s about Alaska.”Dena Sam (Iñupiaq/Koyukon Athabascan) of Alatna and Fairbanks

Episodes are packed with educational lessons reaching the hearts and minds of people. I watched a couple short episodes and it touched me to the core. I could probably go on all day about the things I love about every aspect of the show, but I want to share perspectives from my friends and relatives. Molly also vlogs during her show – super cute!

“Molly of Denali aired today on PBS!!!! A huge shout of thanks and appreciation to those of you who made this possible. Princess, you rock!!! Thanks for bringing this to AK and assembling the team you did.”Sonta Hamilton Roach (Deg Hit’an Athabascan) of Shageluk

April Henry of Fairbanks shared:
“A few months ago, we saw that Peter Pan had been brought out of the Disney vault. We popped some popcorn and bought it and sat down with our kids, eager to share with them a cartoon from our childhood. The movie had barely begun when John Darling reminded the other children, ‘Indians are cunning, but not intelligent.’

Our three-year-old Kai sat between us, eyes glued to the screen. My heart sank. My husband and I looked at each other and steadied ourselves for the tears we knew would erupt when we shut it off. But we knew that much bigger than the tears shed over a cartoon promised and taken away is the pain Indigenous children grow up with and carry into adulthood when they internalize the racism so prominent in depictions of Indigenous people in media. Kai saw children who fly, and a land where kids stay young forever, and fairy dust, and a very clear message – you are not intelligent. You are less than.

So when Kai first saw the preview for Molly of Denali, he said, ‘Hey! I think I know her. I think I’m in there!’ And he was really very excited. But I was moved to tears with gratitude. As an activist in these trying times, the victories are few and far between. But progress of this kind means so much.

In the opening scenes…they were going to a tribal hall, and told us that the grandpa had a necklace ‘like dad’s’. But shortly after that, he simply fell into this quintessential American experience that has been a staple to the majority and fully inaccessible to indigenous children until now – he watched a cartoon he could relate to.” 

An episode called, Grandpa’s Drum, tackles our boarding school story. I watched it three times already and cried each time. It’s a story of triumph, speaks to honoring our cultures and traditions, and a healing song is shared. When little is taught about boarding school history in the US, I’m glad it touches on the story in a positive way. I loved the song! When you watch the episodes, they also weave in real people and stories sharing singing, dancing, life in Alaska and making aqutaq, and more. Check out the episode below.

After seeing the amazing response to Grandpa’s Drum, Producer Princess Daazhraii Johnson (Neets’aii Gwich’in) shared a little bit more about working with Elder Reverend Luke Titus of Minto. “We came to Luke for his approval – that’s when we took this photo together. Dewey also teaches often in the Denaakk’e immersion classroom so that’s why he’s dressed in uniform 😊. Love to our language warriors! What goodness we are capable of when we work together & hold each other up. All this guided by our Ancestors,” says Princess Daazhraii Johnson.

“Oh man how amazing it is to see them identify with a cartoon show!!! They knew the grandpa song thanks to teacher Dewey. This is huge. They love it! So thankful this is now available to them.” – Kimberly Nicholas (Koyukon Athabascan) of Kaltag and Fairbanks

“We just watched two episodes, and tears fell. Our babies will never know a time without representation of their beautiful culture shown so lovingly on TV. So much love to our amazing fam working so hard for years to make this day a reality: Princess Daazhraii Johnson, Dewey Kk’ołeyo Hoffman, Vera Starbard, Du Aaní Kawdinook Xh’unei, Rochelle Adams and everyone else involved. Quyanaqpak from this thankful mama and future ancestor.

I wish everyone would watch this, especially our elders and parents/aunties/uncles generation. I watched Grandpa’s Drum twice today and cried both times. Healing is happening through our storytelling in real time ❤ I love #MollyofDenali.” – Ayyu Qassataq (Iñupiaq) of Uŋalaqłiq/Unalakleet and Anchorage

I’m impressed with the excellent writing, production, animation, storytelling, education, singing, partnerships, actors, and so much more! Kudus to Princess Daazhraii Johnson (Neets’aii Gwich’in) and to all of the contributors to this show. I’m a #MollyofDenali fan. Enaa baasee’, Mahsi’ choo and Chin’an for this healthy dose of truth, racial healing and transformation.

The Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center has an exhibit dedicated to Molly of Denali. Check it out if you have a chance!

There is a Molly of Denali exhibit at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center. This image depicts the retelling of the truer history. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
There is a Molly of Denali exhibit at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Follow Molly of Denali on Facebook, Twitter, podcast, YouTube and online!

Alaska life, Alaska Native culture, Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Slippery Pete’s Gambit by Colin Tass’aq McDonald

Colin Tass'aq McDonald's selfie at the 2019 Iditarod start in Willow.
Colin Tass’aq McDonald’s selfie at the 2019 Iditarod start in Willow.

My friend and colleague, Colin Tass’aq McDonald (Yup’ik), loves following the Iditarod. Each year, he shares his fun and humorous analysis with his personal network. His friends and family relied on his updates and often tagged and begged him for his daily updates. He had a lot of fun with nicknames and memes for the mushers. Tass’aq’s grew up dog mushing in Bethel, Alaska. He graciously agreed to share an update on Pete Kaiser’s win of the 2019 Iditarod. Pete is the first Yup’ik musher to win the Iditarod. Quyana for sharing, Tass’aq!

***

I just boarded the plane on my first leg on my journey to Egypt less than 24 hours after flying to Nome to watch Slippery Pete cross under the famed burled arch to become the first Yu’pik champion of the Iditarod. I wanted to share this post (below) from a few days back, because it was my favorite point of an amazing race!

In my opinion, ‘Pete’s Gambit’ out of Grayling is when he put himself into position to grab the belt as the ‘greatest musher in the world’! He put the pressure on the front runners Nic Le Lapin and Joar of The Hill people, and made them make decisions that compromised the speed of their teams down the trail. He eventually did what Slippery Pete does and slipped past both and into immortality.

The atmosphere in the chute last night was indescribable. I have been to about a dozen Iditarod finishes and I have never witnessed that kind of energy. John Baker’s finish came closest. Of course, I am being extremely biased, but it was distant in comparison. Nobody brings the energy like #KuskoNation!

I was so happy to be able to share the moment with my little cousin Ari (Pete’s son and my ticket into the chute…Quyana Ari!) as he got the ‘best seat in the house’ sitting on my shoulders as we soaked it all in. So many friends and family were there in the same state of awe as me. I was teary-eyed during the entire experience. I have grown up around and have participated in sports my entire life and have witnessed many moments that have left me floored, but I have never experienced an athletic feat that had such a personal and emotional effect on me and I’ll venture to guess that Pete’s first championship will never be bested in that regards.

In 2008, when Pete won the Bogus Creek 150, my Dad, John McDonald, said “Pete is going to win the Iditarod someday.” At the time, it seemed unfathomable, but to be there first hand to watch Pete achieve all his goals and dreams is something I will never forget.

This accomplishment has brought so much pride to his family, friends, community, region, state, and to the Yup’ik people and I am just so proud of my friend! I’m also proud of all the other Kusko Mushers this year. Richiero Su zuki, 2 quicklas Niklas Wikstrand, Jessica JR GRowling’ Klejka, and Victoria ‘The Frozen Candle’ Hardwick, ran and are continuing to run amazing races.

I also wanted to give a big Quyana for all the thank yous and encouragement on my posts throughout the race. I loved the people reaching out to tell me they had never really followed the race, but really got into it and excited reading my somewhat silly and irreverent ‘coverage’ this year.

Growing up with a dog team really gave me a great appreciation, love, and respect for all these mushers and dogs do. It really made me smile to get texts and posts from ‘racing legend’ Myron Angstman and the son of an Iditarod Champ, Isa Fredricks to “Update Us!” As I hope you can tell, I truly enjoyed posting them and I am so happy to play my small part in this amazing piece of our Alaskan Culture. Once again, Quyana, and we will see all you race fans next year!! Now off to the pyramids!! What an amazing week!

Tass’aq’s March 9th Analysis of the Point When He Believes Pete Kaiser Set Himself Up for Success

Slippery Pete’s Gambit – When Slippery Pete left Grayling in 3rd, I was sitting at my sister’s house with my parents, Beverly and John. I got the word on the Iditajunkie text thread and we all said, ‘Holy Shit’!! Everybody assumed he was there for his 8 hours [layover], since he had already been there for 6 hours.

But then after thinking about it, it became pretty clear that it’s the perfect move to make if you want to win a race like this. He is putting pressure on Joar of the Hill People and Nic Le Lapin now. He is going to take his 8 hours, but they are going to have to rest too and all that time is time he is catching up. And with the weather still coming in, the teams behind may have a tough trail to make up time. We will see if it works, but Ole’ Slippery is out there playing chess right now and has put himself in pretty good posish to make a run at this thing!

He has passed Nic and is 4 miles behind Joar at this moment. Rawhide Richie had a great run after taking his 8 hours. Pulled into Grayling in 7th at 7:15. I bet he gets back on the trail to start chasing down those leaders pretty soon. JK GRowling left Iditarod just a few minutes ago and Niklas Sixx pulled in there at 10:31. I was asked why I’m not posting about Victoria Hardwick…don’t really know her. 🤷🏼‍♂️ But she is grinding it out like a true Kuskokwim musher and deserves to get in these posts. ‘The Frozen Candle’ (Hardwick…get it?) is out of Ophir at 6:33 pm. Jessica and Vic still both have 14 dogs!! Word on the trail is that Hardwick’s dogs have amazing breath. Going to be up late tracking. May have some updates. Boy that was a long one!!

***

Enaa baasee’ Colin Tass’aq McDonald for the fun and exciting updates! Here are a couple other updates from Kaiser Racing Kennels and Indian Country Today.

Update from Kaiser Racing Kennels:

Check out the update from Indian Country Today – Yup’ik musher wins Iditarod! Pete Kaiser is first Yup’ik, fifth Alaska Native to win 998-mile race.

Indian Country Today provided a list of Alaska Native winners of the Iditarod:
2019: Peter Kaiser, Yup’ik, 9 days, 12 hours, 39 minutes, 6 seconds.
2011: John Baker, Iñupiaq, 8 days 18 hours 46 minutes 39 seconds.
1976: Gerald Riley, Athabascan, 18 days 22 hours 58 minutes 17 seconds.
1975: Emmitt Peters, Athabascan, 14 days 14 hours 43 minutes 45 seconds.
1974: Carl Huntington, Athabascan, 20 days 15 hours 2 minutes 7 seconds.

Link:  https://newsmaven.io/indiancountrytoday/news/yup-ik-musher-wins-iditarod-pete-kaiser-is-first-yup-ik-fifth-alaska-native-to-win-998-mile-race-LS9w67kz5kKFzesSEZKXXg/

 

Alaska life, Alaska Native culture, Athabascan in the Spotlight

Athabascan Mushers in the 2019 Fur Rondy OWC Race

There were four Athabascan dog mushers from interior Alaska in the Fur Rondy Open World Championship Race this year! Marvin Kokrine, Ricky Taylor, John Erhart and Courtney Agnes are all from interior Alaska. Overall, they were in the top 12. Check out the overall results on the Alaskan Sled Dog & Racing Association site. Congratulations to the mushers and their teams! Kudos to the families and friends who support dog mushing!

John Erhart on day 2 of the Fur Rondy Open World Championship Race. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
John Erhart on day 2 of the Fur Rondy Open World Championship Race. John was second place overall. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Here are some daily recap videos below. Enaa baasee’ to Marie Kokrine and Monica Moore for sharing on the Athabascan Woman Blog on the last day. It was an exciting three days watching the teams! Thanks for tuning in.

This year, the race was dedicated to late Lester Erhart of Tanana. It was great to see his son, John Erhart, place second. I heard one announcer say, he must be receiving some help from up above.

This year, the Fur Rondy race was dedicated to late Lester Erhart. Courtesy of the Fur Rondy OWC program guide

I love watching Fur Rondy, because my dad, Al Yatlin, Sr., loves it so much. He was a dog musher. When he was in Anchorage during Fur Rondy, we would watch the teams take off from downtown Anchorage, then run over to Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium to watch them cross over the Tudor Road bridge. Then, we would head back downtown to watch them come back in. In the meantime, the radio would be on in the car announcing checkpoint times. He would be marking all of the checkpoint times down. I loved those times!

Dog mushing is a part of Alaska Native life in many villages. I am happy to see this tradition continuing today. I know it takes a lot of hard work and dedication to raise and train dogs. Good luck to all of the mushers in the spring mushing season!

Alaska Native/Indigenous People, Athabascan in the Spotlight

Blanche Sam – Athabascan & Iñupiaq Beader

Blanche Sam and her daughter, Harper. Photo by Nadine Carroll

My niece, Blanche Sam (Athabascan/Iñupiaq) of Hughes, has really come into her own in the past couple of years with her beadwork, and I hadto interview her. I love her colorful earrings and creativity with using materials, like dentalium shells and hide. Enaa baasee’ Blanche for agreeing to share your beading journey on the Athabascan Woman Blog!

Blanche Sam and her family. Photo by Nadine Carroll

Blanche’s parents are Lester and Ella Sam of Hughes. Her paternal grandparents were the late Frank Sam, Elma (Nictune) Sam and biological (Blanche Henry); and maternal grandparents are the late Arthur Ambrose and Alice (Simon) Ambrose. Blanche now lives in Fairbanks with her own family, including Zeb Cadzow, and children Dakota and Harper Cadzow. She earned an associate degree in accounting from at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and currently works for her village corporation, K’oyitl’ots’ina, Limited.

“My mom and grandmothers did it and were so good at it and it is a big part of our culture as Alaska Natives.” – Blanche Sam (Koyukon Athabascan/Iñupiaq)

Blanche Sam sewed calf skin boots and a martin hat for her daughter. Photo by Blanche Sam

Blanche learned to bead in elementary school from her grandmothers and aunt. Some of her first memories of beading and sewing were in school. Blanche remembers her grandmothers and aunt receiving a grant to get furs, hide, beads and other supplies. She learned to sew calf skin boots with help from her grandmothers, Alice and Rita. Her aunt, Hazel, was the first one to teach her how to bead earrings with a basic pattern with bugle beads.

Beaded earrings by Blanche Sam

After buying several pairs of earrings in 2016, she thought, ‘I should just make my own.’ She began making her own jewelry and connected with it. Now when she’s not busy with her kids, you can find her at her beading table. She invested in supplies and challenged herself with some ambitions first projects. She has learned a lot and improved since the beginning. I’ve loved watching the progression of her styles and themes as she has shared them on social media.

Brilliant Beads by Blanche booth. Photo by Blanche Sam

Blanche stared sharing pictures of her earrings on social media and people were interested and started ordering from her. She found a higher demand once she started an online presence as Brilliant Beads by Blanche. After creating a small business, she started selling more, created a logo, ordered business cards, and learned to take better photos of her work. Although making extra money is nice, she appreciates the therapeutic nature of beading and how it connects her to her culture giving her a sense of purpose. Blanche says, “It allowed me to relax, escape and filled me with purpose.”

Blanche’s Advice for Beaders Who Want to Create a Small Business

  • Find and perfect a niche.
  • Having booths at bazaars is a great way to get known and get the word out about your product.
  • Create an online presence. Her online presence has especially helped increase her sales at bazaars.
  • Learn to take good photographs of your work in natural light.
  • Search for ideas on Pinterest for inspiration and help with your creations. It is also a great place to get ideas for creating an eye catching and inviting booth.

Overall, Blanche says, “Do not give up if you make mistakes. I made a lot and learned from each one of them.” She sells about 60-80 pairs for each bazaar she attends. It is impressive to see how she has grown in her beading journey and how she has come close to selling out at her last bazaars. Way to go, Blanche!

You can find Blanche Sam of Brilliant Beads by Blanche on TwitterInstagram and Facebook.