Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Athabascan Fish Skin Master Artist

Audrey Armstrong  was a featured artist  at the Alaska Native Arts Foundation in 2009. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Audrey Armstrong was a featured artist at the Alaska Native Arts Foundation in 2009. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Audrey Armstrong is Koyukon Athabascan from the villages of Huslia and Nulato. She was raised by Rose and the late Harry Ambrose of Huslia, is the biological daughter of Bertha Captain, and the granddaughter of the late Sophia and Leo Captain. She grew up in Huslia and now lives in Anchorage. In 1968, she earned the title of Miss World Eskimo-Indian Olympics (WEIO). Audrey has had many accomplishments and been an inspiration for many over the years.

She retired in 2007 from the Alaska Native Medical Center, where she managed auxiliary patient services. Although retired, she still volunteers at the ANMC gift shop. Audrey says, “It’s not work. I have a joy of being around culture and loved ones.” She especially loves volunteering during Christmas time. She and her family played Santa, Mrs. Claus and elves over the years.

Audrey Armstrong talks about her working with fish skin. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Audrey Armstrong talks about her working with fish skin. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

In 2006, Audrey received the BP/YWCA Women of Achievement Award. She also received a Shareholder of the Year award from Doyon, Limited. In 2007, Audrey was a recipient of the President’s Awards from the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention. She was a great advocate for patients over her 35 year career.

Audrey has always been a positive ambassador for Athabascan and Alaska Native people. We are from the same community and her mom is my great aunt. I have always admired her positive spirit and willingness to help people. She is a well-known fish skin artist, fisherwoman and photographer.

Fish skin baskets made by Audrey Armstrong. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Fish skin baskets made by Audrey Armstrong. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Audrey’s love of fish skin began when she was fly fishing in Jim Creek in 2002. She fell in love with how the deep purples looked in the sunshine. She remembered how her late grandmother, Eliza Attla, used to sew with hides and make geometric shapes out of them. Her grandmother used every part of the animals back then. Audrey studied Athabascan mittens and bags made out of fish skin collected from the Holikachuk area (near the villages of Grayling, Anvik and Shageluk). She also inherited her love of jigging (fishing) from her late grandmother, Bessie Wholecheese.

Inspired by the beautiful colors, she thought to herself, “Wow, I bet I could make something out of this.” She treated and processed the fish skins in a series of trials and errors. Then, she started by making items like wall hanging and baskets, earrings, keychains and pouches.

Since those early days, she’s become one of Alaska’s master artists for fish skin. In 2012, she participated as a master artist in the Anchorage Museum’s salmon sewing residency program along with two other artists. The artists shared their hard-earned self-taught knowledge and techniques.

Audrey Armstrong shared her knowledge of fish skin processing and design at the Anchorage Museum in 2012. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Audrey Armstrong shared her knowledge of fish skin processing and design at the Anchorage Museum in 2012. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Audrey taught classes on processing fish skin and making artwork out of them. She mentored Karen McIntyre of Sitka. She admires work by Lisa Ballard of Huslia who making fish skin hide and creating artwork out of them. Audrey says, “Their works is beautiful! I’m tickled they are very talented.” Karen is now teaching classes. Audrey is proud to see many others taking on fish skin processing and artwork. She also admires work by Joel Isaak, a fish skin artist and teacher.

Audrey has helped to resurrect the processing and use of the fish skin and has helped many others. It is her dream and the dream of her mentor, the late Fran Reed. Audrey has many other hobbies, including being very skilled in photography and archery. I love her willingness to learn about the art form and for sharing it with others. That is how Alaska Native culture and traditions can be preserved. Ana basee’ Audrey!

Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Anna Frank – Athabascan Volunteer Recognized

Anna Frank was presented with a 2015 First Lady’s Volunteer of the Year Award from First Lady Donna walker and Governor Bill Walker. Photo by Amanda Frank
Anna Frank was presented with a 2015 First Lady’s Volunteer of the Year Award from First Lady Donna walker and Governor Bill Walker. Photo by Amanda Frank

In late April, First Lady Donna Walker announced the recipients of the 2015 First Lady’s Volunteer of the Year Awards. Among the winners was Anna Tadgue Frank who is Athabascan originally from Minto. An awards ceremony was held May 14 in Juneau.

I’ve always admired Anna Frank and her late husband, Richard. Over the years, Reverend Anna Frank has traveled throughout interior Alaska to hold Episcopal services, like baptisms, confirmations and funeral services. She has even baptized my youngest daughter at the Episcopal Church in Huslia. Many Alaskans have been touched by Anna Frank.

Anna Frank is well respected and has touched many lives. She has a strong voice and is often asked to speak at events. Here are some information the State shared about Anna Frank.

Anna Tadgue Frank – Fairbanks
Anna Frank was born in Minto, one of 13 children. She was raised living a subsistence lifestyle. At the age of 16, she snuck away from Minto and eloped with the late Richard Frank. She has been an active member of the Fairbanks community since 1975. She and Richard raised four children, many grandchildren and adopted grandchildren across Alaska and the Lower 48. She has served as a postmaster, health aide and drug and alcohol counselor. Being the first Athabascan woman ordained to the Episcopal Priesthood, she has officiated at weddings, funerals, baptisms, prayed over community events and supported people through some of the most trying times. She has assisted many Alaskans through fund raising and travel during time of unexpected life situations. She has supported, influenced and inspired many to continue their education and pursue leadership roles. She spends her time sewing many beaded Athabascan slippers, gloves and other crafts. Anyone who knows Anna enjoys her humor, presence and lifelong pursuit to help people in the Interior and beyond.

Ana basee’ Anna Frank for sharing yourself so generously with your community and the state.

Alaska Native/Indigenous People

New Book by Athabascan Author

Shirley Sam and Angela Gonzalez in Huslia
Shirley Sam and Angela Gonzalez in Huslia

A couple of years ago, Shirley Sam of Huslia, came out with her first book, Deadly Summers in Alaska. It was a thriller about a serial killer set in rural Alaska. Shirley published her second book, Deadly Summers in Alaska II: Birdie, in January. It continues with Birdie’s story. See the description below.

I got to visit her a couple months ago in Huslia. Learn more about Shirley from a post on the Athabascan Woman blog. Shirley is an inspiration to many aspiring Alaska Native authors and writers. I’ve added this book to my summer reading list. Congratulations S. A. Sam on your second book!

Deadly Summers in Alaska - Book 2
Deadly Summers in Alaska – Book 2

Description from Amazon.com
Denise “Birdie” Beardtom of the Alaska State Troopers has barely recovered from a case that almost cost her life. A woman used to saving victims almost became one herself, which is why she’s still jumpy when another woman ends up dead under her jurisdiction. The woman was raped and murdered, and there are no clues to lead them to a possible suspect. Birdie enlists the help of her usual team: Trooper Miles, Trooper Masonic, and Lieutenant Steven Lambert, known as “The Loo” Together, they scour rivers and forests for any evidence of a killer who seems to have no conscience. The body count quickly rises, so the FBI sends an agent to help in the search. Despite all the expertise, Birdie finds herself no closer to finding their killer. The Loo does his duty and heads as far away as New York City, where he uncovers startling information about the serial monster that eludes them. Again, Birdie somehow feels personally connected. She can’t shake the feeling that the killer is coming for her. She and her team have to stop him before her life becomes the next he takes.

Entertainment

Story of Interior and Western Alaskan Travel

Rhoda Stertzer and her late parents, Richard and Angeline Derendoff. Courtesy photo
Rhoda Stertzer (baby) and her late parents, Richard and Angeline Derendoff. Courtesy photo

Rhoda Stertzer is Koyukon Athabascan originally from Huslia. Her parents were the late Richard and Angeline Derendoff of Huslia. Rhoda lives in Ohio, and she often shares stories her mother told her. 

Here is a story Rhoda as told to her by her late mother, Angeline Derendoff:

This is the story our Momma used to tell us. I’m just trying my best to tell this story as I forgot some of it. Our Great Grandma used to go over to Eskimo country via Hot Springs trail. Her husband was hit with polio and it left him without the use of his legs. So Grandma had to carry him out to the sled and back inside. She used to bring back seal pokes full of seal oil.

I was told she used to make this trip a lot in her life along with Grandpa. The last time Grandma went over, she was in the pass on her way home and a snow storm was brewing. She hunkered down by the creek. As you know, when the wind comes through the pass it’s very strong. Grandma must have been alone when this happen, because Momma never mentioned Grandpa. The wind was so strong and Grandma was losing her leader. As she was struggling to hang on to her leader, the wind took her and blew her out of the pass.

Later on that spring they found her 14 miles out of the pass. That’s how far the wind took. I’ll burn some sage now. This is a story from way back in the day late 1800 or early 1900.

The area Rhoda’s mom referred to is west of Huslia around toward the coast. There is a hot springs in the middle of those areas where people visit each year. They walked, kayaked or travelled by dog team in those days. They had to move around with the seasons, plus they relied on trading from different regions for food, clothing and materials. Alaska has a rich history of dog mushing because they relied on them to travel. Western Alaskans (Yup’ik and Inupiaq) used seal poke bags to carry seal blubber and oil. 

Rhoda Stertzer was recently featured in a video about the Native American Indian Center of Central Ohio (NAICCO) where she shares how she stays connected to culture.

Thank you to Rhoda for sharing her mother’s story. There are so many stories like this that need to be preserved for future generations. 

 

Rhoda Sterter visits her hometown of Huslia often. Courtesy photo
Rhoda Stertzer visits her hometown of Huslia often. Courtesy photo
Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Importance of Preparation

A bunch of kids helped my sister, Tanya, seed and water her garden in Huslia in 2011. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
We all helped my sister, Tanya, seed and water her garden in Huslia in 2011. Having a garden is one of the only ways to have fresh vegetables in rural Alaska, because you don’t really have much at the local store. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

I grew up living off the land. We spent our summers in fish camp from the time school got out to the time school started again. Going into town was a treat.

I learned many lessons growing up out on the land. One thing is preparation. You are always preparing for one thing or another. If you think about it, living in fish camp was all about preparing for the winter ahead.

There were lessons everything. I remember going on picnics in winter or summer, my mother had us furiously preparing for our outing. We had to get lunch, snacks, coffee, tea, layers of clothing, rain gear or life vests, etc. We had a big family so you could imagine the chaos.

After running around and preparing for each boat ride, I was always sweaty and ready for a break. Mosquitoes are usually buzzing around and biting you, and the cool breeze was a welcome relief once you taking off.

Now, I see why my mother did it. We had everything we needed when we went out. We were fed, clothed and able to enjoy being out. Having six kids, I’m sure she and my dad had no choice but to be prepared. Now as I have my own family, I find myself doing the same thing before an outing. 

Tacking down ahead of time keeps your beadwork in place as you sew. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Tacking down ahead of time keeps your beadwork in place as you sew. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Even when we did beadwork, we had to tack down our work. That wasn’t my favorite part, especially when we would probably remove the threads when we were done. In the end, the beadwork turned out better when the moose skin or felt was tacked down first. I enjoy tacking down my work now, especially since I learned a shortcut for tying knots.

The constant need for preparation has stayed with me and shows on my personal and professional life. At work, I do my best to stay organized and can always find something quickly. My photos at work and home are organized by date and are labelled. At home, I do the unpleasant chores first and get them out of the way.

At the same time, you are never a 100% prepared for life. You learn to be flexible. My dad taught me how to solve problems by troubleshooting. I am grateful now for the way I grew up. Alaskans have to be prepared before going out in the wilderness. The skill of preparation can carry over to many other parts of your life.