Alaska life

Community Halls in Rural Alaska

Eleanor Yatlin stands outside of the Huslia hall after voting in 2012. Photo by Georgia Attla
Eleanor Yatlin stands outside of the Huslia hall after voting in 2012. Photo by Georgia Attla
A gathering is held in the Huslia hall. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
A gathering is held in the Huslia hall. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

A community hall is a central gathering place in smaller villages. It is a community center, where you go for dances, bingo, meetings, weddings, funerals, banquets and many other events. Voting polls are set up in the  halls during election time. Many halls in the interior are built with logs. Halls usually have a wood stove and electricity with little else. The halls are usually circular with eight sides.

In Huslia, the community hall is about 35 years old and is in bad shape. The doors are old and have been repaired multiple times. Some of the windows are broken. The floors have not been in the best condition for a long time. It is generally in need of a replacement. Plus, the community has outgrown the old hall.

Tanya and Lydia Yatlin attended a wedding in the Huslia hall. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Tanya and Lydia Yatlin attended a wedding in the Huslia hall. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Building a hall in a small village of nearly 300 people is a big undertaking. The Huslia Tribal Council and the City of Huslia have partnered in the project. They are working to secure more funding and hope to build the new hall in the summer construction season of 2015. They also hope to make the new hall energy efficient.

According to Edwin Bifelt of Huslia, they have collected 400 logs upriver from Huslia. The next phase of the project will be to build four rafts of 100 logs each and transport them to Huslia. Edwin says, “This is the biggest logging project Huslia ever did.”

Edwin shared a few photos below.

Here are the people in the photo below:
Back row left to right: Timothy Sam, Edgar Weter, Joe Bifelt, DJ Starr, Rocky Peters, Craig Bifelt, Christopher Moses, Glenn Sam (crew boss), Floyd Vent, Russell David, Tony Sam Jr., David Vent and Donovan Williams.

Front Row: Victor Vent, Nate Vent, Beattus “Dino” Moses, Jr. and Calvin Jackson.
Camp Cooks: Kimberly Moses and Ophelia Moses

Other loggers who worked on the project include Robbie Williams, Ricky Vent and Clifford Edwin. Another cook not pictured is Agnes Dayton. Edwin  thanked  George Attla, Jr. for hauling supplies  and Rachel Weter and Em Penn for helping.

Huslia loggers. Photo by by Edwin Bifelt
Huslia loggers. Photo by by Edwin Bifelt

In rural Alaska, you have to be innovative to make things work for your needs. There are many logistics that need careful planning. There is a also a lack of heavy equipment when you are working outside of the village. Calvin Jackson and Glenn Sam built two custom built log hauling trailers for the project.

Log trailer hitched to four-wheeler. Photo by Edwin Bifelt
Log trailer hitched to four-wheeler. Photo by Edwin Bifelt
A log is hauled out on a custom-built trailer. Photo by Edwin Bifelt
A log is hauled out on a custom-built trailer. Photo by Edwin Bifelt

I’m looking forward watching the progress of the rising of Huslia’s new community hall. Community halls are vital to rural Alaskan communities.

Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Walk for Tsucde – Day 29

Walk for Tsucde - Day 29. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Walk for Tsucde – Day 29. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Today, I joined Walk for Tsucde on a seven mile stretch between Chugiak and Eagle River. We walked on the trail. So far, they walked from Dot Lake all the way to Eagle River. The Walk will conclude in Anchorage on May 31 at the Alaska Native Medical Center.

They have been fortunate to get news stories, like in the Alaska Dispatch, KTUU Ch. 2 News and Fairbanks Daily Newsminer. You can learn more about the Walk on the Walk for Tsucde website and Facebook and Twitter pages.

I was inspired by the walkers. Fred John, Jr. came up with the idea for the walk to raise awareness about Alaska Native rights. His brother, Harry John, and Tazlina (husky) has been walking with them since the beginning. Three ladies from Tetlin joined them along the way. Another relative joined them half way. They each have their own reasons for walking. One common theme was for future generations.

They believe the grandmothers are walking to them. Tsucde means grandma. It is a walk to honor Fred’s late mother, Katie John. They have received a lot of support from people along the way. People brought them food and other comforts. Some offer encouraging words via phone and social media. Others have made monetary donations.

Becky Semler and Fred John, Jr. start out early on May 29 in Chugiak. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Becky Semler and Fred John, Jr. start out early on May 29 in Chugiak. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Walking with them on this relatively short stretch made me think about a lot of things. I was reminded of the importance of physical fitness. I felt so grateful to be outside, to hear the birds and water flowing when we passed. In today’s world, it is so easy to just coast along and keep busy. We forget to live in the present.

The purpose walk also reminded me of the struggles Alaska Natives and rural Alaskans face in being able to fish and hunt in their local areas. It was an honor to walk with these individuals for a short distance. Organizers invite people to join the walk and come to the celebration on May 31.

Walkers on May 29 between Chugiak and Eagle River. Photo by Becky Semler
Walkers on May 29 between Chugiak and Eagle River. Photo by Becky Semler
Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Firefighters from Rural Alaska

My nephew, Marvin Yatlin, Jr. of Huslia, went out firefighting for the first time this month. Photo by Teri Vent
My nephew, Marvin Yatlin, Jr. of Huslia, went out firefighting for the first time this month. Photo by Teri Vent

Each year, people from all over Alaska go out firefighting. Firefighting jobs are especially important to rural Alaskans because of the lack of jobs. It supplements the economy in smaller communities. It also helps communities across Alaska and other states to have firefighters who are willing and able to help fight fires.

“A lot of people depend on the fire season to get them through the winter or to purchase snow machines, boats, and four wheelers, etc.” -Loretta Linus

If you are over 18 and physically able to work, you can go out firefighting. You must pass the pack test first. The Alaska Division of Forestry has been offering the pack tests in Fairbanks. Villagers can also take the pack test. There are different levels of the pack test. It is an endurance test where you have to carry a 45 lb. pack for three miles in less than 45 minutes. Learn more from the Alaska Fire Service.

My friend, Loretta Linus, recently took the pack test in Fairbanks. She says, “I don’t carry the pack. I only take the walking test for timekeeping or any other clerical work.” Loretta hopes to get a job in Fairbanks. The pack test was administered in villages along the Koyukuk River and other rural communities recently. Crews from various Alaskan communities are now fighting fires in southcentral Alaska. Sometimes the Alaskan firefighters help to fight fires in the lower 48 and vise versa.

Residents of interior Alaska took the pack test in early May in Fairbanks. Photo by Loretta Linus
Residents of interior Alaska took the pack test in early May in Fairbanks. Photo by Loretta Linus
Hughes residents take the pack test in May. Photo by Tal Beetus Baker
Hughes residents take the pack test in May. Photo by Tal Beetus Baker

Doing the pack test each spring in the village is almost like a rite of passage. I have many friends and relatives who have successfully passed the pack test and gone out firefighting over the years. I never took the test and haven’t gone out firefighting. Right after high school, I was fortunate to find other jobs and attend college. In some ways, I feel like I missed out. When people come back from firefighting, they always have the funniest and most interesting stories to tell.

“It is an opportunity every year to ensure employment for those who are are unemployed during the winter months. Plus it is fun and great way to stay in shape. There are also a lot of great training opportunities every spring for those who would like to advance, at AFS or DNR.”
– Tal Beetus Baker of Hughes

A crew from Huslia is fighting the fire at the Funny River. Some of the firefighters found a wolf den with pups. The mother wolf either abandoned them due to the fire or perished. Check out the story on KTUU Channel 2 News.

I wish there were no forest fires, but am glad Alaskans can get much needed jobs for the summer. Firefighting  allows people to work together, earn money and have fun. They really have to work together to stay safe. Working together so closely for weeks is a great way to build camaraderie. I look forward to more fun firefighting stories from friends and relatives this summer.

 

Alaska Native culture

The State of Culture Shock of an Alaska Native

I attended the Rural Alaska Honors Institute (RAHI) in 1991 at the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus.
I attended the Rural Alaska Honors Institute (RAHI) in 1991 at the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus.

The first time I went out of state to the Lower 48 was a high school trip to Close-Up in Washington, DC. My cousin, Michelle, experienced government in action. I had no idea what to expect in a huge city. I remember feeling so overwhelmed with how fast-paced everything was.

We flew from Bettles to Fairbanks (the biggest city I’ve ever been to before going out of state). I got jet lag from the trip across the country. I still felt like I was moving two days later. The hotel felt like it was moving. We visited the capitol, landmarks and learned about legislative processes.

I took a subway for the first time. I remember doing a lot of walking. I remember being shocked at a street with six lanes. Bettles has gravel roads. I remember running across the lanes like my life depended on it. The wind and rain didn’t help. As I ran across, my umbrella turned inside out and I ended up getting soaked.

The Close-Up program broadened my horizons on many levels. My only knowledge of subways and architectural buildings was from movies and books. The sheer number of people in the airport, buildings, cities was amazing.

Teacher Susie Luck taught us proper table manners at a restaurant in Fairbanks. L-R: Michelle, Miss Luck, Tanya and Gloria. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Teacher Susie Luck taught us proper table manners at a restaurant in Fairbanks. L-R: Michelle, Miss Luck, Tanya and Gloria. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

We had two teachers at the Bettles Field School. George Nicholson was a principal and teacher and taught the younger grades. Suzi Luck taught the upper grades. There were an average of 10 students in the whole school, kindergarten through 12 grade. On a trip to Fairbanks one year, Miss Luck brought a group of us to a restaurant. She taught us table manners and how to order food. We didn’t really have to opportunity to eat in a restaurant too often.

I respect teachers, like Mr. Nicholson and Miss Luck, who go above and beyond to help their students succeed. Teachers, counselors, mentors and coaches in rural Alaska are often instrumental in preparing students for higher education and beyond.

I later attended the Rural Alaska Honors Institute (RAHI) at the University of Alaska – Fairbanks. RAHI is a six-week college preparatory program and takes place in the summer. I earned college credits and gained the confidence I needed to succeed in college.

After high school, I attended the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma. Despite my experience of going through the programs, attending college was still a culture shock. I went from a small community of about 50 people to a college with over 4,000 students at that time. I was exposed to city life and to the Native American culture in Oklahoma. Like many other college students, I made lifelong friends and I still keep in touch with them today.

In my senior year, I traveled to Europe with an international business class. That is one thing I never imagined I would ever be able to do. I visited international businesses, see the sights and watched a play in a theater. I traveled by planes, trains, automobiles and ship during the whirlwind trip. We visited London, Birmingham, Brussels and Amsterdam.

I am grateful for the experiences of college and learning about life outside of Alaska. While I learned a lot about other people and communities, it made me appreciate where I am from and how I was raised. I’m forever grateful to parents and family who believed in me and supported me as I have pursued my dreams. Despite all my travels, experiences and living in the city, I am still a village girl at heart. 

Alaska life

Getting Married in Rural Alaska

Russ and Michelle were married in Old Alatna with their children as witnesses. Photo by Tanya Yatlin
Russ and Michelle were married in Old Alatna with their children as witnesses. Photo by Tanya Yatlin

What’s it like getting married in rural Alaska? I have had several friends who got married over the summer. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it to most of them. If you don’t already know, travel is very expensive to rural villages. Fortunately, I was able to join virtually via Facebook.

Melanie Wholecheese beaded this bouquet for Michelle's wedding. Photo by Tanya Yatlin
Melanie Wholecheese beaded this bouquet for Michelle’s wedding. Photo by Tanya Yatlin

I talked with one of my best friends, Michelle Sam, about her wedding. She and her long-time boyfriend, Russ, got married in August in Old Alatna. Old and New Alatna are located across the Koyukuk River from Allakaket in the northwest interior of Alaska. The main way to get there is by airplane.

Michelle and Russ started talking about getting married about two years before doing so. They have four children. Michelle knew she wanted to get married in Old Alatna, so guests would have to get there by boat. Like many couples preparing for a wedding, coming up with the money for the wedding was a challenge. Freight for the wedding supplies and attire were expensive. Plus they had to go into Fairbanks to get a marriage license.

Overall, the wedding went well. She credits the success to family and friends, including her sister and maid of honor, Dena. Her friends and relatives helped to find her dress and other supplies. She appreciates the friends who were able to travel to Alatna, including Tanya, Wes, Chris and Barbara. Her mother and others cooked for the wedding. Michelle also made it easy for her bridesmaids dress selection. Her bridesmaids could choose any style but the dresses had to be a fall time color.

Wedding Tips from Michelle:

  • Decided early on who will be in the wedding to give them enough advanced notice.
  • Delegate duties ahead of time. Many friends and family may want to help, but they need instructions and enough time.
  • Send invitations
  • Create a wedding budget and start saving

Michelle says, “Do it when you’re ready for it, not when someone tells you to do it.”

Lydia Bergman officiated the wedding of Russ and Michelle in Old Alatna. Photo courtesy of Michelle Sam
Lydia Bergman officiated the wedding of Russ and Michelle in Old Alatna. Photo courtesy of Michelle Sam

Michelle’s Happy Realizations:

  • How good it felt to be getting married to the one you love!
  • How good it felt to have the family get involved in the wedding!
  • How good it feels to be married.
  • How happy our parents are and the rest of our families too!
  • How happy the village was too and how many of them made it to Old Alatna for the wedding!

My sister, Tanya, was a bridesmaid at Michelle’s wedding. She exclaimed, “OMG! The wedding was amazing!” It turned out to be five day adventure travelling to the wedding from Huslia, which is located downriver from Alatna. Hughes is another village located between the villages. Tanya describes her adventure below.

“My adventure included picking blueberries in the mountains behind Hughes (first and probably last time picking this year), 7 hour boat ride up to Allakaket (supposed to take average of 3 hours, but the river is LOW). Twice we had to pole upriver for about 50 feet because of low water. My poor arms were jelly after a while. My ride was saying, ‘At lease we are staying warm!’ Coming back down, we started at 12 p.m. by boat and got to Hughes at 4 p.m. Then, I missed my flight out of Hughes. Thankfully, I was able to hitch a boat ride with Samson Henry (THANK YOU VERY MUCH.) I spent about 10 minutes in Hughes before we took off. After driving for 6 more hours, we decided to park for the night. We made fire near some driftwood, tied the boat, jumped in our sleeping bags and slept until 6 a.m. (first time I slept in a boat). We got to Huslia about 11 a.m. There was a couple of more places we had to paddle through on the way down, but it was a fun long, long LONG 23 hour boat ride.” – Tanya Yatlin

Melanie Wholecheese beaded this pillow for Michelle's wedding. It is made out of moose skin and rabbit fur. Photo by Tanya Yatlin
Melanie Wholecheese beaded this pillow for Michelle’s wedding. It is made out of moose skin and rabbit fur. Photo by Tanya Yatlin

While it was an adventure getting to the wedding and back, Tanya was very happy she was able to be there to celebrate Michelle and Russ’ wedding. She gave them a big congratulations.

I was able to attend a wedding in Huslia in September of Cesa and Curtis. I loved seeing the way Cesa and Michelle mixed traditional wedding rituals with Athabascan touches. Some brides blend Alaska Native and western cultural traditions. For example, the ring pillow for Michelle’s wedding was made out of moose skin with a beautiful beaded design.

A long time ago, the preacher would only come one-two times per year. As a result, many couples were married at the same time. There were a few elders who had the same wedding anniversary. Nowadays, it is easier for a preacher or someone from the community to marry couples. I wish the best to couples to all of the couples who got married in rural Alaska this year!

Here are some children who were a part of Michelle and Russ' wedding in Old Alatna. Photo by Tanya Yatlin
Here are some children who were a part of Michelle and Russ’ wedding in Old Alatna. Photo by Tanya Yatlin