Alaska Native culture

Molly of Denali Has Arrived

Angela Gonzalez at a Molly of Denali premiere party. Photo by Lena Jacobs

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.

Vera Starbard shares trivia about Molly of Denali at a premiere party she hosted. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

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.

Keenan watches Molly of Denali. Photo by Rona Vent

“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.

The Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center has an exhibit dedicated to Molly of Denali. Check it out if you have a chance!

There is a Molly of Denali exhibit at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center. This image depicts the retelling of the truer history. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
There is a Molly of Denali exhibit at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Follow Molly of Denali on Facebook, Twitter, podcast, YouTube and online!

Sonia Vent sewed a fur ruff onto her granddaughter's parka. Courtesy photo
Alaska Native culture

Learning Fur and Skin Sewing

Sonia Vent sewed a fur ruff onto her granddaughter's parka. Courtesy photo
Sonia Vent sewed a fur ruff onto her granddaughter’s parka. Courtesy photo

My friend and relative, Sonia Vent, shared about her experience of sewing a ruff made out of rabbit and marten fur. The ruff is for her granddaughter’s parka. A ruff keeps people’s face warm when they have it on a hood. Sonia is Koyukon Athabascan and is from Huslia. Her parents are Freddie and Lorna Vent of Huslia.

Sonia’s experience of sewing a ruff reminded me of my journey for beading and sewing slippers/moccasins for the past year. Taking up a cultural practice can be a spiritual experience. That little knowledge we have is powerful enough to connect us to our culture. I have found beading and sewing to be healing. Learning and practicing our culture is important. She graciously agreed to share her experience. Here it is below.

In honor of all the skin sewers now and those who have gone on
By Sonia Vent (Koyukon Athabascan)

“I made a little rabbit marten skin ruff for my granddaughters’ parka. While in Fairbanks I rummaged through my mom’s furs, skins, and patterns helping her to both find and organize things.  I had planned to make a ruff for my GD’s parka before then. My mom had some already cut strips of rabbit fur amongst her things which she offered for me to use. She also had a piece of marten skin that was part of something else that she said that I could have. Ana basee’ ena’aa (thank you so much, dear mom)!

What I discovered in skin sewing is that it takes a lot talent and expertise to turn out a well finished product. The fur has to be cut in a certain way so that one does not cut into the fur and the cut is only through the skin. My mom showed me a special way that she holds the fur as she cuts through the skin. Despite her now shaking hands she managed to do it like a professional. Measurement must be adhered to in order for the pieces to come together and for it to match up with the garment that it will go on. The sewing through the furred skin takes skill and talent otherwise the fur can be pulled through the skin along with the sinew or thread. It is important to find the “sweet spot” to sew through so that the seams are even and clean. I’ve also discovered the best light to sew in is daylight. Daylight is naturally bright and clear. I love the daylight!

As I worked on the ruff, I thought of my many relatives and ancestors who worked night after night to make new garments for their families to wear at for the different community gatherings and holiday events. Skin sewing with our people was done out of necessity and love, especially love. I envisioned mothers sitting by a low-lit lamp working into the wee hours of the morning to finish a product for a special event so their children would have perfectly sewn clothing for the Christmas Program, that husband may have a nice wolf ruff to wear to the Winter Memorial Potlatch or that young son or daughter may have new kakkanaa’ (fur boots) to wear during the snow shoe race.

I especially thought of late great aunt Eliza Attla. I thought of all of the beautiful garments that she had made over the years up to the end. I thought of how her loss of hearing seemed to have made her especially talented at sewing. I realized how and why as I found myself lost in my creativity. It’s almost as though creativity deafens one to all external noise. Skin sewing is a skill, if mastered, can turn out a finely finished product. A sign of love.”

Sonia Vent sewed a ruff using rabbit and marten fur. Courtesy photo
Sonia Vent sewed a ruff using rabbit and marten fur. Courtesy photo

I asked Sonia if she has any advice for people who are considering trying to do skin sewing. She recommends finding an experienced mentor to learn from. I can see how that would be important. Her mom, Lorna Vent, is a master skin sewer and beader. I remember learning how to bead barrettes and kkaakene (fur boots) from her at Johnson O’Malley classes at the school in Huslia. Sonia recommends gathering up the supplies needed for your project. She says, “Consider what furs will be used for project. Some furs are not recommended for certain gender.” That’s where an experienced mentor can guide you.

Sonia recommends being aware of your posture and repetitive motions. She says, “Holding a position too long it can create a real problem in certain body parts. Practice timed breaks and movement will prevent body ailments.” I know when I’m beading and sewing, I stay aware of ergonomics. Sometimes, my shoulders and wrist hurt after a long session.

Enaa baasee’ to Sonia for sharing her experience!

This is what fully-smoked salmon looks like. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Alaska Native culture

Half-Dried Fish

K’eyoge’ is half-dried fish in Denaakk’e (Koyukon Athabascan). Photo by Angela Gonzalez
K’eyoge’ is half-dried fish in Denaakk’e (Koyukon Athabascan). Photo by Angela Gonzalez

I challenged readers of the Athabascan Woman Blog to help me come up with some one-word writing prompts. The prompts will help inspire me throughout the year. My goal is to do one blog post a week. Worpdress’ daily one-word prompts is originally what inspired me. I thought it would be great to make the words more related to Alaska or Alaska Native people, culture and more. I hosted a giveaway for you all to help me. Thank you to all who participated!

The first word is k’eyoge’. Thank you to Margaret David for suggesting the word. K’eyoge’ means half-dried fish in Denaakk’e (Koyukon Athabascan). I spent my summers in fish camp along the Koyukuk River near Huslia, and we were fortunate to catch, cut and smoke a lot of fish. We would smoke the eating fish in a smoke-house. Half-dried fish is exactly has it sounds. We smoke it until it is half-way dried, and bake it or put it in the freezer.

This is what fully-smoked salmon looks like. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
This is what fully-smoked salmon looks like. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

K’eyoge’ is a little softer in consistency than fully-dried white fish or salmon. It also is half-smoked, so you get that delicious smoked flavor. We used dead cottonwood to smoke fish. It’s making me hungry thinking about it. 🙂

Have you eaten k’eyoge’? I am very grateful when I get to eat some. Sometimes potlatches are the only place to get it. Check out Susan Paskvan’s Athabascan word of the week article on cutting fish on the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer.

One-word prompts suggestion jar. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
One-word prompts suggestion jar. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Do you have a word you would like to me to add to my suggestion jar? Comment below or send me a message on my Facebook, Instagram or Twitter pages. Be sure to like the Athabascan Woman Blog on Facebook for future giveaways.

Alaska Native culture

Taboo in Athabascan

Hutłlaanee in Denaakk'e
Hutłlaanee in Denaakk’e

Hutłlaanee mean “its taboo” in Denaakk’e or Koyukon Athabascan. I grew up learning this at a very young age. I learned what was hutłaanee from mother and late grandmother Lydia Simon of Huslia. There are many traditional beliefs to follow and if you break them it is often times hutłaanee. Koyukon Athabascans survived thousands of years with their strong belief systems.

My aunt, Irene Henry, recently pointed out one belief. When you go hunting, you don’t say, “I’m going out hunting.” We usually say we are going out or going for a boat ride. We don’t want to assume we are going to get lucky when going out hunting. We don’t want to give ourselves bad luck or wish anyone else bad luck.

When we go to a new place, we burn a tiny amount of food as a small offering and prayer. This is called anthła (not sure about the spelling). Many of beliefs are unspoken. We believe in them so strongly, we don’t talk about them too much.

My children in Anchorage don’t know as much about what is taboo. One belief I have shared with them is that woman and girls are not supposed to say the word bear, talk about it or eat it. I’m breaking the belief to share it and sometimes I just have to say it in the city. We refer to it with other words if necessary. It is hutłaanee when we say it. That particular animal is a powerful being. I respect the beliefs.

When we drop food, we say ana’sa baaba (not sure how to spell ‘ana’sa’). The phrase is like saying, precious food. A long time ago, there were starvation days. Athabascans had to preserve food and couldn’t afford to waste even a little bit. We have to respect food and take care of it. If we drop food without saying ana’sa baaba, then it could be considered hutłaanee. I still say the phrase automatically when I accidentally drop food. I might whisper it to myself in a public place in the city, but I still say it.

There are many beliefs that I learned growing up in the village. Some are harder to explain and follow than others. Some make sense. Some of them are easier to understand if you speak Denaakk’e. I practice the beliefs and traditions as much as I can, but I know there so much I don’t know. I better get researching.

Alaska life

Spirit of the Wind – Movie about George Attla to be Re-released

George Attla II was recently at an Alaska Sports Hall of Fame event where he signed autographs for new and old fans. Marlene Watson (Navajo) is a new fan. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
George Attla, Jr. was recently at an Alaska Sports Hall of Fame event where he signed autographs for new and old fans. Marlene Watson (Navajo) is a new fan. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

The Spirit of the Wind movie is being re-released this year and will be available for purchase on DVD! The movie is based on the life story of Athabascan dog musher, George Attla, Jr. of Huslia. Attla was able to overcome tuberculosis and win many dog mushing races, including the Fur Rondy sprint races. Attla has left his mark as a dog mushing champion through hard work, dedication, staying focused, staying competitive and overcoming obstacles and challenges. He is my dad’s uncle, so I’ve heard a lot of dog talk over the years. Attla is revered and respected by people all over Alaska, US, Canada and even beyond.

Three decades later, Alaskans will finally get a chance to see ‘Spirit of the Wind’ by Suzanna Caldwell via Alaska Dispatch:
http://www.alaskadispatch.com/article/20140122/three-decades-later-alaskans-will-finally-get-chance-see-spirit-wind

The Alaska Native Heritage Center will hosted a re-release event for the movie in conjunction with the 2014 Fur Rondy.  A reception with refreshments, a special screening of the film, and for the first time a limited number of DVDs will be on sale to the public at this event!

While you won’t be able to buy it in Anchorage, you can buy it from Jade Resale Boutique in Fairbanks (729 1st Avenue, phone 907-479-5233). Jade Resale Boutique is owned by George Attla’s granddaughters.

I enjoyed hearing Martin Buser's story about George Attla, Jr.
I enjoyed hearing Martin Buser’s story about George Attla, Jr.

I met Iditarod musher Martin Buser a couple of years. It seems like whenever I say I’m from Huslia, people have stories to share about George Attla. Martin said he has learned some of the most important dog mushing lessons from George in the fewest amount of words. Martin visited George once and complained about the dogs not listening to him and running off the trail, etc. George said, “Who’s driving?” Martin said that was an important lesson for him. Yep, that’s a great lesson!

It will be great to show this classic movie to my children so they can see what it was like to grow up in interior Alaska in Athabascan country. Attla continues to race occasionally. He helps to run a Frank Attla Youth & Sled Dog Care program in memory of his late son. Through the program, he is able to pass on his knowledge and lifelong experience to the younger generation. It is great to see how the youth are discovering dog mushing. There are many valuable lessons to be learned from taking care of dogs, training them and taking on life’s challenges. They are catching the dog mushing fever!

George Attla II raced in the Cue Bifelt Memorial Dog Race in Huslia in 2013. Photo by Al Yatlin, Sr.
George Attla II raced in the Cue Bifelt Memorial Dog Race in Huslia in 2013. Photo by Al Yatlin, Sr.

About George Attla, Jr.
George Attla, Jr. is Athabascan and is from the northwest community of Huslia, Alaska. The legendary open-class sprint dog racer has won more Fur Rendezvous World Championships (10 wins) than any other musher to date. He won eight North American World Championships and nine International Sled Dog Racing Association unlimited class metals. His book, Everything I know about Training and Racing Sled Dogs, is still considered the musher’s bible. His life story became the subject of a film, Spirit of the Wind and a book of the same title has been published. In 2000 he was awarded the Best Musher of the 20th Century. In 2007, he was inducted into the first Alaska Sports Hall of Fame. 2008 marked his 50th year of competitive sled dog racing. In April 2011, he won the Bergman Sam Memorial Koyukuk River Championship in Huslia.

Find more information about George Attla, Jr., please visit: http://attlamakingofachampion.com/.