Alaska Native culture

Athabascan Friend and Mentor

Irene Henry and late Lydia Simon playing cards in Bettles in the early 1990's. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Irene Henry and late Lydia Simon playing cards in Bettles in the early 1990’s. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

I was talking to my mom, Eleanor Yatlin, recently about my late Grandma Lydia Simon. She mentioned that Millie Moses of Allakaket was my late grandmother’s siwogilaah. Siwogilaah means special friend or mentor in Denaakk’e (Koyukon Athabascan). My aunt Irene Henry of Allakaket says, “It’s like a very, best friend ever.” Siwogilaah friendships are sometimes made because the parents or grandparents were friends. Another way this friendship can be formed is if someone gives a special gift. It could have also started because you were there in a time of need.

In Denaakk’e, siwogilaah is pronounced “se wo gil agh”. It means special friend or mentor.

Siwogilaah is different from gganaa’, which is the Denaakk’e word for friend.

Mom said that Helen Attla of Hughes was also a siwogilaah to my late grandma. I think Helen tanned a moose skin for her. The late Laura Mark of Huslia was a siwogilaah to my mother. Mom said, “Late Laura taught me how to tan beaver skin and cook.” Mom was encouraged to go to late Laura to ask her advice. It was great for my mom to depend on someone and to learn how to do things.

I asked my Irene Henry of Allakaket about the subject. Irene is my auntie. I always learn something when I talk to her and I often ask her advice on how to properly pronounce Denaakk’e words. Irene says she was really close to a lot to elders, especially late Mary Vent. Her mom and late Mary were close friends. Whenever there was an event going on, Irene would visit late Mary. Irene says, “One time we hung out together, the whole time we were in Hughes during a potlatch.”

Aunt Irene and I talked about common Athabascan beliefs and traditions still in use today. Some common Denaakk’e words are being used today, like basee’ (thank you) and hutlaanee (taboo). Irene says, “All the kids around here say anas baaba if they drop food. It is hutlanee for us to waste food.” I am not sure the tradition of siwogilaah is being continued as much as it was 30 years ago.

Millie Moses. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Millie Moses. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Millie Moses says she has two siwogilaah. The first was the late Lydia Simon of Huslia. The second one is Eliza Jones of Koyukuk. Late Lydia Simon was a like a grandmother to Millie. Late Lydia told Millie she reminded her of her late grandmother Cesa. Late Lydia once gifted Millie with a silver ladle and beaded slippers. Millie visited late Lydia whenever they were in the same places together. During potlatches or cover dishes, Millie made it a point to make sure late Lydia got some food and would deliver it if needed.

Years ago, Millie tanned a moose skin. At the time, Eliza Jones was teaching Denaakke’ in Allakaket. Millie gifted Eliza with a part of the tanned skin. That was the only moose skin Millie ever tanned, and she said giving it to Eliza was one of the best things she has ever done. Eliza was touched by the gift. Since then, Millie and Eliza have been special friends. Eliza has gifted Millie with salmon (jarred and smoked). Millie makes a point to visit Eliza whenever they are in the same place.

I don’t know of too many younger people who are continuing this tradition of having a siwogilaah, but I know special friendships continue. My sister, Sheri, has good friends that she considers siwogilaah. The younger generation can certainly benefit from this type of friendship. It is really about survival and friendship. I’m still learning what it means.

What siwogilagh means to Sharon Yatlin. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
What siwogilagh means to Sharon Yatlin. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
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.