Laurita Dianita

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

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To Heal is to Become Ourselves: Teachings from Rita Blumenstein

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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

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September 4th, 2011 at 4:06 pm

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Things I Learned in Colombia: a List

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Partly from guilt but primarily from curiosity, I can’t travel without needing to learn about the places I go and learn from them. And since my learning is never as solid when it’s only bumping around in my head without being organized onto paper (or the blogosphere, as it were), I have felt some of that guilt creep in. I spent months this fall in Colombia with Oscar, living with his grandparents and getting to know his country and family, and I have not yet organized my thoughts into writing longer than my photo captions on Flickr. It is time to do so, but in the simplest format I can, in order to make the task less intimidating for myself: So here’s a list!

***But before reading it, I should tell you that I don’t think I or my culture or family or country or state or city are above the things I observed in Colombia. Many of the phenomena I observed there are similar to things that happen back home, and I try to relate them as much as possible. I also don’t think I am an expert, by any means. Some things I learned, but most things provoked questions about what’s left to learn***

Things I learned in Colombia (in no particular order):

1.) How to cook creatively with available ingredients

El Jardiñero

The challenge of not having a refrigerator and the blessing of having a large garden, tended to lovingly by Oscar’s abuelitos, pushed us to be more creative and resourceful than usual about what to cook (or me anyway; I think on the road Oscar acquired the ability to cook with whatever was available, no matter what). Therefore, many meals involved soups made from whatever we had to use before it went bad + whatever there was plenty of in the garden + what we could pick up at the corner store or farmer’s market and, on one occasion, the rabbit that Oscar and I hunted and skinned (it was delicious).

A few highlights:

coconut fish squash soup

  • The coconut fish soup pictured above, made with fresh coconut that Oscar broke apart and dissembled & plenty of hot red chilies (ají, as they call them in Colombia) from the garden
  • Cuminy spicy soup with acelga (a green leafy vegetable similar to bok choy) from the garden that we cooked with beef bone, cubios and chuguas
  • Breakfasts of arepas de choclo (like fluffy sweet corn pancakes) with fresh farmer’s cheese, eggs, fried plantains and mangos

2.) To be careful when calling people on their racism

This isn’t the first time I’ve learned this lesson, but I certainly had an enlightening experience in Colombia of how not to go about it. The consequences weren’t dire, but it certainly gave me an opportunity to reflect on how self-control is key to effective social change.

The backstory is that we had been spending a bit of time with Oscar’s cousin, Juan José and his wife, Dinaluz. They work in advertising/commercial media and were some of the most educated and in some ways, curious and exploratory members of the family. However, we had also noticed that they would make offhand comments about “negros” or “maricas” (the constantly-used, both derogatory and “affectionate” term for gay men in Colombia). One day, after a long and somewhat frustrating day of biking, we spent a few hours in Oscar’s auntie’s house with them and others when I was exhausted and wanted to go home and sleep. His auntie fed us some delicious soup and we were finally preparing to go. Dinaluz, wanting to aplogize for her eating and dashing, said, “Indio comido, indio ido.” It roughly translates to, “Eating like an Indian, leaving like an Indian.” She turned to me after, smiling, and explained to me that this is an expression in Colombia and it means you are being very rude for eating quickly and going away. The fact that Indian/indigenous/Native was being associated with rudeness and lack of manners had not escaped me.

Now, in that split second in my head, I—righteously angry, empathetic, overly-sociological me—am going through my mental Rolodex of incidents of anti-indigenous racism I had seen or heard in Colombia, in México, in the continental US and Alaska and all of the ways in which anti-indigenous racism has been transformed into children’s songs and expressions or the “Cigarillos Piel Rojo” (“Redskin Cigarettes”) or “Land of Lakes Butter” logos and my role as a white ally in changing this and before I know it, I blurt out—sleepy, exhausted, frustrated, impulsive me—“Pero ésto es racisto.”

In that split second in my head, I should have asked myself for a time extension so I could have thought of a better way to get at this point, perhaps through asking questions and helping Dina to get there herself. But I didn’t, and I imagine that this made her put up some defenses. Her first defense was that it wasn’t about feather-on-the-head and [hand moving over mouth making stereotypical “indio” sound] indios; it was just about rude people. When I asked her why the word “indio” was used for rude, and then explained that I grew up hearing similar expressions such as “Indian giving” or “Indian cuts” or the “Ten Little Indians” songs, she conceded that the expression had something to do with indigenous people. But  I had not succeeded in making her enthusiastic about discussing white/mestizo privilege. Nor did it endear me to the new family.

We had a very different experience with Oscar’s auntie and cousins in Palmira, a small city in the state of Valle–maybe in part because I was on better behavior, maybe because they have been exposed to different people and experiences.  After we bought delicious boiled squash-like fruit from an AfroColombian woman on the street, Oscar’s cousin, Hadie, told us about the importance of this fruit to the largely AfroColombian and indigenous populations in the Pacific states who suffer high rates of poverty and even starvation. She spoke about racial disparities in a way that was reflective and critical, and spoke of wanting her niece to have an open mind about Black Colombians. Clearly, in Colombia just as in Alaska, despite the ubiquity of racist ideas or comments (and in Alaska, believe me, racism’s ubiquity shows when people spit out “drunk Native” like a slur, and if you’ve been around long enough it’s hard to avoid hearing this slur), people can come to think critically about it. Hadie did. Colombian human rights organizations do. So my task is to figure out what role can I play as an ally (and in this case, as an outsider First Worlder) to ask the right questions and provide the right information, to help people at least step back and look critically. I don’t know what that involves, exactly, but I know it involves patience, impulse control, and a few more seconds to think.

3.) What it’s like to have grandparents again.

Tía Abuela Rosa


Although it made me miss the elders in my life that I’ve lost, it was so beautiful to spend time with Oscar’s abuelitos (grandparents) and tías abuelas (great aunts). They have so much energy and knowledge and giant, generous, loving hearts.

4.) How much I love the combination of yellow and turquoise, & the complexity of development

yellow & teal

I was drawn to these Aqueducto workers initially because of their turquoise-colored jumpsuits and the beautiful yellow rainboots and hats they wear. I was also fascinated by what they represented about the Bogotá government’s efforts to make the city more efficient and beautiful and to provide jobs. In some ways, the investments made by the government are great for the people (potable water, expanded & modern public transportation, bike lanes everywhere). But in some cases, development investments seem to favor the wealthy and shut out the vast majority of Colombians who work exceedingly long hours and make, on average, only four or so hundred dollars a month. Development of malls, cineplexes, and fancy restaurants may provide jobs, but they also seem to increase consumption without a proportionate increase in salaries for most workers. (Two notable exceptions are the local, pricey franchises Bogota Beer Company and Crepes & Waffles, who employ low-income female heads-of-household and pay them quite well.) Although produce was inexpensive, many things were not, especially imported items. I am suspicious of mainstream capitalist measures of development, such as consumption, when increased consumption may mean more debt. To better understand the Colombia that I observed from my own experiences, I’d love to look at measures of income disparities for Colombia; that seems to be a key issue in Bogotá and even more so between urban and rural areas.

Obrero de Acueducto


5.) How to get by with very little and take very short showers

It’d be nice for us First Worlders to get a refresher on this every once in a while from developing countries, because we sure do consume a lot of resources (myself included). People are ingenious there. For example, Oscar’s abuelitos had incredible rainwater catchment systems.

6.) That there’s a connection in Colombia, as in other places, between sexual & domestic violence, political violence, and poverty

Oscar’s cousin, Gina, who manages a rose production facility, sat across our small kitchen table over a cup of tea and told us about the low-income women who work in her rose factory—their frequent pregnancies by different men, their black eyes, their days of work missed because of abuse at home, their defense of the men in their lives, and the government aid they receive. Trying to look past the filter of her judgment, I could see in these women’s stories certain familiar patterns of internalized oppression, poverty and violence.

An article in La Semana, a weekly magazine published by the major Bogotá newspaper, described an alarming recent study. This study found that the majority of Colombian residents and the majority of public servants (police officers, judges, public health officials, etc.) blame victims of domestic and sexual violence. Large percentages of them believe that men can’t control themselves when angry, that women are at fault for inciting their husbands to anger or sexual provocation, etc.

Billboards over the main highway through Bogotá show a woman whose face blooms with bruises and cuts, the text reading something about how domestic violence is never okay. This is a relatively new campaign, trying to pick up steam and support in a country that has largely ignored the issue, but a country in which brave women and men feminists like those we met at a reproductive rights rally are organizing to create change.

día internacional para la legalización del aborto

It would be hard work, I think, combatting intimate violence in a country that has suffered violence of every type (often in ways that implicate the First World). Colombia is a country that endured colonization by the Spaniards, centuries of slavery, prolonged civil war and political violence, and training in human rights abuses by the US-run School of the Americas. Colombia is the country with the most displaced people in the world, where millions leave their homes because of guerilla and paramilitary violence (violence fueled by the First Word drug consumption). Therefore, I believe that the violence of guns and drugs and kidnapping that pushes people into homelessness and poverty also creates a culture of violence that places people at risk for abuse. Gina’s accounts of women speak not only to engrained psychosocial patterns of abuse, but also to the vulnerability to violence experienced by women and children living in poverty and in war zones, an issue seen throughout the world. In Colombia, the violence of poverty, of housing insecurity and unsafe working conditions, of houses in the poor communities that keep getting crushed in mudslides, and of militarism, is linked in complex ways that feminists are always trying to unravel to the violence of rape and battering.

We know in general that in war zones and prisons as well as in areas with lots of gang activity and police violence, there is more rape. We know that in military families, the rates of domestic violence are five times higher than in non-military families because you can’t train someone that it’s okay to kill people (including those  “collateral damage” civilians) but then assume it’ll be easy for them to be peaceful with their families.  We know that in times of job loss, domestic violence increases, and so we can imagine that the mass displacement and job loss experienced by over 2 million Colombians because of the violence has not contributed to family well-being.

However, it was clear from the article in La Semana and from victim-blaming discourses we heard from people we met and in the media, that it’s not only the poor and displaced, or the military/guerilla/paramilitary who abuse and suffer abuse. As in the US, violence against women and other forms of intimate violence are perpetrated and justified and excused away at all levels of socioeconomic status. This is because it is linked with patriarchal social structures, gender ideologies, militarism, and many other overarching cutural phenomena. This is true in all of the places that have high rates of sexual and domestic violence, such as the US. (By the way, not everywhere has high rates; in fact, there are some traditional societies in which sexual violence is almost unheard of, and most developed countries have  lower rates than the US.)

In Colombia in particular, I couldn’t help but wonder how much everyone’s attitudes and viewpoints were influenced by the years of political violence they’ve suffered, including massacres only a few decades ago (the ones Botero paints so hauntingly).  Oscar and I found that strangers in Bogotá were often standoffish and rude, which, as an Alaskan, upset me. But we wondered if, in addition to just being a big city, the terrifying political violence and corruption Bogotá faced not so many decades ago could have been affecting them. I wonder if it’s affecting them in their intimate relationships. I wonder if there is un-accounted-for trauma and historical grief, aggravated by ongoing violence and poverty, and propped up by machismo, the powerful church, and cultural norms to not talk about it.

I wish I understood all of the mechanisms by which poverty, colonial and political violence, and patriarchy influence sexual and domestic violence and how that works in Colombia, in the rest of the world, and in Alaska especially, but clearly I don’t. These are just observations from Colombia strung together with the research I’ve been pouring through lately for my job studying intimate partner and sexual violence affecting Alaska Native people. What I think I learned from seeing some of the attitudes and conditions surrounding violence in Colombia is that intimate violence is intricately and painfully linked together with larger, more institutional forms of violence.

If you have some insight into this, please please share it with me.

6.) I learned a lot about myself, my wonderful husband-to-be, and about communication as a couple. But that’s another story…

Okip.s. Some books I’ve found recently that explore some of the topics in the last section really well:

Shout Out! Women of Color Respond to Violence, edited by Maria Ochoa and Barbara K. Ige

Domestic Violence at the Margins: Readings on Race, Class, Gender and Culture, edited by Natalie Sokoloff with Christina Pratt

And I could give you a long bibliography of other readings and films and websites on sexual and domestic violence if you’re interested.

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January 28th, 2011 at 11:00 am