Alaska Native/Indigenous People, Athabascan in the Spotlight

Flora B. Johnson – Mother and Educator

Flora Johnson enjoys picking berries. Photo by Shannon Johnson

My aunt, Flora B. Johnson (Koyukon Athabascan), is from Allakaket along the Koyukuk River. Her parents were the late Edward and Elizabeth Bergman. I’ve admired her for her storytelling and the love she has for her family and communities. She agreed to share her story on the Athabascan Woman Blog.

Flora moved to Iliamna with her husband in 1980. They enrolled their oldest daughter, Shannon, to Newhalen School. Her husband began working at the electric co-op. Life was tough back then and the only job she could find was babysitting. She said, “It turned out that I like kids and my house was always full of happy kids.”

She grew up fishing in her hometown and camp, but she couldn’t believe all of the fish in the Bristol Bay region. She was thankful for her sister-in-Law, Ethel Adcox (Dena’ina Athabascan) helper her by teaching her how to can, smoke the fish, put it away for winter and to make salt fish. It is really hard work, but daughter, Shannon, started helping her.

“You would have to come visit me in summer to see how we fish here. It is good feeling to help out with bringing food to table.” – Flora B. Johnson (Koyukon Athabascan)

The Johnson family loves putting up salmon. Photo by Shannon Johnson

Flora started attending the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1987 by taking two classes per semester. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education in 2000 and a master’s degree in Cross Cultural Studies in 2007. She credits her success earning her degrees to professors who asked really strong questions and encouraged her to work very hard. She said, “Oscar Kawagley (deceased) and Ray Barnhardt (retired) were powerful men who kept me focused and then I was determined to finish with degrees.”

Then, in 2012, Flora enrolled in PhD Indigenous Studies Program. Her thesis is called, Revitalizing the South Fork Dialect of Allakaket. She misses the two professors who helped her through the previous programs. She feels strongly that obtaining her PhD will help to save the South Fork dialect which is the Upper Koyukon Athabascan language.

Flora remains hopeful and says, “Once I make up my mind to do something I don’t quit unless I finish. I am ready to have all my friends at UAF-Fairbanks to help me celebrate when I graduate! There is always hope.” Flora wants the younger generation to go on to become scientists, biologists, CEOs, leaders of big companies and anthropologists. According to Flora, there are a lot of scholarships and grants for students.

“They must carry on our traditions and teach the young their language and culture. I raised our daughters to be respectful, hard-working and to have good jobs. It is harder nowadays to get good job unless they go to college and get educated. I want our daughters to get their PhDs and our grandchildren to do the same.” – Flora B. Johnson (Koyukon Athabascan)

Johnson family. Photo courtesy of Shannon Johnson

One of Flora’s biggest challenges has been to be accepted in the community. It wasn’t easy, and she learned how to be alone and raise her two daughters. Early on when she first moved to Iliamna, she started drinking heavily. She said, “The more I drank, the more I was depressed and really had no one to talk with.”

Finally, one day she got so sick with withdrawals, and was sent to Anchorage. In the airplane, she was dreaming of serene sight, so quiet, big white clouds where she was floating in peace. Then, she was jolted awake by the health aide who helped her and gave her encouraging words. When she arrived at the hospital, she waited all alone in a dark room in between sleeping and dreaming. She was very thirsty and was no one around.

Finally, a nurse came in and shouted at Flora, “What! You want water?”. Then, the nurse threw a wet rag at her. Flora said, “This was waking up moment for me! How can I be treated like this when all I needed was water?” She was released despite a high blood pressure and having not eaten in days.

Flora was in Anchorage for three long and lonely days. When she was released, she didn’t have anyone to take her to the airport and doesn’t remember making it back home to Iliamna. She said, “I really was crying out for people to visit me and tell me that I will be ‘okay’. I never touched a drop of alcohol since 1987, because I do not want to be treated like I was less than human. I never forgot that time.”

Flora Johnson working on meat. Photo by Shannon Johnson

Flora hasn’t drank alcohol for 33 years and is grateful never to be in that dark place again. Flora is grateful to the health aides who saved her life, and really brought her back to living. Flora says, “I thank them for this gift by being loving, understanding, supportive of others who struggle. It will be my lifelong quest to help others.”

In 1987, Flora and her husband got their miracle baby, named Jesstella Irene Johnson (Vasquez). She was a good baby who never cried, and is intelligent, patient and understanding of others. Flora is proud of her children and four granddaughters.

Flora finds it difficult to make friends as she gets older. She is grateful to friends, Rebecca Beam, Karen Dullen and Carla Kangas, who helped her so much by just listening to her woes.

“Always have faith and think positive. I want all my friends and family to see that once you have set goals, you can finish. May God Bless All especially during hard times.” – Flora B. Johnson (Koyukon Athabascan)

Enaa baasee’ Aunt Flora for sharing your story, struggles and triumphs. It is very encouraging to see her setting an example by furthering her education and not giving up. She loves her family so much and is so giving. It is great to see that reflected in her children and grandchildren.

Flora Johnson works on a fishnet with family. Photo courtesy of Shannon Johnson

8 thoughts on “Flora B. Johnson – Mother and Educator”

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this story with us, it is so inspiring. Please continue to be blessed.

  2. I so enjoy reading Athabaskan Woman!! My challenge, at 81, is to share the values and ways I learned from wise elders in the villages of Alaska. Minto is still my second home! I will celebrate when Flora finishes her PhD!!

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