Tabetha with her daughter, Allison, and Grandpa Charles Toloff. Courtesy photo
Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Tabetha Toloff – Koyukon Athabascan

Tabetha and her Grandpa Charles Toloff. Courtesy photo
Tabetha and her Grandpa Charles Toloff. Courtesy photo

Tabetha Toloff (Koyukon Athabascan and Russian) grew up as a kid in Nikiski and has lived in Anchorage for over 30 years. Her beloved grandpa, Charles Peter Toloff, was born in 1921 in Fort Yukon, and later homesteaded in Nikiski where much of her family lived. Tabetha’s great- grandmother was Margaret Albert Reed of Rampart. Her great-grandfather was Peter Toloff and was from Russian. Grandpa Charles is now 95 years old, is like a father to Tabetha, and is the oldest living original shareholder of his Native Corporation, CIRI.

Tabetha is married and has a daughter and two step-sons. I have known Tabetha since the early 2000’s. We served on the board for the Alaska Native Professional Association (ANPA) for a number of years. Since our ANPA days, we have been busy with our lives and I was glad to catch up with her recently.

Tabetha’s passion for education led her to earn her Master of Organizational Leadership degree with a concentration in Servant Leadership from Gonzaga University; her Bachelor of Arts in Organizational Management from Alaska Pacific University (APU); and an Associate in Applied Science degree in Business from UAA. In 2014, she completed APU’s Alaska Native Executive Leadership Program. Alaska Pacific University (APU) recently highlighted Tabetha as one of their new board members and featured alum.

Tabetha Toloff speaks at ANPA's 10th anniversary in 2009.
Tabetha Toloff speaks at ANPA’s 10th anniversary in 2009.

Tabetha is currently the chief administrative officer of Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC). Prior to joining CITC, she oversaw the Alaska Native Program for Alyeska Pipeline Service Company and its associated commitments to the Alaska Native Utilization Agreement, scholarships, internships, employee development, community outreach, and stakeholder relations.

Tabetha serves on the Alaska Native Heritage Center Board of Directors as Development Committee chair, and is chair of the Alaska Native Shareholder Development Action Group. She is the President of the Bering Straits Foundation Board of Director, as well as a member of the University of Alaska (UAA) Alaska Native Advisory Council.

Tabetha credits her Grandpa Charles with teaching her a strong work ethic. He is family-oriented, does for himself and helps others. He inspired Tabetha to give back to her community and share with others. She has worked with organizations that help advance Alaska Native people, whether it is with direct services, scholarships, job creation, education, shareholder development and more.

Tabetha with her daughter, Allison, and Grandpa Charles Toloff. Courtesy photo
Tabetha with her daughter, Allison, and Grandpa Charles Toloff. Courtesy photo

Tabetha is a dual shareholder of Bering Straits Native Corporation and CIRI. She was grateful to receive scholarship support from The CIRI Foundation while pursuing her degrees. Like many young Alaska Native people who weren’t raised around the same traditions held by their Alaska Native elders, she didn’t grow up knowing or learning about her cultural heritage, ANCSA, or what it meant to be Alaska Native.

In her mid-20’s, Tabetha set out to give back by working for and volunteering with Alaska Native organizations as a way to learn more about her culture. She made it her mission to learn more about Alaska Native people, culture and ANCSA. Tabetha felt she wasn’t ever easily identified as being Alaska Native and many times found herself in situations or conversations where she needed to explain her heritage to others. It gave her an opportunity to learn from others and she has been fortunate to work with people who have generously shared their culture with her, and some who have given her meaningful insight and gifts of knowledge.

Tabetha has treasured the many connections she has made with people she has worked and crossed paths with, including Willie Hensley. Last year, Willie gifted Tabetha with an Inupiaq name, Ivalu. It means dried caribou tendon or sinew that is commonly used to tie canoes together, and also means useful and strong. Tabetha loves the Alaska Native value of sharing, and appreciates the Inupiaq name being shared with her.

Many young Alaska Native people grew up as Tabetha did, and she shares some advice:

  • Be true to yourself
  • Don’t try to be something or someone that you’re not
  • If you want to learn about your culture, immerse yourself in it through many ways and people
  • You don’t have to look or live a certain way to be truly connected to your Alaska Native spirit and culture. It’s a way of being.

Tabetha is proud of the strides made by Alaska Native tribes, organizations and companies over the years. She is happy to have contributed to organizations, like ANPA, that have grown in the past 20 or so years. I have always admired Tabetha’s work ethic, sense of humor and willingness to ask questions and learn. I also admire the ways she mentors young people in a professional and volunteer capacity. Ana basee’ Tabetha for sharing a little bit about yourself!

Heather Kendall-Miller received an award from the Alaska Federation of Natives in 2014. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Athabascan Lawyer – Heather Kendall-Miller

Heather Kendall-Miller in her office at the Native American Rights Fund. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Heather Kendall-Miller in her office at the Native American Rights Fund. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

It took me about a year of thinking about it until I got the courage to approach Heather Kendall-Miller for an interview. To me, Heather is way up there with our top Alaska Native leaders of today. I went to an event at the First Alaskans Institute where Heather was the featured guest. It was a coffee time event, where we had a chance to learn more about Heather. I told her I was intimidated to approach her, and she told me just to reach out. I met with her not too long after that to learn more about her.

Heather is Dena’ina Athabascan with family ties from the Dillingham, Alaska area. She has been a staff attorney in the Anchorage, Alaska office of the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) for the past 23 years. Heather’s legal experience includes cases involving subsistence, tribal sovereignty, human rights, and taxation. She is well-known for being instrumental in winning the Katie John subsistence hunting and fishing rights case in 2001. Heather has worked with other Alaska Native communities like the Native Village of Venetie, the Native Village of Kluti Kaah, the Native Village of Barrow, and the Nome Eskimo community.

I asked Heather if she has any advice for Alaska Native women who have goals aspirations and challenges to overcome. Heather received a history degree, magna cum laude, from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF) (1988). She received her M.A. J.D. from Harvard University Law School (1991). This did not come easy because she left a tough relationship in order to succeed in law school. She said, “My desire to achieve an education was detrimental to the relationship.” The closer she got to achieving her educational goals, the more threatened he became. Heather was 33 year old when she started school.

With a deep passion for learning more about federal Indian law and social justice, Heather worked hard to earn her law degree as a single mother. The summer before law school, she attended a pre-law summit in Albuquerque for Native American woman. She saw other women struggling with domestic violence issues. One lady was even dragged down the hall at a hotel. It made her realize she had a decision to make. Heather tells her story not because she’s looking for sympathy, but to give hope to women who may be in a similar situation.

“I had a goal of getting an education for years. Going to school and studying was a way to maintain control of my life. It gave me a focus. This is what I want to do.” – Heather Kendall-Miller

In her junior year at UAF, Heather took a master’s degree class on federal Indian law. She connected to the history of federal Indian law and the political relationships. Heather researched why Alaska Native people are beneficiaries of services and the role they have in relationship with the federal government. She thought to herself, ‘This is something I can do.’

When Heather started school, her daughter was in junior high school. Heather grappled with the potential impacts of moving her daughter out of state when she went to law school. School and career changes can impact children and it was a challenge to maintain balance in her life. It was a struggle, but she persisted. After earning her law degree, her goal was to pass the bar and get a job.

Heather met and married Lloyd Miller and they had a child. Her first daughter had a child and Heather and Lloyd raised her. Both girls are now earning their college education. Heather hopes to retire by the end of the year. Her mom and dad are 103 and 93 respectively and she wants to spend more time with them.

Heather’s Dena’ina mother died when she was very young and she was raised by her her white father and later on her white stepmother. Although Heather didn’t grow up in a traditional Native household, her father instilled in her the value of helping people. She is driven by issues and the needs of her clients, which makes her an effective advocate. Heather has a strong interest in serving Native people and standing up and defending Native rights.

Heather Kendall-Miller received an award from the Alaska Federation of Natives in 2014. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Heather Kendall-Miller received an award from the Alaska Federation of Natives in 2014. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Working as a staff attorney for NARF was her dream job because it provide her an opportunity to focus on the issues of institutional racism. Heather is concerned about the global changes taking place right now and what it means to Alaska Native people, culture and the traditional way of life in respect to their connection to land and resources. Heather respected the late Katie John for insisting on continuing her way of life. She said, “It’s a story about resilience, survivance. Survival is more than just surviving – you do survive by moving forward.”

I asked Heather how can people put culture into their lives if they weren’t raised in a traditional Native household or who live away from their people. Heather maintains relationships with people and observes Native culture and how people relate to each other. She incorporates Native values into her life. Heather’s daughter connects with other Native American students at college, and is finding ways to learn the Dena’ina language.

For those who are aspiring to be lawyers, Heather says, “Be clear in your head what aspect of lawyering you want to do.” She compared lawyers with doctors, and how they can specialize in many areas. For instance, ask yourself if you want to focus on tribal rights, Alaska Native corporations, or non-profit organizations, etc. How you see yourself is also important. Think of ways you can attend law school for three years with expenses. Once you earn your degree, you still have to pass the bar exam.

Maintaining balance with a family and career has not always been easy, but Heather strives to inspire others to move beyond their circumstances to achieve their goals. She recommends focusing on balance and wellness and finding ways to replenish energy especially when your life is busy. I appreciated and enjoyed getting to know Heather a little bit. Chin’an to Heather for sharing your story!

Moose Calling along the Dietrich River, an oil painting by Rose Albert. Courtesy image
Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Rose Albert – Athabascan Painter and Artist

Rose Albert. Courtesy photo
Rose Albert. Courtesy photo

I have admired Rose Albert’s painting for years. Rose is Koyukon Athabascan originally from Ruby, Alaska. She is a talented artist and also a former Iditarod sled dog musher. She is owner of Nowitna River Studios and resides in Anchorage.

Rose always wanted to become an artist since she was two years old. She remembers playing under the blankets with my siblings and being fascinated by static electricity. The streaks of light looked like little angels to her and her siblings. At the age of five, Rose’s first three drawings were of angels with wings.

Another vivid memory is when Rose was mesmerized by midnight blue glass beads shining at an old dump site. The color blue spoke to her and in second grade, she drew rivers, streams and mountains and colored them blue. Rose says, “After school as dusk fell upon us, I would stand one place outside and watch as the atmosphere turned blue.” She remembers getting cold outside but couldn’t resist watching how the blue faded into darkness. Rose realized later, she was a winter person.

“I went through grade sixth to eighth drawing women in the latest fashions. I gave them away and my classmates seemed to like them. My first oil painting was of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. Later in eighth grade I did an oil painting of Zeus who was the sky and thunder God in ancient Greek religion as a class project. The next one and many afterwards were of wild life. One of a bull moose and cow and one with wolves running. Throughout high school, I painted outdoor winter scenes and wildlife and best of all dogs racing down the trail, all along trying to capture that blue atmosphere that cold weather seems to bring on. During high school I took art classes by Don Decker. Though I may have been good at composition, he instructed me on how to work with light and the direction it was coming from and when to use shadows and colors.” – Rose Albert, Koyukon Athabascan

Rose worked on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System after high school. She painted on her free time on commission from pipeline workers from the Lower 48 who were missing loved ones. Using small snapshots of their wives, she painted 16×20 oil paintings. After that job ended, she was lost afterwards until a school teacher from Ruby told her I should go down to the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In 1981, Rose earned an associate’s degree in two-dimensional art specializing in painting from IAIA. She says, “I still obsessed about blue and brought to life Alaska themes with rich northern colors in cold but romantic settings on the Iditarod race or trapline.”

Rose Albert attending a 2015 Fur Rondy event honoring late George Attle Jr. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Rose Albert attending a 2015 Fur Rondy event honoring late George Attle Jr. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

After Rose returned to Alaska, she got in the Iditarod race and finished in 32nd place. She was the first Alaska Native woman to get into the Iditarod. She says, “It was cold and blue out there and I loved it.” Rose continues to refine her painting techniques depicting wildlife and beautiful Alaska scenes, and loves painting Iditarod scenes. She also specializes in painting portraits.

In 1998, Rose began building Alaska Yellow Cedar boxes and carving wildlife, totemic art and Iditarod images of people and their dogs in the Iditarod. One of her favorite things to do is to design boxes to the appropriate shape or size. Then she pays a woodworker to build finger joint boxes so they will never lose their shape. At one point, Rose had to hire someone to build them because it took too much of her time to build them.

Rose has always loved beads. Ten years ago, she began making costume jewelry, especially with glass beads. The jewelry was a hit, and Rose began adding Swarovski crystals, stone, ceramic, bone and silver beads. Later, she worked with moose antlers by inlaying beautiful natural stones in the antler after slicing them into oval or round buttons. She searched for the best bone or stone beads to go with her pendants. Rose loves all Alaskan stones, like jasper, Malachite, quartz and garnets, but she also likes Labradorite.

Like many Alaska Native artists, Rose is multi-talented and is not afraid to experiment with new art forms. She is also an inspiration for women who want to run in the Iditarod. Follow Rose Albert on the Nowitna River Studios Facebook page or email her at Rose shared a photo of her most recent painting, entitled “Moose Calling along the Dietrich River” on her Facebook page. It took four about four months to paint in five phases. This oil painting depicts a bull moose calling as it walks along the Dietrich river on a brisk autumn day during the rut.

Moose Calling along the Dietrich River, an oil painting by Rose Albert. Courtesy image
“Moose Calling along the Dietrich River”, an oil painting by Rose Albert. Courtesy image
Alaska life

VHF Radio in Rural Alaska

VHF radios are used in many rural Alaskan villages. The community uses them to communicate everyday messages. You can hear radio chatter all day, from birthday messages to local emergencies and community announcements. When people are done saying with a message, they ask if anyone heard the message. People reply with, “copy”.

Here’s an example of Cesa Agnes speaking on a VHF radio in Huslia.

My niece, Sasha, in Huslia in 2014. Photo by Solomon Yatlin
My niece, Sasha, in Huslia in 2014. Photo by Solomon Yatlin

My brother, Solomon, shared a story about his daughter, Sasha, who was five years old at the time. My mom was talking to dad when she was cooking one day. My dad has a hearing aid, and Sasha wasn’t sure if my dad heard my mom. Sasha said, “Grandpa, you gotta copy?” Adorable!

Being connected by VHF radio in the village is convenient and a great way to get messages out to most people. Many remote Alaskan villages are small. Huslia has about 300 residents. In the past few years, more and more people are getting connected to the internet. Many of my friends and relatives are on Facebook, and use it as a way to communicate. I see my relatives posting updates with information or events, like open gym night. I heard people call Facebook the ‘new VHF radio’. Times are changing. 🙂

Huslia community members welcome a 2017 Iditarod musher. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Alaska Native culture

Iditarod Halfway Checkpoint – Huslia

2017 Iditarod Musher Dee Dee Jonrowe arrives in Huslia. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
2017 Iditarod Musher Dee Dee Jonrowe arrives in Huslia. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Huslia was the halfway checkpoint for the 2017 Iditarod. It was fun to be in Huslia as the Iditarod musher passed through. People of all ages enjoyed seeing the mushers and their dogs. The first musher arrived on the evening of Thursday, March 9. My daughter and I went to Huslia on March 10 and stayed until March 13. Each day, we made short videos of interviews with community members and mushers.

On the first day, Ermelina Gonzalez interviewed Barbie Sam, Jefferson Sam, Jessie Henry, Hugh Bifelt, Warner Vent, Sr. (former Iditarod musher), and Katherine Keith (2017 Iditarod musher). On the second day, Ermelina interviewed Warren Vent (grandson of late Bobby Vent, former Iditarod musher), Bill Derendoff, Kristy and Anna Barrington (2017 Iditarod mushers), and Nicolas Vanier (2017 Iditarod rookie musher). On the third day, Ermelina interviewed Agnes Dayton and Rosie Edwin, and we shared some video footage of racers leaving Huslia.

On the last day we were in Huslia, we shared footage the last musher arriving in Huslia. The Huslia Tribal Council gifted Ellen Halverson (2017 Iditarod musher) with a pair of beaver skin mitts made by Colleen Weter. Iditarod volunteers thanked the community of Huslia for all of their efforts for making it a successful checkpoint.

Playlist of all videos:

I was impressed with the community of Huslia and how they came together to welcome mushers, dogs and visitors. For about four days, volunteers worked around the clocks. Volunteer vets, dog handlers and officials came to Huslia too. The community hall was a place to gather for information, meetings and to eat. The community made sure there was plenty of food for everyone.

The weather was fairly warm in the teens and it was sunny. It was awesome to see the dogs when they arrived in Huslia. They had to pull a sled 478 miles from Fairbanks to reach Huslia. They are true athletes. I could see how much they enjoyed resting in the sun. The field in front of the community hall was filled with mushers throughout the weekend.

I am so glad I took a break from city life and went home to see the mushers going through Huslia. Watching mushers at the ceremonial start in Anchorage is always exciting, but it is thrilling to watch them on the trail. You gain a deeper understanding the strength, strategy and will it takes to complete the nearly 1,000 mile race to Nome.

Here are some photos I took in Huslia (click photo to see album on Flickr). Enjoy!

Iditarod in Huslia