Alaska Native/Indigenous People, Athabascan in the Spotlight

Athabascan Medical Laboratory Scientist

Starr Zottola

My cousin, Starr Zottola (Koyukon Athabascan), is a medical laboratory scientist who  analyzes blood and other bodily fluids to aid in the diagnosis of medical conditions. I asked her to share about her profession and what it took to get there. Starr’s parents are Gary Attla and Maureen Mayo. Enaa baasee’, Starr, for sharing on the Athabascan Woman Blog! Continue reading “Athabascan Medical Laboratory Scientist”

Alaska life, Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Harvesting Old Man’s Beard with Pat Frank

Pat Frank (Deg Hit’an Athabascan). Photo by Angela Gonzalez

I got a chance to tag along with Pat Frank (Deg Hit’an Athabascan) from Holy Cross and Anchorage as he harvested Old Man’s Beard for the first time. People in Alaska have harvested from the lands and waters for thousands of years. More and more people are relearning harvesting plants for medicinal purposes.

Pat has been learning about traditional plants medicines and healing for quite a few years. I was fortunate to spend an afternoon with him, his wife, Linda, and a couple family friends north of Anchorage on the Park’s Highway. He was harvesting usnea, also known as Old Man’s Beard. It’s a lichen that grows on trees and shrubs. We saw them growing on spruce trees and some other trees. It really looks like an old man’s beard. Continue reading “Harvesting Old Man’s Beard with Pat Frank”

Alaska life, Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Boating Stories by Sterling DeWilde

Yamaha motor repaired on boat. Photo by Sterling Dewilde

My friends, cousins and other relatives often share awesome stories on social media. Here’s a story from my cousin, Sterling DeWilde (Koyukon Athabascan) of Huslia and Fairbanks. He grew up mostly in camp outside of Huslia with his late parents, Lloyd and Amelia DeWilde. I always loved listening to my late Aunt Amelia’s stories, and I’m glad Sterling is continuing the tradition. He agreed to share his story below.

“I got my 70 hp Yamaha running and mounted on my 24’ flat-bottom Rhyancraft. It’s fully equipped with hydraulic trim and power lift. Thank you Norvin DeWilde for the lift and Ricko DeWilde for the boat ?. This was my first motor I ever owned back when I was at home on the North Fork. It has a 60 hp cowling. It hasn’t been run in over ten years. It sat in Huslia a while then I shipped it up here and haven’t looked it over since.

Yamaha motor repaired. Photo by Sterling Dewilde

It needed some serious work on several electrical systems and the carburetors/linkages needed tuning. It fired up in just a few cranks and runs smooth now. I put it on my dad’s 24’ allweld after his Honda 30 hp broke down, during some of our last years on the homestead. His boat was rated for a 45 hp but handled the 70 like it was meant for it. I used to rip the 120 miles of the Huslia and North for rivers, between our camp and Huslia, in about three hours.

That narrow boat would handle the sharp turns of the skinny North Fork at full speed. Once, I drove from our camp to Huslia and back, then back to Huslia, all in the same day. Then I drove back to camp in the morning. Mom, Amelia, seemed to be pleased with me making the frequent trips. She actually helped me make excuses on a few occasion.

Even though mom wasn’t going along most of the time, I always brought mail, food stuffs, movies, and local news with me. She was real social and I think it made her feel that much more connected. I’d go on the journey for just about any ol’ reason at all. Pops was always like, ‘What, another trip? You just got here.’ But he knew mom was all for it, so he didn’t argue, so long as I covered gas and he didn’t have to fix anything.

The best trip I ever had on that river, I drove down from camp and ran some errands then loaded up the boat for the return that same day. I knew there was a full moon and a clear night coming, so I left Huslia late. About 2/3 the way up it was too dark to see, so I stopped at a well-used camp spot called Birch Hill and had a fire and made tea and chilled.

A couple hours later, the moon came out, then I took off again. The moon lit the water up like bright silver and I could read everything on the surface like I had magic goggles on. The channel stood out like a monochrome sonogram. The dark surroundings made it seem like I was racing through a galactic speedway; it was truly magnificent and utterly exhilarating.

I think that may have contributed to my love for boat racing; the very first time I hopped in “Jen Jen” with Bill Page, to be his bow-man, I was hooked. I will forever be grateful for the experiences he has showed me and the support he’s given. After dog racing, I think I would have been pretty glum, had I not had a fast summer sport to fill the void.”

Enaa baasee’ to my cousin, Sterling DeWilde, for sharing this story on the Athabascan Woman Blog!

Sterling Dewilde and his daughter enjoying a boat ride. Photo by Sterling DeWilde

P.S. If you would like to share a short story like this, go to the Contact page to reach me or message me on Facebook.

Alaska Native culture

Traditional Ways of Life

I shared a picture of a young Gwich’in woman, Quannah Potts, on the Athabascan Woman Blog Facebook page. Quannah Potts says, “This year, I was blessed with shooting my first caribou and our future generations should have the same privilege of being able to hunt and live their ways of life.”

Someone said, “Although using rifles and snowmobiles, ATVs and the like is hardly ‘traditional’…..”

I responded by thanking him for his comment… It brings to light one of the reason I write and share on my blog. The act of spending time on the land and providing for her family is traditional. The tradition of giving parts of the caribou from first catches to Elders or other families is traditional. Alaska Native would not have survived 10,000+ years if we were not adaptable. We moved around on the land with the seasons and the availability of plants, animals, currents, cycles and conditions. We were not static people living in one certain way. I would not expect people to be driving around by horse and buggy from a century+ ago. The only people who can critique Quannah on whether or not she is traditional is her mother, grandparents and community Elders.

I’ve had conversations about what is traditional and contemporary. I say living our ways of life is traditional whether or not we use contemporary tools.

When we give our first catch to Elders or other family members despite shooting with a rifle – that’s traditional.

When we sometimes sing and dance despite it being with a fiddle – that’s traditional.

When we celebrate a memorial potlatch despite it being in a school gym vs. a community hall – that’s traditional.

When we pick berries despite using an ATV or boat – that’s traditional.

When my family fishes despite using a commercial fish net vs. a fish trap – that’s traditional.

When I bead slipper tops on smoked moose skin despite being on hard bottom moccasins – that’s traditional.

When I use beads in my beadwork introduced in the past couple of centuries despite it not being quills – that’s traditional.

When I learn and share the Denaakk’e language despite being on a paper book, by video or audio recording – that’s traditional.

When I share stories despite it being on a blog vs. oratory – that’s traditional.

What would you add? We need to continue sharing our perspectives, stories, culture, language and ways of life. Enaa baasee’.

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

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