Athabascan in the Spotlight

Athabascan in the Spotlight – Alberta John

Albert and Paul John. Photo courtesy of Alberta John
Alberta and Paul John. Photo courtesy of Alberta John

This summer, the Athabascan Woman Blog is featuring an Athabascan in the Spotlight. Thank you to Paul John (Koyukon Athabascan) for nominating his wife, Alberta (Tritt) John. Alberta John is Lakota Sioux and Gwich’in Athabascan who was born and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska. Her mother, Grace Simon, is originally from McIntosh, South Dakota and transplanted to Alaska in the 1970s. Alberta’s maternal grandparents are Charles and Emma VillageCenter. Alberta’s father, William Tritt, Sr., is originally from Ft. Yukon, Alaska. He was adopted to Rev. Paul Tritt, Sr. and Julia Tritt of Venetie, Alaska. Alberta is an Administrative Assistant in the transportation industry. Alberta and her husband, Paul, own Dineega Clothing, an Alaska Native apparel company based in Fairbanks. Alberta’s Lakota name is Uŋžiŋžiŋtka hu oblaye uŋ, which means Prairie Rose of Flat Lands.

In this interview, Alberta shares her story of her family and how to deal with grief.

Interview with Alberta John:

I am the oldest girl with five brothers and eight (now seven) sisters. My late sister, April, and I were close; she was two years younger than me, so she was my first best friend in life. We did so many things together. We helped our parents with our younger siblings.  We shared a lot of laughter and tears. We loved to plan family cookouts and coordinated lunch dates. We both shared a love of books and adventures, and ultimately we planned her last days together. My siblings and I were all there to help her when she needed us and fortunate for us her spirit lives on through her children. A wonderful and loving mother, she leaves behind two sons and a daughter. We all remain a close-knit family and we will ensure that her legacy lives on.

Lakota Naming Gathering. Photo courtesy of Alberta John
Lakota Naming Gathering. Photo courtesy of Alberta John

In October 2013, we found out April was extremely ill.  As a family we banded together to help her get better. She was immediately admitted into the hospital where she would spend close to two months. That December, the doctors told us that this might be our last Christmas with her, so we might as well make the best memories of it. We called our huge family from my dad’s side and my Uncle Edward came up from Seattle to spend it with us. It was the best Christmas in ages! We enjoyed all the traditional and modern foods that were cooked. There was laughter, hugs and tears with her and with everyone that showed up, that we forgot why we had gathered together. It was great!

Alberta, her sister, April, and mother Grace. Photo courtesy of Alberta John
Alberta, her sister, April, and mother Grace. Photo courtesy of Alberta John

Life after that for April was touch and go for months. In mid-March, after she spent a week with her two youngest children, I received the hardest call ever from her doctors, to get to her immediately if I wanted to say goodbye. After a heart-wrenching drive to Anchorage, we said our goodbyes and sent her with all of our love and prayers to our Heavenly Father. She passed away surrounded by her family and all the love anyone could ever ask for.

The coming days, weeks and months afterwards were very difficult and emotional. Planning a burial to honor your loved one is a very hard process. It was good to have someone who already has gone through it and is not related to you, by your side to help you through it all. In all honesty, you don’t remember much, and things would probably would have been forgotten. But if asked again to be the responsible one and do that all over, would I have said yes? Yes, I would have; she was my sister, coach, cheerleader, confidante, co-prankster, book lover, adventure taker, food critic and ever loving best friend for life and I will miss her every single second of every single day.

There are many promises that I kept for her; bury her next to her late baby, keep things as normal as possible for the younger kids, continue to think of others before ourselves, celebrate the Holidays, go on bike rides, try to enjoy the sunsets, try new foods, laugh, love, smile, go for walks, keep our mom happy and not so sad after she passes because she will always be with us and take her children in and love them like my own.

My husband was my rock through it all. When I informed him that my late sister asked us to adopt her children he did not hesitate to agree, he said “of course, we’ve loved them from the moment they came into this world, we’ll love them more in our home.” As we began the process of Tribally adopting the two youngest ones (a nephew and niece), my niece decided she wanted to live with her dad who was the only parent she had left, and she didn’t want to leave him. Although I was breaking my sisters promise, I told her, ‘Whatever makes you happy, but just know, our home is always open to you,’ and off she went to her dad and there she stayed. Thankfully, she still lived in town and we got to help raise her.

If there is anything that I learned from a huge and devastating loss of a loved one, it is this: grief is strange and powerful, it comes at you. . . like huge waves in the ocean, you never know when it will hit you and when it retreats, you take a deep breath and wait for the next wave, hoping that you survive.

For the first YEAR of your loss, you cry off and on, let the tears fall when they arrive.  Do not bottle them up. It will return like a waterfall.

Talk about your grief. Talking to a grief counselor helped in so many ways I never knew about the things they mentioned. It’s okay to talk about your grief, it’s not something to be ashamed about or too proud to hold in.

You are NEVER the same person as you were before your loss, you have to try and live life without your loved one, that it feels like you lost a limb and are learning how to swim without it. It’s okay. It’s like that old saying, Time Heals All Wounds.

Yes, you are still you, yes, life will get better, but you have to choose to live. You have to choose life. You have to choose love. If you need to, find someone you can talk to, one who will just BE there, not give advice, not make you feel like you need to “get over it”, but just be a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen, a hand to hold. Someone who understands your loss with you.

I had the best support system; I had numerous people who were there for me – they were my hand to hold, shoulder to cry on, and listening ears. Without them, I wouldn’t have survived. I’m so very thankful for my husband for always standing by me, holding my hand, holding me tight, and letting me cry; without him I wouldn’t have made it. It’s been a long four years of grief after losing my sister. But with Faith, Family and Love, I did it. If I can do it, so can you. I would also like to include this article that I found on grief, although our grief was different, it still explained the loss so perfectly. Many blessings to all those who are grieving and stay strong because it will get better.

[Alberta found words on mourning by Kay Warren to be very helpful. It gave her an understanding about the grieving process. She also appreciated the words of advice on how people should respond to people who are going through the grieving process. Alberta summarized the advice below.]

“Please don’t ever tell someone to be grateful for what they have left until they’ve had a chance to mourn what they’ve lost. It will take longer than you think is reasonable, rational or even right. But that’s ok. True friends – unlike Job’s sorry excuse for friends – love at all times, and brothers and sisters are born to help in time of need (Prov. 17:17 LB). The truest friends and ‘helpers’ are those who wait for the griever to emerge from the darkness that swallowed them alive without growing afraid, anxious or impatient. They don’t pressure their friend to be the old familiar person they’re used to; they’re willing to accept that things are different, embrace the now-scarred one they love, and are confident that their compassionate, non-demanding presence is the surest expression of God’s mercy to their suffering friend. They’re okay with messy and slow and few answers….and they never say, ‘Move on’.” – Alberta John (Lakota Sioux/Gwich’in Athabascan)

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Enaa baasee’ to Paul for submitting Alberta to be an Athabascan in the Spotlight and sharing some much-needed advice on dealing with loss and going through the grieving process.

Do you have someone you admire, like a culture bearer, artist, storytellers, activist, role model, community doer, language warrior, leader, hunter, gatherer, parent, or grandparents? Find out more about how to submit a nomination here: http://athabascanwoman.com/?p=4248.

Athabascan in the Spotlight

Athabascan in the Spotlight – Elaine Alexie – Teetł’it Gwich’in

Elaine Alexie. Courtesy photo

This summer, the Athabascan Woman Blog is featuring an Athabascan in the Spotlight. Elaine Alexie is Teetł’it Gwich’in from Alberta, Canada. I have been following her for a few years, and am excited to feature her on the Athabascan Woman Blog. She and I share a love of beading. We both learned our sewing and beading skills from our mothers. Her mother is her biggest supporter and continues to be an inspiration.

Here’s my interview with Elaine:

Can you tell me about yourself?

My name is Elaine Alexie and I am Teetł’it (Tee-tlit) Gwich’in. I currently reside on Treaty 6 and Metis homelands in Alberta, Canada with my loving partner Adam. My home community is Teetł’it Zheh or Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories (NWT), Canada. Teetł’it Gwich’in is loosely translated as, ‘the people of the headwaters’ or ‘above the water’ people. Our ancestral territory extends from what is now described as the Peel River Watershed in the central area of the Yukon Territory to the Mackenzie Delta region of the Northwest Territories in Northern Canada.

I was born in the NWT and raised in Teetł’it Zheh within my large and extended Teetl’it Gwich’in maternal families of both Vittrekwa (Don’t Cry/Esau) and Alexie (Martin/Sha un Nakhya). Like many other families, I have many aunties, uncles and cousins all around. I come from a large family of creators and makers.  In some ways, I like to consider myself more of a Yukoner as I spent a majority of my childhood out on the land with my family at our winter/spring camp at Tr’atr’aataii Njik, which is approximately 80 miles upstream on Teetł’it Gwinjik, the Peel River, on the Yukon side. 

My great grandmothers and their daughters had many skills including hide tanning, sewing, medicine knowledge, birch bark basket-making, dog team handling and working with fish and meat, among other things. I am a descendent of strong people and I am proud of that. – Elaine Alexie (Teetł’it Gwich’in)

Elaine Alexie. Courtesy photo

I left home in my mid-teens to go to high school in other regions of the NWT. At the time, this was the only option. After school I had the opportunity to work on the protection of the calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou Herd in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I spent lots of time touring with other Gwich’in to the Lower 48 and lobbying the US Congress to protect the calving grounds. I also worked in other areas of land protection and Indigenous rights in Canada, including the protection of the Peel Watershed and Dene resistance to the revived Mackenzie Pipeline proposal. These experiences taught me a lot about community organizing and communication.

I have always had a fondness and love for traveling in my peoples lands and I did it a lot growing up at my family’s seasonal camps. Later on, I rafted and canoed rivers during the summer seasons. A big part my who I am is connected to water. This interest led me to get my certifications and training for being a raft tour guide.

I worked in film and TV production as a producer for several years but was laid off during the recession in 2008. Fortunately, that same summer I was accepted to the University of Victoria in British Columbia and my river rafting dreams slowly would diminish from there.

To get my degree done faster, I did summer school sessions, so I wasn’t able to continue my love for being on the water or to work in that area. My university experience became another door that opened many other doors, and I trained in the area of political science/Indigenous studies. I enjoyed it so much I continued on for my master’s degree in Political Science. My degree was thesis-based, so I worked with my elders and led a community-based research project on my people’s use of traditional governance. This project grounded land-based practices and explores how it informs our indigeneity that is essential to our self-determination. I find research amazing and I really enjoy it, when done right and respectfully. I enjoy working with community knowledge holders and building projects with them. I currently work at the University of Alberta in the Faculty of Native Studies in northern research engagement and part of my job is to build research partnerships and relationships with communities across Northern Canada.

Can you tell me about any recent projects you’re working on or maybe one you finished? 

Elaine Alexie beading a Gwich’in style baby belt. Courtesy photo

I have one major project on the go right now: a Gwich’in style beaded baby belt. I am using mostly seed beads on stroud and velvet. I have acquired some vintage pony beads to incorporate for the tassels, so I am excited about that. I have been researching old styles of Gwich’in baby belts by visiting museum collections and looking at resources online. This past winter, I visited the Royal Alberta Museum, Bata Shoe Museum and Royal Ontario Museum to see Gwich’in pieces in their collections. I’ve seen a very old baby belt dated to at least late 19th century and a Hudson’s Bay flour sac was used as a liner. Old! This demonstrates that certain materials were not within reach and people used everything they could to make things with whatever they had available. That’s pretty special.

I have a deep appreciation of the work my Gwich’in ancestors have done with beads, the many forms of hand stitch, and the use of certain fabrics. – Elaine Alexie (Teetł’it Gwich’in)

Beaded purse top by Elaine Alexie. Courtesy photo

I really admire the old-style beading and the use of velvet. I appreciate the use of certain bead colours no longer in production and the formation and use of floral motifs. It is also not very easy to bead on velvet, so it takes some skill. Each beaded flower motif tells a story and that is something special to pay attention to. This reflects our peoples surroundings or in some way, interpretations of the beauty of our cultural landscape, as our ancestors have seen it.

Beaded flower for a purse by Elaine Alexie. Courtesy photo

I am fascinated by all this and want to continue the art of my peoples beadwork and continue the use of the old style in a variety of ways. One project that relates to this topic is a bag I completed with the help of my sister, Shirley, and mom, Dorothy. I sewed it together in a two week period, alongside tanning caribou and moose hides with my mom, and it was deeply gratifying. As exhausted as I was physically at the end of our days working on hides, I managed to sew and bead in the evenings.

Surprisingly, I found doing these different tasks went hand in hand. What influenced my desire to do this bag was an old school bag my mom owns that is about 70 years old. This bag was fully beaded in the traditional way – on blue velvet and old Gwich’in beading floral motif pattern. It is simply beautiful, and I’ve admired it all my life. The bag was considered my mom’s bible bag to store her bible and hymn books, and she would occasionally take it with her on her weekly visit to church.

Beaded purse by Elaine Alexie. Courtesy photo

For the bag I worked on, I freestyled the beading based on learning about certain floral patterns and cut out a pattern to bring it together. My sister is a master at the sewing machine, so she showed me the best way to sew it together. Our mom watched and instructed us on certain things to pay attention to. It was a great thing to do with several family members. I am super proud of it because it was made from scratch and drawn from a vision I had. That is, a vision that was inspiration based on Gwich’in items that I’ve researched through books and viewed in person.

There are so many other skills I want to develop in my lifetime, like working with quills and natural dyes, harvesting and using birch bark, and learning how to make sinew and babiche. The list is endless. – Elaine Alexie (Teetł’it Gwich’in)

Do you have any web or social media links you would like me to share? 

Elaine Alexie’s new business and collective is called, Shinli’ Niintaih, which means my strong hands.

Over the years and to offset my loneliness for my land, home, family and culture, I took up beading and making things to keep myself busy. This has been on and off over the years, but I really picked it up in university. I continue to work on projects while working full time and have started a small business on the side, Shinli’ Niintaih: my strong hands, a name that my mom and I came up with.  I gravitate to this concept because of my life-long love of learning new skills. I love that. My work and many other things that I am invested in begins with the understanding around the concept of Shinli’ Niintaih.

Shinli’ Niintaih in my people’s language means “strong hands” or “my hands are getting strong.” It means that to be a strong person starts with your hands, so by making things drawn from our homelands, we get stronger. My hands always get stronger by working with them. – Elaine Alexie (Teetł’it Gwich’in)

I have started a Facebook and Instagram page for Shinli’ Niintaih, so people can follow my research and journey in making things with my hands. You can follow @ShinliNiintaih. From time to time, I will sell items I make, so if people want to purchase they can. An incentive that really got me to begin Shinli’ Niintaih was what started as making gifts to family and friends over the years became larger as more people came to me for custom pieces. A portion of my jewelry making sales will go toward youth cultural resurgence projects in my home community. My website is www.shinliniintaih.com.

Shinli’ Niintaih is also a community collective. To support other Teetł’it Gwich’in artists, I help them by selling their work online. All of the proceeds from their sales goes to them. I believe strongly creating opportunities for people to generate and keep the art forms alive is incredibly vital for knowledge transmission, and the relationships that result, in Indigenous communities. A key component of material culture creation is not just in the tangible process but the making of kinship along the way.

My philosophy and approach to social media is that I am always happy to share knowledge with other Indigenous community members and youth. I love to connect with other artists in an open, uplifting and supportive way, and to share my love for making things.

Do you have anything else to add?

About five years ago, Ned Blackhawk gifted me the famous book, ‘Northern Athapaskan Art’ by Kate C. Duncan. I was floored, because the book is now out of print and I felt I hit the jackpot. I have always had an interest in making things and having cultural influences all around me growing up was something I was always used to. This book help to start my interests in looking at my peoples art forms more closely and I have been able to start my journey in researching the many forms of Athapaskan material culture and artistic practice. I have so much gratitude to the researchers who have recorded the oral knowledge of the elders in the communities on the knowledge they carry. There is so much more work to do. I hope to do my PhD in the next few years on this very topic within my peoples practices to help preserve knowledge and the practice of Teetł’it Gwich’in art forms.

Elaine Alexie’s beading space. I love seeing other people’s beading spaces! Courtesy photo

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Enaa baasee’ to Elaine Alexie for sharing on the Athabascan Woman Blog! It was great to learn a little bit about her background, process and inspiration for her work. I know it takes a lot of time, trial and error and dedication to learn about beading. I love seeing her style and uses of colors and materials.

Do you have someone you admire, like a culture bearer, artist, storytellers, activist, role model, community doer, language warrior, leader, hunter, gatherer, parent, or grandparents? Find out more about how to submit a nomination here: http://athabascanwoman.com/?p=4248.

Athabascan in the Spotlight
Alaska Native/Indigenous People, Athabascan in the Spotlight

Athabascan in the Spotlight – Glenda McKay

This summer, the Athabascan Woman Blog is featuring an Athabascan in the Spotlight each week. Thank you to Brenda Mahan (Koyukon Athabascan) for nominating Glenda McKay!

Glenda McKay is Ingalik-Athabascan. Her mother, Emily, was born in Flat, Alaska and grandmother, Eliza Tickeny, was born in Anvik, Alaska. Glenda is an artist known for creating miniature dolls using traditional materials. She also creates masks, charm baskets and knife sheaths. Glenda also does beadwork, like making octopus bags. She uses moose skin, walrus ivory, fossilized bone, seed beads, seal skin, whale baleen, sea otter fur and deer hide. One item can take several months, if not up to a year to create.

Glenda has won many awards for her artwork. She travels to many of the Native markets in the Lower 48, such as the Santa Fe Indian Market and the American Indian Arts Market place at the Autry Museum. She has been featured online and in magazines. Glenda received the 2017 Jackie Autry Purchase Award winner for her Yesterdays Warrior bag by the Autry Museum of the American West.

Glenda received the 2017 Jackie Autry Purchase Award winner for her Yesterdays Warrior bag by the Autry Museum of the American West. Photo by Autry Museum of the American West
Glenda received the 2017 Jackie Autry Purchase Award winner for her Yesterdays Warrior bag by the Autry Museum of the American West. Photo by Autry Museum of the American West

The Native American Artists, Musicians and Writers group featured her artwork on their Facebook page. View the page to see her impressive art work collection.

Glenda has been a mentor for Brenda Mahan for about three years now. Brenda says, “She is always willing to share tips of the trade. Her knowledge on Athabascan crafts is invaluable and she is willing to pass down her knowledge and this is why I am nominating her for the Athabascan in the Spotlight.”

Enaa baasee’ to Brenda for submitting Glenda McKay to be an Athabascan in the Spotlight! Do you have someone you admire, like a culture bearer, artist, storytellers, activist, role model, community doer, language warrior, leader, hunter, gatherer, parent, or grandparents? Find out more about how to submit a nomination here: http://athabascanwoman.com/?p=4248.

Beading on smoked moose hide. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Alaska Native culture

Smell of Smoked Moose Hide

Eleanor Yatlin scrapes moose hair off a moose hide. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
My mother, Eleanor Yatlin, scrapes moose hair off a moose hide. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

My aunt Rosie asked me to bead some glove and slipper tops for a potlatch. As I’m beading some glove tops, and I keep getting a whiff of smoked moose hide. The balcony door is open. It’s a crisp and fresh morning. The birds are singing. I can almost imagine being at fish camp, smelling wood smoke from our camp fire and beading while taking a break from chores.

Smoked moose hide is ideal for doing beadwork on because it doesn’t unravel and holds its form. My ancestors and family have been using it for clothing for centuries. It was used for survival along with other hides and furs. Our people were resourceful and didn’t waste.

Nowadays, we use them for mittens, vests, dresses, jewelry, slippers, picture frames and much more. If you’ve followed me, you know I love beading slippers. I bead on smoked moose hide slipper tops.

Resource: The Alaska Department of Fish & Game shared an article on Turning a Moose Hide Into Buckskin Brain-Tanning Alaska Big-Game Animal Skins at Home

People mostly buy them from places where they are commercially tanned. However, some people are starting to relearn how to process and tan them. It is a lot of work and you have to scrape it a lot. My late grandmothers used to work on them with help of family. Here my great aunt, Rose Ambrose, shares a short story on how people used to process smoked moose hide.

Youth work on cleaning a moose hide at the 2017 First Alaskans Institute Elders & Youth Conference. Melissa Shaginoff hosted this workshop. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Youth work on cleaning a moose hide at the 2017 First Alaskans Institute Elders & Youth Conference. Melissa Shaginoff hosted this workshop. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Artist Melissa Shaginoff (Athabascan/Paiute) has been demonstrating and teaching people how to tan moose hide. Check out Melissa’s website or follow her on Facebook or Instagram.

I appreciate the hard work that goes into making smoked moose hide. If you understand the process and hundreds of hours that go into tanning moose hide, you will also understand the value of being able to use it but also the expense.

When preparing for Athabascan traditional memorial potlatches, families usually save up to buy a moose skin and distribute parts of it at the giveaway. The giveaway is a way for families to thank people who have helped them through the grieving process and who are special to the lost loved one. It is a precious gift to receive.

My mother, Eleanor Yatlin, holds a smoked moose hide at a potlatch. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
My mother, Eleanor Yatlin, holds a smoked moose hide at a potlatch. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
My relatives are cutting a moose hide at a potlatch during the giveaway. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
My relatives are cutting a moose hide at a potlatch during the giveaway. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

My friend, Dewey Kk’ołeyo Hoffman, has a smoked moose hide vest. He wore it to the Smokehouse Gala and there was one woman who was sniffing his shoulder. He said, people do that all the time. I love the smoked smell. It brings back many great memories.

I attended the First Alaskan Institute's Smokehouse Gala in 2015. L-R: Me, Karla Booth, Tiffany Flowers and Dewey Kk’ołeyo Hoffman. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
I attended the First Alaskan Institute’s Smokehouse Gala in 2015. L-R: Me, Karla Gatgyedm Hana’ax Booth, Tiffany Flowers and Dewey Kk’ołeyo Hoffman. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Alaska Native/Indigenous People, Athabascan in the Spotlight

Athabascan in the Spotlight Features

Athabascan in the Spotlight

Throughout the years, I have featured Athabascan people in my blog through interviews and by sharing our stories. Why? I want to raise people up, promote wellness and counter stereotypes. Let’s celebrate those we admire — our culture bearers, artists, storytellers, activists, role models, community doers, language warriors, leaders, hunters, gatherers, parents, and grandparents! Now, I would like to ask for your help.

To submit a nomination, please email me the following:

  • Your Name
  • Name of nominee (including Native name if applicable)
  • Cultural affiliation (like, Koyukon, Gwich’in, etc.)
  • Background on nominee (where they or their family is from, who their family is, what they do, etc.)
  • Reason this person should be recognized
  • Contact info for nominee (phone, email or social media)
  • Web and/or social media link
  • 1-3 photos (or links from public social media).

Email ayatlin@hotmail.com or message me on Facebook.

Let’s lift up and celebrate those we admire in the Athabascan community. Please contact me with any questions. Enaa baasee’!