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.

Health Changes

I switched from sugar to Stevia. It took time to get used to the aftertaste, but that’s all I’ve used now for years for coffee, plus creamer. I quit margarine some years ago, and quit butter just over three years ago. My sister, Margie, was the one who convinced me to quit margarine when she said that eating margarine is like eating plastic because it is all chemicals. Read the ingredients list and most or all of it you have a real problem pronouncing the chemical names; and, worse yet, is not knowing why those particular chemicals are in the margarine.

I switched from white bread to almost all whole wheat bread, with whole wheat as the first main ingredient on the ingredient list. I switched from salt to Mrs. Dash Table Blend. I used to eat a lot of tortilla chips and potato chips (with cheese dips). Now the chips are a treat for me once in a great while and it is one serving size and no dip at all. I still need to quit potatoes, white rice, pasta and processed foods, but have cut down on it quite a bit. I can’t quit everything!

The super-foods and antioxidant foods are the good stuff. I never had a problem with soft drinks, Coke, 7 Up, etc. I do drink a lot of water (not regular tap water or even bottled water, as I do not like it). I freeze about an inch of water in plastic or metal water bottles, and then fill with water, as I much prefer ice water. I learned my lesson some years ago when I became severely dehydrated.

Home and Finances

To cut down on expenses, I make my own laundry soap. I bought the complete Homemade Laundry Soap Starter Set from Lehman’s years ago. It only has three ingredients: Washing soda, Borax and Fels-Naptha soap. One batch lasts me about a year. Another reason I do this is I tried all the powdered soaps and liquid soaps available, and never saw any difference in them. I mean they have all been making ‘new and improved’ versions for the last hundred years or so, and are still at it! I’d rather make my own laundry soap than continue to support the huge corporations like Proctor & Gamble, and it is so-o much cheaper.

Recently, I started making my own toothpaste, another one with just three ingredients: baking soda, fine sea salt and peppermint extract. A side note: washing soda and baking soda are two completely different things. I told my dental hygienist, and she recommended that I also use a fluoride mouthwash every night as it is needed for the enamel.

Another way to cut down on expenses is to use cloth napkins instead of buying paper napkins and/or so much paper towels.

Barge in Huslia. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

I started recycling and re-purposing about 25 years ago, and I like to say, “I was recycling years before it became the popular thing to do.” Working as the school janitor and city janitor I took home all the pop/soda cans and used to have a mountain of it behind my house. When the river barge back-hauled stuff they would take it, but that program only lasted two summers.

Living in the village, I also used the paper boxes, food boxes, and paper egg cartons as fire starters for the wood stove.

Over a year ago, I became the semi-official recycling lady in my apartment building. Some of the residents drop their recyclables in front of my apartment door. I rinse the #1 and #2 plastics out (especially the sugary pop bottles, the milk jugs and detergent jugs), drip dry them in the dish drainer, remove the paper labels, throw away the covers/lids, and bag them.

I also recycle newspapers, shredded paper, magazines and food boxes, like saltine crackers, cereal and aluminum foil boxes, etc. Fairbanks opened a Recycling Center in Aurora Subdivision several years ago. They recycle cardboard boxes, but I don’t collect those as I just don’t have the apartment and balcony space for that. There is a place in Town to recycle the canned food cans too, and the Food Bank accepts egg cartons for their donated eggs. There is so much that can be done to keep these items out of the landfill/the dump.

Since March 2018, I estimate some apartment residents, a few FNA Elders and I have donated 53 bags of newspapers, shredded paper, magazines and assorted food boxes, plus 145 bags of plastics. I have several people I depend on to haul this stuff to the Recycling Center. I pay them now and then for their gas or treat them to lunch, whichever they prefer. I enjoy doing all this and it has become my own thing to do, my volunteer project.

Re-purposing is a big part of it too. I cut up old T-shirts for cleaning rags. I cut up nice clothes that are too big or too small for me, and hand sew tote bags and aprons with it. I have plans to really get into more sewing with a sewing machine. There are so many ways to save money and cut down on expenses.

In Huslia, I really liked to collect compostable foods to compost in the ComposTumbler. I continued collecting my own compostable fruit and vegetable scraps here in Town and have given them to several people who have their own compost bins.

Another big change for me is organizing my apartment. I have tried to get organized and keep a neat house off and on for years and never did a thorough job of it. My friend/mentor/advisor has been helping me with this. Once a month or so, we have a telephone visit to set goals for me to straighten out my life. It is usually about my various crafting projects, getting all my papers organized and filed; writing a ‘What Is Where’ list and keeping the list in one place. A lot of this is just having a place for everything and everything in its place.

I admit I am a junk collector and a procrastinator, so I have to give away, throw away and just get rid of stuff now and then. A new rule for myself recently is I do NOT separate my papers and paperwork into separate categories on the floor and then pile it all in a box. I separate, and then file.

Recently, I attended a potlatch here in Fairbanks and ran into someone I had met at Mt. Edgecumbe. She asked me if I still liked to read. She said that I always had a book to read while standing in the (chow) line for our meals. I had forgotten that! Come to think of it, I still have a book in my hand or readily available when I am on the bus, waiting for the bus, and any place that I have to wait in line.


Enaa baasee’ Vina for sharing some of your reflections and advice. Since she posted this a few months ago, I have been thinking about my own footprint on earth. I love Americano coffee and used disposable cups, but I now use a travel mug. I plan to make more changes over time. It took Vina a while to make these changes, but she’s proven they can be done. What an inspiration!

“Caring is not abstract. The circle of ecological compassion we feel is enlarged by direct experience of the living world, and shrunken by its lack.” – Robin Wall Kimmerer from her book, Braiding Sweetgrass – Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

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