Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Reflections from Vina Bilow

Vina Bilow. Courtesy photo

My aunt, Vina Bilow (Koyukon Athabascan), recently shared her reflections on moving to Fairbanks from Huslia. She shared some stories and gave some really great advice about living a sustainable lifestyle. She graciously allowed me to share some of it. She’s a fellow writer, and I love reading her stories and reflections.


It has been three years since I left Huslia and moved into Town (aka Fairbanks). That was the longest—26 years—that I have lived in my home village. I left at age 14 to attend Mt Edgecumbe High School in Sitka or as it was known as way back in 1961 Mt. Edgecumbe Alaska. I was home just for the summers, graduated in May 1965 and joined the Women’s Army Corp the following September for my three-year enlistment tour, so 14 + 26 = 40 years in the village and 33 years elsewhere.

I made quite a few changes in the last three years, plus made changes in my life before that, for several reasons; some for my health, some in lifestyle, others for financial reasons, and whatever else. Continue reading “Reflections from Vina Bilow”

Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Amber Hopkins – Koyukon Athabascan Nurse

My relative, Amber Hopkins, is from upriver from where I grew up in Huslia. I love highlighting Athabascan people doing great things.


Amber Hopkins. Courtesy photo.

Amber Hopkins grew up in Hughes, Alaska, a small Koyukon Athabascan village on the Koyukuk river. Her parents are Wilmer Beetus and Margaret Williams. Her grandparents are the late Joe and Celia Beetus and late Lavine and Susie Williams. After graduating from Lathrop High School, she went to the University of Alaska Fairbanks for a year. Then, she joined the U.S. Navy and was able to travel to parts of the world. She was honorably discharged at the end of her five-year contract and started school to become a nurse. She used her Montgomery GI Bill and earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Amber is now a pediatric/pediatric ICU nurse at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage.

Continue reading “Amber Hopkins – Koyukon Athabascan Nurse”

Alaska Native culture

Steps to Tanning a Moose Skin

During a recent event in my hometown of Huslia, I got a chance to chat with my relative Tom Daton Huntington. Daton was his maternal grandfather’s name. They only had Denaakk’e in that time. Like me, he is originally from the Koyukuk River country. Tom was born at camp below the mouth of the Hogatza river and grew up at Huslia and Galena. He lives in Fairbanks and works in the petroleum industry – instrumentation technician of all things automated and process control. His hobbies include cooking, small engine repair, wood working, and hide and fur tanning.

In our conversation, Tom talked about tanning moose skins and shared some photos and videos of the process. It was very interesting learning a little bit about his process and he graciously agreed to share it on the Athabascan Woman blog! He shared his written story below. Continue reading “Steps to Tanning a Moose Skin”

Alaska Native/Indigenous People, Athabascan in the Spotlight

Blanche Sam – Athabascan & Iñupiaq Beader

Blanche Sam and her daughter, Harper. Photo by Nadine Carroll

My niece, Blanche Sam (Athabascan/Iñupiaq) of Hughes, has really come into her own in the past couple of years with her beadwork, and I hadto interview her. I love her colorful earrings and creativity with using materials, like dentalium shells and hide. Enaa baasee’ Blanche for agreeing to share your beading journey on the Athabascan Woman Blog!

Blanche Sam and her family. Photo by Nadine Carroll

Blanche’s parents are Lester and Ella Sam of Hughes. Her paternal grandparents were the late Frank Sam, Elma (Nictune) Sam and biological (Blanche Henry); and maternal grandparents are the late Arthur Ambrose and Alice (Simon) Ambrose. Blanche now lives in Fairbanks with her own family, including Zeb Cadzow, and children Dakota and Harper Cadzow. She earned an associate degree in accounting from at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and currently works for her village corporation, K’oyitl’ots’ina, Limited.

“My mom and grandmothers did it and were so good at it and it is a big part of our culture as Alaska Natives.” – Blanche Sam (Koyukon Athabascan/Iñupiaq)

Blanche Sam sewed calf skin boots and a martin hat for her daughter. Photo by Blanche Sam

Blanche learned to bead in elementary school from her grandmothers and aunt. Some of her first memories of beading and sewing were in school. Blanche remembers her grandmothers and aunt receiving a grant to get furs, hide, beads and other supplies. She learned to sew calf skin boots with help from her grandmothers, Alice and Rita. Her aunt, Hazel, was the first one to teach her how to bead earrings with a basic pattern with bugle beads.

Beaded earrings by Blanche Sam

After buying several pairs of earrings in 2016, she thought, ‘I should just make my own.’ She began making her own jewelry and connected with it. Now when she’s not busy with her kids, you can find her at her beading table. She invested in supplies and challenged herself with some ambitions first projects. She has learned a lot and improved since the beginning. I’ve loved watching the progression of her styles and themes as she has shared them on social media.

Brilliant Beads by Blanche booth. Photo by Blanche Sam

Blanche stared sharing pictures of her earrings on social media and people were interested and started ordering from her. She found a higher demand once she started an online presence as Brilliant Beads by Blanche. After creating a small business, she started selling more, created a logo, ordered business cards, and learned to take better photos of her work. Although making extra money is nice, she appreciates the therapeutic nature of beading and how it connects her to her culture giving her a sense of purpose. Blanche says, “It allowed me to relax, escape and filled me with purpose.”

Blanche’s Advice for Beaders Who Want to Create a Small Business

  • Find and perfect a niche.
  • Having booths at bazaars is a great way to get known and get the word out about your product.
  • Create an online presence. Her online presence has especially helped increase her sales at bazaars.
  • Learn to take good photographs of your work in natural light.
  • Search for ideas on Pinterest for inspiration and help with your creations. It is also a great place to get ideas for creating an eye catching and inviting booth.

Overall, Blanche says, “Do not give up if you make mistakes. I made a lot and learned from each one of them.” She sells about 60-80 pairs for each bazaar she attends. It is impressive to see how she has grown in her beading journey and how she has come close to selling out at her last bazaars. Way to go, Blanche!

You can find Blanche Sam of Brilliant Beads by Blanche on TwitterInstagram and Facebook.

Angniq Woods-Orrison her fiancé, Mitchell, visited the White Sands National Park. Courtesy photo
Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Angniq Woods-Orrison – Athabascan Wrestler

Angniq Woods-Orrison and her teammate Cheynell Kawaihai. Courtesy photo
Angniq Woods-Orrison and her teammate Cheynell Kawaihai. Courtesy photo

It is amazing how social media and a web presence can bring people together. I befriended Angniq Woods-Orrison (Koyukon Athabascan) on Instagram this summer. She posts inspirational stories touching on topics including identity, body confidence, personal goals and wrestling. I just had to find out more about Angniq, so was happy when she agreed to be interviewed for the Athabascan Woman Blog.

Angniq is from Rampart, Alaska. Her mother is Brooke Wright. Angniq was raised by her maternal grandparents, Arthur Joseph, Jr. and Janet Woods. Brooke was a teenage mother, and her parents became Angniq’s guardians as she finished school. Angniq said, “I was blessed to have met most of my great grandparents. My elders laid a great foundation for my identity as a child from a village along the Yukon, and as a Koyukon Athabascan.”

Angniq is the granddaughter of Elizabeth Wiehl, Jenny Joseph, Walter Woods and Judy (Starr) Woods. She has family ties to Tanana, Manley Hot Springs, and Angoon. Angniq grew up as one of the only babies-at the time-in Rampart, and felt an enormous amount of love and care. As a result, it gave her confidence, along with the ability to be bold and proud of who she was and where she came from.

“I went to a boarding school in the Southeast part of Alaska. I’m from the interior, I was 800 miles away from home. I’m a frequent traveler because of my distance from home, and also for competitions. I competed in #mehsxc #mehswrestling basketball #mehsNYO ❤💛 this was surprising for a #koyukonathabascan who is from the village of #rampartak which has less than 100 people. The Rampart school shutdown when I was a child, so I grew up between there and Fairbanks. I learned my cultural history, my songs, my dances, my subsistence lifestyle. I don’t know my language. The boarding school I went to was originally run by the BIA before being taken over by the state. During that time, it was a hospital for the tb epidemic, and a place native students where forced to go starting at the age of 4. This was an attempt at complete assimilation: often being abused mentally, physically, and sexually. This happened across the U.S, and this generation is still alive. I don’t know exactly what happened to my great grandmother, but she didn’t teach her children their language. My childhood is shaped around growing into, and unknowingly, healing from my family’s trauma by keeping my culture alive in myself, the next goal being to learn my language. Going to college in California for wrestling is a new part of my identity, and it’s important for me to further my education for my community, but at times it hurts to be away from home. This is my open book.” – Angniq Woods-Orrison (Koyukon Athabascan), posted on Instagram (@Angniq)

Angniq Woods-Orrison and her grandmother, Judy Woods. Courtesy photo
Angniq Woods-Orrison and her grandmother, Judy Woods. Courtesy photo

Many small Alaskan towns struggle with the minimum number of students to keep a school open. With less than 10 students, Rampart’s school shutdown before Angniq entered elementary school, so her family split time between the Rampart and Fairbanks. She struggled in a predominantly white elementary school, but found comfort when she attended Effie Kokrine Charter School. Angniq says, “This Native-staffed, -inspired, and -centered education opened up a new perspective to my Indigenous identity.”

Angniq had strong politically-active role models growing up, including her aunt, Georgianna Lincoln, and uncle, Albert Kookesh. She attended countless Native gatherings for her tribe, corporations, potlatches and festivals with her grandmother, Janet. This exposed her to the power, beauty, and love in Native communities.

Angniq attended Mt. Edgecumbe High School (MEHS) in Sitka, a boarding school which is 800 miles away from her hometown. She was encouraged to grow, accept challenges, and develop herself in every way. Angniq took extra classes, joined sports (cross country, wrestling, basketball, Native Youth Olympics), and joined battle of the books. She was inducted into a campus volunteer group (L.E.A.D.S), and was a member of the National Honor Society. Angniq graduated winning multiple regional and state championships, along with earning the Lillian Lane Award and the national Tricia Saunders award.

Angniq decided she wanted to wrestle in college, which meant she would have to find a school out of state. She attends Menlo College, and is a scholarship recipient and is working toward a degree in psychology. It has not been easy having to pay tuition to private school on top of her participation on the wrestling team, which like having a full-time job. At one point, she took more classes than she was comfortable and it hurt her grades. She was burnt out, but was thankful when countless people came to her aid from home and within my new Californian family. Angniq is currently a junior, has earned more scholarships to ease the financial burden. Her wrestling team has placed 7th and 5th in the nation. Despite having a full schedule and a part-time job, she has made it onto the Dean’s list and currently sit at a 3.4 GPA.

Angniq Woods Orrison enjoys spending time with her family. Courtesy photo
Angniq Woods Orrison enjoys spending time with her family. Courtesy photo

Hundreds of people have given Angniq support to help her achieve her goals, including her community along the Yukon River, a growing Indigenous community of friends, MEHS alumni/family, and her new international family.

The journey to success has not been a fast process for Angniq. She points out she did not start wrestling until she was a freshman in high school, and didn’t win a match until she was a senior. In 2015, Alaska sanctioned a girl’s state championships for the first time, and she became one of the first state champions. When she decided to wrestle in college, the process repeated.

Angniq also attributes her success to her family, friends, classmates, teachers, coaches and teammates. She says, “I’ve been financially supported, encouraged, tutored, pushed, yelled at, consoled, and guided in every way possible. To be alive is a testimony to our ancestor’s resilience in surviving genocide, assimilation and racism.”

Angniq was exposed to alcoholism or drugs and saw the impacts it had on people and knew at a young age she didn’t want to drink. She was inspired from Geraldine Charlie of Minto who told her story of family and sobriety at a Doyon meeting. Angniq draws strength from living her traditional lifestyle and practicing her culture. She loves fishing on the Yukon River and participating in cultural arts. One of her goals is to learn her language, Denaakk’e (Koyukon Athabascan). Angniq started learning words and tries to use them in everyday conversation. She appreciates being able to call upon relatives anytime she has questions.

“Alcohol was introduced to Native peoples as a tool of genocide, in the hopes that it would tear us apart. We struggle, but we still survive. The point I am trying to make is: we are burden with extreme hardships of mental health issues, poor health, and poverty within the Indigenous communities. This is another manifestation of white supremacy and it takes a great amount of knowledge and research to understand the systematic nature of this racial hegemony. There will be walls for Indigenous people no matter which direction life brings them, but there is a great liberation in the pursuit of happiness. As I continue to learn about America and my culture, I love myself more. As I continue to meet people from around the world, travel, and live an active lifestyle, I love myself more. At times, I am overwhelmed with oppression as a Native woman, and with the struggle to further my education, but it forced me to bloom in the most beautiful ways. Find your community, find yourself, and continue to live as a marker for our ancestors’ resilience.” – Angniq Woods-Orrison (Koyukon Athabascan)

Angniq Woods-Orrison her fiancé, Mitchell, visited the White Sands National Park. Courtesy photo
Angniq Woods-Orrison her fiancé, Mitchell, visited the White Sands National Park. Courtesy photo

After undergraduate college, Angniq’s goal is to earn a master’s degree. She hopes to work for the tribes, maybe in a village, at a corporation or for an Indigenous program. Angniq’s dream is to bring more mental health resources to Alaskan Natives (or any tribe) that encourage places to learn culture and language. She says, “With more mental health resources, I want to help people recover and strive away from addiction, depression and suicide. In empowering my own people, I want to help other oppressed groups of people, which include women, minorities, the LBTQ community and people of non-biblical faiths.”

I am impressed with how Angniq is working toward her goals and not giving up despite being far from home. She is the only Alaska Native on her campus, but connects with other Indigenous people on social media. Angniq learns about tribal issues on Twitter. Find her on Twitter at @beedubs767 and Instagram at @Angniq. Enaa baasee’ Angniq for sharing your story and inspiring others!