Alaska Native culture

Dog Mushing Traditions in Alaska

My friend, Michelle Sam of Alatna, recently reminded me of a funny story of going for a sled dog ride in Bettles. It was over 20 years ago, but we still laugh about it!

“Remember taking the dogs out that one time? We got near home and were tipping over like crazy! One time after the other. The dogs were still full of energy. As we got near the dog lot, they were cruising around every corner. Maybe there were no corners! I was in the sled and we tipped and you were dragging. I fell off and you got back on and I was on the handle bars then we tipped over again and I was dragging and you fell off and I had to catch up. We were laughing a lot!” -Michelle Sam

My dad, Al Yatlin, Sr., was a dog musher. I think he had the most dogs when we lived in Bettles. He’s been in many local and regional dog races. We all helped in one way or the other, whether it was feeding,  watering, picking up poop, catching them if they got loose or helping to train them.

The Fur Rondy, North American, Yukon Quest and Iditarod sled dog races were always a big thing in our household. It was comparable to watching the Super Bowl! My dad keeps track of each the times at each check point and analyzes the times. Everyone had to be quiet when there was a race update on TV or radio. If my dad was out, we had to write the times down for him.

Andrea Swingley (@akswingley) mushing in the Limited North American Sled Dog Race in Fairbanks

I love watching sled dog races. Andrea Swingley of Fairbanks races in the Limited North American in Fairbanks, Alaska in March 2013. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

“Dog talk” is what we refer to as a conversation about dogs. We heard a lot of dog talk over the years with dad and friends and fellow mushers. They would discuss the diet, training techniques, harnesses, sleds, stories along the trails and much more. It puts a smile on my face when I hear dog talk.

Huslia is a pretty well known town for dog mushers. “Huslia Husler” is what dog mushers were known as back them. George Attla II gained an international reputation as a champion sprint dog musher. There were other mushers who ran the Iditarod. Dog mushing goes way back as a form of transportation in Alaska. Huslia still holds local sled dog races for all ages. I’ve enjoyed many races over the years. I even got in the five dog race and won one year.

I know how hard the mushers and their families work to raise and race their dogs. It is a huge commitment. It is also rewarding to your mind and body. Taking care and running your dogs requires a lot of physical work and keeps you in shape. It also keeps your mind busy.
Marvin Kokrine #7

Marvin Kokrine (Athabascan) runs in the Fur Rondy in Anchorage, Alaska in February 2013. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

I don’t own any dogs, but I enjoy watching sled dog racing. There is an excitement in the air during race times. It is something to look forward to in the winter and gets me out of the house. My dad no longer raises a dog team, but he volunteers during race times and with a dog mushing program in Huslia.

Downtown Fairbanks comes alive during the Open North American Championship Sled Dog Race. Kudos to the dog mushers, families, fans, supporters, sponsors and the dogs!

Alaska Native culture

Learning From Elders

I am often saddened by the loss of my Koyukon Athabascan culture, traditions and language, and not being able to pass ‘everything’ to my children. Theoretically, I would like to learn the Koyukon Athabascan language, but it seems overwhelming to try to learn it on my own. There are more speakers and resources in the interior. I know a lot of words in Koyukon, but I don’t know how to speak or write it out.

My dad’s work as an electronics technician brought us to a lot of different places around Alaska. We’ve lived in Nenana, Huslia, Galena, Fort Yukon, Nome and Bettles. My grandparents visited sometimes in the various places we lived. I treasured the time that I spent with them. Nowadays, some of my grandparents have passed away. Since I live in Anchorage, I don’t get to spend as much time with my grandparents. We consider our grandparent’s siblings our grandparents as well (vs. great aunt or uncle).

Hoar frost on trees in Anchorage in January 2012. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Hoar frost on trees in Anchorage in January 2012. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Despite where we live or how far away we are from our culture, I think that there are ways we can hang on to it by learning it from an Elder. I sometimes give my elder relatives a ride when they come to Anchorage, so I have an opportunity to learn something from them. A couple of years ago, I gave a ride to my uncle Tony Sam, Sr. and late aunt Emily. It was a cold winter day and the trees had frost on them. Uncle Tony told me when the trees get frost on them, it means a cold spell might be coming. He told me the  Koyukon Athabascan word, but I don’t remember it. The word means the tree is putting on a warm parka. I always think about that story when I see frost on the trees.

What’s one thing you can learn from an Elder today?

Preserving our culture does not have to be this huge and insurmountable task. You can learn and practice your culture in little ways. I was talking to a friend, Emily Gray of Allakaket, about it last month. I asked her about one thing she learned from an Elder recently. She said, “I learned that you have to pray in our language. It is more powerful.” I think Emily is going to learn how to do that. You can learn your culture by asking people about it. Call up your friends and relatives or visit them and start asking questions.

Angela recently visited with her grandparents Bill and Madeline Williams of Hughes.
Angela recently visited with her grandparents Bill and Madeline Williams of Hughes.

My grandmother, Madeline Williams, teaches in Hughes. She has raised all of her kids plus one of her grand kids. I was talking to her about this subject and she had some advice to parents. Grandma Madeline said, “Some parents are afraid to tell their kids what to do. How else are they going to learn?” I think she meant that we as parents might expect kids to know how to do things or learn on their own. For example, if we want our kids to know how to cut fish, we have to show them and let them do it. Last year, Grandma Madeline worked on a digital story with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC).

ANTHC helps to produce digital stories focused on health and wellness education. Producing your own digital stories are a great way to preserve your traditions, cultures, and a little piece of your history.

A few years ago, the University of Alaska Fairbanks produced Raven’s Story with KIYU radio in Galena. The stories are from elders from the interior. I try to listen to them every once in a while, sometimes just to hear their voices. I learn something new each time.

I shared a story about growing up in fish camp for Arctic Entries in December. Preparing for the event helped me to remember things. I talked with my family and asked them about their favorite memories from camp. You can listen to the audio recording here. It was great to reminisce about the old days.

You can learn a little bit along the way. Each week, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner has a feature called, Athabascan Word of the Week. Susan Paskvan (Koyukon Athabascan) is the main contributor of the feature. Learn about how to say food in this week’s Athabascan Word of the Week.

A friend, Albert Chacon, is preserving traditions and cultures by producing documentaries on bird singing. He has been working on a documentary called, “We Are Birds“. Over the past few years, we’ve discussed the need to preserve our cultures. You can follow Albert and his work here and on Twitter at @CaliNDN.

Preserving our traditions, cultures and language can be done by learning, practicing and sharing. Learning can be done in little bits here and there. There are so many different ways to preserve culture and traditions, including voice recordings, documentaries, writing, storytelling, photography, artwork, researching your family tree, and digital stories, etc. I am far from being fully versed in Koyukon Athabascan cultures, traditions and the language, but I will learn more and teach my children what I know and what I’ve learned along the way.

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.