Alaska life

VHF Radio in Rural Alaska

VHF radios are used in many rural Alaskan villages. The community uses them to communicate everyday messages. You can hear radio chatter all day, from birthday messages to local emergencies and community announcements. When people are done saying with a message, they ask if anyone heard the message. People reply with, “copy”.

Here’s an example of Cesa Agnes speaking on a VHF radio in Huslia.

My niece, Sasha, in Huslia in 2014. Photo by Solomon Yatlin
My niece, Sasha, in Huslia in 2014. Photo by Solomon Yatlin

My brother, Solomon, shared a story about his daughter, Sasha, who was five years old at the time. My mom was talking to dad when she was cooking one day. My dad has a hearing aid, and Sasha wasn’t sure if my dad heard my mom. Sasha said, “Grandpa, you gotta copy?” Adorable!

Being connected by VHF radio in the village is convenient and a great way to get messages out to most people. Many remote Alaskan villages are small. Huslia has about 300 residents. In the past few years, more and more people are getting connected to the internet. Many of my friends and relatives are on Facebook, and use it as a way to communicate. I see my relatives posting updates with information or events, like open gym night. I heard people call Facebook the ‘new VHF radio’. Times are changing. 🙂

Alaska life

Berry Fever in Alaska

Summer means it’s time to go fishing and berry picking for many Alaskans. I remember growing up when we would go out and pick berries on the tundra. I lived in the villages of Huslia and Bettles along the Koyukuk River.

We usually went out by boat or four-wheeler to pick berries. I remember high bush cranberries usually came first, and it seemed like they were the easiest to pick and you could pick them fast. We also picked rosehip berries. My mom used to make jam out of them. I remember her using a cheese cloth to strain the seeds out. It was a long process during the hot summers, but the end product was tasty. My mom made syrup out of high bush cranberries. They have a waterier consistency, so it was perfect for syrup.

From my sister-in-law, Dolly Yatlin (Iñupiaq), in North Pole. She said, "Decided to go out and pick me some yummy asriaq (blueberries) and akpiks (salmon berries)."
From my sister-in-law, Dolly Yatlin (Iñupiaq), in North Pole. She said, “Decided to go out and pick me some yummy asriaq (blueberries) and akpiks (salmon berries).”

Salmon berries and blueberries would usually ripen next. The availability of salmon berries varied each year. Some years they didn’t grow and other years they dried out before they could ripen. Salmon berries taste delicious and we felt lucky whenever we were able to pick them. We usually put them in the freezer.

My sister-in-law, Dolly Yatlin, recently went out picking in North Pole, Alaska. She picked blueberries and salmonberries. When asked what she does with the berries, Dolly replied, “Smoothies, put blueberries in our pancakes or eat both with a sprinkle of sugar and carnation milk.” They are delicious treats for Dolly’s three kids. Dolly grew up in Kiana.

“My parents and the family would go out with our grandparents, great grandparents, and uncles and aunts. There would be about five boats and we had our own berry picking spot. We would sit for hours on end filling up buckets and buckets. Our great grandparents told us berries are a very great food to eat. We would go home with 20 gallons of berries that day!” – Dolly Yatlin (Inupiaq)

I loved picking blueberries. When you live in the village, fresh fruits are hard to come by. Fresh blueberries were always a delicious treat! I remember sometimes sneaking a handful and stuffing my mouth full of berries. Pesky mosquitoes are always buzzing around you when you are picking. We would bring a smudge pot (beyee hudaałts’eege). We burned punk (kk’eeyh edaanee’one) to keep the mosquitoes at bay. We also wear summer parkas with a hood and/or wear a head net.

Koyukon Junior Dictionary. Written by Eliza Jones in 1978
Koyukon Junior Dictionary. Written by Eliza Jones in 1978

Denaakk’ee (Koyukon Athabascan) Language Translations
Smudge pot (beyee hudaałts’eege)
Punk (kk’eeyh edaanee’one)
Blueberries (niłyaagh
Low bush cranberries (neentł’ee’)
High bush berries (donaaldloy)
Raspberries (neełdaggay)
Black mountain berries (deenaałt’aas)
Low bush salmonberries (kkotł)
Indian ice cream (nonaałdloda)
Indian ice cream made with fish (binot hoolaanee)

My other sister-in-law, Sonja Yatlin, grew up in Venetie. She says, “I remember going berry picking with my mom and grandma and we would always eat every berry we picked…well the kids at least would (lol). Then my mom would make jam with the berries!”

Aunt Dorothy and Janessa picking blueberries near Huslia in 2006. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Aunt Dorothy and Janessa picking blueberries near Huslia in 2006. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

You might think picking berries is mindless work. It is to a point because you can zone out, but my mind is anything but mindless. I think about my grandmother and how our ancestors once did the same thing. Picking berries was a way to provide for their family, and it made me feel closer to them.

There is a lady, Nuna Inua, from Anaktuvuk Pass who shared her jam recipe. Check it out here:  Cloudberry/Salmonberry/Akpik Jam.

Later in the summer, we picked blackberries and cranberries. My aunt, Rosie Simon of Huslia, makes the best blueberry pie. My mouth waters thinking about it. Many of my relatives save berries for a special occasion throughout the year, like a potluck, holiday celebrations or a potlatch. There are a few people who make Indian ice cream (nonaałdloda). My great aunt, Rose Ambrose of Huslia, makes delicious Indian ice cream made with berries and fish (binot hoolaanee).

Many Alaskans will be freezing, canning jam or jelly or making delicious treats with berries they pick this summer. Many people have their favorite berry picking spots and keep the locations a secret. After leaving a berry patch, I remember just seeing nothing but berries in my mind for the rest of the day. Enjoy berry picking this summer!

Cranberries picked in Huslia. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Cranberries picked in Huslia. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Alaska Native culture

Dos and Don’ts in Rural Alaska Outreach Campaigns

Angela Gonzalez at the 2015 Alaska Communicators Exchange. Photo by Shipe Shots
Angela Gonzalez at the 2015 Alaska Communicators Exchange. Photo by Shipe Shots

Over the past seven months, I have been sharing some advice and tips about how to do outreach to rural Alaskans or Alaska Native people. I work in the public relations and communications field in Alaska. In 2015, I presented for the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) – Alaska Chapter luncheons in Anchorage and Fairbanks, and at the Alaska Communicators Exchange. This month, I presented at the First Alaskans Institute’s Racial Equity Summit in Anchorage.

Why is it important to share this information? To overcome stereotypes of Alaska Native people and rural Alaskans. That is a big part of why I do this blog. There are so many rich stories not being told or shared in mainstream media about Alaska Native people. I also want to show a side of Alaska Native people that you might not always know about.

I think more Alaska Native people should share their stories and culture. I want to give people a voice. When I highlight people, I like to share a positive or inspiring story. I often ask people how they’ve overcome challenges in hopes that it will help others. Often times people are inspired by the people they know who have overcome obstacles and had success.

Over the years, I have made a lot of connections in the Native community and I was raised in rural Alaska. Being raised in rural Alaska gives me a unique perspective. My dad was an electronics technician and worked for the Federal Aviation Administration, and we lived in Nome and Bettles. My family has also lived in Fort Yukon, Galena and Nenana. My hometown is Huslia. I have also had the opportunity to travel to many rural Alaskan communities throughout the years for professional and personal reasons.

Why I created this presentation? I saw a need to address stereotypes of Alaska Native people in media campaigns, offer tips on travelling to rural Alaska, and help communications professionals in their outreach to rural Alaskans and Alaska Natives. In subtle and not so subtle ways, we may be doing things in our outreach efforts to perpetuate stereotypes.

The presentation takes about an hour to present. I do not claim to be an expert or to know all of the answers. I want to share some basic information that might be useful to people who want to do outreach to rural Alaskans and Alaskan Natives. I have a lot of colleagues and friends who have helped me to develop the presentation. Thank you to Leona Long, Dawn Kimberlin, Dixie Hutchinson, Sarah Scanlan, Janet Hall, Joaqlin Estus, April Williams, Anna Sattler, Geri Simon, Jaylene Wheeler and Jolene John for helping me with advice and sharing expertise.

Here is the presentation from November for the PRSA Alaska Chapter in Anchorage:

Here are the top notes and tips from the presentation.

Don’ts

  • Don’t assume Alaska Natives and the Native Americans are the same
  • Don’t assume that one size fits all. Each region has different cultural backgrounds
  • Don’t assume Alaska Natives are living in the old days
  • Don’t assume rural Alaskans have the same phone/internet speed as you
  • Don’t assume all rural Alaskans are Alaska Native. There are plenty of non-Natives in rural Alaska
  • Don’t judge by appearance
  • Don’t believe all of the bad stats

Don’ts – Traveling

  • Don’t go to rural Alaska if you are not dressed properly
  • Don’t travel to rural Alaska and expect everyone to drop everything they are doing to accommodate you
  • Don’t make last minute requests
  • Don’t assume the rural communities are like the city (traveling, transportation, housing, communications, etc.)

Dos

  • Make requests as far in advance as possible
  • Reach out to community leaders to let them know your plans, even if it is just a courtesy. Check in with them when you come into town
  • Build relationships with community representatives. You can gain a lot of knowledge from them
  • Have a local ambassador to help you open the doors and smooth the way
  • Bring food to events you host
  • Ask questions if you don’t understand something
  • Dress properly for weather conditions, but not too under-dressed.
  • Dress is more casual.
  • Teach/provide resources to staff about rural Alaska and Alaskans.
  • Sponsor regional/local events.
  • Review your promotion materials for cultural sensitivity. Have a local person do this if possible
  • Show respect for everyone, especially elders and community leaders
  • Be authentic and transparent; be helpful; be yourself
  • Introduce yourself and create a personal connection
    • Where you are from (how you came to Alaska if you are from out of state)
    • Why you love your job
    • Any credentials that are important to what you are doing
  • Answer the question – Why is it important to them?

Traditional ways of reaching rural Alaskans

  • Radio
  • Print and direct mail are still vital in rural Alaska
  • Television
  • Interactive Media
  • Face to face, word-of-mouth

Trends in reaching rural Alaskans

  • Sponsoring regional events, dog mushing and sports, etc. Also – local publications, like a cookbook
  • Facebook (pages, people and campaigns); sweepstakes/drawings; ads
  • Flyers – send for distribution (electronic & hard copies)
  • Tribal/Native corporation/health newsletters
  • B-Roll
  • VHF radio
  • Bloggers – audience and influence
  • Old school is still relevant – print, radio, direct mail, flyers and posters
  • Digital storytelling

Resources
SAMHSA – Culture Card
Alaskool
Alaska Native Knowledge Network
Father Michael Oleksa – Cross-Cultural Communications
Nalliq Blog by Cordelia Kellie – Stories and poetry about Indigenous issues
RurAL CAP’s Village Voices Newsletter
Alaska Community Database Online
ANDORE – The Advancing Native Dialogues on Racial Equity is a project funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, initiated by the Alaska Native Policy Center at First Alaskans Institute.

As you can see, I barely scratch the surface. There are many more online resources and books about rural Alaskans and Alaska Native people out there that go into more comprehensive detail. There are also classes you can take on a number of topics about Alaska Native people. First Alaskans Institute also hosts discussions through ANDORE on racial equity. What other tips, advice or resources would you add to the presentation?

By the way, here is a video snapshot of some of the speakers from the Partners for the next 10,000 Years – Racial Equity Summit hosted by First Alaskans Institute in Anchorage on February 1-2. Search the hashtags #RacialEquity2016 and #andore2016 on social media to see what others had to share.

Alaska life

Meeting Shirt – A Clothing Staple for Rural Alaska

Many roads in rural Alaska are sand or gravel, like this one in Huslia. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Many roads in rural Alaska are sand or gravel, like this one in Huslia. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Michelle Moses of Alatna is wearing a nice 'meeting' shirt, and dresses it up a bit with a suit jacket. She was attending a conference in Anchorage recently. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Michelle Moses of Alatna is wearing a nice ‘meeting’ shirt, and dresses it up a bit with a suit jacket. She was attending a conference in Anchorage recently. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Rural Alaskan ladies often have what they call a ‘meeting’ shirt. They might have one or two or sometimes several. They usually only use it in the city. A meeting shirt is usually a nice blouse that you could in a business meeting, training or conference. Men might wear a nice dress shirt. They will pack up their shirt to wear when they have meetings or other events to attend outside of the village.

In rural Alaska, people dress for the weather conditions and activities they mostly do outside, like fishing, berry picking and hunting. They dress to be ready to face the elements. Overall, the dress code is casual.

People really look at you if you are too ‘dressed’ up. Years ago, I wore a dress to the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) Convention. That was even too dressy for my uncle who teased me and said, “You are the only one wearing a dress.” We laughed, and since then I remembered not to dress up too ‘nice’.

I’m not saying that people in rural Alaska do not dress nice or don’t have occasions to dress nice. They do indeed for school events, like proms or picture days. My dad, Al Yatlin, Sr., says, “Fancy clothes are not practical to wear for working. You can’t be cutting wood in your suit of clothes.” Suit-O-clothes is a saying older villagers had for fancy clothes like suits, ties, slacks, ties and white dress shirts.

Minnie Gray made a summer parka for Ermelina Gonzalez. Summer parkas can be worn for many occasions in rural and urban Alaska. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Minnie Gray made a summer parka for Ermelina Gonzalez. Summer parkas can be worn for many occasions in rural and urban Alaska. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Recently, my auntie came to Anchorage and said she wanted to buy some new meeting shirts. She said, “People see me in the same shirts every time I come to town. I wonder what they think.” We both laughed about it. Needless to say, she has a few more meeting shirts to add to her collection.

Speaking of shirts, wearing a summer parka in rural and urban Alaska is always in style. Commonly called a cuspuk or kuspuk, the summer parka are made out of calico or other colorful fabrics. Many sewers sell them at events. Koyukon Athabascan people call the summer parka a bets’egh hoolaanee. Inupiaq call it an atikłuk. Summer parkas are usually hooded with big pockets. They are used for a variety of events and can be dressed down or up. Men also wear darker and solid colored summer parkas.

Read about a piece I did on the Athabascan Word of the Week: Summer Parka for the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer.

Rural Alaskans prepare to go to the city with their meeting shirts, but urban Alaskans also need to be prepared when they travel to the villages.

Tips for Traveling to Rural Alaska

  • Be sure to dress appropriately for weather conditions. Many villages do not have a building at the airport. You may have to walk to the village from the airport or ride on the back of an ATV or a four-wheeler. Dress in layers, and have more layers in colder weather. Inclement weather is common.
  • Wear comfortable shoes that you don’t mind getting muddy or wet. High heels are not really practical because most roads are sand or gravel.
  • Casual dress code is the norm. For example, jeans are okay.

I think sports, casual and hunting clothing stores probably have excellent sales in rural Alaska because those are the types of clothing that are most practical. I used to love catalog shopping for those types of clothing when I lived in rural Alaska. The dress code in rural Alaska is more casual because life is different. A lot of people spend time outside. Practical clothes rule in rural Alaska.

My daughter, Janessa, and I got a ride on the back of a truck from the airport into town. The airport is about one-two miles from the village. ATVs, snow machines and trucks are the main modes of transportation in rural Alaska. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
My daughter, Janessa, and I got a ride on the back of a truck from the airport into town. The airport is about one-two miles from the village. ATVs, snow machines and trucks are the main modes of transportation in rural Alaska. Photo by Angela Gonzalez