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.