Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Agatha Erickson – A Native Voice in Alaska Politics

Agatha Erickson picking cranberries with her niece in Fairbanks. Courtesy photo
Agatha Erickson picking cranberries with her niece in Fairbanks. Courtesy photo

I met Agatha Erickson a couple years ago at a conference in Dillingham, Alaska. She spoke on behalf of the Begich Administration at the conference. Agatha is originally from Kaltag, but has lived in both the Interior and Southeast Alaska. Her father, Arne Erickson, is a teacher. Agatha is the rural liaison for Senator Mark Begich.

Agatha’s bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth in Native American Studies gave her a great foundation for policy work. Agatha’s senior honors project was on the evolution of subsistence law in Alaska. She studied each major law, such as statehood, ANCSA and ANILCA and how they affected the generations of her family’s subsistence practices. Agatha comes from a large family, her mother Susan Solomon, is one of nine siblings.

Agatha was hired by the Tanana Chiefs Conference (TCC) as the communications director after college. She got a crash course in tribal politics. Jerry Isaac, TCC president/CEO, taught Agatha the intricacies of community outreach and working with tribal governments. She learned about how to communicate and work with people and communities across the Interior.

Agatha Erickson and Senator Mark Begich in Barrow. Courtesy photo
Agatha Erickson and Senator Mark Begich in Barrow. Courtesy photo

Agatha’s education and her work with TCC prepared her for her role as Senator Mark Begich’s rural liaison. Even with preparation, she faced a steep learning curve with the daily inner-workings of a political office. Agatha discovered the work is very fast pace, responding to constituents, planning events, writing memos and keeping up with current issues.  Despite the fast pace of a Senate office, she also learned patience waiting for the deliberative Senate to move on policy. She is learning more about the many issues faced by rural Alaskans, like the energy crisis, access to health care, education funding and food security. She asserts that although they are tough issues to be faced, there are solutions and there are great community leaders.

Agatha enjoys traveling and learning about different communities across the state. Agatha said, “There is so much diversity in our state.” She is most familiar with the interior and southeast regions having grown up in them. Agatha says she is the eyes and ears on the ground for Senator Begich.

It was a challenge for her to move from the interior to Anchorage. Agatha missed her family and friends in the interior. After about six months, she felt less lonely as she built connections and made new friends and found her Native circle.

Agatha visits her Grandpa Solomon in Kaltag. Courtesy photo
Agatha visits her Grandpa Solomon in Kaltag. Courtesy photo

With such a fast-paced day job, I asked Agatha how she keeps grounded. She runs on the Anchorage trails, and hikes around southcentral Alaska. In the winter time, she enjoys skiing. Agatha also practices what she calls ‘urban subsistence’, including fishing, berry picking, cooking traditional Native dishes with a twist (testing out different ingredients and cooking styles).

If you are interested in getting involved in politics, whether it be by running for any type of office or working in a governmental office, Agatha recommends getting an internship. It is the first step in starting a career in in the government and to learning how it operates. What you see in the media is only a small percentage of what actually happens behind the scenes.

Agatha and her friend, Tiffany Zulkosky, picking berries in Bethel. Tiffany was the former Rural Director for Senator Mark Begich. Courtesy photo
Agatha and her friend, Tiffany Zulkosky, picking berries in Bethel. Tiffany was the former Rural Director for Senator Mark Begich. Courtesy photo

Agatha has built a strong camaraderie with other Alaska Natives who are serving representatives and senators. She has found that even though their offices may have differing ideas and policies, they are all serving for the same purpose of the overall betterment of Alaska Native people. Despite long hours and hard work, they formed a strong bond and remain to be close friends.

Over the past few years, Agatha has also had to build her public speaking skills. She has studied other public speakers and she has also had a lot of practice.

Agatha’s Advice on Public Speaking

  • Practice makes perfect. Get comfortable with public speaking.
  • Find a way to deal with your nervousness. People can tell you are nervous. Agatha forces herself to breathe deeply before speaking to calm herself down.
  • Speak five times slower than your mind is going. Consciously slowing down will help you to process your thoughts and it will also give the audience a chance to digest the information you are sharing.
  • Plan to share three main points. Any less may be too short, and any more may bore people.
  • Be ready to respond to questions. Be honest if you don’t know the answer to a question, but make sure to let the person know you’ll get back to them with an answer.
Agatha at the Golden Nugget Triathlon in Anchorage. Courtesy photo
Agatha at the Golden Nugget Triathlon in Anchorage. Courtesy photo

I admire Agatha’s ability to be an ambassador for rural Alaskans, Native and non-Native. I appreciate her willingness to learn more about topics. I also admire her ability to deal with stress through physical activity. That is something I wish I learned a long time ago. Agatha is a great example that you can go far with an education and just going out and doing it.

Alaska Native culture

Big Families – Those Were the Days

Yatlin Family in 2007. Back row (left-right): Al Jr., Solomon, Janessa, Al Sr., Eleanor, Ermelina, Johnnie and Dolly. Front row (left-right): Sheri, Tanya, Lydia and Angela. Photo taken by Farmer Vent
Yatlin Family in 2007. Back row (left-right): Al Jr., Solomon, Janessa, Al Sr., Eleanor, Ermelina, Johnnie and Dolly. Front row (left-right): Sheri, Tanya, Lydia and Angela. Photo taken by Farmer Vent
Tanya, Angela and Al Jr. were all one year apart. Photo by taken in Huslia by Eleanor Yatlin
Tanya, Angela and Al Jr. were all one year apart. Photo by taken in Huslia by Eleanor Yatlin

My parents had six kids, five together and one adopted. Al Jr., Tanya and I were all one year apart. Tanya was adopted a year before Al came along. We were the middle kids with an older sister, Sheri, and younger brothers, Solomon and Johnnie. We moved a lot due to my dad’s work, like Huslia, Hughes, Bettles/Evansville, Nome, Fort Yukon, Galena and Nenana. We might have lived in a lot of different places, but my siblings were a constant presence in my life.

My parents had their hands (and house) full during those years. Most people didn’t have running water in Huslia in my early years. We had those galvanized steel tubs. My parents had an oblong shaped tub, and Al, Tonz and I took a bath at the same time. We were pretty nuisance. One day while mom was out, I decided to cut my bangs. Oh, but I didn’t stop there. I had to cut Al and Tonz’ bangs too! I’m not sure if my mom has a picture of us during that time. I think I have a few with my really short bangs though. We were 4-5-6 years old at the time. Ha ha! Our nicknames were, Little Al, Tonz and Angie.

We probably drove my mom a little crazy. She was a stay-at-home mom. As teenagers we stayed up late, and she would tell us in a stern voice, “Go to bed and go to sleep.” We even recorded it one time. We still giggled for about half an hour after she would tell us.

"Yatlin Family Circus" is what I put on the back of this photo when I took it as a teenager in the 1990s. Photo taken in Bettles/Evansville, Alaska
“Yatlin Family Circus” is what I put on the back of this photo when I took it as a teenager in the 1990s. Photo taken in Bettles/Evansville, Alaska

My dad was a dog musher, so in addition to six kids, we also had to take care of 10-30 dogs over the years. Nowadays, my parents are retired and living a more quite life. They only have a couple dogs at a time. My sister and her daughter live in Huslia too. The rest of us are spread out around Alaska.

Angie (7), Al Jr. (5) and Tanya (6) in Huslia in the early 80s. Photo taken in Huslia by Eleanor Yatlin
Angie (7), Al Jr. (5) and Tanya (6) in Huslia in the early 80s. Photo taken in Huslia by Eleanor Yatlin

It wasn’t an easy life growing up with such a big family, but it was a blessing. I’m thankful for all of my siblings and for my extended family. One of my aunts had 14 children. I always thought I would have a big family of my own, but my husband and I are content with two. I cherish the memories of my childhood growing up in a large family.

Denaakk’e (Koyukon Athabascan) Lesson:

  • Sodaa – older sister
  • Sidaadze – younger sister
  • Sooghaa – older brother
  • Seketl’e – younger brother
Alaska Native culture

Learning Denaakk’e – Koyukon Athabascan

Susan Paskvan and Eliza Jones telling story in Denaakk'e. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Susan Paskvan and Eliza Jones telling story in Denaakk’e. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

I attended the Denaakk’e Immersion class held this month in Anchorage. I was not sure exactly what to expect and I thought I would be overwhelmed quickly. I can tell you that I am not overwhelmed. The instructors were patient and check in with everyone to see how we were doing. If we got overwhelmed, we took a break or did a fun activity.

My daughter, Ermelina, and I learned together. She is picking it up quickly and has helped me along the way. The class was open to all ages and ranges of language knowledge. It was great to interact with the elders and to learn along with the kids.

Learning the words is the biggest challenge for Erma. She enjoys the asking and answering a question activity. This is the “Where are your keys?” teaching method.

Each day, we reviewed the agenda and signed up to lead activities. Language Instructor Susan “K’etsoo” Paskvan encouraged participants to take ownership of the agenda and activities. We can use the same techniques to hold language nights later on. A part of learning the language is to be able to practice. The instructors are not always going to be there, and we need to pass it on.

Teach what you want to learn. -Carter Rodriquez

I was impressed with the structure of the class and the thought they put into the teaching methods. In addition to the the “Where are your keys?” teaching method, they also used storytelling to teach us some new verbs and nouns. The story is called, Tobaan Estuh. Participants performed the story in a play on the last day.

We also went for walks around the Alaska Native Heritage Center and asked questions and learned words. We had to ask the questions in Denaakk’e. This is a great method to remember words. We also had a lot of repetition with each exercise. Once you ‘got it’, you were encouraged to teach others.

Another key method was learning American Sign Language. Signing helped us remember the words. It also helped us to stay immersed in Denaakk’e. We tried to speak Denaakk’e as much as we could.

We played fun games with Denaakk’e words mixed in. Like the Simon Says game, we played Setsoo Says (Grandma Says). We also learned some Denaakk’e songs. It was great to hear the stories behind the songs. Esther “Nedosdegheełno” McCarty explained why songs are made and where they come from.

Esther McCarty teaches students a Denaakk'e song. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Esther McCarty teaches students a Denaakk’e song. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

I enjoyed learning and practicing how to introduce yourself in Denaakk’e. I wrote my Alaska Native introduction on my “About” page. Someday, I would like to learn how to do the same thing in Denaak’e. The cool thing is that some participants learned they were related.

I’m filled up with a newfound knowledge and respect for the Denaakk’e. it was great to connect with people who are also interested in learning the language. It’s a lifelong challenge, but I have some tools to help me along the way.

Ana basee’ to Eliza Jones, Esther McCarty, Susan Paskvan, Dewey Hoffman and Dawn Dinwoodie! A big thanks to the Alaska Native Heritage Center for hosting and organizing the class. Thank you to Doyon, Limited for sponsoring the program!

Alaska Native culture

Learning the Athabascan Language

I’ve been working with my daughters to learn the Koyukon Athabascan. I started out by creating Vine videos to record words and sharing them on Twitter (@ayatlin). I recently migrated to Instagram because of flexibility and editing function. I’ve also uploaded the videos to Facebook. My friend, Mary Deming Barber, recently wrote about how I’ve been using Vine to teach Athabascan on her blog

Koyukon Junior Dictionary. Written by Eliza Jones in 1978
Koyukon Junior Dictionary. Written by Eliza Jones in 1978

I know a lot of words in Koyukon Athabascan, but I do not speak it or know how to spell it. I have been learning as I go. My aunt Irene Henry of Allakaket recently sent me some worksheets with Koyukon words for us to use. I have also downloaded the Koyukon Junior Dictionary written by Athabascan linguist, Eliza Jones of Koyukuk, Alaska.

I recently learned the Alaska Native Heritage Center (ANHC) is will hold two Athabascan language learning opportunities this summer:

  1. Nee’eeneegn’ Upper Tanana Athabascan July 15-20 at Northway’s culture camp which is upriver from the village during an overnight camp setting.
  2. Denaakk’e Koyukon Athabascan August 4-9 in Anchorage at the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

The ANHC would like to bring together as many interested Upper Tanana and Koyukon Athabascan language learners of all ages with hands-on learning activities, singing, eating and sharing stories. ANHC Development Manager Dewey Hoffman says, “Anyone can learn our language and it’s important to put it back into the air where it belongs!” 

Dene Languages. Map courtesy of the ANHC.
Dene Languages. Map courtesy of the ANHC.

I am planning to attend the one in Anchorage. The registration costs, meals and learning materials are free due to sponsorship from Doyon, Limited, which launched an Athabascan Language Revitalization initiative in 2012 to promote the Native languages within the Doyon region. Travel and lodging are not provided. Ruth Johnny of Northway and Beaver Creek and Cheryl Silas of Northway and Fairbanks will be the instructors for Upper Tanana week in Northway. K’etsoo Susan Paskvan of Koyukuk and Fairbanks and NedosdeghaaLno Esther McCarty of Hughes and Ruby will instruct the Koyukon Athabascan language week in Anchorage.

Esther McCarty teaches the Koyukon Athabascan language and songs. For years, people in the Yukon/Koyukuk area ask her to make Koyukon Athabascan songs for memorial potlatches.

“Most of them don’t speak our language but it is very important for these individuals that they sing for their loved ones. I teach them by a number of different methods. The end result is that they really make an effort to pronounce their words and make a song and end up really strong and proud that they’ve done it.  It’s a part of us as Koyukon Athabascans that we sing if that is what is in our hearts. That is part of the healing process of losing a loved one. This is only one reason that we need to learn how to speak our language. It is part of what makes us whole spiritually. Even if a person learns to speak only a few words and understand what he or she is saying that is a great accomplishment for a Koyukon Athabascan who doesn’t know how to speak and would like to learn.” – Esther McCarty

I recorded Esther in 2008 when she did a blessing for a special event in Ruby, Alaska.

Susan Paskvan writes the Athabascan Word of the Week column for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. The words for June 22, 2013 were sołtaanh nezoonh (a good woman) and hunek zoo’ (a good story) in dedication the Mary Beth Smetzer who retired from the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer. I love how Susan blends stories and background information into teaching the languages. Susan is the daughter of Eliza Jones.

Nenena Summer Fish Camp – Menhti Kenaga’ Immersion
Susan Paskvan shared the following information about Menhti Kenaga’, the language of Minto and Nenana. Students at the Nenana Summer Fish Camp are learning Menhti Kenaga’ through immersion methods, taught by Susie Charlie, Vernell Titus, and Susan Paskvan.

Here are some of the phrases they are learning.

  • Setsoo Jennie Irwin be’oozra’. My grandmother is Jennie Irwin.
  • Setseya Jack Irwin dideyoh. My grandfather was Jack Irwin.
  • En’a _____ be’oozra’. My mom’s name is ____.
  • Ta’a _____ be’oozra’. My dad’s name is ____.
  • __________ se’oozra’. My name is ______.

After the 1.5 hour session students, were allowed to ask questions and make comments in English. They asked, “who spoke this language?” and commented “my grandma said she was punished for speaking our language”. Setsoo Susie Charlie told them that this was the language of our people. Through language they are learning about their grandparents and that is important for them to know.


I am grateful to have this opportunity to learn and am excited to be able to do so with my children. I’m pretty sure I’m making mistakes as I’m saying the words. I hope to learn how to correctly pronounce the words and phrases during the language week. I would love to be able to understand Elders who speak in Koyukon Athabascan, and perhaps hold a conversation with them. Language is important to pass on the culture and traditions.

Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Marjorie Merry Grunin – Entrepreneur, Mom and Actress

Marjorie Merry Grunin. Courtesy photo
Marjorie Merry Grunin. Courtesy photo

I first met Marjorie Merry Grunin in 1991 when was attending the Rural Alaska Honors Institute (RAHI), a summer program at the University of Alaska – Fairbanks. She did a presentation in my class at RAHI. Marjorie was wearing a pinstriped skirt with a white blouse during her presentation. She looked like a sophisticated and confident businesswoman. Marjorie presented about business technology and marketing. Marjorie and the marketing professor, Dale Fodness, were the reasons I chose to pursue a marketing degree. At the time, she was an owner of one of the first technology companies in Fairbanks.

Marjorie has been a role model and a mentor to me. She lives and works in the Fairbanks, Alaska area with her husband two daughters. Marjorie is an accomplished businesswoman who also volunteers for organizations and causes important to her. Finding balance between her family life and career has always been like a tug-of-war for her. Marjorie’s first priority became her family after she found the person she could share her life with and have children. At that time, her career opportunities took a backseat to the needs of her family, especially when her husband was active duty and living in a tent in the Saudi desert over a six year period.

Marjorie Merry Grunin at the Cascaden Ridge overlook off of the Elliott Highway on the way to Minto. Photo courtesy of Marjorie
Marjorie Merry Grunin at the Cascaden Ridge overlook off of the Elliott Highway on the way to Minto. Photo courtesy of Marjorie

Marjorie was there for her daughters while they were young, and it was both a blessing and a sacrifice. She used that time to complete her master’s degree, studying late into the night while her daughters slept. Now that they are grown she has the ability to refocus on work with a greater time commitment. Marjorie’s job is demanding, but she tries to leave work at the office to be truly present in the family in the evenings.

One of Marjorie’s most significant challenges is one that many Alaska Native women and women in general face and that is not being taken seriously. She envisions a future for her daughters without glass ceilings, parity in pay and benefits, and the freedom to live without sexual discrimination or fear of assault.

Marjorie’s Life Lessons:

  • Give from the heart
  • Develop skills to face challenges and overcome adversity
  • Listen to understand with empathy
  • Be humbly grateful for all the gifts of this life

Marjorie has many hobbies, like painting, sewing and beading. However, she finds little time for these creative outlets at this time of my life. Instead, Marjorie finds herself retreating to the garden, nurturing plants and digging in the ground for the short time it isn’t frozen solid. Alaska winters are long and the summers are short, especially in the northern interior. Marjorie loves painting with flowers, seeing things grow and eating fresh food. She fears gardening may become an obsession because she enjoys it so much.

Marjorie loves theatre and is currently working backstage for the Fairbanks Drama Association’s production of Arsenic and Old Lace. She is the property mistress making sure all the props are in place and ready, and the stage is set for each scene. Marjorie played Blanche DuBois in Streetcar Named Desire and Mrs. Gibbs in Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Our Town. She enjoys it and says, “It takes a great deal of time, but really keeps your mind sharp!”

Marjorie’s Advice for Young People:

  • If you are young and unfettered after college, try a job that gets you out of your boots and living in a different part of the country for a bit.
  • Try new things, exotic food, new music, a new hiking trail.
  • Put yourself in places to experience other cultures, make new friends and see how you fit in a global context.
  • People don’t work for one company for thirty years anymore, what you learn in college should prepare you for many employment opportunities and the next generation will find that the ability to adapt to change is one of their greatest assets.
  • With the above in mind, make sure the road you find yourself on doesn’t keep you trapped in a rut!

Marjorie will continue to be my role model and mentor not just for her business acumen, but also for her kind and generous heart. She blows my mind with all of the knowledge she has about Alaska Native business and tribal issues. Marjorie has proven that with hard work, patience and drive, you can have it all. It’s people like Marjorie that are forging the way for other Alaska Native people, especially women.

Enaa baasee’ Marjorie!

Marjorie Merry Grunin is Koyukon and Gwich’in Athabascan, and grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska. Her mother, Renee Evans Merry, was born in Rampart (a small village along the Yukon River) to Peter and Kitty Evans. Renee attended Mount Edgecumbe and became a dental assistant, which is how she met Marjorie’s father, Pete Merry. Pete was a pilot flying a Norseman on floats for Alaska Coastal when they met. He flew Renee and the dentist she was accompanying out to villages in the Aleutians. Pete later transferred to Wien and was one of a handful of pilots flying out of Barrow in the late fifties. They moved to Fairbanks in 1962, then to Anchorage when Wien moved their crews down in 1976.

Marjorie was born in Fairbanks and spent the first few years of her life in Barrow and Bettles. She and her sister, Jeannette, grew up with the Shontz girls from Barrow as their closest friends. They still have ties to Barrow and Bettles to this day. Marjorie currently lives in Fairbanks and owns property in Rampart, where she fishes subsistence with her family.

Marjorie served as a director for her village corporation, Baan o yeel kon Corporation, for a number of years and in 2004 was recognized as Shareholder of the Year. Marjorie is the General Manager of Minto Development Corporation, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Seth’De’Ya’Ah Corporation (the ANCSA village corporation for the federally recognized Native Village of Minto). In addition, she also is the owner of Perspicacity Contract Services since 2003. Prior to that, she gained extensive administrative experience working for a number of companies in Alaska, Nebraska and California. Marjorie has more than 28 years of management experience.

Marjorie is a former Vestry Board Member for St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church and a member of the Bishop’s Finance Committee for the Episcopal Diocese of Alaska. She also served as the Hospice of the Tanana Valley Board of Directors. Marjorie currently serves as a member of the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce Urban & Rural Affairs Committee.  She went to school outside and holds a Bachelor’s in Political Science from the University of Nebraska and a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Colorado, Graduate School of Public Affairs.