Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Teisha Simmons – Strong Athabascan Woman

Teisha Simmons. Courtesy photo
Teisha Simmons. Courtesy photo

A friend and someone I admire greatly shared a story and advice yesterday on Facebook. She graciously allowed me to share her story with Athabascan Woman Blog readers. Teisha Simmons is one of the most inspirational people I know. She has a love and passion for helping Alaska Native people. Teisha is Athabascan from Galena with family from around interior Alaska.

Teisha’s Story
Twenty-three years ago at this moment, I was walking around on my own two legs thinking that my problems were so huge. Socially, I had dug myself a hole and my list of enemies was far longer than my list of friends. Although, I must say that the small group of friends that I did have was comprised of some amazing young ladies who are now absolutely amazing women (Tiffany Simmons, Leah Youngblood, Shannon Kash, Shelly Block, Martha Turner, Charlisa Attla and Mariah Pitka).

Academically, I was getting ready to move to Anchorage to try to successfully complete my sophomore year after changing schools five times during my freshman year. I thought my problems were so big… Most girls my age we’re really mean to me in public. Many family members turned against me and judged me for all of the stupid and shameful things I was doing.

I was moving to a big city where I didn’t know anyone and things just looked pretty bleak. At 9:30 p.m. tonight, it will be exactly 23 years since God put me in a completely different direction. By the end of the day, I would be paralyzed from the shoulders down and would enter into a few dark years of depression and anxiety.

After a lot of love, support, forgiveness, mentoring and cheerleading from family, friends and even past enemies, here I am today living an amazingly beautiful life and I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything.

Teisha (in center) is pictured with her late Jennie Huntington (at left), her daughter, Tassy, and her mother, Marie Simmons. Courtesy photo
Teisha (in center) is pictured with her late Jennie Huntington (at left), her daughter, Tassy, and her mother, Marie Simmons. Courtesy photo

Is being in a wheelchair easy? Absolutely not. One of the things I miss the most is being able to jump out of bed, take a five minute shower and brush my teeth in 60 seconds allowing me to be at my destination in 30 minutes if I ate breakfast on the go. Now, it takes me anywhere from 2 to 4 hours to get ready for work. But, you know what? I get to get ready for work. I have the privilege to wake up each morning and decide how I’m going to face the day.

Am I going to wake up and complain about how long it takes me to get ready? Am I going to complain about the pain I feel in my neck and shoulder muscles from sitting in a wheelchair for 23 years? Am I going to complain that I can’t go out camping with my family for a week at a time? No, instead I’m going to embrace the fact that I was blessed with the opportunity to grab life by the horns and to be grateful for the people who never let me give up, but in fact propelled me to be far more successful than I would have been walking around on my two legs.

If anyone can take any lessons from my life, I hope that at the very least you will take these:

  1. Reevaluate what you complain about and what your problems are. After realizing that I would never walk again, all of the social drama I was surrounded by or the academic failures I had experienced really seemed very small. Prior to 23 years ago, I had the choice to change my behaviors and create whatever type of life I wanted to. All I would have needed to do was make new choices. All of us have that power. Every decision we make every single minute of every single day affects what we experience. Don’t sit around complaining, when you can easily make some changes and experience something completely different.
  2. Grab life by the horns and do what you want with it. If I can do all of the things I’ve done since my injury, just think of all that you can do if you can do it 10 times faster than me. It takes me about 15 minutes to brush my teeth each morning, 25 minutes just to wash my hair, 20 minutes to get dressed, 5 minutes to get into my chair. Just think how fast you can get out of bed and get on your feet. Just doing that alone, you are 4 minutes and 55 seconds ahead of me. What good can you do for yourself or the world with that extra four minutes and 55 seconds that you have?
  3. Believe that the impossible is completely possible. Trust me on this one. When I woke up in the intensive care unit, God himself could have told me that one day I would be the mother of a beautiful little girl, I would have an amazing job and I would have a home with a washer and dryer (hey, after 23 years of doing laundry at the laundromat, a washer and dryer is a dream come true for a village girl 🙂 ) and I wouldn’t have believed Him.
  4. Learn to love yourself and take care of yourself. If you don’t love yourself enough to take care of yourself and respect yourself, you are only going to attract the same type of people to surround you. It wasn’t until I accepted myself and was confident in myself as a woman with a disability that my life truly came together. If you don’t know how you can take better care of yourself in effort to love yourself truly, just ask a few of the people who love you the most and whom you trust. Those people can see the things that we choose to overlook and hide behind. But remember, these aren’t things that we want to hear about ourselves. If you truly want to grow, step outside your comfort zone and be willing to hear those things.

I heard a great saying a few weeks ago. “A smart man learns from his mistakes. A wise man learns from another man’s mistakes.” Learn from my mistakes…reevaluate your complaints and choices and create the life you would absolutely love to have.

Teisha Simmons and her daughter, Tassy. Courtesy photo
Teisha Simmons and her daughter, Tassy. Courtesy photo

Enaa basee’ Teisha for sharing your story and for inspiring us to look within themselves and to look at what they have to be grateful. I appreciate her candid advice and wishes for people.

About Teisha Simmons
Teisha Simmons has been the Director of the Interior Alaska Campus since 2012. Simmons graduated from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) with a B.A. in Psychology in 2000 and a M.A. in Clinical-Community Psychology in 2003. She began her career at UAF in 2004 serving as the project coordinator for the Alaska Natives into Psychology Project, then served as the program manager and a faculty member of the Rural Human Services Program. Simmons enjoys traveling, working on Athabascan language revitalization efforts and reading. Most importantly, she enjoys being a mother to her 10 year old daughter Tassy.

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.

Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Shan Goshorn (Eastern Band Cherokee) – A Great Mentor

Shan Goshorn and Angela Gonzalez 1996
Shan attended my graduation from college in 1996

I met Shan Goshorn in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the early 1990s. Shan attended an event at the University of Tulsa for the Native American Student Association. We struck up a friendship, and she helped me throughout college. Thinking back on my college career, Shan was one of the people who believed in me and pushed me to succeed. One of the things I remember most from those years was her work on Native American stereotypes and racism.We have kept in touch over the years, and I recently caught up with her and wanted to find out more about her and her life as a successful artist and advocate.

Shan Goshorn
Shan Goshorn, courtesy photo

One of Shan’s biggest accomplishments includes having her work commissioned by and later collected by the Smithsonian Institution. Despite living in Oklahoma, she has kept strong ties to her tribe in North Carolina. Shan is proud of being able to support herself exclusively with her artwork for over 25 years. She also says that successfully raising children and being married for 25 years is another large accomplishment in her life. She is proud of being able to inspire people with her artwork by working with companies to create large commissioned art pieces.

Lack of time is one of the Shan’s most difficult challenges in her life. There is just not enough time in the day. Shan works hard on deadlines, researching, raising her family, sometimes at the expense of building memories with her family. One of the ways she manages time is by keeping a strict regimen in her schedule. She attributes her success to being organized and disciplined, and says, “I’ve never considered myself to be one of the best artists that I hang out with, but if I say I’m going to do it, then I do it.”

One of the things I sometimes struggle with is how to incorporate my culture into my everyday life, so I asked Shan how she does it. Shan is very inspired by traditional teaching of her tribe and other tribes across the US. One of her goals is to bring education and awareness about issues Indian people face today, and it inspires her.

“We are not extinct and are a force to be reckoned with in today’s world. We are a strong people.” -Shan Goshorn

When discussing her work on racism, Shan says she has mellowed out since the early 1990s. She wants to get beyond the A-B-Cs of racism and says, “I want to move on to the H-I-J or M-N-O.” Shan has worked with the Tulsa Indian Coalition Against Racism and is inspired by the more peaceful ways to approach people about racism vs. butting heads.

Recently Shan has been volunteering on what she describes as a ‘calling’ to heal birds in her own home. As a child, she successfully healed birds and helped them move on. Not one to do something small-scale, Shan has actually helped to form a local non-profit Audubon organization, called Songbirds In Need Group – In Tulsa. Shan says working with birds keeps her really grounded.

Shan says, “The birds are getting into my work.” She has been working on a series called “Displacement” which looks at the result of invasive species and how they are having an impact on the environment. She studies invasive species to find out what they’ve done and looks for ways we can cohabitate. She likens the invasive species to the colonization of America, and uses the series as another way to open dialogue about race issues.

Shan has been trying to gather bird stories from tribes, and to be able to remember stories that she’s heard. She talked about behavior of birds 500 and 100 years ago and how they have the same kinds of behavior today. Shan finds it interesting how stories from different tribes about the same bird, like the king fisher, match up.

“Birds are barometers of the health of our world. Birds are a reflection of working with mother earth.” -Shan Goshorn

Shan describes how miners use canary birds to check if areas are safe. If they see dead canary birds, they know they have to get out of that part of the mine. Although she described it as a calling, she would like to step back a little because taking care of birds is very time consuming and intense.

Shan Goshorn
Shan Goshorn at a New Year’s Eve Powwow in Tulsa. Courtesy photo.

Shan is living proof that you can have a successful career and family. I asked Shan what advice she might have on building a career and raising a family.

Career:  Go for excellence. Aspire to be the best that you can. If you can find excellence in your work, the money will follow. Choose something you have a passion about and be the best you can be and you will find your place.

Family: I don’t think we are meant to avoid challenges. Cars break down. You get sick. That’s the thing, that is life. It is how we handle obstacles that show who we are.

“We are not meant to have a challenge-free life. Challenge and obstacles are how we grow.” -Shan Goshorn

Shan has been a great mentor to me and I am sure to others also. Her artwork is amazing and transcending in its meaning. She is truly a beautiful person, inside and out. Shan is an Indian woman who is always cognizant of current Native American issues and how she can start a dialogue to solve them.

Enaa baasee’ Shan!


Shan Goshorn - Artist
Shan Goshorn with a recent prize winning basket. Courtesy photo.

Artist Shan Goshorn (Eastern Band Cherokee) has lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma since 1981. Shan Goshorn is a self-employed artist conducting her work through her business, the Shan Goshorn Studio. Her work is exhibited extensively in the US and in Canada and has won prestigious awards in major competitions. Goshorn’s painted photographs have toured with the Fratelli Alinari “Go West” collection, and have been exhibited in venues in England, France, China and South Africa. In 1992, her tribe awarded her with an honorarium for the work she was doing to truthfully represent the Eastern Band. In 2001, the Indian Affairs Commission of Tulsa honored her with the Moscelyn Larkin Cultural Achievement Award for her artwork that challenges the stereotypes that persist regarding Indian people. She has served on the Board of Directors of the American Indian Heritage Center (Tulsa) as the first and second vice chair; NIIPA (Native Indian/Innuit Photographer’s Association) in Canada; The Second Circle Board of the National Native Arts Network ATLATL; and was appointed by the mayor to serve on the board of the Greater Tulsa Indian Affairs Commission and the Arts Commission of Tulsa.