Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Marjorie Merry Grunin – Entrepreneur, Mom and Actress

Marjorie Merry Grunin. Courtesy photo
Marjorie Merry Grunin. Courtesy photo

I first met Marjorie Merry Grunin in 1991 when was attending the Rural Alaska Honors Institute (RAHI), a summer program at the University of Alaska – Fairbanks. She did a presentation in my class at RAHI. Marjorie was wearing a pinstriped skirt with a white blouse during her presentation. She looked like a sophisticated and confident businesswoman. Marjorie presented about business technology and marketing. Marjorie and the marketing professor, Dale Fodness, were the reasons I chose to pursue a marketing degree. At the time, she was an owner of one of the first technology companies in Fairbanks.

Marjorie has been a role model and a mentor to me. She lives and works in the Fairbanks, Alaska area with her husband two daughters. Marjorie is an accomplished businesswoman who also volunteers for organizations and causes important to her. Finding balance between her family life and career has always been like a tug-of-war for her. Marjorie’s first priority became her family after she found the person she could share her life with and have children. At that time, her career opportunities took a backseat to the needs of her family, especially when her husband was active duty and living in a tent in the Saudi desert over a six year period.

Marjorie Merry Grunin at the Cascaden Ridge overlook off of the Elliott Highway on the way to Minto. Photo courtesy of Marjorie
Marjorie Merry Grunin at the Cascaden Ridge overlook off of the Elliott Highway on the way to Minto. Photo courtesy of Marjorie

Marjorie was there for her daughters while they were young, and it was both a blessing and a sacrifice. She used that time to complete her master’s degree, studying late into the night while her daughters slept. Now that they are grown she has the ability to refocus on work with a greater time commitment. Marjorie’s job is demanding, but she tries to leave work at the office to be truly present in the family in the evenings.

One of Marjorie’s most significant challenges is one that many Alaska Native women and women in general face and that is not being taken seriously. She envisions a future for her daughters without glass ceilings, parity in pay and benefits, and the freedom to live without sexual discrimination or fear of assault.

Marjorie’s Life Lessons:

  • Give from the heart
  • Develop skills to face challenges and overcome adversity
  • Listen to understand with empathy
  • Be humbly grateful for all the gifts of this life

Marjorie has many hobbies, like painting, sewing and beading. However, she finds little time for these creative outlets at this time of my life. Instead, Marjorie finds herself retreating to the garden, nurturing plants and digging in the ground for the short time it isn’t frozen solid. Alaska winters are long and the summers are short, especially in the northern interior. Marjorie loves painting with flowers, seeing things grow and eating fresh food. She fears gardening may become an obsession because she enjoys it so much.

Marjorie loves theatre and is currently working backstage for the Fairbanks Drama Association’s production of Arsenic and Old Lace. She is the property mistress making sure all the props are in place and ready, and the stage is set for each scene. Marjorie played Blanche DuBois in Streetcar Named Desire and Mrs. Gibbs in Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Our Town. She enjoys it and says, “It takes a great deal of time, but really keeps your mind sharp!”

Marjorie’s Advice for Young People:

  • If you are young and unfettered after college, try a job that gets you out of your boots and living in a different part of the country for a bit.
  • Try new things, exotic food, new music, a new hiking trail.
  • Put yourself in places to experience other cultures, make new friends and see how you fit in a global context.
  • People don’t work for one company for thirty years anymore, what you learn in college should prepare you for many employment opportunities and the next generation will find that the ability to adapt to change is one of their greatest assets.
  • With the above in mind, make sure the road you find yourself on doesn’t keep you trapped in a rut!

Marjorie will continue to be my role model and mentor not just for her business acumen, but also for her kind and generous heart. She blows my mind with all of the knowledge she has about Alaska Native business and tribal issues. Marjorie has proven that with hard work, patience and drive, you can have it all. It’s people like Marjorie that are forging the way for other Alaska Native people, especially women.

Ana Basee’ Marjorie!

Marjorie Merry Grunin is Koyukon and Gwich’in Athabascan, and grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska. Her mother, Renee Evans Merry, was born in Rampart (a small village along the Yukon River) to Peter and Kitty Evans. Renee attended Mount Edgecumbe and became a dental assistant, which is how she met Marjorie’s father, Pete Merry. Pete was a pilot flying a Norseman on floats for Alaska Coastal when they met. He flew Renee and the dentist she was accompanying out to villages in the Aleutians. Pete later transferred to Wien and was one of a handful of pilots flying out of Barrow in the late fifties. They moved to Fairbanks in 1962, then to Anchorage when Wien moved their crews down in 1976.

Marjorie was born in Fairbanks and spent the first few years of her life in Barrow and Bettles. She and her sister, Jeannette, grew up with the Shontz girls from Barrow as their closest friends. They still have ties to Barrow and Bettles to this day. Marjorie currently lives in Fairbanks and owns property in Rampart, where she fishes subsistence with her family.

Marjorie served as a director for her village corporation, Baan o yeel kon Corporation, for a number of years and in 2004 was recognized as Shareholder of the Year. Marjorie is the General Manager of Minto Development Corporation, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Seth’De’Ya’Ah Corporation (the ANCSA village corporation for the federally recognized Native Village of Minto). In addition, she also is the owner of Perspicacity Contract Services since 2003. Prior to that, she gained extensive administrative experience working for a number of companies in Alaska, Nebraska and California. Marjorie has more than 28 years of management experience.

Marjorie is a former Vestry Board Member for St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church and a member of the Bishop’s Finance Committee for the Episcopal Diocese of Alaska. She also served as the Hospice of the Tanana Valley Board of Directors. Marjorie currently serves as a member of the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce Urban & Rural Affairs Committee.  She went to school outside and holds a Bachelor’s in Political Science from the University of Nebraska and a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Colorado, Graduate School of Public Affairs.

Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Enaa – My Athabascan Mother

My enaa is Eleanor Yatlin. Enaa means mother in Koyukon Athabascan. My mother was born in late Sammy and Sophie Sam’s winter camp near Huslia, Alaska. She is Koyukon Athabascan. Her parents were the late Edwin and Lydia Simon. Her paternal grandparents were Simon and Julia Simon. Her maternal grandparents were Francis and Christine Olin. She was raised in Huslia and married my father, Al Yatlin, Sr., and they raised six children. She stayed home to raise her children Sharon, Angela (me), Tanya, Al Jr., Solomon and Johnnie. She and my dad celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary this year.

Eleanor Yatlin scrapes a moose hide. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Eleanor Yatlin scrapes a moose hide. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

My mother taught us many lessons growing up. One lesson I learned was to work hard at whatever you are doing. She taught us how to cook, do beadwork, cut fish, start a fire, keep a fire going, get prepared for a picnic, boat ride or camping. I remember how we had to wake up early to get ready to go on an outing. We had to rush around for at least a couple of hours. I remember being tired and annoyed, but was always grateful when we had a sandwich and snacks ready to eat. With so many of us, we had to work together.

Mom was like a drill sergeant and knew what needed to be done and prepared. If one of us forgot something, she knew who forgot it and reminded them again. We were always comfortable because she helped us to prepare. She made us dress up warm and fed us well. It feels so good to be comfortable out in the wild. Even though it was hard work to prepare for something, mom taught us the value of being prepared. If we got hungry or cold, it wasn’t because she didn’t warn us. It was because we didn’t listen to her. I’m probably the same way to my kids now and they probably get annoyed with me (smile). However, I don’t see them complaining when they are warm, dry and fed.

Parkas made by Eleanor Yatlin 2012
Eleanor Yatlin sewed fur-lined parkas for her grandchildren, Johnnie, Talia and Nikolai. Photo by Dolly Yatlin

My mother taught the girls how to bead necklaces, earrings, barrettes and boots. She taught us how to repair torn moose/caribou boots. I don’t remember how to do everything and am not very good at them. My mom is also a great quilter and has an eye for patterns. She has sewed quilts for her each of her grandchildren. Mom and my sister, Tanya, have worked together to sew kids parkas over the years.

Eleanor Yatlin cutting fish 6-11
My mother, Eleanor Yatlin, taught her kids, neices and nephews how to cut fish over the past 40 years. Photo taken in 2011 by Angela Gonzalez

Mom taught us how to cut fish at camp during the summers. I consider her ability to fillet a salmon an art. She was always careful and reverent when working on fish. She and the rest of the family had to work hard for every pound of fish we caught. She would work hard all day and still have energy to cut fish. She loves cutting fish. We had to take good care of her fish by keeping the fire going in the smokehouse. We had to hang them up and we were not allowed to drop it or get it dirty. She makes really good eating fish, whether it is half-dried or dried completely or frozen.

She loves to pick berries in late summer. She saves them for dessert over the winter or to give away at community events. My sister, Sheri, loves to pick berries too. My mother taught us how to cook for the family. As teenagers, we took turns cooking dinner each night. My mom always had us baking something once a week. Baking isn’t my favorite activity, but the memories of learning how and spending time with my mom and sisters stays with me. I’m grateful my mom taught us how to cook moose meat soup and how to bake fish. I now cook soup and bake fish for my family.

As you can see, my mother taught us a lot. I admire her knowledge of the Koyukon Athabascan culture, beliefs and language and her ability to teach and share it. I probably get my love of photography from her. She recently had a minor stroke and my family was pretty scared. She is recovering and doing well in Huslia.

Ana basee’ Enaa! Thank you Mother!

Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Native Cousins

My (now) friend, Loretta, sent me a Facebook friend request thinking I was her cousin. That was about two years. We ran into each other last weekend and we talked for a bit and parted ways. Her dad was at the event too. Loretta talked with her dad and told him that she ran into me (her ‘cousin’). He told her that we weren’t cousins after all. Loretta found me and she told me that she thought I was her cousin all this time. We laughed about it!

I didn’t know that she thought I was her cousin all this time. I told her that we can be cousins. Ha ha! Apparently, I have the same first name as her real cousin and I also look like her. I’m always glad for more friends.

Angela, Tanya and Michelle
Cousins Angela, Tanya and Michelle visited in Anchorage last year.

Being from a small Alaska Native village, I’m used to having lots of cousins and extended family. I come from a big family with five siblings. My late aunt had 14 children. That is not to mention all of the second cousins. I basically have relatives all up and down the Koyukuk River and in the interior.

I once told a colleague about what one of my cousins was doing. Then in another time I told him about another cousin. He said, “Angela, everyone is your cousin!”

Cousins collage
Top: Cousins Gloria and Tanya. Bottom: Michelle and Angela. Photos taken in the early 1990’s.

Some of my best friends are my cousins. I’ve gone on so many adventures with them. They are like my sisters and brothers. We are spread all over the place, but still connected. We tease each other. Some of us aren’t technically cousins, like I’m their aunt or they are mine. We consider ourselves cousins because we are close in age.

I once won a dance contest with my late cousin, Hudson Jr. It was a rock and roll dance contest. Fun times!

One of my first cousins is my adopted sister, Tanya. Our aunts and uncles help raise their nephews and nieces. Native families help each other out.

Simon cousins
My daughter and I visited with my first cousins, Wendy and Olin.

My mom always made sure to tell me who my cousins and relatives were, because we weren’t allowed to date them. Just saying this makes me laugh. I was pretty much not allowed to date anyone on the Koyukuk River.

All kidding aside, I consider some of my cousins are like a sister or brother to me and some are my lifelong friends. I don’t see them as much as I used to, but we manage to stay in contact. It is great to see what they are up to and what they have accomplished in life. Some of them are engineers, nurses, teachers, tribal leaders, and more. I’m proud of them. I love my cousins!

Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Edwin Bifelt – The Power in Not Giving Up

Edwin Bifelt earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Photo courtesy of Edwin Bifelt
Edwin Bifelt earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Photo courtesy of Edwin Bifelt

Edwin Bifelt is Koyukon Athabascan from Huslia, and currently living in Fairbanks. His parents are Fred and Audrey Bifelt of Huslia, and he has three sisters and two brothers. His paternal grandparents were the late Cue and Madeline Bifelt of Huslia. His maternal grandparents are Alfred and Helen Attla of Hughes.

Edwin graduated from the Jimmy Huntington School in Huslia and earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In a few months, he will earn his master’s degree in business administration. Not only is Edwin earning his MBA, he is also working full-time at a growing Alaska Native village corporation. Since 2009, Edwin has been the Shareholder Relations and Land Manager for K’oyitl’ots’ina, Limited in Fairbanks. Edwin is a shareholder of K’oyitl’ots’ina, Limited, which is the village corporation for Huslia, Hughes, Allakaket and Alatna. He finds his work rewarding because K’oyitl’ots’ina works toward the betterment of the lives of its shareholders through dividends, benefits and jobs.

As you can see, Edwin is already an accomplished young man at 28 years old. I am always impressed with young Alaska Native people who are obtaining their education. I asked Edwin about his biggest challenges in life, and found that his life has not been an easy road. As a teenager, he committed a serious crime that has had lasting effects. Edwin is not proud of it. After severely injuring another teenager at a party, he was convicted of a felony. Although it is difficult for him to discuss, he hopes his story may help teens (and adults) from rural Alaska who may have or are going through a similar situation.

Edwin wants teenagers and everyone to understand the potential consequences of committing crimes:

  • Something can happen very quickly but once it happens it cannot be undone. Life is precious and can be gone in a second.
  • A criminal conviction is something that shows up on every job application.
  • The federal government will not hire you if you have a felony. In addition, you most likely cannot get security clearance to work on federal projects.
  • When most employers see a felony conviction your chances of being considered go down significantly.
  • As a felon, and some misdemeanors, you cannot use or possess firearms for the rest of your life (unless the conviction is expunged after 10 years). If you are caught with firearms, you can get a federal felony conviction. Hunting and subsistence are a part of every Alaska Native and rural Alaskan’s life so the effects of that are enormous.

The list above mostly includes legal consequences, but there are also emotional consequences. Edwin has to live with his regret of his actions on that one fateful night. Edwin says, “The crimes may affect the person or people we hurt more then we will ever know, and maybe sometime we may go through similar hurt as karma.”

However, Edwin learned from many extended family members not to use this as an excuse to give up.

“We owe it to family and friends, the ones we hurt by our crimes, and ourselves to better ourselves and lead a productive life. My advice for those convicted of crimes is to keep moving forward and keep trying. Even if you can’t achieve some goals, there are others that can be realized that are just as rewarding.” -Edwin Bifelt

Aside from dealing with the consequences of his crime, I asked Edwin how he balances working and going to school full-time. He works during the day and goes to school in the evenings. He catches up on sleep on the weekends. Edwin decided that obtaining his education is worth the sacrifice away from his home and family and is working hard to graduate in May. He says, “Everyone – from Michael Jordan, Warren Buffet and Steve Jobs, to our elders, village leaders and Native corporation leaders – put in a lot of hard work to learn their trade and become competent.”

Edwin’s advice for students:

  • Working and going to school means you have to plan and prioritize.
  • Keep track of your daily chores and deadlines.
  • Try to be efficient but still do a good job.
  • Make time for exercise or outdoor work because it can refresh you when you’re tired.
  • For those that want to get a college degree (whether associate’s, bachelor’s, or graduate), it’s important to keep making progress. Those that don’t give up will graduate. Even if you fail classes just keep trying.
  • Avoid getting a lot of student loans, if possible. Keep your debt down because even after you finish school it can still take time to find a well-paying job.
  • Apply for as many scholarships as you can and keep track of scholarship deadlines.
  • When choosing a degree, be sure to research jobs and industries that best fit that degree. Picking a high paying job is always great, but whatever degree you choose make sure it’s something you enjoy and can see yourself doing for a long time.

The time and commitment takes a toll on family members, including his girlfriend, Annette. She has always supported Edwin and been there through the tough times. Edwin says, “It’s important to continue to give family members as much support and attention in their lives as they give in yours.” He says the support from his family, friends and mentors has been critical to his success.

Edwin has learned that you need consistent effort and hard work to succeed in anything you do. You also need to learn from older generations and veterans in your industry. You can gain valuable knowledge from them. Edwin says it is important to be humble and respectful.

“Alaska Native culture embodies a lot of these principles and more, so stay true to your cultural practices and principles and you can be successful in any area.” -Edwin Bifelt

Edwin rides with his nephew, Miles, in the fall time on the Koyukuk River near Huslia. Photo courtesy of Edwin Bifelt
Edwin rides with his nephew, Miles, in the fall time on the Koyukuk River near Huslia. Photo courtesy of Edwin Bifelt

Edwin enjoys basketball, baseball, running and snowshoeing. He also enjoys hunting and being outdoors, especially in the fall time for moose hunting with his dad or brother-in-law, DJ. It is hard to be away from home, because you miss out on learning about cultural practices, outdoor survival and subsistence activities.

Edwin hopes to be successful in helping with rural Alaska’s many economic problems, and believes the working with Alaska Native corporations are one way of reaching that goal. Upon graduation, he hopes to remain with his current company, but is open to other opportunities around Alaska and the Lower 48. Edwin and Annette hope to start a family in the future.

Edwin knows he has a long way to go and a lot more experience to earn, but he is making progress one step at a time. The fact is, we all have challenges in our lives and we have all made mistakes. He says, “Everyone has goals or dreams and I know it can be easy to give up on those dreams because of your past, but its important to never lose hope.” It is inspiring to see that Edwin has not given up and has made the most of his second chance.

Update:  Learn more about Edwin’s latest endeavor, Zane Hills Capital at

Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Sharon Hildebrand – A Positive Role Model

Sharon Hildebrand. Courtesy photo
Sharon Hildebrand. Courtesy photo

I recently ran into an old friend, Sharon Hildebrand, at a meeting in Anchorage. It was great to see her. Although we grew up in different communities, we were connected through the Yukon-Koyukuk School District and mutual friends. I have always admired Sharon’s sense of humor, outlook on life, and her ability to face and overcome adversity.

Sharon Hildebrand (Koyukon Athabascan) is originally from Nulato, and currently living in Fairbanks. She was raised by her Grandmother Ellen Peters along the Yukon River with two other cousins in the traditional manner of living off the land.

I am impressed with Sharon’s personal and professional accomplishments. Years ago, Sharon was a single mother who needed to support her young son. With limited resources and opportunities, she made the difficult decision to leave her hometown of Nulato. Sharon arrived in Fairbanks with her son and just a duffel bag. At first she was not sure what she was going to do, but living in Fairbanks provided her with the network to build a career and to raise a family.

Since living in Fairbanks, Sharon married Vernon Hildebrand, and had two more sons. Her husband is the one who encouraged her to follow her dream and pursue her educational goals. Sharon will be a first generation college graduate from her Grandmother’s family, graduating with a B.A. in Alaska Native Studies with a concentration on Alaska Native Law, Government and Politics in December 2013.

When I asked Sharon about her previous jobs, she had held various positions with Native profit and non-profit organizations. However, Sharon made the decision to go to school full-time and focus fully on her studies. It is a juggling act to manage being a mother, wife, student, employee, business owner and contributing community member. Sharon also works part-time for her regional corporation, while taking her classes in the afternoon, and the completion of her contract work is done in the evenings and weekends. She is persevering and learning valuable time management skills.

Upon graduation from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), Sharon plans to attend law school. Eventually, Sharon would like to be involved with the processes involved with implementing laws that effect Alaska Native communities as a whole. Sharon is honored to be receiving the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Joan Hamilton Memorial scholarship as Joan’s same values of living off the land and respect for culture and others are also dear to Sharon’s heart.

The Joan Hamilton Memorial Scholarship is awarded to a post-secondary school Alaska student who wishes to pursue a career related to the law in which s/he will advocate for Alaska Native rights, and defend the civil liberties of the peoples of rural Alaska.

Sharon believes in supporting her community. Over the years, she volunteered for a number of organizations in Fairbanks and Nulato, including the Fairbanks Native Association, World Eskimo-Indian Olympics and Get Out the Vote. Sharon founded and organized the Miss Nika’ghun Traditional Pageant in Nulato in 2006 and 2007. She completed the Doyon Management Training program in 2011. Sharon is currently a paralegal at Doyon, Limited. In that capacity, she has worked on the annual report, researched Alaska Native Corporations and supported Get Out The Native Vote initiatives.

Hildebrand family in Nulato
Hildebrand family in Nulato

Sharon manages to keep her family and culture in the forefront. She has incorporated her culture into her life by starting an Athabascan singing and dancing group, called Downriver Singers. They meet regularly at someone’s home or at the school to sing Native songs. Sharon also makes it a point to travel back to Nulato for fishing season as well as involve her sons with moose hunting as a family.

When I asked Sharon what advice she had for young people, she said: Think long term, 5 years or 10 years down the line where you would like to see yourself.

“This will become your roadmap of your goals and will guide and lead you toward your final goal. If you compare it to the age of a child, 4 years of education is not that much and it goes by so quickly. It’s okay to make mistakes as long as you learn from your mistakes. Mistakes are good, that means you are growing. Get back up and try again, also find a mentor who you can look up to. I currently have two and they have helped to solidify my goals and where I see myself in the future.”

Sharon also runs each morning before work and lives has lived an alcohol-free lifestyle now for two years this May. Running provides her an outlet to gain more energy, meditate and be with herself for a moment during the busy day. Being alcohol-free has provided her more time and energy for her sons and homework. Sharon also said, “If along the way you see that you are interested in something else, go for it! For only you know exactly what you want. Go with your heart’s calling and your goals will all fall in line with your true calling in life.”

Thank you to Sharon Hildebrand for being a positive role model!