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!

Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Koyukuk River Fish Camp Memories

I grew up in a village along the Koyukuk River in Alaska. We went to fish camp every summer from the time school got out to the time it started up again. When I was a kid, I missed playing with my friends in Huslia when I was in fish camp. As I look back, the summers spent at camp were some of my best memories. I had the most fun with my family and cousins.

Fish Camp in 1980
Cousins in 1980 in fish camp. Photo by Eleanor Yatlin

We worked hard all summer on fishing. We set a fish net and checked it once or twice a day. My parents, aunts, uncles and older kids cut fish. The younger kids would also learn how to cut fish too. Younger kids helped by hanging fish, carrying water, and gathering wood. Cooking was also a big part of being in camp. We all had to chip in to make sure everyone was fed.

We had to help take care of each other. Older kids took care of babies while the adults were cutting fish. We cut fish for the winter ahead. If we were lucky enough to get king salmon, my parents would be sure to bring some back for the Elders in Huslia. My dad was a dog musher, so we had to make sure to store plenty of fish for the dogs over the winter too.

We had to keep the camp clean and cut grass and brush. Cutting the grass helped to cut down on the mosquitoes and gnats. We slept in mosquito nets at night, ones made by my mom and grandmother. I loved the fabric and netting my mom used and remember daydreaming and reading under mosquito nets.

The summers were pretty hot in the interior. We didn’t have refrigerators or freezers in camp. My late grandmother, Lydia Simon, kept a couple bags of frozen meat in the ground. We would replenish the supply every couple of weeks when we went to town. We stored food in a big wooden box to keep it dry and cool.

Lydia Simon and grandchildren in camp in 1980s
My late grandma, Lydia Simon, loved to play cards and hang out with her grandchildren. Pictured with her are Soloman, Johnnie and Josephine. Taken in fish camp in the early 1990s by Angela Gonzalez

Grandma Lydia would yell, “Who wants sookanee?!” We would all say, “Me, meeee!” Sookanee means pancakes or bread in Koyukon Athabascan. [I’m not sure how to spell it correctly. I know a lot of words in Athabascan, but not necessarily how to spell them.] My grandmother made the best sourdough pancakes and fry bread. In late July, we would start to pick high bush cranberries. We ate pancakes with syrup or high bush berry jam. We ate a lot of salmon and whitefish all summer.

We would get excited when we heard a boat or airplane and would compete to see who heard them first. We would yell in camp, “First one to hear boat!” or “First one to hear airplane!” Small distractions and games kept us busy. We played card games, dice and other games. My parents played cribbage in the late evenings after they settled down for the day.

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

Everyone worked hard in camp and had a role. With the hard work, we also had a lot of fun. We washed the boat every two weeks on a nice day. We got to go swimming. Then, we would sometimes go for a boat ride. My dad would bring us on little adventures when we went for boat rides. We would get mountain water from down river and use it for coffee and tea.

We had visitors in camp every once in awhile. They would spend a few hours or a few days with us. It was good to have visitors. We would hear the latest news from town and sometimes they brought us fresh food or new magazines or books.

I remember playing under the cut bank in the summer. My sisters and cousins made elaborate Barbie mansions out of mud and sand. We played for hours. We climbed trees. The boys had boats carved out of driftwood. The boat would be tied to a string and stick and they had fun making their boats “cruise” in the water.

My grandma made grass dolls and dresses out of grass heads and fabric. She would sew little clothes on them for us. She made a few more like this to sell. The clothes were made out of moose skin and beading. I think they were like $400 or more each. We were lucky we got some to play with. She was a master sewer and beadworker.

We had a couple small cabins and a couple tents that we stayed in. My parents had oil lamps that we used sparingly in the evening to get a little bit of reading time in. We took turns reading comics, books, and magazines. They were worn out by the end of the summer.

We listened to radio all summer. The song of one summer was “Abracadabra” by the Steve Miller Band. Everyone sang along when they heard that song and other popular ones. There was no TV in camp, so we relied on the radio for news. If there was an emergency or someone wanted to reach us from the village, they would send a message over the radio.

We did not go to town very often, and when we did, we took turns going. My parents made sure to bring us to town to spend the Fourth of July holiday in Huslia. There were all sorts of fun festivities for the Fourth of July. We got in all of the races and games for our age levels. After those few days, we headed back to camp.

Mom and dad and kids in 2007
My parents, Al and Eleanor Yatlin, spend as much time in fish camp with their grandchildren, nieces and nephews as possible. Photo take in 2007 by Angela Gonzalez

It wasn’t an easy life, but summers spent in fish camp were some of the best times in my life. I learned how to work hard, to live off the land, and how to have fun. I treasure the stories my grandmother told us throughout the summer. I have a great appreciation for my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncle and wonder how they did it. I try to bring my family back to camp once a year. My oldest daughter spends the summers with her grandparents and gets to spend time in camp. I hope to teach my children some of the important lessons I learned along the Koyukuk River.


Athabascan Spiritual Beliefs About Hunting, Fishing and Gathering

Eleanor Yatlin hanging shee fish. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Eleanor Yatlin hanging shee fish. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Koyukon Athabascan people have spiritual beliefs about hunting, fishing and gathering.  I have grown up with a few that I still believe and follow. While there are many similarities of beliefs, there are also many differences among Athabascans. This is what I learned growing up along the Koyukuk River. I was raised to respect the land, animals and hunters from a young age.

When you go out hunting, you wouldn’t say, “I’m going out moose hunting.” You wouldn’t want to give yourself bad luck by assuming that you are going to get a moose or other animals. That is paying respect to the animals. If you do get a moose when you go home, you do not brag about it. You don’t want to give yourself bad luck the following year.

Bear grazing by Angela Gonzalez
Bear grazing by Angela Gonzalez

Girls in my family were not allowed to step over clothes, hunting tools and other items belonging to men and boys. Girls are not allowed to look at bears, talk about them or eat bear meat. If we did need to talk about it, we referred to them as ‘big animals’. The only women who were able to say the name or eat  bear meat are older women. If you did any of the taboo things, you would be wishing them bad luck in hunting and other activities.

I remember thinking it was so unfair that the boys got all of the respect. I had chores of dishes, cooking and cleaning. I challenged my mom several times about the belief over the years. Her response was that it was hutla’nee (taboo). The boys had to do some chores inside the house, but most of them were outside, like chopping wood, feeding the dogs, picking up dog poop, and cleaning the yard.

Aunt Dorothy and Janessa picking blueberries near Huslia in 2006. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Aunt Dorothy and Janessa picking blueberries near Huslia in 2006. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Looking back on it, I see that we did the same amount of work, but the chores were just different. My parents and grandparents grew up in a different time. Survival was important and a daily thing. I see now that young boys and men had to be able to pick up and go out hunting at a moment’s notice. Their hunting gear needed to be in good working order. Their clothes, especially warm gear, had to be clean, dry and hung up in a place they could find it right away.

Girls also went out hunting, and if they did, they were just as well taken care of. Women had to be providers too. Boys were raised to hunt and provide for a family. That is no easy feat. If they didn’t learn how, that means there would be no food on the table. Hunting and gathering is a year-round business, and a lot of work.

We pick blueberries, blackberries, salmon berries, rasberries, high- and low-bush cranberries. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
We pick blueberries, blackberries, salmon berries, rasberries, high- and low-bush cranberries. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Bears a respected and a powerful animal, physically and spiritually. Bad luck was not something you want to have when you are out hunting, fishing, trapping or gathering. You respected the animals by not taking more that you needed. You respected the land by not damaging it or littering.

Shadows on the Koyukuk: An Alaskan Native’s Life Along the River by Sidney Huntington is a great book to learn more about beliefs and life of Koyukon Athabascan people.

Times are changing. We still hunt, fish and gather, but we can get store-bought food in between harvests. Some beliefs are not as strictly held as before.  Girls are participating in more hunting activities, and are providing for families in different ways too. I am finally beginning to understand some of the beliefs, but I realize I still have a lot to learn.  I see many Alaska Native people have similar cultural beliefs about respecting the land and animals.

A cow and calf moose along the Koyukuk River. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
A cow and calf moose along the Koyukuk River. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Preserving Culture

Catherine Attla and Rose Ambrose at a potlatch in Huslia in 2007. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Catherine Attla and Rose Ambrose at a potlatch in Huslia in 2007. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

I have always admired my late aunt, Catherine Attla, for carrying on oral traditions through storytelling. She has traveled all over Alaska to share traditional Koyukon Athabascan stories. When I was in my early 20’s, I watched a movie about my relatives who were putting on a traditional memorial potlatch for my late uncle Jimmy and aunt Dolly Beetus. I saw my mom, aunties, grandmother and other relatives and friends grieving for Jimmy and Dolly. Dolly was a beloved sister to my mom and aunties. The whole potlatch was filmed. Food was being prepared. Speeches were made. Visitors were greeted. There was a Koyukon Athabascan cloth dance.

I remember watching it and feeling a great sense of loss for them. I was a young kid at the time of the potlatch. I also I felt like we were losing our culture. I wrote a letter to late Aunt Catherine telling her how sad I was after I watched the video. I told her I felt like crying. The next time I saw her, she said, “Don’t feel sad, and you don’t have to cry.” It was a nice and sensible thing to say. I don’t remember what she told me after that, but she shared more stories about her life growing up.

As we grew up in Huslia, she would visit the school and share stories about hunting, fishing, trapping and how she was raised. She also told us traditional Athabascan stories, like creation stories about animals. I always looked forward to hearing her stories each year in school and when I used to visit her as a kid.

I have been thinking about those stories and about Athabascan culture recently. How can we preserve our culture and traditions?

Over the years, I have attended potlatches with my daughters. I’ve shared our traditional Athabascan culture as much as I can. Our culture can be preserved through storytelling, singing, dancing and sharing.

My girls and I at a potlatch in Huslia in 2007. Photo by Jo Derendoff
My girls and I at a potlatch in Huslia in 2007. Photo by Jo Derendoff

Practicing your culture is a way to preserve it. Native languages are still being spoken in villages across Alaska. Potlatches are being held. Subsistence hunting and fishing is still being practiced and taught to the next generation. Movies are being made about Alaska Native culture by Alaska Native people.

There is a lot of hope. I thought long ago that there was no hope for our culture. I wondered how we would and could continue to carry on our culture in today’s modern world.

I think we need to carry a message of hope to our young people. We can be a living examples. It makes Elders sad to see the loss of culture also. They are so willing to share and are waiting for us to ask. Talk to an Elder and ask them to tell you a story. Ask them to teach you a word or two in their language. Then, take it a step further and share it with your family and friends and preserve it.

American Indian / Alaska Native Heritage Month is in November. There are events around the US in celebration of our culture and heritage – contemporary and traditional. I plan on going to a couple events. I want to experience someone else’s culture. Visit the Alaska Native Heritage Center and learn about the many Alaska Native tribes across Alaska. Check out the Alaska Native arts and crafts bazaars around your community.

“Don’t feel sad, and you don’t have to cry.” – Late Catherine Attla, Koyukon Athabascan, Huslia, Alaska

Catherine Attla passed away in Huslia, Alaska on March 12, 2012. She was a true cultural treasure and an ambassador. She lived a good life. May she rest in eternal peace.  Here is an article by the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

In all of these places, you will see how culture is being preserved. Celebrate the fact that our cultures are alive and well. It is stronger than we think it is and will carry us into the future. I am going to take a firm grip this hope and work to instill it in my children. Ana Basee’ to late Catherine Attla for working all of these years to keep our culture going strong!