Athabascan in the Spotlight
Alaska Native/Indigenous People, Athabascan in the Spotlight

Athabascan in the Spotlight – Glenda McKay

This summer, the Athabascan Woman Blog is featuring an Athabascan in the Spotlight each week. Thank you to Brenda Mahan (Koyukon Athabascan) for nominating Glenda McKay!

Glenda McKay is Ingalik-Athabascan. Her mother, Emily, was born in Flat, Alaska and grandmother, Eliza Tickeny, was born in Anvik, Alaska. Glenda is an artist known for creating miniature dolls using traditional materials. She also creates masks, charm baskets and knife sheaths. Glenda also does beadwork, like making octopus bags. She uses moose skin, walrus ivory, fossilized bone, seed beads, seal skin, whale baleen, sea otter fur and deer hide. One item can take several months, if not up to a year to create.

Glenda has won many awards for her artwork. She travels to many of the Native markets in the Lower 48, such as the Santa Fe Indian Market and the American Indian Arts Market place at the Autry Museum. She has been featured online and in magazines. Glenda received the 2017 Jackie Autry Purchase Award winner for her Yesterdays Warrior bag by the Autry Museum of the American West.

Glenda received the 2017 Jackie Autry Purchase Award winner for her Yesterdays Warrior bag by the Autry Museum of the American West. Photo by Autry Museum of the American West
Glenda received the 2017 Jackie Autry Purchase Award winner for her Yesterdays Warrior bag by the Autry Museum of the American West. Photo by Autry Museum of the American West

The Native American Artists, Musicians and Writers group featured her artwork on their Facebook page. View the page to see her impressive art work collection.

Glenda has been a mentor for Brenda Mahan for about three years now. Brenda says, “She is always willing to share tips of the trade. Her knowledge on Athabascan crafts is invaluable and she is willing to pass down her knowledge and this is why I am nominating her for the Athabascan in the Spotlight.”

Enaa baasee’ to Brenda for submitting Glenda McKay to be an Athabascan in the Spotlight! 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:

Alaska Native/Indigenous People, Athabascan in the Spotlight

Athabascan in the Spotlight Features

Athabascan in the Spotlight

Throughout the years, I have featured Athabascan people in my blog through interviews and by sharing our stories. Why? I want to raise people up, promote wellness and counter stereotypes. Let’s celebrate those we admire — our culture bearers, artists, storytellers, activists, role models, community doers, language warriors, leaders, hunters, gatherers, parents, and grandparents! Now, I would like to ask for your help.

To submit a nomination, please email me the following:

  • Your Name
  • Name of nominee (including Native name if applicable)
  • Cultural affiliation (like, Koyukon, Gwich’in, etc.)
  • Background on nominee (where they or their family is from, who their family is, what they do, etc.)
  • Reason this person should be recognized
  • Contact info for nominee (phone, email or social media)
  • Web and/or social media link
  • 1-3 photos (or links from public social media).

Email or message me on Facebook.

Let’s lift up and celebrate those we admire in the Athabascan community. Please contact me with any questions. Enaa baasee’!

Alaska Native/Indigenous People, Athabascan in the Spotlight

Shirley Sam – Author of Deadly Summers in Alaskan

Shirley Sam in a snowshoe race in Allakaket. Courtesy photo Shirley Sam in a snowshoe race in Allakaket. Courtesy photo

Shirley Sam is one of Alaska’s most recent authors. She wrote Deadly Summers in Alaska. The paperback and Kindle edition are available for purchase at Read the description below for more information about the book.

Shirley is Koyukon Athabascan and grew up in interior Alaska. Her father is the late Ernie Esmailka Sr. and her mother is Ethel Esmailka who lives in Koyukuk. Shirley grew up in Koyukuk and graduated high school as a boarding student in Tanana. She earned college credits from the University of Alaska Fairbanks via distance learning. Shirley is working toward a certificate in Tribal Management. She and her husband Darrell have been together for 20 years, and were married for the past 13 years. They have six children and four grandchildren. Shirley and Darrell adopted one of their grandchildren. Shirley and Darrel live a very active lifestyle in Huslia. They enter many snowshoe races and footraces in the interior, and often are the top placers. Shirley is currently the Transportation Planner for the Huslia Tribal Council.

Shirley Sam with her newly written book, Deadly Summers in Alaska. Courtesy photo Shirley Sam with her newly written book, Deadly Summers in Alaska. Courtesy photo

Shirley began writing Deadly Summers in Alaska in late 2011, and completed this April. It was published in June 2013. I loved the way she weaved a lot of local knowledge and traditions into the book. I found myself highlighting those areas on my Kindle edition.

“I used the local knowledge as I was taught in Koyukuk. I tried not to be specific about what we do, just that we do it. I didn’t want to offend anyone by telling people how we do things specifically.” – Shirley Sam

The book delves into the inner workings of law enforcement and crime. Shirley gained insight into the language of law enforcement and crime through reading books, watching television and by listening to people. She researched information on missing persons, procedures, the national missing persons clearinghouse, law enforcement and rosehips. Shirley relied on Trooper Jeannine Santora in Galena for the general information about Alaska State Troopers. Shirley also relied on Darrell to give her advice on motors and firefighting information.

Shirley grew up hearing about how search and rescue operations and firefighting happens. She says, “I did have a lot of déjà vu over the years that made me want to put in the experiences with dreams and how some elders just know things.”

Shirley has dreamed of writing a book since she first started reading. At first, she wanted to write a self-help book based on her childhood abuse. However, she didn’t want to anyone to feel put on the spot or pointed out. Shirley says, “So then I started thinking about all the silly stuff that happens day to day and how much I love mystery and thriller books so that’s where it came from.” Shirley is an avid reader. Some of her favorite authors include Dean Koontz, Mary Higgins Clark, Lisa Jackson and Stephen King.

I personally enjoyed the book. I did notice that it does need some minor editing. However, that didn’t turn me off because it was very suspenseful, interesting, and a page turner. I was impressed with the local knowledge peppered throughout the book. For now, Shirley doesn’t plan on having a second edition printed.

Shirley’s basic advice to people who want to write a book:

  • Just write
  • Don’t stop
  • Write your ideas down
  • Keep all your notes
Shirley loves spending time with her grandchildren. Here she is with Cherish, Blake, and Isaiah. Courtesy photo Shirley loves spending time with her grandchildren. Here she is with Cherish, Blake, and Isaiah. Courtesy photo

Shirley dedicated her book to Darrell, her children (Alexandria, Kate, Tyson, Patricia, Starlene and D2), and her grandchildren (Isaiah, Cherish, Blake and Riley). She thanks them for encouraging her and believing in her as she was writing the book.

Have you read the book yet? If so, please leave a review for it on the Amazon site. What was your favorite part of the book? Leave a comment below.

I’m proud of Shirley and the fact that she wrote and had a book published and she lives in a little town in interior Alaska! I admire her will and tenacity for checking something off her bucket list. It is encouraging to see an Alaska Native author be published. The book ends on a cliffhanger and the fans will be happy to know that Shirley does plan on doing a follow-up to the book. It may be set in different parts of Alaska. I’m looking forward to hearing more from this author!

About Deadly Summers in Alaska by S. A. E. Sam via
A serial killer is on the loose in Alaska, killing women who all look alike. Each woman is found abandoned in the uninhabited wilderness, and the only commonality among them is that they all physically resemble Denise “Birdie” Beardtom, an Alaska State Trooper. It would appear that someone wants Birdie dead, and it could be her abusive ex-husband. Her partner, Miles, is concerned for Birdie’s safety. He enlists local friends Myrna Elam and John Lebowan to keep an eye on her. But Myrna has problems of her own, as she faces nightly dreams that seem strangely similar to the recent murder spree. Is it safe for Myrna to stay near Birdie, or could Myrna need protection as well? As more bodies pile up, the crew calls for backup from the Fairbanks State Troopers Office. Due to the lack of evidence, however, they too are perplexed by the case. Running out of options, Birdie realizes she may be the only key to catching a killer-even if she has to act as bait. Can Birdie stop a madman before he kills again, or will she become his next and final victim?

Update: Read the next book in the series: Deadly Summers in Alaska II: Birdie by Shirley Sam

Athabascan in the Spotlight

Shyanne Beatty – Raven Whirlwind

Shyanne Beatty. Photo courtesy of Koahnic Broadcast Corporation.
Shyanne Beatty. Photo courtesy of Koahnic Broadcast Corporation

Shyanne Beatty is Hän Gwich’in Athabascan who grew up in Eagle, Alaska. Her Dena’ina Athabascan friend, Steve Hobson of Nondalton, gave her the name of Chulyin Ch’ivaya. It means Raven Whirlwind. She laughs and says he gave her the name because she likes shiny things, is mischief like a raven and she comes in and out of a room like a whirlwind.

I worked with Shyanne at Koahnic Broadcast Corporation for a number of years and she certainly has a larger than life personality. She is currently the Network Manager for NV1 (Native Voice One) which is a national distribution of Native American radio programs. Shyanne believes her subsistence lifestyle growing up in the village made her a well-rounded person and made her appreciate the small things in life, like running water, electricity and not having to get up in the middle of night to put wood in the fire.

Shyanne Beatty - ANAF artist by Angela Gonzalez 1-04-13
Shyanne Beatty in front of her gel acrylic art piece at the Alaska Native Arts Foundation. It is entitled “Weneydey” – Han Gwich’in Athabascan for “I Remember Her”. It is in memory of Helen Simeonoff, and you can see Helen’s work portrayed in Shyanne’s piece. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

I am always struck by her talents, including being an on-air personality, producer, emcee, singer, cultural ambassador, leader and an artist. I often wonder how she manages to be all of those things. Shyanne lives her passions of music, culture, language and tradition. Her talents, mixed with her passions, take many different forms and she is constantly evolving.

I’ve always admired Shyanne’s voice and how she uses it. If you know or have ever met Shyanne, she has a very vivacious and outgoing personality, which was perfect for radio. Many KNBA and Native radio station listeners across the US have come to know Shyanne when she was the host and producer of Earthsongs, which was the first national radio show to be broadcast out of Alaska. It is a one hour program that features contemporary Indigenous music with artist interviews.

Shyanne’s biggest challenge when producing Earthsongs was being based in Alaska. It was difficult to make connections with Indigenous musicians in the Lower 48. Being isolated in Alaska made it difficult to keep up with musicians and to market the show. There were very few national Indigenous artists who were coming to Alaska on a regular basis, but she managed to make it work through her networking skills and making the most of every opportunity she had to network at industry events. Shyanne made friends with other producers from other National Federation of Community Broadcasters stations. She relied on advice from them, plus her mentors, including Lori Townsend of the Alaska Public Media and Dixie Hutchinson who is the former News Director of KNBA. She would learn how to make her show better by asking what listeners liked about Earthsongs and what they’d like to see in the future.

Shyanne has also been heavily involved in the Alaska Native Heritage Month Committee, and currently serves as the President of the ANHM Board. She helped to start the Alaska Native Visionary Awards in hopes of recognizing people who perpetuate their culture and traditions in new and innovative ways. Shyanne says that she wanted to show young adults that instead of learning about their culture, traditions and language in the commonly known traditional methods, which sometimes is not appealing to the younger generation, they could use new methods like video, audio, and other digital formats to perpetuate their Alaska Native culture, traditions and language. The Alaska Native Visionary Awards aims to recognize and honor Alaskan Natives who are perpetuating and preserving culture through artistic and visionary ventures such as film, photography, music, visual and literary art, performance art and so much more.

Shyanne as a young child. Courtesy photo
Shyanne as a young child. Courtesy photo

At a conference one year, Shyanne was asking American Indian students who were attending a Johnson O’Malley conference if they would ever pursue a career in media and was shocked to hear that they would not. She asked why, and one young lady said, “Because I don’t’ see anyone on TV who looks like me or hear anyone on the radio who sounds like me.” That was a huge blow for Shyanne and that incident pushed her to do the work she has done throughout her career. According to Shyanne, American Indian and Alaska Native media professionals make up less than 1% of all of the media professionals in the US. She encourages and mentors others to get involved in the media and spread their Indigenous voices across not only the country but the world.

Although Shyanne pushes young people toward media careers, she says they have opportunities right at their fingertips, including:

  • Using your iPad or iPod to do digital storytelling
  • Volunteering at your local radio station
  • Blogging
  • Music
  • Social media tools

People can start by simply telling their own stories in the many different ways mentioned above. Shyanne says, “Be yourself and talk about things that you are interested in.” Shyanne always infuses culture in radio in whatever she does. Shyanne tells people they can tell stories about their culture, traditions and language without a radio or TV station. Using social media tools these days, you have your own form of broadcasting right at your fingertips.

When speaking about confidence, Shyanne says that it is all a process. Your confidence grows as your education grows. You learn different things through the process and that’s how you build your confidence and how you become more focused. When you first start out it can all seem overwhelming. You might not know where you want to go but as you start learning you can see a more clearly defined path that you want to take. Shyanne’s advice is to find things you love and it will help you focus more on the things your passionate about.

Shyanne says Native people who live and share their own experiences can make a bigger impact. She says that is one of the reasons why Koahnic Broadcast Corporation started in the first place. Media often portrayed Alaska Native people in a very negative way. It was very disheartening that people only saw these negative stereotypes and it made it very difficult for Alaska Natives to have pride in themselves. Koahnic wanted to change that by celebrating and showcasing the positive and amazing things that were happening in various Alaska Native communities, especially the biggest village – Anchorage.

“That’s why we have our own Native voice. Who is going to tell the stories that impact us better than us? Nobody can tell our stories like we can.” – Shyanne Beatty

Shyanne’s professional and volunteer work has to align with her personal passions. According to Shyanne, the Alaska Native Heritage Month (ANHM) would like to be a clearing house to help anyone be able to educate, promote, and perpetuate their cultures, traditions and language. She also volunteers for the Athabascan Cultural Advisory Committee and Salmonstock.

Music, culture, language and tradition – that’s my passion, my life, what’s important to me. If money was important to me, I wouldn’t volunteer for anything. That’s not my focus.” – Shyanne Beatty

Shyanne sees many people who are struggling with their identity partially because their parents were discouraged to practice their culture, language and traditions when they were growing up. Shyanne has made it her personal mission to carry on her own culture but also to encourage others to do the same.

In the past year, Shyanne has focused more on being healthy and fit. In her younger years, she wasn’t educated on the importance of living a healthy lifestyle. Since she got married, health became more important to her. She has lost 40 pounds since beginning and has learned that a healthy mind, body and spirit radiates to your passions. She says, “You are more powerful to attain the goals you are pursuing.” Some people don’t recognize her and some tell her, “Marriage looks good on you.”

Shyanne married Aaron Leggett in 2011 in Eagle, Alaska. Courtesy photo
Shyanne married Aaron Leggett in 2011 in Eagle, Alaska. Courtesy photo

Shyanne is happily married to Aaron Leggett who is Dena’ina Athabascan. According to Shyanne, his passions align with her own. Aaron’s passion for researching culture and language complements and enhances her endeavors in many ways. Shyanne recently expressed an interest in learning more about Athabascan porcupine quill work and Aaron got her a book on different aspects of quill work. Shyanne wants to learn more about her Hän Gwich’in Athabascan language but to her it seemed so overwhelming. She didn’t know where or how to start and Aaron helped her see that she can take small steps in learning her language.  Aaron encouraged her to transfer existing audio tape in Hän Gwich’in from analog to digital format. He broke it down into a digestible step that she could take now, that will help her to reach her goal.

Shyanne has already made a stamp in the world through her pursuit of carrying on traditions, language and culture. I am looking forward for the future in what she will be able to accomplish next. It takes people like her to preserve our cultures and other people can do the same.

Shyanne Beatty is the Network Manager for NV1 (Native Voice One) which distributes Native radio programming to radio stations throughout North America. Listeners in Southcentral Alaska also knew Shyanne as a popular local on-air personality for KNBA 90.3. Based in Anchorage, she maintains ties to her home village while coordinating urban events such as the Alaska Native Visionary Awards and the many events throughout Alaska Native Heritage Month.

Shyanne first came to Koahnic Broadcast Corporation when she won a coveted spot as a Koahnic Media Fellow in 1999, and learned the basics of news gathering and audio production. After completing the one-year Fellowship, Shyanne went on to pursue an Associate’s Degree in Audio Production from the Art Institute of Seattle.

Shyanne’s work for Koahnic has included directing the 2004 Native Media Empowerment Project. For this, she designed and constructed media training sessions for Alaska Native participants in rural locations including Barrow, Bethel, Kotzebue, St. Paul Island, Unalaska and Sitka. Shyanne also co-produced the award-winning oral history/Native language programs “Native Word of the Day” and “Stories of Our People” and the award-winning 2008 radio documentary “Coming Home: The Return of the Alutiiq Masks.”

Alaska Native/Indigenous People, Athabascan in the Spotlight

Edwin Bifelt – The Power in Not Giving Up

Edwin Bifelt earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Photo courtesy of Edwin Bifelt
Edwin Bifelt earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Photo courtesy of Edwin Bifelt

Edwin Bifelt is Koyukon Athabascan from Huslia, and currently living in Fairbanks. His parents are Fred and Audrey Bifelt of Huslia, and he has three sisters and two brothers. His paternal grandparents were the late Cue and Madeline Bifelt of Huslia. His maternal grandparents are Alfred and Helen Attla of Hughes.

Edwin graduated from the Jimmy Huntington School in Huslia and earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In a few months, he will earn his master’s degree in business administration. Not only is Edwin earning his MBA, he is also working full-time at a growing Alaska Native village corporation. Since 2009, Edwin has been the Shareholder Relations and Land Manager for K’oyitl’ots’ina, Limited in Fairbanks. Edwin is a shareholder of K’oyitl’ots’ina, Limited, which is the village corporation for Huslia, Hughes, Allakaket and Alatna. He finds his work rewarding because K’oyitl’ots’ina works toward the betterment of the lives of its shareholders through dividends, benefits and jobs.

As you can see, Edwin is already an accomplished young man at 28 years old. I am always impressed with young Alaska Native people who are obtaining their education. I asked Edwin about his biggest challenges in life, and found that his life has not been an easy road. As a teenager, he committed a serious crime that has had lasting effects. Edwin is not proud of it. After severely injuring another teenager at a party, he was convicted of a felony. Although it is difficult for him to discuss, he hopes his story may help teens (and adults) from rural Alaska who may have or are going through a similar situation.

Edwin wants teenagers and everyone to understand the potential consequences of committing crimes:

  • Something can happen very quickly but once it happens it cannot be undone. Life is precious and can be gone in a second.
  • A criminal conviction is something that shows up on every job application.
  • The federal government will not hire you if you have a felony. In addition, you most likely cannot get security clearance to work on federal projects.
  • When most employers see a felony conviction your chances of being considered go down significantly.
  • As a felon, and some misdemeanors, you cannot use or possess firearms for the rest of your life (unless the conviction is expunged after 10 years). If you are caught with firearms, you can get a federal felony conviction. Hunting and subsistence are a part of every Alaska Native and rural Alaskan’s life so the effects of that are enormous.

The list above mostly includes legal consequences, but there are also emotional consequences. Edwin has to live with his regret of his actions on that one fateful night. Edwin says, “The crimes may affect the person or people we hurt more then we will ever know, and maybe sometime we may go through similar hurt as karma.”

However, Edwin learned from many extended family members not to use this as an excuse to give up.

“We owe it to family and friends, the ones we hurt by our crimes, and ourselves to better ourselves and lead a productive life. My advice for those convicted of crimes is to keep moving forward and keep trying. Even if you can’t achieve some goals, there are others that can be realized that are just as rewarding.” -Edwin Bifelt

Aside from dealing with the consequences of his crime, I asked Edwin how he balances working and going to school full-time. He works during the day and goes to school in the evenings. He catches up on sleep on the weekends. Edwin decided that obtaining his education is worth the sacrifice away from his home and family and is working hard to graduate in May. He says, “Everyone – from Michael Jordan, Warren Buffet and Steve Jobs, to our elders, village leaders and Native corporation leaders – put in a lot of hard work to learn their trade and become competent.”

Edwin’s advice for students:

  • Working and going to school means you have to plan and prioritize.
  • Keep track of your daily chores and deadlines.
  • Try to be efficient but still do a good job.
  • Make time for exercise or outdoor work because it can refresh you when you’re tired.
  • For those that want to get a college degree (whether associate’s, bachelor’s, or graduate), it’s important to keep making progress. Those that don’t give up will graduate. Even if you fail classes just keep trying.
  • Avoid getting a lot of student loans, if possible. Keep your debt down because even after you finish school it can still take time to find a well-paying job.
  • Apply for as many scholarships as you can and keep track of scholarship deadlines.
  • When choosing a degree, be sure to research jobs and industries that best fit that degree. Picking a high paying job is always great, but whatever degree you choose make sure it’s something you enjoy and can see yourself doing for a long time.

The time and commitment takes a toll on family members, including his girlfriend, Annette. She has always supported Edwin and been there through the tough times. Edwin says, “It’s important to continue to give family members as much support and attention in their lives as they give in yours.” He says the support from his family, friends and mentors has been critical to his success.

Edwin has learned that you need consistent effort and hard work to succeed in anything you do. You also need to learn from older generations and veterans in your industry. You can gain valuable knowledge from them. Edwin says it is important to be humble and respectful.

“Alaska Native culture embodies a lot of these principles and more, so stay true to your cultural practices and principles and you can be successful in any area.” -Edwin Bifelt

Edwin rides with his nephew, Miles, in the fall time on the Koyukuk River near Huslia. Photo courtesy of Edwin Bifelt
Edwin rides with his nephew, Miles, in the fall time on the Koyukuk River near Huslia. Photo courtesy of Edwin Bifelt

Edwin enjoys basketball, baseball, running and snowshoeing. He also enjoys hunting and being outdoors, especially in the fall time for moose hunting with his dad or brother-in-law, DJ. It is hard to be away from home, because you miss out on learning about cultural practices, outdoor survival and subsistence activities.

Edwin hopes to be successful in helping with rural Alaska’s many economic problems, and believes the working with Alaska Native corporations are one way of reaching that goal. Upon graduation, he hopes to remain with his current company, but is open to other opportunities around Alaska and the Lower 48. Edwin and Annette hope to start a family in the future.

Edwin knows he has a long way to go and a lot more experience to earn, but he is making progress one step at a time. The fact is, we all have challenges in our lives and we have all made mistakes. He says, “Everyone has goals or dreams and I know it can be easy to give up on those dreams because of your past, but its important to never lose hope.” It is inspiring to see that Edwin has not given up and has made the most of his second chance.