I shared a picture of a young Gwich’in woman, Quannah Potts, on the Athabascan Woman Blog Facebook page. Quannah Potts says, “This year, I was blessed with shooting my first caribou and our future generations should have the same privilege of being able to hunt and live their ways of life.”
Someone said, “Although using rifles and snowmobiles, ATVs and the like is hardly ‘traditional’…..”
I responded by thanking him for his comment… It brings to light one of the reason I write and share on my blog. The act of spending time on the land and providing for her family is traditional. The tradition of giving parts of the caribou from first catches to Elders or other families is traditional. Alaska Native would not have survived 10,000+ years if we were not adaptable. We moved around on the land with the seasons and the availability of plants, animals, currents, cycles and conditions. We were not static people living in one certain way. I would not expect people to be driving around by horse and buggy from a century+ ago. The only people who can critique Quannah on whether or not she is traditional is her mother, grandparents and community Elders.
I’ve had conversations about what is traditional and contemporary. I say living our ways of life is traditional whether or not we use contemporary tools.
When we give our first catch to Elders or other family members despite shooting with a rifle – that’s traditional.
When we sometimes sing and dance despite it being with a fiddle – that’s traditional.
When we celebrate a memorial potlatch despite it being in a school gym vs. a community hall – that’s traditional.
When we pick berries despite using an ATV or boat – that’s traditional.
When my family fishes despite using a commercial fish net vs. a fish trap – that’s traditional.
When I bead slipper tops on smoked moose skin despite being on hard bottom moccasins – that’s traditional.
When I use beads in my beadwork introduced in the past couple of centuries despite it not being quills – that’s traditional.
When I learn and share the Denaakk’e language despite being on a paper book, by video or audio recording – that’s traditional.
When I share stories despite it being on a blog vs. oratory – that’s traditional.
What would you add? We need to continue sharing our perspectives, stories, culture, language and ways of life. Enaa baasee’.
It’s finally here! A groundbreaking PBS Kids cartoon, Molly of Denali, premiered across the country on July 15. I have been looking forward to the show since I heard about it a couple years ago. Producers, animators, storytellers and funders teamed up with Alaska Native writers and cultural advisors to make Molly come to life.
With the support of her family and friends, Vera Starbard hosted a Molly of Denali Premiere Party in Anchorage. It was great to hear some insights on episodes she and others wrote. From what I’ve heard from friends and colleagues who have worked on the show, much thought has gone into every single detail of the show. It was great to hear kids and adults singing along to the catchy theme song! Vera asked trivia questions for adults and children. It was a fun way to celebrate the huge accomplishment of the show’s debut.
At a time when representation matters more than ever, it was great to hear words in the three cultures represented by Molly (Dena’ina Athabascan/Gwich’in/Koyukon Athabascan) in languages of Dena’ina, Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa and Denaakk’e. With repetition, kids across the nation will learn words in these Alaska Native languages. I also love listening to Molly’s voice, because I kept thinking she sounds like my relatives. I also loved seeing the mannerisms and sayings by the characters in the show, like when Aunt Midge said ‘real good’ just our Elders.
It is awesome people of color are represented. One of the reasons I do the Athabascan Woman Blog is to change the narrative by sharing stories and perspectives of Athabascan and Alaska Native people. The writers, creators and producers of Molly of Denali are truly changing the narrative at the very beginning by reaching kids. If my friends and relatives are any indication, the show is reaching kids, adults and Elders. I love all of the details, like multiple family pictures on the walls and the beadwork on the characters’ clothing.
“My kids just watched the blueberry episode. My son Skyler said, ‘It’s cool they made a show about Natives.’ My daughter Skarlett and her friend Ava were singing along with the theme song. All three of them went to pick blueberries down the road from my house. They went 3X today. Also my son, Keenan, who’s 3 years old said he likes Molly and asked to watch Molly again. Thank goodness I recorded the series, so he can re-watch it.” – Rona Vent (Koyukon Athabascan) of Huslia and Fairbanks
“My son is so excited and has been counting the days down daily. He’s so excited that it’s about Alaska.” – Dena Sam (Iñupiaq/Koyukon Athabascan) of Alatna and Fairbanks
Episodes are packed with educational lessons reaching the hearts and minds of people. I watched a couple short episodes and it touched me to the core. I could probably go on all day about the things I love about every aspect of the show, but I want to share perspectives from my friends and relatives. Molly also vlogs during her show – super cute!
“Molly of Denali aired today on PBS!!!! A huge shout of thanks and appreciation to those of you who made this possible. Princess, you rock!!! Thanks for bringing this to AK and assembling the team you did.” – Sonta Hamilton Roach (Deg Hit’an Athabascan) of Shageluk
April Henry of Fairbanks shared: “A few months ago, we saw that Peter Pan had been brought out of the Disney vault. We popped some popcorn and bought it and sat down with our kids, eager to share with them a cartoon from our childhood. The movie had barely begun when John Darling reminded the other children, ‘Indians are cunning, but not intelligent.’
Our three-year-old Kai sat between us, eyes glued to the screen. My heart sank. My husband and I looked at each other and steadied ourselves for the tears we knew would erupt when we shut it off. But we knew that much bigger than the tears shed over a cartoon promised and taken away is the pain Indigenous children grow up with and carry into adulthood when they internalize the racism so prominent in depictions of Indigenous people in media. Kai saw children who fly, and a land where kids stay young forever, and fairy dust, and a very clear message – you are not intelligent. You are less than.
So when Kai first saw the preview for Molly of Denali, he said, ‘Hey! I think I know her. I think I’m in there!’ And he was really very excited. But I was moved to tears with gratitude. As an activist in these trying times, the victories are few and far between. But progress of this kind means so much.
In the opening scenes…they were going to a tribal hall, and told us that the grandpa had a necklace ‘like dad’s’. But shortly after that, he simply fell into this quintessential American experience that has been a staple to the majority and fully inaccessible to indigenous children until now – he watched a cartoon he could relate to.”
An episode called, Grandpa’s Drum, tackles our boarding school story. I watched it three times already and cried each time. It’s a story of triumph, speaks to honoring our cultures and traditions, and a healing song is shared. When little is taught about boarding school history in the US, I’m glad it touches on the story in a positive way. I loved the song! When you watch the episodes, they also weave in real people and stories sharing singing, dancing, life in Alaska and making aqutaq, and more. Check out the episode below.
After seeing the amazing response to Grandpa’s Drum, Producer Princess Daazhraii Johnson (Neets’aii Gwich’in) shared a little bit more about working with Elder Reverend Luke Titus of Minto. “We came to Luke for his approval – that’s when we took this photo together. Dewey also teaches often in the Denaakk’e immersion classroom so that’s why he’s dressed in uniform 😊. Love to our language warriors! What goodness we are capable of when we work together & hold each other up. All this guided by our Ancestors,” says Princess Daazhraii Johnson.
“Oh man how amazing it is to see them identify with a cartoon show!!! They knew the grandpa song thanks to teacher Dewey. This is huge. They love it! So thankful this is now available to them.”– Kimberly Nicholas (Koyukon Athabascan) of Kaltag and Fairbanks
“We just watched two episodes, and tears fell. Our babies will never know a time without representation of their beautiful culture shown so lovingly on TV. So much love to our amazing fam working so hard for years to make this day a reality: Princess Daazhraii Johnson, Dewey Kk’ołeyo Hoffman, Vera Starbard, Du Aaní Kawdinook Xh’unei, Rochelle Adams and everyone else involved. Quyanaqpak from this thankful mama and future ancestor.
I wish everyone would watch this, especially our elders and parents/aunties/uncles generation. I watched Grandpa’s Drum twice today and cried both times. Healing is happening through our storytelling in real time ❤ I love #MollyofDenali.”– Ayyu Qassataq (Iñupiaq) of Uŋalaqłiq/Unalakleet and Anchorage
I’m impressed with the excellent writing, production, animation, storytelling, education, singing, partnerships, actors, and so much more! Kudus to Princess Daazhraii Johnson (Neets’aii Gwich’in) and to all of the contributors to this show. I’m a #MollyofDenali fan. Enaa baasee’, Mahsi’ choo and Chin’an for this healthy dose of truth, racial healing and transformation.
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.
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!
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)
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.
Samuel Johns is Ahtna and Gwich’in Athabascan with family from Copper Center and Arctic Village. Sam has lived in Anchorage with his family since 2005. Sam, also known as AK Rebel, is a rapper, father, motivational speaker and performer. He is a member of the Ahtna Heritage Dancers. A few of Sam’s role models include his uncle, Kenny Johns, Mao Tosi, and Evon Peter.
When asked what inspired him to get into music, Sam said, “I always felt like I had a view.” He wasn’t sure how to get it across. When he was 15 years old, he read a book by Malcom X. That book inspired him to stand up for his people. Sam started out doing poetry, then it transformed in to rap music. He felt he needed to make a bold statement, but something that people could understand. Sam used his voice to spread awareness on various topics.
Sam decided he needed to speak up for the new generation. He referred to the older generation as the pipeline generation. Sam says the pipeline generation focused on income and financial security, and worried about having a nice house and car. The older generation didn’t seem to connect to their kids as much, and the kids wandered off. Sam sought to give the younger generation a message and to get a message from them. He says, “They want a connection with their parents…a bond.”
Sam’s message to youth is let them know they will always be tested with life’s challenges. When people face trials and tribulations, they numb their pain with substance abuse – alcohol and drugs. Sam lived like that at one point and says he is not going back to that life. He says people have two choices when they have trials and tribulations. One choice is to numb the pain and not face the problems, or to feel the pain and face the issues head on. Sam has definitely had his fair share of problems over the years, including being evicted, having his car break down, and other personal losses.
At a point between jobs, Sam watched a documentary on the Fairbanks Four and felt compelled to do something to help. In 2013, Sam organized the March for Justice in Anchorage in honor of the Fairbanks Four. He wasn’t sure if it was going to happen, but things kept falling into place. Sam received encouragement from people around the state and people came forward to help and to go on the walk. According to Sam, there were marchers from Huslia, Galena, Fairbanks, Copper Center, Mentasta, Tanacross, and more.
Sam’s biggest challenge right now is to remember humbleness and humility and to not let ego get in the way. He has received a lot of media attention for the past year and has been praised by many. More and more people are looking at him. Sam doesn’t want to forget his purpose and to get caught up in all of the attention.
One of the first media stories on Sam was when he visited homeless people at Bean’s Café, and practiced his Ahtna songs. At the time, he was between jobs and wanted to do something to help the homeless. He started out by making sandwiches and ended up going their once a week to practice. For about 11 weeks, Sam went there every week with a few other dance group members from the Ahtna Heritage Dancers.
The beat of Sam’s drum and songs created a spiritual energy and he connected with the homeless. Sam says, “I’m giving their identity and culture back…reconnecting.” The homeless people didn’t ask him for money, but just asked him to come back each week. Sam felt like he was giving the spiritual healing. He also felt like he gave them hope by giving them his time and showing them they worth something. Even though, Sam and the dance group performed the same songs each week, they were still appreciated.
Sam is currently working on his first album. He released a couple songs through SoundCloud, Facebook and YouTube. Those songs are about his struggles with identity. Sam is working on songs about domestic violence, subsistence rights and reconciliation. He wants his songs to have a purpose and to be positive. Sam will continue performing for events and to do motivational speaking.
I watched Sam perform his song, “We Are One Tribe”, at the Anchorage TedX event in April. Listen to that song below. His songs and speeches are inspirational and real. Sam is a person who speaks the truth even though it may not be pretty. He reminds us to look at our problems and deal with them. He also reminds us of the importance of reconnecting with our traditions and culture.
Ana basee’ Sam for sharing your story and for motivating people!
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 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!
ABOUT MARJORIE MERRY GRUNIN 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.