Alaska Native culture

Athabascan Friend and Mentor

Irene Henry and late Lydia Simon playing cards in Bettles in the early 1990's. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Irene Henry and late Lydia Simon playing cards in Bettles in the early 1990’s. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

I was talking to my mom, Eleanor Yatlin, recently about my late Grandma Lydia Simon. She mentioned that Millie Moses of Allakaket was my late grandmother’s siwogilaah. Siwogilaah means special friend or mentor in Denaakk’e (Koyukon Athabascan). My aunt Irene Henry of Allakaket says, “It’s like a very, best friend ever.” Siwogilaah friendships are sometimes made because the parents or grandparents were friends. Another way this friendship can be formed is if someone gives a special gift. It could have also started because you were there in a time of need.

In Denaakk’e, siwogilaah is pronounced “se wo gil agh”. It means special friend or mentor.

Siwogilaah is different from gganaa’, which is the Denaakk’e word for friend.

Mom said that Helen Attla of Hughes was also a siwogilaah to my late grandma. I think Helen tanned a moose skin for her. The late Laura Mark of Huslia was a siwogilaah to my mother. Mom said, “Late Laura taught me how to tan beaver skin and cook.” Mom was encouraged to go to late Laura to ask her advice. It was great for my mom to depend on someone and to learn how to do things.

I asked my Irene Henry of Allakaket about the subject. Irene is my auntie. I always learn something when I talk to her and I often ask her advice on how to properly pronounce Denaakk’e words. Irene says she was really close to a lot to elders, especially late Mary Vent. Her mom and late Mary were close friends. Whenever there was an event going on, Irene would visit late Mary. Irene says, “One time we hung out together, the whole time we were in Hughes during a potlatch.”

Aunt Irene and I talked about common Athabascan beliefs and traditions still in use today. Some common Denaakk’e words are being used today, like basee’ (thank you) and hutlaanee (taboo). Irene says, “All the kids around here say anas baaba if they drop food. It is hutlanee for us to waste food.” I am not sure the tradition of siwogilaah is being continued as much as it was 30 years ago.

Millie Moses. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Millie Moses. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Millie Moses says she has two siwogilaah. The first was the late Lydia Simon of Huslia. The second one is Eliza Jones of Koyukuk. Late Lydia Simon was a like a grandmother to Millie. Late Lydia told Millie she reminded her of her late grandmother Cesa. Late Lydia once gifted Millie with a silver ladle and beaded slippers. Millie visited late Lydia whenever they were in the same places together. During potlatches or cover dishes, Millie made it a point to make sure late Lydia got some food and would deliver it if needed.

Years ago, Millie tanned a moose skin. At the time, Eliza Jones was teaching Denaakke’ in Allakaket. Millie gifted Eliza with a part of the tanned skin. That was the only moose skin Millie ever tanned, and she said giving it to Eliza was one of the best things she has ever done. Eliza was touched by the gift. Since then, Millie and Eliza have been special friends. Eliza has gifted Millie with salmon (jarred and smoked). Millie makes a point to visit Eliza whenever they are in the same place.

I don’t know of too many younger people who are continuing this tradition of having a siwogilaah, but I know special friendships continue. My sister, Sheri, has good friends that she considers siwogilaah. The younger generation can certainly benefit from this type of friendship. It is really about survival and friendship. I’m still learning what it means.

What siwogilagh means to Sharon Yatlin. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
What siwogilagh means to Sharon Yatlin. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Remembering Bernice Joseph – An Alaska Native Leader

Bernice Joseph lost her battle with pancreatic cancer Tuesday. This is heartbreaking news from interior Alaska. Bernice was Koyukon Athabascan from Nulato, and had a big family and had may friends all over Alaska. She was a great mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend, mentor, leader, speaker, advocate and nice person. Bernice had a great smile and a great laugh.

Bernice Joseph at WEIO
Bernice Joseph was a winner of the Race of the Torch-Women in 1993. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

One of my earliest memories of Bernice was when she raced for the torch in the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics (WEIO) footrace in Fairbanks over the years. She was a fierce competitor and challenged others. I first got to know her when she served on the queen pageant committee for Miss WEIO in the early 1990s. Bernice was not afraid to speak up with her thoughts and ideas. You just knew she would follow through with actions to put those ideas into reality. She had a great level of professionalism that people took notice of and she often raised through the ranks at many organizations and boards as a result.

Bernice was as beautiful on the inside as she was on the outside. Her smile brightened a room and you felt like you were home. Bernice acknowledged everyone she came into contact with no matter to their station in life. She had a great ability to empower people and encourage them to reach for their goals.

Bernice Joseph spoke at the Rural Providers' Conference held in Fairbanks in June 2013. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Bernice Joseph spoke at the Rural Providers’ Conference held in Fairbanks in June 2013. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

I always enjoyed listening to her speak and inspire people. As the former vice chancellor of the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), she inspired many students. In recent years, I got to see her in Anchorage when she attended board meetings for the Rural Alaska Community Action Program, Inc. (RurAL CAP). As usual, she spoke up in meetings and advocated for rural Alaskans. Bernice was the whole package. She was a great ambassador for Alaska Native people. She was a great speaker and storyteller. Bernice had a strong passion for education, and she was at the decision-making table to enact initiatives to support Alaska Natives pursuing their education.

Many people shared Facebook posts and emails and said what a wonderful person Bernice was. Some friends shared these kind words about Bernice:

“Bernice Joseph was the greatest boss and teacher I ever was blessed to have worked and learned from. She was strong, kind, hardworking, intelligent, wise,…I could write books about all she was. I loved and deeply respected all she did as did everyone she touched. I pray for her and her family. Rest in Peace Bernice. I promise I will teach every kid I can the things you taught me. For you might have left us for heaven, but the beauty left behind still grows.” – Travis Cole

“Bernice was one of my first bosses/mentors/role models. Her keen sense of humor and laughter always lifted up my spirit and I watched her with great admiration as she brought together community, inspired, taught, provided an amazing example of healthy living. We loved to tease each other and it was always a joy to be around her. She made me feel like I was capable of so much more and believed in me at a pivotal time of my teenage years. My heart goes out to all those that are feeling this loss. May you rest well dear friend. Each time I put on my running shoes, I will think of your strength.” -Princess Daazhraii Johnson

“Thinking of my friend Bernice Joseph and sending love and light to her family. Like the loads of others, she was a role model to me, a person who led by example with a bright, beautiful smile. Really going to miss seeing her, but her legacy of empowering Native people to achieve their educational goals will remain with us forever!” – Jessica Black

“I first met Bernice at WEIO over 20 years ago. She was a runner and so was I. I wanted to be as fast as she was. Because of her I did eventually win the race of the torch. Later our lives would cross again as I went after my degree in education at UAF through their rural and correspondence classes. When I saw she was in charge of Distance Education I thought what an awesome leader! I am so happy I was able to hug Bernice at WEIO this summer. The games brought us together and they were the last place I saw her. Today when I run she will be in my thoughts and these tears I shed are for our loss of such an incredibly inspiring woman!” – Noel Strick

“Over the past year, Bernice Joseph held space in many of our hearts, thoughts, and prayers. She influenced many peoples lives in many meaningful ways. She was a true leader, a friend, and an inspiration among our people. Bernice was my boss as a teenager and later served on my graduate committee, she was committed to truth and seeing through real change in the lives of our people. May she rest in eternal peace. Prayers and love to her family.” -Evon Peter

Here is a message from UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers:

“Today, our community and state lost an inspiring leader, mentor and educator: Former vice chancellor Bernice Joseph passed away this morning after a long and courageous battle with cancer. Bernice served as vice chancellor for rural, community and native education, and executive dean of the College of Rural and Community Development. Her career was marked by her dedication to education and to Alaska’s students, whether they hailed from her home village of Nulato or from our state’s urban centers. She was a great university leader and a role model for Alaska Native people in higher education. Her contributions to the university, the Interior and Alaska will serve as a legacy for generations. She truly made a difference in the lives of thousands of people. Our sincere condolences go out to Bernice’s family. Her passing is a tremendous loss to the university and Alaska. Her family and friends will hold several events in her memory in the coming days. On Wednesday, Jan. 8, a one-mile memorial walk will begin at 6 p.m. at the Carlson Center. And, on Thursday, Jan. 9, a celebration of life will begin at 10 a.m. at the Sacred Heart Cathedral. In lieu of flowers, the family has suggested that memorial contributions be made to the Doyon Foundation in Bernice’s name. Those who wish to send condolences can do so to the following address: Stewart Joseph P.O. Box 83651 Fairbanks, AK 99708”

Stewart and Bernice Joseph were in Anchorage in December 2012. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Stewart and Bernice Joseph were in Anchorage in December 2012. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

At her keynote speech at the 2005 Alaska Federation of Natives Convention, Bernice acknowledged the strides made with education, but reminded people that there was more to be done. Bernice said:  “Our people have come a long way from only a few decades of Western education, to developing our own curriculum, to be recognized for traditional knowledge through honorary degrees and be recognized on Commissions, Boards, and now the Effie Kokrine School to further help us to maintain our sense and knowledge of self, while living in a western world, but empowered through cultural identity and cultural presence to stand tall and be counted for all of our contributions to education, health, politics, economics and science. We have done a lot, but we have only just begun.” – Bernice Joseph on an excerpt from her speech (courtesy of the Alaska Native Knowledge Network).

As a result of her hard work in her personal and professional life, Bernice was the recipient of many awards and acknowledgements. She always made people feel special, and she will be missed by many, near and far. She was a living example of what Alaska Native people could accomplish. Ana basee’ Bernice for a life well-lived and shared with us.

Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Agatha Erickson – A Native Voice in Alaska Politics

Agatha Erickson picking cranberries with her niece in Fairbanks. Courtesy photo
Agatha Erickson picking cranberries with her niece in Fairbanks. Courtesy photo

I met Agatha Erickson a couple years ago at a conference in Dillingham, Alaska. She spoke on behalf of the Begich Administration at the conference. Agatha is originally from Kaltag, but has lived in both the Interior and Southeast Alaska. Her father, Arne Erickson, is a teacher. Agatha is the rural liaison for Senator Mark Begich.

Agatha’s bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth in Native American Studies gave her a great foundation for policy work. Agatha’s senior honors project was on the evolution of subsistence law in Alaska. She studied each major law, such as statehood, ANCSA and ANILCA and how they affected the generations of her family’s subsistence practices. Agatha comes from a large family, her mother Susan Solomon, is one of nine siblings.

Agatha was hired by the Tanana Chiefs Conference (TCC) as the communications director after college. She got a crash course in tribal politics. Jerry Isaac, TCC president/CEO, taught Agatha the intricacies of community outreach and working with tribal governments. She learned about how to communicate and work with people and communities across the Interior.

Agatha Erickson and Senator Mark Begich in Barrow. Courtesy photo
Agatha Erickson and Senator Mark Begich in Barrow. Courtesy photo

Agatha’s education and her work with TCC prepared her for her role as Senator Mark Begich’s rural liaison. Even with preparation, she faced a steep learning curve with the daily inner-workings of a political office. Agatha discovered the work is very fast pace, responding to constituents, planning events, writing memos and keeping up with current issues.  Despite the fast pace of a Senate office, she also learned patience waiting for the deliberative Senate to move on policy. She is learning more about the many issues faced by rural Alaskans, like the energy crisis, access to health care, education funding and food security. She asserts that although they are tough issues to be faced, there are solutions and there are great community leaders.

Agatha enjoys traveling and learning about different communities across the state. Agatha said, “There is so much diversity in our state.” She is most familiar with the interior and southeast regions having grown up in them. Agatha says she is the eyes and ears on the ground for Senator Begich.

It was a challenge for her to move from the interior to Anchorage. Agatha missed her family and friends in the interior. After about six months, she felt less lonely as she built connections and made new friends and found her Native circle.

Agatha visits her Grandpa Solomon in Kaltag. Courtesy photo
Agatha visits her Grandpa Solomon in Kaltag. Courtesy photo

With such a fast-paced day job, I asked Agatha how she keeps grounded. She runs on the Anchorage trails, and hikes around southcentral Alaska. In the winter time, she enjoys skiing. Agatha also practices what she calls ‘urban subsistence’, including fishing, berry picking, cooking traditional Native dishes with a twist (testing out different ingredients and cooking styles).

If you are interested in getting involved in politics, whether it be by running for any type of office or working in a governmental office, Agatha recommends getting an internship. It is the first step in starting a career in in the government and to learning how it operates. What you see in the media is only a small percentage of what actually happens behind the scenes.

Agatha and her friend, Tiffany Zulkosky, picking berries in Bethel. Tiffany was the former Rural Director for Senator Mark Begich. Courtesy photo
Agatha and her friend, Tiffany Zulkosky, picking berries in Bethel. Tiffany was the former Rural Director for Senator Mark Begich. Courtesy photo

Agatha has built a strong camaraderie with other Alaska Natives who are serving representatives and senators. She has found that even though their offices may have differing ideas and policies, they are all serving for the same purpose of the overall betterment of Alaska Native people. Despite long hours and hard work, they formed a strong bond and remain to be close friends.

Over the past few years, Agatha has also had to build her public speaking skills. She has studied other public speakers and she has also had a lot of practice.

Agatha’s Advice on Public Speaking

  • Practice makes perfect. Get comfortable with public speaking.
  • Find a way to deal with your nervousness. People can tell you are nervous. Agatha forces herself to breathe deeply before speaking to calm herself down.
  • Speak five times slower than your mind is going. Consciously slowing down will help you to process your thoughts and it will also give the audience a chance to digest the information you are sharing.
  • Plan to share three main points. Any less may be too short, and any more may bore people.
  • Be ready to respond to questions. Be honest if you don’t know the answer to a question, but make sure to let the person know you’ll get back to them with an answer.
Agatha at the Golden Nugget Triathlon in Anchorage. Courtesy photo
Agatha at the Golden Nugget Triathlon in Anchorage. Courtesy photo

I admire Agatha’s ability to be an ambassador for rural Alaskans, Native and non-Native. I appreciate her willingness to learn more about topics. I also admire her ability to deal with stress through physical activity. That is something I wish I learned a long time ago. Agatha is a great example that you can go far with an education and just going out and doing it.

Alaska life

Big Families – Those Were the Days

Yatlin Family in 2007. Back row (left-right): Al Jr., Solomon, Janessa, Al Sr., Eleanor, Ermelina, Johnnie and Dolly. Front row (left-right): Sheri, Tanya, Lydia and Angela. Photo taken by Farmer Vent
Yatlin Family in 2007. Back row (left-right): Al Jr., Solomon, Janessa, Al Sr., Eleanor, Ermelina, Johnnie and Dolly. Front row (left-right): Sheri, Tanya, Lydia and Angela. Photo taken by Farmer Vent
Tanya, Angela and Al Jr. were all one year apart. Photo by taken in Huslia by Eleanor Yatlin
Tanya, Angela and Al Jr. were all one year apart. Photo by taken in Huslia by Eleanor Yatlin

My parents had six kids, five together and one adopted. Al Jr., Tanya and I were all one year apart. Tanya was adopted a year before Al came along. We were the middle kids with an older sister, Sheri, and younger brothers, Solomon and Johnnie. We moved a lot due to my dad’s work, like Huslia, Hughes, Bettles/Evansville, Nome, Fort Yukon, Galena and Nenana. We might have lived in a lot of different places, but my siblings were a constant presence in my life.

My parents had their hands (and house) full during those years. Most people didn’t have running water in Huslia in my early years. We had those galvanized steel tubs. My parents had an oblong shaped tub, and Al, Tonz and I took a bath at the same time. We were pretty nuisance. One day while mom was out, I decided to cut my bangs. Oh, but I didn’t stop there. I had to cut Al and Tonz’ bangs too! I’m not sure if my mom has a picture of us during that time. I think I have a few with my really short bangs though. We were 4-5-6 years old at the time. Ha ha! Our nicknames were, Little Al, Tonz and Angie.

We probably drove my mom a little crazy. She was a stay-at-home mom. As teenagers we stayed up late, and she would tell us in a stern voice, “Go to bed and go to sleep.” We even recorded it one time. We still giggled for about half an hour after she would tell us.

"Yatlin Family Circus" is what I put on the back of this photo when I took it as a teenager in the 1990s. Photo taken in Bettles/Evansville, Alaska
“Yatlin Family Circus” is what I put on the back of this photo when I took it as a teenager in the 1990s. Photo taken in Bettles/Evansville, Alaska

My dad was a dog musher, so in addition to six kids, we also had to take care of 10-30 dogs over the years. Nowadays, my parents are retired and living a more quite life. They only have a couple dogs at a time. My sister and her daughter live in Huslia too. The rest of us are spread out around Alaska.

Angie (7), Al Jr. (5) and Tanya (6) in Huslia in the early 80s. Photo taken in Huslia by Eleanor Yatlin
Angie (7), Al Jr. (5) and Tanya (6) in Huslia in the early 80s. Photo taken in Huslia by Eleanor Yatlin

It wasn’t an easy life growing up with such a big family, but it was a blessing. I’m thankful for all of my siblings and for my extended family. One of my aunts had 14 children. I always thought I would have a big family of my own, but my husband and I are content with two. I cherish the memories of my childhood growing up in a large family.

Denaakk’e (Koyukon Athabascan) Lesson:

  • Sodaa – older sister
  • Sidaadza – younger sister
  • Sooghaa – older brother
  • Kitłaa – younger brother
Alaska Native culture

Learning Denaakk’e – Koyukon Athabascan

Susan Paskvan and Eliza Jones telling story in Denaakk'e. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Susan Paskvan and Eliza Jones telling story in Denaakk’e. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

I attended the Denaakk’e Immersion class held this month in Anchorage. I was not sure exactly what to expect and I thought I would be overwhelmed quickly. I can tell you that I am not overwhelmed. The instructors were patient and check in with everyone to see how we were doing. If we got overwhelmed, we took a break or did a fun activity.

My daughter, Ermelina, and I learned together. She is picking it up quickly and has helped me along the way. The class was open to all ages and ranges of language knowledge. It was great to interact with the elders and to learn along with the kids.

Learning the words is the biggest challenge for Erma. She enjoys the asking and answering a question activity. This is the “Where are your keys?” teaching method.

Each day, we reviewed the agenda and signed up to lead activities. Language Instructor Susan “K’etsoo” Paskvan encouraged participants to take ownership of the agenda and activities. We can use the same techniques to hold language nights later on. A part of learning the language is to be able to practice. The instructors are not always going to be there, and we need to pass it on.

Teach what you want to learn. -Carter Rodriquez

I was impressed with the structure of the class and the thought they put into the teaching methods. In addition to the the “Where are your keys?” teaching method, they also used storytelling to teach us some new verbs and nouns. The story is called, Tobaan Estuh. Participants performed the story in a play on the last day.

We also went for walks around the Alaska Native Heritage Center and asked questions and learned words. We had to ask the questions in Denaakk’e. This is a great method to remember words. We also had a lot of repetition with each exercise. Once you ‘got it’, you were encouraged to teach others.

Another key method was learning American Sign Language. Signing helped us remember the words. It also helped us to stay immersed in Denaakk’e. We tried to speak Denaakk’e as much as we could.

We played fun games with Denaakk’e words mixed in. Like the Simon Says game, we played Setsoo Says (Grandma Says). We also learned some Denaakk’e songs. It was great to hear the stories behind the songs. Esther “Nedosdegheełno” McCarty explained why songs are made and where they come from.

Esther McCarty teaches students a Denaakk'e song. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Esther McCarty teaches students a Denaakk’e song. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

I enjoyed learning and practicing how to introduce yourself in Denaakk’e. I wrote my Alaska Native introduction on my “About” page. Someday, I would like to learn how to do the same thing in Denaak’e. The cool thing is that some participants learned they were related.

I’m filled up with a newfound knowledge and respect for the Denaakk’e. it was great to connect with people who are also interested in learning the language. It’s a lifelong challenge, but I have some tools to help me along the way.

Ana basee’ to Eliza Jones, Esther McCarty, Susan Paskvan, Dewey Hoffman and Dawn Dinwoodie! A big thanks to the Alaska Native Heritage Center for hosting and organizing the class. Thank you to Doyon, Limited for sponsoring the program!