Alaska Native/Indigenous People, Athabascan in the Spotlight

Athabascan Medical Laboratory Scientist

Starr Zottola

My cousin, Starr Zottola (Koyukon Athabascan), is a medical laboratory scientist who  analyzes blood and other bodily fluids to aid in the diagnosis of medical conditions. I asked her to share about her profession and what it took to get there. Starr’s parents are Gary Attla and Maureen Mayo. Enaa baasee’, Starr, for sharing on the Athabascan Woman Blog!

 

Starr’s Story:

I graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science degree majoring in Medical Laboratory Science. I analyze blood and body fluids to aid in the diagnosis of medical conditions. Anytime a person goes to the doctor and gets their blood drawn or has body fluid collected, it is sent to a laboratory to be tested. I am the person who analyzes it and provides information to the doctor to help diagnose what might be causing a patient illness.

 

I graduated from UAA in 2017 and the process was incredibly difficult. I am married with three children. We moved from Fairbanks to Anchorage in 2013, so it was a sacrifice for all of us. Attending university took time away from my family and I spent a lot of nights awake studying. Learning a technical subject was intense and there were times of self-doubt and wanting to quit.


Quitting would have been easy, but I’m glad I didn’t. I was determined to finish, because I was ready for the next part of my life to start. I learned a lot in school, but I also learned a lot about myself from working in the field. I learned self-confidence and self-acceptance, which wasn’t easy. What I have learned about self-confidence is that without it I do not trust myself or my decisions and it causes self-doubt, which causes confusion and errors. In my profession, there is no room for mistakes.
There comes a time when I have to trust myself and my education and follow what I feel is right.


Unfortunately, mistakes do happen, because I’m a human and by nature mistakes will be made. That is where I learn self-acceptance, I have to accept the mistakes that I make and learn from them. It easy to be hard on myself for making an error and replaying it in my mind. But it is not good for a person to be that way to themselves. It is better for the soul to be accepting; being flawed is being human. I am not perfect and cannot hold myself to those standards or I will always let myself down. The most I can do is think about a better way to navigate the situation if it arises again.

My advice for anybody who has a goal is to be fierce and defend it. There will be non-believers, people who think they know more about you and your situation and do not think you can achieve your aim. Do not surround yourself with those people. Find support in people who believe in you. There will be stumbling and falling; reaching a goal is not easy. Just get up, brush yourself off and walk with your back straight and head held high. Don’t give up. I couldn’t give up. The thought of going through life and not finishing was too much too much of a burden. For anyone who has a goal, be brave and follow it and have faith in your intuition. Forget self-doubt, be passionate about what you’re learning and be ready to spend a lot of time on it.

 

I’m an indigenous woman of science and what I love about my profession is that I am able to help my community through healing. I work at Alaska Native Medical Center and I have probably released hundreds of medical results that have come to the lab. I feel good about that, but what is also important is that I represent the Native community in my profession. I want to be a role model for other Native people in the sciences.

Starr Zottola

I think science is awesome, because it supports ideas and helps people understand how things work. 


When I was a kid, in fish camp my Uncle Randy Mayo told me that Natives would suck on willow branches for pain relief. I took a chemistry class at UAF and learned that willows and aspirin have the same chemical compound. I thought that was the coolest thing and to this day I get excited about that story.
I’ve also learned that science can explain a lot, but so can Elders. Who can argue with thousands of years of knowledge that is inherited through storytelling. History is important.


I love science, but I have recently gotten into photography. I am a beginner and I am having so much fun learning. I think I am driving my family crazy with all the pictures, but I do not care. I cannot wait until I am good at it. Someone told me the first year I will be taking crappy picture, so I am being patient with myself.



What an inspirational story of an Athascan woman in science. I’m proud of my cousin. Baasee’ Starr!

Alaska life, Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Harvesting Old Man’s Beard with Pat Frank

Pat Frank (Deg Hit’an Athabascan). Photo by Angela Gonzalez

I got a chance to tag along with Pat Frank (Deg Hit’an Athabascan) from Holy Cross and Anchorage as he harvested Old Man’s Beard for the first time. People in Alaska have harvested from the lands and waters for thousands of years. More and more people are relearning harvesting plants for medicinal purposes.

Pat has been learning about traditional plants medicines and healing for quite a few years. I was fortunate to spend an afternoon with him, his wife, Linda, and a couple family friends north of Anchorage on the Park’s Highway. He was harvesting usnea, also known as Old Man’s Beard. It’s a lichen that grows on trees and shrubs. We saw them growing on spruce trees and some other trees. It really looks like an old man’s beard.

Pat believes it has similar medicinal properties to spruce pitch. He makes spruce pitch salve and uses it to heal cuts on himself and it has even helped with cuts on dogs. He learned about spruce pitch medicine from friends in Fort Yukon.

Pat shared stories and advice about how to approach harvesting with respect. Every area has gatekeepers and spirit keepers of the land. Before he goes into the land he always asks permission, and also asks the animals to enter their domain. When he harvests any plants, he always offers something like rock sage as a form of respect to the land. When he offers it, he says, “This is for the healing for our people. Thank you for giving up your medicine for our people.”

What Pat learned from his mentor is that you also have to have the right positive frame of mind when you are harvesting the plant, while you’re preparing it, even when you’re using it. He even prays the day before to make sure it’s going to be a good experience.
According to Pat, sometimes the plants speak to you or call to you. When you are called to a plant, he recommends doing research to learn more it. If you can’t find it in a book or online, then reach out to Elders to get the oral history. When exploring new plants, he quiets his mind and asks, “Can you show me the best medicine that’s going to heal my body?” It’s like saying a prayer.
“If you have more respect for the plants and animals they’ll in turn be more abundant to you.” – Pat Frank (Deg Hit’an Athabascan)
It was great to learn a little bit about how to approach harvesting. I enjoy learning more from Elders, because they have so much to share and teach. Elders always have great advice with multiple meanings. I learned that we should be careful, have good intentions, learn as much as you can before harvesting, and only take what you need – which is great advice that can be applied to many other things in life.
As he was researching Old Man’s Beard, he saw a video of a guy demonstrating how it really looks like a beard. We had a good laugh as he demonstrated it. Gotta love our Elders sense of humor! We joked about him being Santa Claus.
Pat Frank having fun showing his Old Man’s Beard. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Enaa baasee’ to Pat Frank for sharing his wisdom and teachings about harvesting plants from the land!

Alaska life, Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Boating Stories by Sterling DeWilde

Yamaha motor repaired on boat. Photo by Sterling Dewilde

My friends, cousins and other relatives often share awesome stories on social media. Here’s a story from my cousin, Sterling DeWilde (Koyukon Athabascan) of Huslia and Fairbanks. He grew up mostly in camp outside of Huslia with his late parents, Lloyd and Amelia DeWilde. I always loved listening to my late Aunt Amelia’s stories, and I’m glad Sterling is continuing the tradition. He agreed to share his story below.

“I got my 70 hp Yamaha running and mounted on my 24’ flat-bottom Rhyancraft. It’s fully equipped with hydraulic trim and power lift. Thank you Norvin DeWilde for the lift and Ricko DeWilde for the boat 😁. This was my first motor I ever owned back when I was at home on the North Fork. It has a 60 hp cowling. It hasn’t been run in over ten years. It sat in Huslia a while then I shipped it up here and haven’t looked it over since.

Yamaha motor repaired. Photo by Sterling Dewilde

It needed some serious work on several electrical systems and the carburetors/linkages needed tuning. It fired up in just a few cranks and runs smooth now. I put it on my dad’s 24’ allweld after his Honda 30 hp broke down, during some of our last years on the homestead. His boat was rated for a 45 hp but handled the 70 like it was meant for it. I used to rip the 120 miles of the Huslia and North for rivers, between our camp and Huslia, in about three hours.

That narrow boat would handle the sharp turns of the skinny North Fork at full speed. Once, I drove from our camp to Huslia and back, then back to Huslia, all in the same day. Then I drove back to camp in the morning. Mom, Amelia, seemed to be pleased with me making the frequent trips. She actually helped me make excuses on a few occasion.

Even though mom wasn’t going along most of the time, I always brought mail, food stuffs, movies, and local news with me. She was real social and I think it made her feel that much more connected. I’d go on the journey for just about any ol’ reason at all. Pops was always like, ‘What, another trip? You just got here.’ But he knew mom was all for it, so he didn’t argue, so long as I covered gas and he didn’t have to fix anything.

The best trip I ever had on that river, I drove down from camp and ran some errands then loaded up the boat for the return that same day. I knew there was a full moon and a clear night coming, so I left Huslia late. About 2/3 the way up it was too dark to see, so I stopped at a well-used camp spot called Birch Hill and had a fire and made tea and chilled.

A couple hours later, the moon came out, then I took off again. The moon lit the water up like bright silver and I could read everything on the surface like I had magic goggles on. The channel stood out like a monochrome sonogram. The dark surroundings made it seem like I was racing through a galactic speedway; it was truly magnificent and utterly exhilarating.

I think that may have contributed to my love for boat racing; the very first time I hopped in “Jen Jen” with Bill Page, to be his bow-man, I was hooked. I will forever be grateful for the experiences he has showed me and the support he’s given. After dog racing, I think I would have been pretty glum, had I not had a fast summer sport to fill the void.”

Enaa baasee’ to my cousin, Sterling DeWilde, for sharing this story on the Athabascan Woman Blog!

Sterling Dewilde and his daughter enjoying a boat ride. Photo by Sterling DeWilde

P.S. If you would like to share a short story like this, go to the Contact page to reach me or message me on Facebook.

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 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.