Laurita Dianita

Reflections and art on the topics of public health, social justice, and love

Archive for the ‘Alaska Native’ tag

From the Arctic to the Chattahoochee

without comments

I have waited so long to write here about my travels to the Northwest Arctic villages of Buckland (Kaniq) and Noatak (Nautaaq) in January and travel to Georgia and Alabama in February because, being sort of a perfectionist, I want to write the perfect thing, but being an epidemiologist and adjunct faculty member and volunteer, I don’t have time to write the perfect thing. And what would the perfect thing be anyway? I am a visitor to both places and still know so little. So I will, instead, leave you with a few photos and these links to my Flickr collection from rural Alaska and The South. The photos on Flickr tell many stories through the captions.

Oscar took this picture of me as I was preparing for the trip to the Northwest Arctic region (Nunaqatigiich), where it had been -30 to -50 for the last month before we left. I didn’t end up using the goggles while there, in Buckland’s -35 or Noatak’s -48, but instead let my eyelashes turn white only a minute or two after going outside. I liked this feeling, and liked being able to see clearly. I also felt like Arctic Darth Vader with them and everything else on and I wanted to look as friendly as possible. Meeting people, conversing, gaining trust, forming relationships, finding out who you have in common, all these things were the basis of our work up there–and if mouth and nose are covered, I at least needed to show my eyes to do so.

The wolf parka, borrowed from our friend, Kiatcha, helped as well. It is so beautiful, rare, and warm a parka that many people came up to me and touched it, saying, “Aarigaa! What a parka!”  I would tell them how lucky I was to have been able to borrow it. One man hugged me because he was so happy for me to have this parka. As I told Kiatcha when I returned it, her parka is truly magical, and I feel blessed to have worn it.

Much of this talking and relationship-building happened indoors, of course, after we had stripped off a few of our layers. One of the most memorable conversations of the trip was with a woman we met in Buckland and her elder father. They told me and my colleagues about their reindeer herd and how every once in a while, the caribou will migrate through right by the herd, and some will stop and mate with their more domestic counterparts. The children of these couplings, the elder told us, are wilder than regular reindeer and harder to contain. This image of animals that blur the lines between domestic and wild—being a part of or leaving behind their herds—is one that I layered, in my head, with the white and sometimes pastel ice fog hanging over that beautiful, flat land of tundra and waterways. This image of animals and land and sky is one of the images that I most carry with me from this journey in Nunaqatigiich.

I miss it there. A lot.

I took this picture with my Holga. In it, I am on the rocks jutting out of the Chattahoochee River , between Alabama and Georgia, with our 3 and 1/2 year old niece, Lilly, teaching her how to hop from rock to rock, how to balance and climb and descend, how to trust her body and eyes. She was an avid and quick learner and it filled my heart up to see her move from fear to courage so quickly. I love the sponginess of young children’s brains and the adeptness and energy of their bodies. This capacity of theirs to absorb so much, however, is also what makes them so vulnerable, and I have been thinking a lot about this lately as I get more involved in the epidemiology of Adverse Childhood Experiences and health, and as I teach about determinants of health. Children, because they are so open to learning at this age, are also so vulnerable to the violence they see around them or experience, to poor eating habits, to a sedentary lifestyle, to television and computers, to neglect. These years are so important. I’m glad I can be a part of her life and take on the awesome role of auntie during these years, if only in little bursts or via Skype. I’m so happy I can do this with the young children in our community in Anchorage as well. I am so glad that when Oscar and I have children, we will have aunties and uncles—both biological and not—to watch over and teach them as well.

Written by admin

March 18th, 2012 at 3:55 pm

Posted in love

Tagged with , , ,

To Heal is to Become Ourselves: Teachings from Rita Blumenstein

with 6 comments

Rita Pitka Blumenstein

When I met Rita Pitka Blumenstein for the first time last winter and she hugged me, I thought, “Oh. This is what I’ve been waiting for. This is the hug I’ve been thinking about and needing for years.” And I knew that she knew that.


For those of you who do not yet know her, Rita Pitka Blumenstein is a traditional healer, the first tribal doctor in the Alaska Native Health System, a midwife, an esteemed elder, a spiritual leader, and founding member of the 13 Indigenous Grandmothers. She is Yup’ik primarily, from Nelson Island, Alaska, but also part Athabscan, Aleut, Russian, and a smattering of other European backgrounds. She speaks, sings, and prays in Yup’ik, in the complex and deep understanding of the Yup’ik language that I am told only the elders still have. She is called around the world to pray for people, to lead ceremonies and songs, to heal people from diseases and injuries in the body, the mind and the soul. To heal, she uses her hands, plant medicines, talking and prayer.

Recently, she was invited to attend our Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault training for rural Behavioral Health Aides held in Fairbanks in order to provide prayers, songs, stories and guidance. Since I work with Rita and have had the honor of learning from her in the past, I had the even greater honor of spending nearly every waking hour of that week with her walking to restaurants, attending the training, preparing salad in her hotel room, making sure that the baggage handlers treat her drum well, etc. I feel bless to have learned so much from her in our time together and want to share with you, dear readers, some of the wisdom Rita offered me. I think I  also share this story of Rita because in writing it I reinforce what it meant to me on a deeply personal level in my own growth and becoming.

Two important notes

1.)  I asked Rita if I was allowed to share her teachings with others on my blog and she said yes. She said she’s publishing them all into a book anyway, so they will become public soon. Furthermore, she sees it as her duty—as a spiritual person, as an elder, as a member of the 13 Grandmothers, and in her job at ANTHC, to teach—directly and through others, including non-Alaska Native others. She also consented to me using this photo that I took of her. If I have misunderstood or missquoted her, however, I apologize and will make changes if they come to my attention.

2.)  I am sharing her teachings because I think she has great insight into the world. It’s not because I claim she is speaking directly for God or Truth. I won’t join any religion because I can’t just believe whatever it is that its leaders or books tell me. But I am inspired and moved by what Rita has observed about the world, which is different than believing that it is the one and only truth. In fact, I don’t think Rita claims to have the one and only truth either. She works to heal the world; that is her priority.

Rita’s Teachings

The traditional word for creator in Yup’ik is ellam yua, which sounds something like “Chhhhamyua” though with a more g sound and throaty sound to the first consonant. As Rita explains it, the word means means “awareness of the universe.” The “yua” part refers to the person being aware, the Chhham part the universe—the dust that makes up life. It can be awareness of pain, awareness of all that is around us, awareness of that which can’t be seen, presence.

Rita begins prayers with a call to ellam yua and to agayuun. This is the idea of creator that is more the Christian idea–a creator or king that rules. Yuun means ownership, so all is owned by the creator.

She also calls out to the ancestors. As Rita explains, our ancestors are our bone marrow, our parents our bones. We are made up of them. As she wrote in a poem:

We are free to be who we are—
to create our own life
out of the past and out of the present.
We are our ancestors.
When we can heal ourselves,
we also heal our ancestors,
our grandmothers, our
grandfathers and our children.
When we heal ourselves, we heal mother earth.

Rita also includes “Mother Earth” in her prayers at times, both praying to the Earth and for the Earth. What it seems she is teaching us is that that we ask agayun—kin, ancestors—to be a part of our healing and blessing, and the healing we do affects them. Likewise, we pray to  the creator/awareness of the universe and to Mother Earth for wisdom and healing, and in healing ourselves we share that healing with the Earth and universe—perhaps because, as healed people, we take better care of the Earth.

Rita tells me a lot about her life story, of going from a rural village on Nelson Island to Montessori School in Seattle and staying there long enough so she could make sure to be able to write her dreams and visions (yes, she was having spiritual visions as a young child). She was then raised in Catholic schools and in a community with Russian Orthodoxy and Catholicism all around her. But her grandparents never converted and always practiced the old ways, and I imagine this is part of what made Rita’s connection to the faith traditions of her land and people so strong. She quotes her grandmother—and this is one of the best articulations I’ve ever heard of what I believe—who said, “I don’t understand why we would need to go worship God inside a building, facing only one direction, when there is the land and ocean and the four directions all around us.”

In conversation, Rita teaches me bits and pieces about the medicine wheel and the four directions. She tells me how the colors (gold, red, black and white) relate to the elements and how some believe that they relate to the continents of people. She told me that all journeys start in the East. The gift of the East is the ability to concentrate fully on what one is doing, the way that children can concentrate so fully on the object in their hands, the way that our mouse sister concentrates on her work. It is the gift of presence, of not being distracted by the past and the future. I tell her that I struggle with being present. She smiles with understanding.

To heal, Rita says, is to become ourselves, to become the light within. It is to accept ourselves and what we feel, and in doing so accept others. It is to be a real person.

Rita tells me that she loves me and trusts me to learn about healing, and that I have a good Native spirit. This is because I am a real person, she says, because I am not pretending, not fake, not closed, but selfless and real and open.  I tell her thank you, and that I don’t know how to be anything but open and anyone other than myself, but that I do struggle with accepting myself fully. She says that struggle is okay, and quotes the elders who mentored her, who said that it is okay that things are not okay, that I should just feel what I feel. What I suppose this means is that to be a real person, to be someone good for the world, you have to be open and giving, but you do not have to be perfect, you do not have to have arrived. Rita says she is always learning more about herself, always becoming herself more and more. And if Rita, at 78, is still in that process, that must mean that I’m okay.

I ask Rita what is the importance of faith, because it is not something I always have in abundance. She tells me:

“If you believe in yourself, you have faith.  Faith provides the courage to face the present with confidence and the future with expectancy.”

Rita also reminds me that faith and acceptance are not about accepting all behaviors or accepting injustices. Rita, like me, has always had a big mouth and has spoken up to people when they are being racist or cruel or unfair to women. She has always been unafraid to express her opinion and disagree. This is not antithetical to loving acceptance. In fact, it is crucial to creating a better, more healed world. This is why I can learn from this woman.

Rita tells me that childhood is the time for children to learn from the legends and stories of elders, and from the plants and animals and rocks and air, from all of life. Rita tells me about the wild vegetables they harvest:the lovage and Eskimo potatoes, the grass and horsetail roots. She tells me about the knikinik (labrador tea) they use for smudging and that the shamans (herself included) smoke in order to ground themselves after spiritual travelling. She tells me how to brine, dry and smoke salmon strips and how to boil down fireweed syrup. She tells me about plant medicines made from Devil’s Club and raspberry bushes and yarrow and birch. As I learn all this like a child, I think, “Yes, this should be in every child’s education. If it were, we would see so much less environmental devastation.”

We talk about childrearing and potty training (Rita potty trained her children after a few months by keeping them on her body and putting them on a little pot whenever they squirmed around like they needed to go). Rita tells me she is very excited for me to be a mother, that I will be a great one. I tell her I’ll be calling her up for advice on this potty-training-in-the-first-few-months practice.

Rita talks about race, cultural difference and colonization comfortably, neither shying away from its ugly history nor writing off all white people (after all, she was happily married to a Jewish man from New York for over half her life, until he passed). This is a good example for me of how to bring these conversations into groups where they don’t currently happen without triggering people’s defensiveness.

Moving Forward

If any of this resonates with you, you can follow the 13 Indigenous Grandmothers online (, read Rita’s book when she publishes it, or look for other opportunities around Alaska to learn from her or from other teachers of indigenous worldviews. If you have the chance, I highly recommend attending a presentation by my Cup’ik colleague, Uyuriukaraq Ulran, who speaks beautifully about Cup’ik worldview and ethics.  And certainly pay a visit to the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

Regardless of your faith tradition, I think it’s okay to be open to Rita’s teachings and to Alaska Native worldviews.  Rita’s idea of becoming yourself, of knowing yourself, is something heard in Buddhism and parts of most other world faiths. Her idea of thanking the universe for what we have and asking for blessings from the universe, kin, the Earth and the directions, is not unlike thanking God or Allah, in that it is an act of appreciation of all that is larger than us.  It is an act of prayer and thanks that is grounded in the land, water, air and fire, an act grounded in the preservation of this planet. In that way, it is particularly salient for our rapidly-changing world.

On a personal level, one powerful thing I take away from my week with Rita and from knowing her is a more firm sense of who I am. If I fail, if I feel desparate or sad or find myself making mistakes, I am now more likely to say, “I am a real person. And this is a struggle” rather than doubting my integrity and worth. This is a gift from Rita, as well as a gift from my best friend Jessica Laura who always helps reinforce to me who I am. It is a gift from my husband, Oscar, who always reminds me of why I am worth love, and a gift from my parents and friends who know me and believe in me. And we have to believe in ourselves (in a deep way, not in the way of the popular self-esteem movement) in order to move forward and do the work we must for the world.

I will end with Rita’s words  (paraphrased because I could not write fast enough for the exact quote):

“Some people dwell on their past lives to look for answers. But all we need to learn will be placed before us. Our job is to move forward.”

Post-script, December 6: Rita just gave me the proper spellings of ellam yua and agayuun, and a bit more clarification of those concepts, so now I have added this to the original post. The old version had my phonetic versions only, and a mishearing/misunderstanding about agayuun.

Rita Pitka Blumenstein

Written by admin

September 4th, 2011 at 4:06 pm

Posted in health

Tagged with , , ,

Becoming an Outdoors Woman & the politics of hunting

with one comment

Becoming an Outdoor Woman (BOW) Weekend out in Chickaloon:

I spent the glorious weekend of March 12th-14th with 4 other friends and 200-some other women out in Chickaloon, Alaska at a retreat sponsored by the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game, with support from other corporations and orgs, including the NRA (*chuckle*). As you can see in the picture on the left, I learned to field dress game. My best friend Jessica Laura (picture on top) from Santa Cruz, CA and I learned gun safety, loading, unloading, aiming, etc. She, my roommate and dear friend Tiffany (bottom pic), and I all learned fish filleting skills. Our friends Mel and Kiatcha also did tracking, trapping, snowmachining and other workshops.

It was loads of fun and it was empowering as an Alaskan woman to be equipped with skills that could help me feed my future family. Oscar and I are always talking about the things we want to grow & ways we want to eat as a family once we get a place; this made me think through the logistics of including wild animals into that diet.  It was beautiful to spend a weekend with so many women, many of whom explained that they were learning skills their husbands wouldn’t teach them or that they’d prefer to learn from better teachers. And I soaked in the opportunity to develop and strengthen friendships.

This weekend also exposed me to the politics of hunting in Alaska in a new way. When we first moved to Alaska in 1992, little ten-year-old Californian Laura thought hunting was barbaric. 12 – 15-year-old vegetarian Laura certainly did. But when I started to eat meat again, I figured I should be able to kill it myself, and so I enjoyed fishing and thanking the fish for their lives. I’ve wanted to hunt now for a number of years, a desire especially influenced by knowing more Alaska Native people who tell me about their son learning to duck hunt at age 3 or their experiences growing up and preparing the beaver & moose meat. It has been influenced by reading Velma Wallis’ heartbreakingly honest memoir Raising Ourselves: A Coming of Age Story from the Yukon River, Ernestine Haye’s Blonde Indian: An Alaska Native Memoir, the book Eagle Blue by journalist Michael D’Orso about the Fort Yukon Boys basketball team, and the interviews in Growing up Native in Alaska. The relationship that these books describe people having to the earth and to the animals is one of such respect and necessity that it begins to seem less like a choice and more like part of the life cycle. On a more superficial level, my desire to hunt was also influenced by trying dall sheep meat for the first time years ago, when my dad made an Afghani rice pilaf with sheep koftas after a patient of my mom’s sent her home with a chunk of meat. It was delicious.

Yet, being out there for BOW and learning the skills to be a better fisher and hunter, I was struck by the incongruence between the way I had come to think of hunting through Alaska Native narratives, and the culture of it among some of the folks there. There were, indeed, people who saw it as a means to eat well and eat sustainably, and who strove to preserve and use as much of the animal as they could. Fish and Game promoted this attitude, for the most part. But, as Kiatcha bore witness to in her trapping class, there is also a culture of people who want to wear fox fur hats and lynx stolls and ermine coats–not in the way described in Eagle Blue where the kids must wear beaver hats to get through the -50 degree weather in Fort Yukon and they eat the beaver meat anyway–but in what I perceive as a colonialist way. It strikes me as very 18th and 19th century European colonialist, Russians-forcing-Aleuts-to-trap-Otters-for-fur and very un-self-conscious to, in this day and age, trap animals  just for their fur and not eat them.

I also got the feeling–although the rules of the weekend were that we could not talk politics–that there were hunters there who do not believe in rural preference and giving priority to subsistence and to Alaska Natives. In fact, the entire absence of mention of subsistence rights and Alaska Native approaches to hunting made me uncomfortable. Hunting and fishing may be part of a sustainable life in Alaska, as Elaine Frankenstein argues in her film “Eating Alaska” (which we watched and which I enjoyed thoroughly), but it seems to me that how we do that should be influenced not only by the Dept. of Fish and Game, but by AFN and/or other Native organizations who know what the needs are of people in the villages. As a white person and as an immigrant to this land, I don’t feel comfortable making those decisions without that kind of input.

So…it was odd to be there. On the one hand, I felt RIGHT filleting fish after fish and cleaning clams and unzipping the reindeer, skinning him, removing his front quarter, opening his abdominal cavity, holding his heart. I felt like I was born to do this. It felt spiritually important, like this is the part that has been missing from the 16 years that I’ve been cooking, like I’m supposed to provide food in this way. And I adored the instructors of the filleting and field dressing classes. I also really liked using the guns. But I was also weirded out by the enthusiasm of the gun class instructors about youth shotgun leagues and by the woman in Kiatcha and Mel’s classes who was gleeful and almost sadistic about killing animals, and by the snowmachine instructor with her giant wedding ring who taught us how to put on our helmets so that our hair wouldn’t get messed up, and by the whole idea of a sport that uses two stroke engines (although I do admit, it was fun).

The experience certainly helped me understand the cultures within Alaska that I don’t know as well, part of the electorate who my mother is trying to win over (she’s running for State House in East Anchorage:, and the varied approaches to eating Alaska. And yeah, it made me want to go to the range and learn to shoot, maybe even invest in a .22 someday. But it also left me with a lot of questions, a desire to push that kind of (primarily white) environment to listen to the perspectives of the original inhabitants of this land on how to harvest from it, and a need to learn a lot more about sustainability before I begin hunting.

Written by admin

March 28th, 2010 at 9:20 am