FORUM Magazine | Winter 2022-2023

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The Stories that Build Community

The mission of the Alaska Humanities Forum is to connect Alaskans through stories, ideas, and experiences that positively change lives and strengthen communities. But can an experience, an idea, or a story really help build a stronger community?

I was fortunate enough to grow up in Barrow, Alaska, now called Utqiaġvik. It’s an ancient place with endless stories. As a child, I heard stories of brave whaling captains being swallowed, hunters encountering ten-legged polar bears, and children teasing the northern lights only to have their belly buttons eaten. The stories reminded us of what is important, challenged us to be creative, and kept us safe during the dark, cold nights. These are the stories we share to build a strong community—one filled with camaraderie and inspiration, where people provide support, encouragement, insight, belonging, and chase away the shadows of isolation.

A safety net and a blanket: That’s what I think of when I think of a strong community.

The place to start is immediately around us: family, friends, neighborhood, and town.

In a world that seems lately to be running off the rails, can our stories crystallize universal and widely-relatable truths about the human experience? Might the communities we create and draw around us—the net and the blanket—contribute to a more global coming-together? A healing?

I don’t know. But really, the place to start is immediately around us: family, friends, neighborhood, and town. We can engage, assist, enjoy, learn, empathize. We can listen with open hearts to stories that challenge us, and appreciate the good in people around us.

These connections matter for the bonds they create in our lives, and the way they ripple out to the wider world. The stories we tell and the communities we create within them matter, too. They affect people and make them think. Stories can offer a new perspective and understanding of those we might have formerly dismissed as “others.”

And maybe that’s how we start to bring the world back together—one person, one connection, one story at a time.

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Judith Owens-Manley, Chair, Anchorage

Ben Mallott , Vice Chair, Anchorage

Laci Michaud , Secretary, Anchorage

Aminata Taylor, Treasurer, Iowa City

Jeffrey Siemers , Member-at-Large, Soldotna

Rachael Ball , Anchorage

Kristina Bellamy, Anchorage

Thea Agnew Bemben , Anchorage

Stephen Qacung Blanchett , Juneau

Keneggnarkayaaggaq Emily Edenshaw, Anchorage

Kitty Farnham , Anchorage

Charleen Fisher, Beaver

Peter Metcalfe , Juneau

Francisco Miranda , Anchorage

Jayson Owens , Anchorage

Don Rearden , Anchorage

Carrie Shephard , Anchorage

Jeannine Stafford-Jabaay, Hope

Renee Wardlaw, Anchorage

Kristi Nuna’q Williams , Anchorage


Kameron Perez-Verdia , President & CEO

Shoshi Bieler, Grants & Special Projects Manager

Emily Brockman , Youth Program Manager

Amanda Dale , Director of Cross-Cultural Programs

Kim Fasbender Operations Coordinator

Kelly Forster, Youth Leadership Program Manager

Gordon Iya , Cross Cultural Program Coordinator

Helen John , Youth Program Coordinator

Kari Lovett , Director of Operations

Emily Lucy, Public Outreach Manager

Rachael McPherson , Vice President of Development & Community Engagement

Ryan Ossenkop Vice President of Operations

Aud Pleas , Workshop Coordinator

Eiden Pospisil , Youth Program Coordinator

Julie Rowland , Cross Cultural Program Manager

Chuck Seaca , Director of Leadership Programs

Taylor Strelevitz , Director of Conversation Programs

Molissa Udevitz , Youth Program Designer


Gabriela Olmos , Guest Editor

Dean Potter, Art Director

Contributors :


Alice Alstrom-Henderson, Dan Bailey, Junnie Chup, E.J. David Ramos, Vonnie Gaither, M.C. Mohagani Magnetek, Richard Moszka, Gabriela Olmos, Igor Pasternak, Orienne Reich, Deborah Schildt, Sheila Toomey, Alison Trujillo, Crystal Worl, Sveta Yamin-Pasternak, Joe Yelverton



Our True Family

This issue celebrates some of the ways Alaskans embrace their kinship ties

Gabriela Olmos

4 Fremily in Alaska-Ukraine Ukraine and Alaska unite through families whose hearts are at home in both places

Sveta Yamin-Pasternak and Igor Pasternak

10 The Intertidal Zone

A Cambodian-American artist explores the nuances of her relationship with family heritage

Junnie Chup

12 Choosing Your Family in Alaska

Here, bonds of love are as powerful as any blood relation

M.C. MoHagani Magnetek

14 Welcome Mat

A Swedish immigrant and his Yup’ik family built an aviation legacy and traded along the Yukon River Alice Alstrom-Henderson, Orienne Reich, and Deborah Schildt

18 From Backyard Altruism to Leading Alaska’s Philanthropic Family

Sheila Toomey interviews

Diane Kaplan

20 Rising Above

A Filipino-Athabascan family discovers a path to intergenerational healing

E.J. David Ramos

24 Mexican Ancestors

Partying in the Snow

On Anchorage’s Day of the Dead, forebears help community members find a chosen family

Gabriela Olmos

30 Emotional Battlefield Memories of war are woven into the fabric of some Alaska military families

Joe Yelverton

34 Program Notes

Introducing Leadership Anchorage 26; new staff and board members; Magnetic North films in production

37 Keep Calm in 2076

Alaska V3 Creative Writing Contest winner considers climate change

M.C. MoHagani Magnetek


Following in her Footsteps

How storytelling plays a role in a family and an adoption

Sarah Reynold Westin


Utqiag • vik portrait: culture bearer

Nutaaq Simmonds on a C3 trip

FORUM is a publication of the Alaska Humanities Forum, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, with the purpose of increasing public understanding of and participation in the humanities. The views expressed by contributors are not necessarily those of the editorial staff, the Alaska Humanities Forum, or the National Endowment for the Humanities. Subscriptions may be obtained by contributing to the Alaska Humanities Forum or by contacting the Forum. No part of this publication may be reproduced without permission. ©2023.

Igor Pasternak with his dog Yenta at the end of their driveway in Fairbanks. Igor and his partner Sveta Yamin-Pasternak describe their ties of family and friendship in Alaska and Ukraine on page 4. PHOTO BY SVETA YAMIN-PASTERNAK.
ALASKA HUMANITIES FORUM WINTER 2022–23 2 Working together with the Alaska Humanities Forum to connect our community #UnlimitedAlaskaLove 800.800.4800 Thank you for being a great neighbor and helping to make this such a wonderful community to be a part of. © ConocoPhillips Company. 2022. All rights reserved. Lance and Curtis, Village Outreach Liaisons A talented workforce for a strong future. At ConocoPhillips Alaska, our people drive our performance. That’s why we’re focused on attracting and retaining a great workforce. The result is a company that can perform over the long term, with the best people to deliver on our plan.

Our True Family

This issue celebrates some of the ways Alaskans embrace their kinship ties

Who is your family? Your mother, father, and siblings? Your spouse and children? Your pets? Your friends? We all have different ideas of who our family is because the way we understand and build our families is cultural.

It is true that we are tied to some members of our kin through biological relationships, but the way we live those connections has less to do with biology and more with the way we give meaning to the world— with our culture. While in the U.S., for example, the nuclear family— one or two parents and their immediate offspring living together—is common, other countries favor multigenerational households where the extended family shares a house in a network of collaboration and support.

The idea of family in a given culture can change over time. Some Americans are moving away from the traditional model of the nuclear family and adopting close friends or pets as part of their kin. There is no right or wrong way to build a family. It just has to make sense to those who live it. Our family is our first support network that helps us survive in a complex world. It is made up of those we rely on, help, and love.

There are many ways to build family in our state. Alaska Natives rely on their extended families, while some immigrant communities— lacking biological connections to their fellow Alaskans—build their families by choosing friends as the members of their kin.

This issue celebrates some of the ways Alaskans embrace their kinship ties. Every article, artwork, or photo tells the story of a family—the connections that make sense to the authors, their ways of building relatedness, and their hopes for the future. Through stories and images, we gave voice to some of our diverse communities. But of course, space is limited, and the families featured here are just a sample of the many expressions of kinship in Alaska.

We hope that during the short days of winter, this issue reminds our readers that, no matter what challenges they may face, they can always rely on their families: the ones they were born into, the ones they choose, or a combination of both. Our true family is made up of people we trust and love, and it will always be there. ■

Cover art by Crystal Worl, “Goodnight, Baby,” 2019, gouache paint.
Sveta Yamin with her parents and grandparents in front of the Odesa Opera House in 1981. Sveta grew up in Belarus and, like many Soviet families, hers would travel to Odesa for vacations. YAMIN FAMILY PHOTO ARCHIVE

Fremily in Alaska-Ukraine

Ukraine and Alaska unite through families whose hearts are at home in both places


In his 1975 monograph on the importance of family for the Iñupiat of northwest Alaska, Arctic anthropologist Ernest Burch notes that “no one was ever voluntarily in a situation where no relatives are present.” For much of our lives in the former Soviet Union, the same was true for us: aunties, cousins, multigenerational households with grandparents, great-grandparents and their progeny always being within arm’s reach, a short walk down the street. Living in Fairbanks for almost a quarter century and having no relatives nearby, we have embraced the idea of fremily. For us, it’s a network of friends who are so close and dear and inspiring to each other that every fremily member is always longing for the others’ company; they’re always thinking about them, rejoicing or worrying as circumstances demand, and drawing comfort from knowing there’s nothing your fremily wouldn’t do for you just as there’s nothing you wouldn’t do for them.

Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Igor, the sole Ukrainian among our chosen kin, has been feeling the unequivocal support of our Fairbanks fremily. This affinity was especially palpable on our float in the 4th of July parade with waves and waves of yellow and blue (the Ukrainian flag’s colors), signs, and a long crowd cloth. In the lead, Sveta wore a headdress of flowers and ribbons; in the middle of the procession was Igor, driving our aging Alaskan truck with vanity plates displaying the name of his birth city, Odes(s)a; dogs rode in the back, and the song Hey, Hey, Rise Up! (a 2022 collaboration between Pink Floyd and Ukrainian singer Andriy Khlyvnyuk) was playing over the PA system mounted on the vehicle’s roof. Spectators cheered and shouted, and many of them later shared their photos; we, in turn, forwarded these to our fremily members who never leave our minds: our loved ones in Ukraine’s war zone.

The “S” in Odes(s)a: Ukraine’s Multinational Mama-City in her Layered National Dress is the title of a lecture Sveta gave a few years ago at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where both of us teach. The talk featured dozens of images— photos taken around the city, book covers, theater and cinema posters, souvenirs—showing different spellings of the city’s name. Until


recently, the Russian spelling Odessa was most often used in English. But now, the Ukrainian-based spelling in English, Odesa, is becoming predominant. The shift in the city’s spelling reflects the broader change of language in official and everyday communication in present-day Ukraine.

Both spellings have their purpose. When referencing books and other titles that use the English equivalent of Odessa’s Russian name, our spelling follows the original text. Elsewhere, we use the English equivalent of the Ukrainian spelling as a way of respecting, representing, and being part of Ukraine’s rapidly transforming language landscape. Both spellings are thus present here, varying when someone is quoted speaking in either Ukrainian or Russian.

We should also note that, regardless of their language preference, many residents use the long-known “Odes(s)a-Mama”—a fusion of a place name and a kinship term, featured prominently in public spaces, including the airport terminal.


“I want everyone I love to live here for a week and eat from the market,” reads one of Sveta’s many Facebook posts on a food experience that will always feel inimitable to her. Sharing some of the core foodways of Eastern Europe (including other regions of Ukraine), Odesan cuisine is recognized as unique not only by the city’s patriots, but through much of the ex-Soviet sphere. Odesa is a meeting place of Black Sea riches, rural Ukraine’s traditions of mushroom foraging, the country’s copious agriculture, and the Greek, Turkish, Jewish, Central Asian, Korean, Roma, and other heritages represented among the city dwellers. Accordingly, Odesa is a fertile ground for culinary fusions. The vocabularies and performances connected with all aspects of harvesting, vending, preparing, serving, and sharing food are also inextricable ingredients of its cuisine.

The city is famous for its food markets. One can spend the day roaming through row upon row of fine produce while sipping freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, taking in all the colors, and enjoying the bountiful orchard aromas permeating the air. The grand pavilions at Privoz and The New Market in Odesa are a maze of isles with artful displays of seafood and charcuterie, scandalously creamy dairy products, silky smooth paper-thin crepes, pickled and marinated deli goods, wild mushrooms, spices, dried fruit, and nuts.

Following local codes of communication and cultural expression, each product label, though it may look casually handwritten, lists every ingredient in diminutive form, emphasizing the vendor’s appreciation and innermost knowledge of what is being offered. Herring is not seld’, but selyodochka; peppers are not pertsy, but perchiki; cucumbers are ogurchiki; mushrooms of course are gribochki; and eggplants are rarely called baklazhan, as they are in the dictionary (a Russian loanword, itself likely borrowed from Turkish): instead, they’re sinen’kiye, “the cute little blue ones.”

During the months when the marine port of Odesa was making headlines, as the Russian navy blockade of the ships carrying Ukrainian grain threatened food shortages

Odesa’s geography and cosmopolitan population make it a meeting place for culinary traditions. Igor Pasternak visited a market stall selling dried fruit and nuts (TOP ) and shopped for laughs and sausage at the Privoz Market in Odesa in 2018. PHOTOS BY SVETA YAMIN-PASTERNAK

and hunger for much of the world, the vendors at the Odesa food markets—which, up to the time of writing, have remained at least partially operational—continued to tell the bloggers, journalists, and anyone else they could reach to “come to Odessa and we will make sure you eat better than you ever have.” Such a show of wartime resilience, mediated through market performances in celebration of hospitality, nourishment, and food, is quite fitting for a city with a proud tradition of making every meal a feast.

To our beloved Alaskan fremily reading this: please listen to these wise and stoic people. When Ukraine overcomes (which it will!), let us meet in Odesa for at least a week, share many jubilant laughs, and eat from the market.

In the book Kaleidoscopic Odessa: History and Place in Contemporary Ukraine, anthropologist Tanya Richardson annotates a dozen-some authors who have written about the Old Horse market. Extending over the sidewalks of a crowded street, this hallowed site becomes the subject of creative prose and poetry examining the market’s vital role in the city’s life for over 200 years.

The market’s eclectic inventory includes livestock, fishing tackle, plumbing hardware, furniture, a multitude of secondhand goods, locally made crafts of all kinds, and (in a section that makes the average Western tourist feel less than comfortable) puppies, kittens, and other animals commonly kept as pets. Odesans affectionately regard the Old Horse market as one of the experiences that best represents the city. And whereas both vendors and customers at food markets elsewhere are typically adults, the Old Horse market is a gathering place for all ages while also functioning as a pet swap for a diverse group of enthusiasts, dedicated hobbyists, and other eccentric locals.

One afternoon in the year 1977, two young boys—5th grade students at the Odessa Secondary School #3—ended up keeping each other company while making their way home. Both had spent a long Sunday hustling in the Old Horse market pet row. “Mulya” (Oleg Mulberg) was dealing in aquarium fish and “Paster” (Igor Pasternak)

TOP : At home with the Mulbergs in Odesa in 2019: Irusya, Oleg, Valya, and Kolya. ABOVE : Igor at the Old Horse market in 2016. PHOTOS BY SVETA YAMIN-PASTERNAK

tried his luck at selling hamsters. Both boys were semi-regulars at the Old Horse, charming the customers looking for a small pet and sometimes bartering inventory with other vendors. On this day, however, the boys found themselves undertaking a pragmatic cost-benefit analysis: what makes greater economic sense—they discussed—vending small captive rodents or saltwater fish? This is the conversation that Mulya and Paster remember forty-five years later as triggering their life-long friendship. Their enduring fremily ties have overstepped transcontinental distances and time zones—even over the last thirty years while Igor has been living in the United States. In the months since Russia’s invasion, they have made even greater efforts to be present continuously and meaningfully in each other’s lives

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we visited Odesa at least once a year. The apartment where Igor grew up—in what is now regarded as the city’s old quarter—belonged to his great-grandfather, who bought it in the late 1800s. The building is within steps of the always generous, festive, and loving Mulberg family home. Just like his fellow entrepreneur from the Old Horse market days, Dr. Mulberg cherishes every moment he can spend with his wife, Iryna (Irusya), who also goes by Dr. Mulberg. Together they run a dental clinic within a block’s walk.

It was heartbreaking to witness them suffer so much this past spring, when Irusya and their children had to join millions of other Ukrainian refugees, relocating first to Moldova and then to Germany. At the earliest opportunity, we went to see them in the Thuringian town of Arnstadt. Since then, Irusya, Valya, and Kolya have returned to Odesa. Nearly every day, we chat on video once or twice at least, either during our morning/their evening or their evening/our morning.

Igor Pasternak (Paster) visits with Oleg Mulbert (Mulya) via phone in May 2022. Igor and Sveta were in Arnstadt, Germany, to see Oleg’s family during their stay there as refugees. Like all men ages 18-60, Oleg had to remain in Ukraine. It had been 45 years since Paster and Mulya’s bonding day at the Old Horse market.

One time we all decided to meet in Portugal to celebrate Igor’s birthday. Igor booked a tasting menu at a Lisbon restaurant, listed in The World’s 50 Best. Meanwhile, Irusya and Oleg had arrived at our vacation rental packing a feast in two oversized shopping bags. Filled with fresh market purchases, the bags had every food group represented. They had carefully looked after every important detail. The dill and garlic, to be served with kartoshechka (the season’s freshest young potatoes), were among the highlights; even the butter (no prepackaged uniform bars here: every slab was cut and weighed on site) had to be procured from a vetted source. We still maximally enjoyed Portugal, but for our main celebration we stayed in, savoring every morsel of the diminutives so lovingly furnished by the city of Igor’s youth. This is the fremily that sprouted from the Old Horse market days of Mulya and Paster.



Both Irusya and Oleg are utterly in love with their city. Like those relentless wartime food vendors, they could swear that Odesan food is better than anywhere else in the world and that life in Odesa is beautiful. Even at the backdrop of our spectacular world travels, Irusya and Oleg would still rather have all our fremily reunions in Odesa

Odesa’s old town or historic quarter has the widest pedestrian sidewalks we have seen in any city on Earth. Shaded by the arching canopies of acacias, they are a paradise for laidback promenades. For Sveta, who grew up in Belarus, the daily routes we take in our (nominally) adult lives are familiar from childhood: like many Soviet families, hers too would travel to Odesa for their vacations. Through the decades, the Odesa Opera House is the backdrop of the “tourist shots” in the collection of Sveta’s photos. Since the start of the war, scores of news outlets showed this eminent opera house barricaded by the bags of sand, hauled from the beach by volunteers who have done the


same to protect the city’s other signature landmarks. “Odesa is Defiant. It’s also Putin’s Ultimate Target,” read a New York Times headline on August 20, 2022.

The Alaska state license plates on our truck read ODESSA and aren’t the only manifestation of Ukraine in our Alaska lives. In 2014 we did a show at the Anchorage International Gallery of Contemporary Art, which celebrated the culinary aesthetics of ex-Soviet produce farmers living in Delta Junction, many of whom are Ukrainian. As researchers, we have traveled quite a bit around different parts of Ukraine, interviewing seniors who have returned to their native hometowns at the end of their careers in the Soviet/Russian Arctic.

Back in 2006, Igor, then a University of Alaska Fairbanks BFA student, presented his thesis exhibition, entitled “Odessa Borealis.” He showed his paintings and provided the food at the opening reception, attesting to the fact that he and Sveta are citizens of the world with fremily in two homes. The “Odessa Borealis” feast was a great opportunity to teach our Fairbanks fremily the pronunciation of all the diminutives on the reception’s menu. We danced in the UAF Art Gallery until the wee hours of the night. Then and always, our cherished fremily’s support is what sends us into a state of overthe-moon euphoria.

Every Saturday beginning in March this year, we’ve been going to stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine at the Fairbanks “Democracy Corner” (the intersection of University and Geist). Smiling and waving at the passing cars, holding flags and other solidary signs, we convince each other that Ukraine will overcome, and that one day we’ll bring our Alaskan fremily to Odesa. We’ll buy everything we can get our greedy little hands on at every market stall, and we’ll have feast after feast with the determined Irusya and Oleg Mulberg. We love you so, Alaska-Ukraine fremily. Slava Uklrayine! Thank you, Alaska. It’s wonderful to have two homes. ■

Sveta, a cultural anthropologist, and Igor, an artist, both teach at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. They are currently in their 30th year as life partners.

RIGHT : Igor Pasternak’s BFA thesis exhibition poster, 2006. BELOW : Ukraine Solidarity Float 1 at the 4th of July parade in Ester, 2022. PHOTO BY STACEY FRITZ Sveta with her friends Lynn and Stacey during the 4th of July parade in Ester. PHOTO BY LYNN DEFILIPPO

The Intertidal Zone

i am a second-generation CambodianAmerican—that is, I was born in the United States, but my parents weren’t. My parents spoke Khmer at home, so my first real exposure to speaking English happened in kindergarten. Awkward, shy, and tongue-tied, I would resort to drawing as a means to express myself when words failed me.

Art was always a natural fixture in my household growing up. My mother is a whimsical wearable fibers artist, and my father makes his living as a sculptor. Because traditional Cambodian culture is very reserved, my parents’ work focuses on positive aesthetic appeal and commerciality. For them, artwork is both a gift the artist creates for the world and a means of putting food on the table. But while I can’t begin to express my gratitude for having such talented parents to learn from, the mindset I inherited—that creativity should always yield a marketable product—is something I am intentionally gravitating away from these days as I redefine my artistic identity.

Initially, I was inclined to identify my culture as Cambodian-American, but I realize now that I identify specifically within the secondgeneration experience of this diaspora. The tension in my relationship to traditions I find stifling—a hallmark trait of secondgenerationers—is a notable source of creativity in my newer work. It is in this intertidal zone of being Cambodian and American that I am afforded the privilege to tread into deeper waters and freely express, explore, and heal through art. ■

Junnie Chup is a Cambodian-American illustrator and photographer living in Juneau, Alaska. Her work explores a variety of mediums from traditional to digital, but she mostly works with watercolor, digital tablet, and digital photography. She has published several works, including the book Beyond Hotdogs


Junnie Chup, “Roses I,” 2022, digital painting. “My emotional state strongly influences my creativity. This self-portrait shows me as a child looking protectively over the Gastineau Channel (a significant body of water that nourishes Juneau). I’ve rendered the flanking landscapes in a dreamlike manner to evoke a rare moment of calmness and lucidity from my childhood.”


Choosing Your Family in Alaska

bonds of love are as powerful as any blood relation
Vonnie Gaither, “M.C. MoHagani Magnetek’s Wedding,” 2022, acrylic on museum board.

“Blood is thicker than water” and “You only have one family” are sayings I’ve heard over and over again, and every time I’ve done all I can to refute them. Oh, there’s another one: “No one can live alone on an island,” which I know isn’t true because I watched Tom Hanks live all alone on an island for four years during a two-hour film. If Tom could do it, well, so could I. I didn’t need anybody: I could depend solely on myself. So once a similar opportunity presented itself, I snatched it up— though not hastily—and made my way to Alaska. This was ten years ago.

I got my wish: I soon learned Alaska can be a very lonely place. As vast as Alaska is, it’s no place to make enemies. You can easily find yourself alone in deep winter with a bad spell of cabin fever traveling down a dark path of depression fraught with suicidal ideation. Building healthy relationships is a necessity. I’ve heard many Alaska stories beginning with someone’s irrational decision to venture here, resulting in their staying due to unforeseen misfortunes. Many of these Alaska stories end with, “Look at me now, sixteen winters later!” For many residents—other than Indigenous people, who have inhabited and stewarded this land— this place becomes home by accident, not by choice.

During my explorations, I’ve encountered plenty of “chosen” families in Alaska. Yes, I’ve lived in pretty diverse places—such as New York City—but that diversity existed on a more theoretical than practical level. I got here and noticed right away that I couldn’t make assumptions about what a person’s spouse, siblings, or children looked like based on their ethnicity. The heterosexual, racially homogenous family structure was a myth that exploded before my eyes. The idea of family takes on different meanings and configurations in Alaska. Many families here are “chosen” because Alaskans take each other in with open arms whenever they feel a kinship based on commonalities and

experiences. The bonds are resilient, though they may come into question when a marriage, death, or child custody becomes a legal issue. But even then, one’s chosen family is acknowledged and respected.

For the longest time, I didn’t want to make Alaska my home because I have no blood relatives here. I dreaded the thought of dying and having all my Wonder Woman memorabilia relegated to the Salvation Army—or even worse, tossed into the street next to the dumpster. Although I knew many people and had established sturdy bonds, I ultimately felt alone.

I am legally married now, and yet I understand that my marriage is, by all definitions, a chosen family forged through love, shared experiences, and our commitment to support one another through thick and thin. Nothing good comes from questioning the ties that bind Alaska families. If you attempt to do so, you’ll most likely be quickly dismissed because people who see themselves as family behave in manners that they feel no one outside their unit can dispute. Assumptions about who one’s family is in Alaska must be tossed aside as one becomes more open and understanding. Family is what we make it. I never once thought I’d consider my neighbor, a wheelchair-bound lady with cerebral palsy almost twenty years

my senior, part of my family—or as we like to say to emphasize that we are best friends, “Ride or Die.” And that’s the type of solid connection we’ve formed. I’m more than a friend now to many people. I’m a cousin, a sister, an aunty, and a mother to my nonbiological relatives.

Another thing to expound on in this discussion about family is community: the acknowledgment of a larger sphere of kinship within a given space. In Alaska—like everywhere else—people have six degrees of separation, meaning everyone knows everyone, and you’ll most likely cross paths physically with someone you know at least every two years or so. During the height of the Coronavirus pandemic, we felt every single death because all of us either knew that person directly or knew someone who knew them. Our friendships and community ties bind us together and demand that we become tighter in times of toil and trouble.

Family is essential to me nowadays. My Alaska family members and I may not be from the same place. We may not have matching DNA sequences; we may even have different ethnicities. But we’re a family because I embrace them in the same way they embrace me in these long, dark, harsh winters; and we celebrate one another at gettogethers and backyard barbecues in the summer under the midnight sun. ■

M.C. MoHagani Magnetek has earned degrees in anthropology, English, creative writing, and literary arts. A Coast Guard veteran, community organizer, and human rights advocate, MoHagani believes poetry is therapeutic. Her work has been published in anthologies and literary magazines, including Building Fires in the Snow, Alaska Women Speak, and the recently released Wheels on Ice: Stories of Cycling in Alaska. She is the author of the novel The Mad Fantastic, 2098 and the choreopoem “For Colored Ladies Who Have Considered Pull-Tabs with Their Last Two Dollars.”

The idea of family takes on different meanings and configurations in Alaska. Many families here are “chosen” because Alaskans take each other in with open arms whenever they feel a kinship based on commonalities and experiences.

Welcome Mat

A Swedish immigrant and his Yup’ik family built an aviation legacy and traded along the Yukon River

Each day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.

Close your eyes. Imagine a young man setting sail from Gothenburg, Sweden, in the spring of 1913. He left behind grandparents, parents, 14 siblings, and two centuries of family farming to try his luck at something new—something more. Gazing off the deck of a Swedish American Line Steamship and into the eyes of Lady Liberty, young Axel Alstrom may have harbored many doubts, but the years that followed would hone his dreams and forever change the landscape of his life.

Alice Alstrom-Henderson became a part of that landscape. “Axel was my grandfather. He was born into a very large farming family in Borgstena, Sweden,” she says.

The Alstroms farmed during a period in history that used human brawn for the hard, manual labor required in agricultural production. After arriving in the United States, Axel worked on a farm in Massachusetts for a few years, or perhaps only a few months.

Other Alstroms were living in America at that time—Axel’s relatives. He sought them out in Tacoma, Washington before destiny drew him to the far north near Dawson, where he was enticed by talk of gold. The last leg of that journey was by a sled team drawn by 11 dogs and a wolf. His letters home reference Whitehorse, Skagway, and a Swede he worked for in Flat, Alaska as he traveled to the western part of the Last Frontier.

Alice recalls her earliest memories of Axel. “My sisters and I grew up on the lower Yukon River and were raised by our grandmother in Fish Village. Fish Village is now uninhabited. I remember Grandpa as a big man who always gave us candy from his store.”

But to be honest, Alice learned more about him through her relatives in Sweden than from her early childhood memories. “Those memories lie within my blood, but my Swedish relatives are the ones who have documented our shared family histories patched together from letters my grandfather wrote about his new life in Alaska.”


Top: Alice Alstrom-Henderson, Elizabeth, Torgny, and Augusta. Center: Molly with Augusta, Anna, Alice, and Elizabeth, about 1949. Bottom: Postcard from the Swedish America Steamship Company.


Top: Ole Alstrom in the early 1950s. Center: Pilots Fred and Frank Alstrom. Bottom: Alstrom coins minted for use at his trading post.

Axel Alstrom in his trading post with his granddaughter Augusta, about 1949.

Alice’s cousin Torgny Alstrom, who lives in Sweden, was bitten with curiosity and contacted her. “I had never had a big interest in the life of my immigrant grandfather. Probably my childhood was so overwhelmed by survival as an orphan that my personal history was ephemeral. Torgny’s interest has since magnified my perceptions.”

Records show Alice’s immigrant grandfather served as a paramedic during World War I in St. Michael’s and continued his caretaking of village people during the Spanish Flu epidemic. He claimed that he did not get the flu because he used snuff. “Grandpa Axel earned his citizenship because of his service in the U.S. military,” she’s been told.

Being out there, the Northern Commercial company picked up his energies for a while, but he started his own trade in furs and fish in Kwiguk and moved down to Alaknuk, at the mouth of the Yukon Delta. “He began trading commodities to local folks and eventually had coins minted for the budding economy,” Alice says.

Stories claim that Axel lent and lost money to the frequently visiting aviators. His trading center became a gathering place for people in the area. Aside from the trade, he showed movies to the locals.

Axel married a Yup’ik woman, Anna Strongheart. “I don’t know much about her, except that she was mother to my father, Ole, and his twin brothers Frank and Fred.” Anna died early, and Axel remarried Ledwina Oney, who was also Yup’ik and had worked in Axel’s home. Axel and Ledwina had an adopted daughter, Mary, who also lived a short life.

“Grandpa Axel’s desire was for his sons to have an education. I’ve heard that he provided for the construction of a school in the area. My father seemed to align with formal schooling and quickly became his father’s righthand assistant. He learned to fly at an early age, as did his twin brothers. After some years of experience in the family’s business, he went to Seattle to buy for the trading post. “In those days, you could fly on Pacific Northern [Aerospace Alliance, PNAA] from Anchorage to Seattle, in a DC4, with maybe a stop in Yakutak and Ketchikan, then on to Seattle all in about five hours,” says Alice.

“The Swedish relatives speak of Axel’s grief for his children, whose mother had died,” Alice says. Axel tried to comfort his boys by buying them airplanes, toys of a sort. He wrote of their talents in aviation in a letter to Sweden, “The twins could land a plane

on a plate, but sometimes they also ended up outside the plate.” The Alstrom brothers were to become some of the first certified Native pilots in the Territory of Alaska.

“My life was shadowed by the deaths of my father Ole, mother Molly (Westdahl), and our youngest sister Helen in 1955. My father’s plane crashed across from St. Mary’s, near the mission on the bank of the Andreafsky River,” Alice says. Ole had set up another store in St. Mary’s, an extension of the Alstrom Trading Post in Alakanuk. Their plane was filled with cargo. “The four of us left behind were raised by my grandmother, Teresa Westdahl.”

“Gramps created an adventure of many lifetimes: an expedition into the future of the Great Land. Today as I think about my history, I can say I am Yup’ik, and I have developed a fondness for both sides of my history. I thank my Swedish relatives for searching us out. You have come and gone down the Yukon River to discover a part of your past. In return, we have gone to Sweden to find our Swedish family’s welcome mat greeting us with open arms and hearts,” Alice says.


This historically recent Viking, Axel Alstrom, and his Yup’ik partners—Anna Strongheart and Ledwina Oney—co-created a well-touted legacy. Teachers, city managers, and corporate leaders with a huge tilt towards fisheries are actors on this great stage. “Up and down the rivers, there are well-known family names with a history similar to my own,” says Alice.

One can go to any town in Alaska and hear stories of mythic proportion—reconstructed histories of our coming to be—in different languages spoken alongside the various indigenous tongues. And they always resemble “e pluribus unum, my grandfather’s welcome to this country,” Alice says.

Grandfather Axel died in 1950. He is buried alongside his old friend Jack Lamont, a French-Canadian/Alaskan, in Mountain Village, a remote Yup’ik village tucked midway between Alakanuk and St. Mary’s. Mountain Village lies along the banks of the mighty Yukon River—the trade route that served Axel Alstrom so well.

Rest in peace, Axel Alstrom. Your memory is carried in this welcoming land. ■

Alice Alstrom-Henderson, Orienne Reich, and Deborah Schildt began their collaborative storytelling twenty years ago when they produced, along with Bea Adler, the documentary film “Unraveling the Wind.” The film featured the achievements of Alice’s uncles—twin brothers Fred and Frank Alstrom—who were among the first Alaska Native pilots. Torgny Alstrom, a resident of Sweden, came across the documentary on the Internet in 2015. This story originates from that documentary and addresses what happened after Torgny sought out his cousin Alice Alstrom-Henderson in Alaska and brought her to embrace and explore the history of their extended family. The authors thank Elizabeth Alstrom and Matilda Alstrom-Oktoyak for their help with photos and research for this article.

When the aviators need money, they always come to me. They call me “the grand old man.”
sons and their wives and children call me “grand old man.” All other children call me “packa,” which means grandfather.

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From Practicing Backyard Altruism to Leading Alaska’s Philanthropic Family

DIANE KAPLAN STEPPED DOWN on December 31 as Rasmuson Foundation’s President and CEO, a position she held for more than 25 years. She recently reflected for the Alaska Humanities Forum (AKHF) on the evolution of the Foundation during her tenure from a tiny no-employee family charity to Alaska’s largest, preeminent philanthropy—and her personal philanthropic journey, which started young.

AKHF: You’ve spent most of your professional life working for nonprofit organizations—public broadcasting in Pennsylvania, California, and here, in addition to a bunch of charitable boards like the Alaska Community Foundation and, of course, Rasmuson Foundation. You were raised in Brooklyn by a single mother, the only girl with two older brothers. Did anything in your childhood forecast your path?

Diane: I was always a fundraiser. When I was five years old—you remember that Jerry Lewis thing?—I collected for muscular dystrophy. I turned our backyard into a carnival for Jerry’s Kids. On Halloween, I did trick or treat for UNICEF. [...] The other kids were eating candy; I was asking for donations. I did Trees for Israel, sold chocolates for the synagogue. When the neighbors saw me coming they would run in the opposite direction. [laughs]

AKHF: Why do you think you were like that?

Diane: Well, we didn’t have a lot. My father was a violent person, and my mother eventually threw him out. Suddenly she had to support us by herself—three kids, a mortgage. She wasn’t prepared. She had no real job skills, hadn’t finished college. The jobs she could get didn’t pay enough. When she tried welfare, they told her she’d have to sell the house first. In the end, we had to depend on money from relatives for two years so she could go back to school and qualify as a teacher. […] She paid them back, every penny.

AKHF: What drew you to the philanthropic life?

Diane: I am a product of philanthropy. I went to summer camp for three years thanks to the United Jewish Appeal. At the time, it was hugely important to me. Getting rid of us for a while saved my mother’s life. When I graduated from high school, I was given a financial package that allowed me to go to the University of Pennsylvania—money and loans and work study. It covered everything. I could never have afforded to go to an Ivy League school. Generous donors made my life possible.

AKHF: You spent 11 years running APRN [Alaska Public Radio Network], a period that saw huge expansion of network services with the building of stations throughout rural Alaska. In 1995 you had your own consulting firm when Ed Rasmuson offered you a part-time gig as his Foundation’s first employee—10 hours a week, $15 an hour. Why did you take it?

Diane: Because it seemed like a really cool thing to do and because it came with health insurance. I was in my late 30s. I had a very successful company. I was making good money. But I had no retirement and no health insurance. I talked him up to $30 an hour and took them on as a client. [...] But frankly, I didn’t think they’d ever want to pay me enough to work for them full time.

AKHF: I’m sure that’s one prediction you’re happy was wrong. When you left last year, the Foundation had a staff of 30, widely regarded

Diane Kaplan with drying salmon in Oscarville. PHOTO COURTESY OF DIANE KAPLAN

as dedicated and capable. How did you learn the art of picking good people?

Diane: I learned the hard way. I made mistakes early on. But one day, I asked Janet Weiss, then head of BP, how she did it. She said the most important thing was “alignment with the mission. If they believe in your mission, you can teach them everything else.” I’ve followed that ever since.

Of course Rasmuson Foundation applicants are also asked, “Can you sing? Can you dance? Can you filet fish?” [laughs]

AKHF: Looking back over your 27 years leading the Foundation, tell us about something you got wrong.

Diane: Well, here’s a bad one. Over a series of visits to Napaskiak, I got to know the tribal administrator, Phillip Nicholai. The village needed money for Head Start and a fence around the cemetery, and I kept urging him to apply for a grant. But he kept not doing it. I finally told him if he didn’t apply, there was no point in me coming back.

The next year when I arrived, he didn’t show up, wouldn’t meet me as usual. Turned out they had finally applied—and been turned down. Whoever was at the front desk sent their application back because something was missing. The cover letter said something like, “Unfortunately we cannot accept this application because it’s incomplete.” And that’s all the villagers read. Rejection. They didn’t talk to us about it. They didn’t ask any questions.

When I figured out what happened, we changed our letters, so they began, “Congratulations. Your application is being processed. We would appreciate it if you would send us...” We changed our guidelines to accommodate their reality. Staff learned to be flexible.

AKHF: Apart from any individual grant or program you fostered while you and Ed were building the Foundation, what satisfies you most among your accomplishments?

Kaplan: Building a culture of philanthropy in the state. […] Getting the people of Alaska to value and support nonprofits through programs like Pick.Click.Give and creating local community foundations. According to data, Alaska ranked very low in the amount of support given to charity per person back then. The state data is now way better.

AKHF: Any final thoughts?

Diane: I remember that five-year-old girl collecting for UNICEF. She’s always with me. As she and I seek out new adventures, we take with us the satisfaction of knowing our work—the Foundation—changed the practice of philanthropy in Alaska, changed the face of Alaska itself. ■

Sheila Toomey worked as an Alaska journalist for more than 30 years, starting with public broadcasting and then with the Anchorage Daily News. She and Diane have been friends for years.

Diane at Silver Salmon Creek. PHOTO BY DR. SVEN HAAKANSON
I am a product of philanthropy... Generous donors made my life possible.


A Filipino-Athabascan family discovers a path to intergenerational healing


“Filibascan” is what I call my Filipino-Athabascan kids. I believe the term captures their roots and our multiracial family quite well, but also pays homage to the many mixed-race Alaska Native-Filipino people who have historically referred to themselves as “Indipinos,” “Tlingipinos,” “Eskipinos,” or other similar derivatives.

I’ve used the term Filibascan so much over the years on social media, in my writings, speaking gigs, and media interviews that it became—surprisingly—a central storyline in a “Molly of Denali” episode!

“Wait, there are Filipinos in Alaska?!?”

This is a statement—both an expression of shock and a question—that people often make when they find out that I’m Filipino, that I focus my research on Filipino Americans, and that I live in Alaska. Since the “Molly of Denali” episode aired, I’ve been faced with this question even more.

Americans generally don’t know much about Filipinos, and even those who have some knowledge probably think of other states like California or Hawaii as the Filipino American hubs… not Alaska. And though there is truth to this dominant nar-

Crystal Worl, “Storytime at Moonrise,” 2019, gouache paint.

rative—as census data shows that approximately 35% of Filipino Americans live in California and Hawaii alone—Alaska should also be part of the Filipino American hub category. This is because Asians make up around 8.4% of Alaska’s population—higher than the national rate of 7.2%—and approximately half of this large Asian community is Filipino. It goes against most people’s mental schemas when they find out that Filipinos form the largest Asian group in Alaska. People are even more surprised when I tell them that most immigrants in Alaska are Filipinos rather than Mexicans or members of another Latin American community.

It astounds people even more when they learn that it was way back in 1788 when the first Filipino set foot on what is now known as Alaska and that larger waves of Filipinos came to the state in the early 1900s.

“Ok, that’s cool… So, what’s it like to be a Filipino Athabascan family?”

Since the “Molly of Denali” episode, this has also become a frequently asked question. I’m not Athabascan, so I’m not the best person to speak to that part. But I believe there are similarities between the Filipino and Athabascan experiences, so I’ll share a bit about the Filipino part. Perhaps that can provide some hints about the Athabascan side as well.

Being Filipino, for me, entails many complexities. One commonly debated issue is where we fit in this country’s categorizations of race. I remember being confused with this as a 14-yearold immigrant when I had to check a race box for the first time on a form I was filling out for school. I considered checking the “Asian” box because the Philippines are geographically part of Southeast Asia. But I also felt like checking the “Latino” box because of our colonial history and many cultural and religious connections. Then I saw “Pacific Islanders” and thought, “Well, the Philippines is a country of over 7,000 islands in the Pacific Ocean, so…” I also saw “Caucasian” and thought, “I’m not sure what ‘Caucasian’ is, but could it mean ‘kinda Asian’? Is that what I am?”

Eventually, I asked an adult to help me, and they said, “Check ‘Asian.’” So I did, but I felt weak afterward for acquiescing to something that didn’t feel completely right.

Just recently, I feared that I’d passed this weakness on to my kids when my 9-year-old son shared with me an interaction he had with a classmate of his, who is also Filipino. “Dad, my friend said if you’re Filipino, you’re Asian. Is that true?” he asked me. I replied, “That’s what many people think.” He followed up with “So I’m Asian?” seemingly with the same resignation I felt when I was told to check the “Asian” box almost 30 years

ago. I was concerned that my son had relented as I had, so I asked him how he felt about that. He said, “I dunno. But I told my friend he can’t tell me what I am. I’m Filipino, not Asian.”

I guess I was wrong. My son didn’t feel forced to adopt a label that seemed ill-fitted for him. He went against the dominant narrative. He refused to be racialized.

I’m proud of my son, and yet the fact remains that this country forces us into a category many of us feel we don’t belong in; this is further complicated by the fact that being generically classified as “Asians” makes us even more invisible. When many people think of Asians, the image that pops into their minds is more likely to be of someone whose heritage is Chinese, Korean, or Japanese than Filipino. Nonetheless, Filipinos compose approximately 20% of the Asian American population, and Luzones Indios from the archipelago were the first Far Easterners to set foot in what is now the U.S., in Morro Bay, California, way back in 1587.

This is why Filipino American historian Fred Cordova regarded Filipinos as “the forgotten Asian Americans.” Despite our large numbers and long history in this country, we continue to be invisible. Sure, we are strong and resilient. Surviving over 400 years of colonialism that systematically subdued our cultures and bodies attests to this. Another example is our ability to relate to and even blend with various cultural groups. We can even accept being forced into a racial category with people to which we don’t feel completely connected. But it seems that our ability to adapt, tolerate, and even assimilate has been employed as a means to perpetually ignore, disregard, and erase us.

Our resilience has been used as permission to condone our continued oppression.

These are the main reasons why it’s often hard to find something to be proud of as a Filipino, especially in the U.S. This invisibility and continued oppression prime us to accept whatever people tell us we are and what we should be. So, what we often end up taking pride in is our ability to adapt and change ourselves, not realizing how this potentially contributes to how much we forget ourselves. This may be why confusion about our identity and self-hate are so common among us. And although my research over the past two decades supports this, it’s my own personal struggle in this country that makes me know this.

There was a time when I was ashamed of my roots, when I believed being able to speak English well was a sign of intelligence and sophistication. It was a time when I equated lighter skin

It astounds people when they learn that it was way back in when the first Filipino set foot on what is now known as Alaska.

tone with beauty while associating darker skin and rural, non-Western origins with inferiority. It was a time when I regarded anything “Made in the U.S.”—and anything about the U.S.—as better than anything by, from, and of the Philippines. My colonial mentality was deep and automatic. And I fear that I might pass on this colonial mentality to my kids.

But I see my kids resisting. My 9-year-old son, for example, has repeatedly chosen to wear a Barong Tagalog—a traditional formal long-sleeve shirt—for school picture days. I didn’t have the courage to wear one in the American school system when I was younger, so to see my son proudly and automatically representing his Filipino self makes me so happy. I love that it’s just normal for him to be proud of his roots: no second thoughts, no shame, no doubts.

People talk about intergenerational trauma in our communities, and that’s important, but we must not fail to see that intergenerational healing is also happening. My son flipping the script from cultural shame to cultural pride—from my perceived inferiority to him seeing his roots as sources of strength—is an embodiment of intergenerational healing in real time.


CRYSTAL WORL , whose paintings appear on the cover and preceding pages, has Tlingit, Athabascan, and Filipino ancestors. She was raised in a traditional Indigenous family with close ties to its extended kin. “I was raised by my parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunties,” she says. “My mom’s family is the largest in the state. I meet new cousins, uncles, and aunties all the time.”


My impression is that my kids will feel similar struggles and tensions through their Athabascan roots. There are fears about intergenerational trauma and questions about belonging and racialization in that community, too; there are also issues surrounding blood quantum, authenticity, and other racial and cultural identity traits. Perhaps the clearest symbols of this are the ID cards telling my kids that they’re only part Athabascan. My wife and I tell our kids to ignore that. Instead, we teach them to see themselves as 100% Filipino and 100% Athabascan. It doesn’t make sense to us that 100% me plus 100% my wife equals anything less than 200%. Racism has become so insidious that it got us distorting basic math.

Our kids know they’re 200%. And if people question them, arguing that 200% doesn’t make sense, that’s okay. Our kids know that their roots are their superpowers and that, for most people, superpowers don’t make sense.

I guess this is what it’s like to be a Filibascan family. We face plenty of struggles and confusion and must constantly resist societal impositions and oppression. But there’s also plenty of healing and continually reminding ourselves that our struggles and confusion are not because of who we are, but due to dominant and yet limited societal conceptualizations of who we are. We rise above and beyond these limitations. Our superpowers allow us to do so. ■

From Crystal’s perspective, being a family means sharing values and time. “We cook together; we clean together; we talk and laugh together. If I am doing art and there are little kids, sometimes I’ll be doing art with them or playing with them. Sometimes we’ll watch movies together. If I have something going on for my art, I invite my family because it’s always better to have them there.”

Her art often features family activities, depicting “a lifestyle in Alaska, being out in the land, fishing and hunting with aunties and uncles, or picking berries with mom or stepmom. Those are things we do with the family, things we do to feed ourselves and to be healthy and active. Our families have done this for many generations, for ten thousand years.”

E. J. R. David, Ph.D. is a professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage, specializing in ethnic minority psychology. He has written Internalized Oppression: The Psychology of Marginalized Groups; Brown Skin, White Minds: Filipino-/American Postcolonial Psychology; The Psychology of Oppression; and We Have Not Stopped Trembling Yet. Among numerous professional honors is his induction as a Fellow by the Asian American Psychological Association for “unusual and outstanding contributions to Asian American psychology.”

My son flipping the script from cultural shame to cultural is an embodiment of intergenerational healing in real time.

November 2, 2018, was a special day for Anchorage’s Mexican community. For months, a handful of its members had prepared for the Day of the Dead festival. They met weekly in the studio of artist and community leader Indra Arriaga to make paper flowers, cutouts, and—by the most skilled members—giant papier-mâché skulls.

When the expected moment arrived, people gathered in front of the Anchorage Museum. Itzel Zagal, an Aztec dancer of the Nahua tribe, opened the event with a blessing. Dressed in a traditional costume, she greeted the cardinal points with the popoxcomitl, or incense burner, as her ancestors did.

In freezing weather and with over 10 inches of snow on the ground, dozens of people walked in procession to follow Death

Mexican Ancestors Partying in the Snow

On Anchorage’s Day of the Dead, forebears help community members find a chosen family

herself, who was dressed in the style of a nineteenth-century lady. Her head was one of the enormous sculptures that the artist Macuca Cuca built at the community gatherings. Death traditionally wore an elegant, wide-brimmed hat.

Who said that Death must always be a woman? Alongside her walked Mr. Death, a skull-headed gentleman dressed in the nineteenth-century style and with a top hat. Behind them, men, women, and children— some with their faces painted in the traditional skeleton style of the event—wandered the streets of the city center. Onlookers joined the festive procession in awe. After all, it’s not every day that one has the honor of having fun with the dead.

By the time the procession arrived at the gallery that hosted the event, over a hundred people were following Death. The commu-

The 2022 celebration took place downtown. Itzel Zagal led the Aztec dancers. She opened the ceremony by greeting the four cardinal points. The butterfly on her dress is an important symbol of the Aztec culture.


nity received the parade with steaming cups of hot chocolate and pan de muerto, sweet bread made especially for the celebration.

After warming up their bodies, attendees visited the altars. Half a dozen families and students from the Government Hill Spanish Immersion Program set out these ofrendas, which included portraits of their ancestors, paper flowers, candles, chocolate or sugar skulls, bread, food, or tequila. The ancestors must have been pleased with the colorful display. After all, they had returned from the underworld ready to party!

A face painting booth was busy in a crowded corner of the party. All in attendance were allowed to decorate their faces, but women and children monopolized the line. They all chose to look like skeletons, perhaps in a desire to intermingle with the ancestors.

Dance troupes added a colorful note to the party. The ancestors must have loved the dresses that swayed to the rhythm of Mexican folk music. The local mariachi band played the final songs while Mexicans sang and hugged each other, sure their ancestors were singing along.

When most attendees left the gallery, the organizers toasted with hot cocoa, “Cheers to the joy of becoming a chosen family!”


Mexicans boast of laughing at death. Laughing at death is an essential part of their culture.

Pre-Hispanic peoples living in the land that today is Mexico did not consider life and death as absolute opposites but rather as points on a continuum. The idea of individualism arose with colonization. According to Nobel laureate Octavio Paz, the current vision of death in Mexico emerged from the encounter between these perspectives.

Death makes us all the same. The oppressor and the oppressed, the rich and the poor—all will turn to bones and dust. The rich may fear their empires will collapse, but Mexicans believe they have nothing to lose. And so, they laugh.

The idea of sinister skulls as part of the Day of the Dead came about in the nineteenth century. They became a popular element of the celebration in urban areas. However, people in rural Mexico celebrate in a different way. They believe that ancestors come to visit their kin on those days.

While researching the topic between 2000 and 2003 for the arts publication Artes de México, I witnessed some elements that

Mexico’s rural communities include in their celebrations. Church bells toll on the eve of the festival, opening the door that divides the underworld from the human world. The ancestors will be able to cross the “bridge” once this door is open.

On November 1, those who died as children—the so-called “little angels”—visit their living relatives, who have placed offerings of toys to receive them. Adults who have passed away make the journey on November 2. Instead of toys, they might be offered their favorite food and tequila.

People often make a narrow path of marigold flowers from the street to the ofrendas. They say that the ancestors see the flowers as candles lighting their way to the altars. However, ofrendas may also have candles. Cooks often prepare celebratory food, including tamales. They serve a portion in the ofrenda for the ancestors to enjoy during the feast. I once asked how we know the ancestors ate the food if we keep seeing the dishes untouched. People explained that the ancestors eat the aroma of food. Because the ancestors have no bodily substance, they do not need the actual physical food, only its “spirit.”

Altars can also include drinks for the ancestors, such as hot chocolate, coffee, and any alcoholic beverages they like, as well as objects that trigger memories of the deceased, including pictures, personal belongings, and games. Finally, ofrendas include salt and water used to purify the space, as those liminal moments when the door to the underworld is open could be dangerous.

During the Day of the Dead, the acts of the living mirror those of the ancestors. So, while the dead visit their offerings, mem-

With the altars right there, the conversation easily falls into evocations of the ancestors: “Do you remember when he did this or that?”

2022 Day of the Dead Celebration, Anchorage.

TOP, LEFT: Different members of the Mexican community have been involved in organizing the Day of the Dead celebration since its creation more than fifteen years ago.

TOP, RIGHT: Attendees paint their faces as skeletons. For Mexicans, face painting is not a costume but a ritual element full of symbolism.

BOTTOM: Community members sculpt paper-mâché skulls throughout the year to celebrate their ancestors in November.


bers of the community visit each other. Each time someone comes to a home, the hosts will offer mole, tamales, hot chocolate, pan de muerto, and whatever dishes they have prepared for the ofrenda

With the altars right there, the conversation easily falls into evocations of the ancestors: “Do you remember when he did this or that?” “Don’t you like how he solved this or that problem?” Time flies when remembering loved ones. The community builds new memories while sharing those that remind them of the deceased. Children are often there, connecting with each other while learning about their kin.

Food and memories from the Day of the Dead are gifts that call for reciprocity. The exchange is not just for more food and more memories in future celebrations. With ancestors as witnesses, community members sign a silent contract, guaranteeing each other a network of support. This concept of exchange and support is called guelaguetza

With the help of the vertical relationship of the ancestors, Mexican communities establish a horizontal web of relatedness.


The Day of the Dead in Anchorage, Alaska, has some peculiarities. Nostalgic for their homeland, Anchorage’s Mexican immigrants see in the festival the possibility of reconnecting with their culture. They all come from different parts of Mexico—from the big cities, including the 20-million-person capital, to the small, Indigenous towns of rural Mexico. They bring to the celebration whatever they experienced back home. Alaska’s particular landscape and the mix of elements from urban settings with those of rural areas makes Anchorage’s Day of the Dead unique.

While working together, Mexican immigrants build their chosen kinship bonds during the festival. Hard work and reliability will help if, say, someone falls into the ditch while driving or needs to go to the hospital at night during the year ahead. They build relationships, choosing a “family” that could help them survive in this cold paradise.

Mexicans like to seal this collaboration pact during the Day of the Dead. They work, eat, drink, tell stories, dance, and sing. The

ancestors will witness the reciprocity agreement, smile, and give their descendants their blessing. Proud of their kin, they will walk back home with cold feet but warm hearts. The ancestors’ spirits are light, and they do not leave footprints in the snow, but Mexicans’ hearts swell with joy, memories, and connectedness—the unmistakable mark of the ancestors’ presence. ■

Gabriela Olmos has written fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Her articles, short stories, and poems have appeared in periodicals in Latin America, Europe, and the U.S. She has published 16 children’s books. Eight of them are part of public education programs in Mexico. She received an International Latino Book Award in 2019. She has worked as an editor for more than 20 years.

2022 Day of the Dead Celebration, Anchorage. Mexicans place photographs, candles, flowers, food, candy, and paper decorations in the ofrendas to please their ancestors who come to visit. PHOTO BY DAN BAILEY.
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Emotional Battlefield

Memories of war are woven into the fabric of some military families, leaving one Alaskan to realize he was cut from the same cloth as his grandfather

Oceans away from the bloody foreign battlefields, a military rescue team flies through the dark of night in Alaska, searching for a missing civilian. By the time the mission is over, one of the rescuers will be afflicted with trauma associated with combat, the kind of stress that quietly metastasizes and, if left unabated, eventually manifests into self-destructive behaviors, even the perpetuation of intergenerational trauma.

After midnight in late summer of 2016, a veteran helicopter crew from the 210th Res-

cue Squadron struggled to penetrate dense fog, forcing the two pilots to fly close to the ground, relying on a pair of special mission aviators in the back of the helicopter to help “drive the ship” through a passage in the forest.

One of these aviators, Turk Younkins, leaned out of an open window on the helicopter’s side, judging the distance to the surrounding hazards. Via his headset microphone, he called out instructions.

“Continue. Easy forward 10, down 5.”

Through his night vision goggles, Turk


surveyed a ghostly scene—everything colored with a monochrome shade of green, the neighboring trees bathed in the same surreal hue, but swaying in rotor wash as strong as hurricane-force winds.

Forty-two years old at the time and with a life-long military career behind him, Turk understood the perils of flying night missions on board a 20,000-pound rescue helicopter, feeling the peculiar comfort of having life distilled to its most simple elements, when decisions become instinctual, and every action appears choreographed.

Conversations inside the helicopter reflected the tension of an inextricable juxtaposition: the awareness that mistakes can have grave consequences, balanced against the acceptance that risks are necessary to get the job done.

Part of a six-man alert crew that includes two pararescuemen, the team found its way to one of Southcentral Alaska’s most popular waterways, a river frequented by whitewater enthusiasts. There, the team began searching for the victim of a rafting accident that occurred late the previous day.

Alaska, 2016: Master Sergeant Turk Younkins, 210th Rescue Squadron, Alaska Air Guard, on a training mission over Southcentral Alaska. PHOTO BY JOE YELVERTON

“I convinced myself he might still be alive,” Turk remembered.

The only missing person from the accident was a boy and his young age catalyzed the team’s resolve.

But as the night wore on, hope faded.

“We became obsessed with finding him,” Turk said.

“I found myself wanting closure for his family,” he added, visibly restraining his emotions.

After flying numerous grid patterns above the river and nearly giving up, Turk spotted something that looked out of place. He guided the pilots to a bend in the river, asking them to hold a hover so he could focus on an anomaly in the water.

Turk studied the object through his night vision goggles, realizing it was the boy. Straining to lean out of the helicopter, he asked the pilots to move the ship closer.

Turk saw the boy’s face and was overwhelmed with dread, the same emotion he had experienced many times before, while picking up the pieces of dead soldiers in Afghanistan, doing CPR on mutilated bodies in the back of the helicopter, and responding to civilian tragedies in Alaska.

But this time, something was different: Turk recognized his son floating in the river below him.

In circumstances unimaginable to most people, Turk hallucinated, experiencing the tragic event in vivid detail but with the wrong details. He believed he was seeing the dead body of his own son, who was asleep at home, safe in his own bed. This vision emerged from repeated exposure to trauma, leaving Turk unable to discern reality, or even speak, or act.

Six years later, choking back tears, Turk remembers the experience.

“I watched his head bobbing in the water. He would go under the waves, and every time he would resurface, every time his head would come back up…” Struggling to compose himself, Turk finds the words. “Every time he would come back up, I would see my son’s face.”

Turk has only a vague recollection of what happened afterward. His team members took over.

Two days after the incident, Turk entered his commander’s office on JBER. He hadn’t slept in the previous 48 hours, and it showed. He removed his aircrew wings from his flight suit, placed them on his

commanders desk, and said, “I can’t do this anymore. I quit.”

A compassionate leader, his commander responded, “Okay, but first, let’s get you help.”

That same day, Turk met with a mental health counselor trained to work with the special forces. Treatment followed, but it only got him out of the woods. He flew on missions for another three years, but admitted they were torturous.

“I would think to myself, what if I see another dead body? What if I see my son’s face, my daughter’s face, or my wife’s face? What if I lock up again and put the team in danger?”

Turk retired in 2019 with 23 years of military service behind him, most in search and rescue. A significant part of that occurred in Alaska.


To understand the trajectory of Turk’s life, it’s necessary to go back decades, even before he was born.

When he was twelve years old he visited Dachau, Germany, with his grandparents—Elmer and Alethea Gall. It was 1987, more than forty years after his grandfather had fought in World War II.

“He wanted me to see what the Nazis did,” Turk said, recalling his grandfather’s impetus.

“But partway through the tour of Dachau he disappeared,” Turk remembered. He did not understand his grandfather’s challenges, especially the frequent nightmares, until many years later when his own military career began.

When Turk was an infant he lived in Littlestown, Pennsylvania, in a multigenerational household with his grandparents, his mom, and her two brothers.

“My dad was bigger than life,” said Stephanie Younkins, Turk’s mother.

She remembered that everyone in the family knew her father differently, “but we all knew to never disturb his sleep.”

“He tried to choke my mother in the middle of the night one time,” Stephanie recalled, describing the effects of her father’s nightmares. “But he was a role model to many, especially kids. He cared about people.”

“He was my role model and my hero,” Turk said, describing his fondness for the man who helped raise him, the only real father figure he knew. Turk’s biological father had a history of violent behavior,

That legacy is a heavy load to shoulder, and it’s common among other Alaska military members and their families.

something his grandfather, Elmer, wouldn’t tolerate.

Elmer was a machine gunner in the U.S. Army during World War II. He was captured by the Germans but escaped. He was also seriously wounded and shot. After his escape, he was taken in by the Russians, helping them liberate a concentration camp toward the end of the war.

“When he was dying of cancer, I asked him about the nightmares,” Turk said. “I wanted to give him the opportunity to talk about it. But I also wanted to understand.”

His grandfather shared a poignant story.

Out on patrol, Elmer was atop a wooded hill when he spotted a German tank headed for a nearby village, where American soldiers had taken up a post. Elmer lifted his bazooka and fired at close range, hitting the tank and igniting an inferno inside the crew compartment. Engulfed in smoke, the German crew climbed out of the vehicle, trying to escape. Elmer shot and killed each soldier.

Turk’s grandfather became emotional. “They were kids,” he confessed to Turk. The German soldiers were just teenagers.

Despite receiving a purple heart and two bronze medals for valor, Elmer’s experience at war left him haunted for his entire life. And now Turk is haunted, too, not just by his traumatic memories but by the echoes of his grandfather’s anguish as well.

That legacy is a heavy load to shoulder, and it’s common among other Alaska military members and their families. It’s an

unseen story, sometimes reflected by mere statistics of suicides.

When asked why he is willing to talk about his experiences, Turk answered, “I’m willing to do it with the hope that it will inspire others to share their grief.”

Turk is now fifty years old and a single parent, raising two teenage kids, along with help from his mom and stepdad, who also live in Alaska. Turk attributes his two divorces to his struggles with trauma. But he’s proud of his military service, proud that he could help others, including civilians, and he’s especially proud of his grandfather.

Turk is now exploring the social work program at the University of Alaska. He wants to help other veterans, particularly, working to demystify the stigma of posttraumatic stress.

At the rescue squadron on JBER is a large building called the Alert Bay. Used for mission preparation, it sees frenetic activity 24 hours a day. Above two main doors, a plaque displays a message intended to inspire a moment of reflection during chaotic and uncertain times:

The two most important days of your life are the day you were born, and the day you figure out why.

Turk figured out “why” when he began reconciling his past, discovering a deeper purpose through his family story. ■

Joe Yelverton is an Anchorage based writer and photographer. Osaka, Japan, 1951: Staff Sergeant Elmer Gall, U.S. Army. PHOTO COURTESY YOUNKINS FAMILY

Introducing Leadership Anchorage 26

Founded in 1997, Leadership Anchorage (LA) is the premier leadership development program for established and emerging Alaskans seeking to expand their impact in the community.

LA is designed to develop the skills, knowledge, perspective, and networks needed to be an effective and compassionate changemaker in our city and our state. Each year, a diverse cohort is selected to participate in this 10-month program of monthly sessions enhanced by group projects, individual mentorships, readings, resources, and guest speakers from the community.

Ahmed Hassan was born in Kismayo, Somalia, and fled the country to a Kenyan refugee camp in early 1992 when the civil war broke out. He went on to graduate from high school, attain a teaching certificate, and teach primary school in Kenya. In 2012, Ahmed was resettled in Anchorage and has worked in restaurants, at the Arc of Anchorage, and as a taxi driver. He has completed two semesters at UAA and plans to pursue a career as a medical labor technician. He is a father of five.

Ashley Anderson was born and raised in Los Angeles. She studied at Gonzaga University, Santa Barbara and Ventura Colleges of Law and Criminal Justice, and Washington State University in the areas of legal studies, policy, youth advocacy, and communication. She moved to Alaska in 2018 with her husband, two kids, and elder dog, seeking a new adventure in the wild—which she has done, having been to 13 villages and all the way up to the Arctic. Her aim is to continue work in community development, collaboration, and awareness to help provide opportunities for everyone.

Carolyn Hall believes in the power of community and the potential for greatness when people come together to accomplish common goals. She is a small business owner and a consultant whose portfolio includes public and media relations, crisis communications, visual communications, community outreach, project management, and operations. Carolyn values her time serving those in need for a local nonprofit and on her local community council board. She lives in a historic home with her husband, three cats, and a backyard flock of chickens.

Ahmbra Austin currently serves as the Director of Employee Experience at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Prior to living out her life-long dream to move to Alaska in 2021, Ahmbra worked at California State University San Marcos. She values positivity and compassion, and has a passion for building community and inspiring personal growth in others. When she is not at work, Ahmbra loves to experience nature through the change in seasons, spend quality time with friends, and work on projects that inspire creativity.

Ashley Simien is a respiratory technician at Procare Home Medical. She’s been with the company for almost ten years. She is a Christian, mother of four, and a foster parent. Ashley mentors parenting teens and volunteers for many communities throughout Anchorage. She is eager and looks forward to serving her community for many more years to come.

Charisse Arce has spent the last seven years working as a federal criminal prosecutor in Alaska and Arizona. She got her bachelor's and juris doctorate degrees at Seattle University. As an undergrad she was captain of the women’s track-and-field and cross-country teams; during law school she was an editor on the American Indian Law Journal. Charisse grew up in Iliamna and developed a deep respect for the land that sustained her people for generations. She and her husband raise their daughters on Dena’ina Ełnena. She enjoys baking, biking, basketball, and all things salmonberry.

Cisco Mercado grew up in the ’80s and ’90s in New York City. He will describe himself as a geek/ nerd, a jock, and a lover of history. Cisco has seen the effects poverty and racism can have on a community. He has strived to improve the lives of children and people in communities of need. Cisco has a master’s degree in history and political science from the University of New Orleans. Currently, he is a Program Coordinator for Camp Fire Alaska.


Cortney Anderson is a lifelong Alaskan who is passionate about developing and providing resources that promote holistic wellness, particularly for underrepresented populations. Her educational and lived experiences inform her current work as a chemical dependency counselor. She is pursuing her master’s in social work with the intention of partnering with community organizations to provide innovative solutions to social issues and, ultimately, systemic change. She enjoys spending time with her partner and two bearded dragons.

Eiden Pospisil was born and raised in Anchorage and attended Oberlin College, studying comparative religion and jazz performance. After graduating with a bachelor of arts and a bachelor of music performance, Eiden worked as an educator in Istanbul and Paris before returning home in 2020. Since returning to Alaska, Eiden has served as an academic advisor at Outer Coast College and worked in refugee resettlement, connecting resettled youth to educational opportunities. He currently works as a youth leadership program coordinator at the Alaska Humanities Forum. Eiden continues to pursue his love of music and regularly performs in Alaska and abroad.

Jayly J. Jackson is 24 years old, a third-year Alaskan, and excited about the future. In his professional life he works as a behavioral health aide for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. In his semi-private life, his is a photographer and freelance Illustrator.

Jessie Jacobs is the Anchorage regional manager for the Office of Children’s Services. She has worked in social services for 24 years. She is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and holds a master’s in social work. Ms. Jacobs was born and raised in Anchorage and values the rich and diverse communities of Alaska. She brings energy and passion to her work and believes that families are best served by community systems working in collaboration to ensure equitable and just treatment for all.

Lusiana “Lucy”

Tuga Hansen was born in Ta'u Manu'a, Pago Pago American Samoa. In 1985, she moved to Alaska to be close to family. In 2005, she became the founder and CEO of the Polynesian Association of Alaska. In recognition of her advocacy, she was honored with a chief Samoan title name, Muaimalae Tuga Hansen, from the Atoali’i organization in Hawaii and California, as well as many other awards, including the Asian American and Pacific Islander Women Champions of Change Award from the White House. In 2021, she was one of ten “Extra Tough Alaska Women of the North” through the Anchorage Museum.

Naya Indira was born and raised in the Bronx, New York. She has holds degrees in psychology and clinical mental health counseling. She has spent countless hours working alongside and supporting survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking, and child abuse. Her work with youth has fueled her passion for helping children, which has led her to her current position at McLaughlin Youth Center, working as the mental health clinician to help adjudicated youth heal from trauma.

Noah Star is an assistant attorney general for the state of Alaska. Previously, he was a law clerk for the Alaska Supreme Court and a legislative aide for Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins. He lives in East Anchorage with his partner, Shoshi, and their dog, Morgan.

Stephanie Stillwell is a registered nurse with a diverse nursing background, but her passion is working in prevention. Because of this, she works creatively to bridge the gap between the healthcare system, individuals, and community. Stephanie is Anishinaabikwe from Lac la Croix First Nation, Ontario and was raised in northern Minnesota. She studied nursing at the University of Cincinnati and has called Alaska home since 2015. A homeschooling mom of five children, Stephanie and her husband, Ben, find solace in letting nature be a primary teacher and spend as much time exploring the Alaska wilderness as possible.

Tamara Zenobia is an Alaska born vocal alchemist, healer, medium, and performance artist. She brings a unique artistic philosophy to her work: to hone the gift of the intuitive and improvisational artist/healer within each of us. Her process combines the elements of vocal alchemy, music, dance movement, and visual art to create an organic way of living and being that supports physical, spiritual, and mental wellbeing. Tamara is the founder of Butterfly Jazz Intuitive Arts. She performs her music and storytelling adventures, teaches workshops and classes in vocal alchemy, and provides psychic consulting services to individuals, businesses, and governments locally and internationally. ■



Jayson Owens and Kristi Nuna’q Williams Join Forum Board

Jayson Owens is a certified financial planner and a veteran of many boards and committees. The diversity of the Forum appeals to him as a venue to explore ideas, challenge his thinking, and create positive change. He feels the frustrations of partisan gridlock and the “partisan policy pendulum” and believes the Forum has the tools to help Alaskans overcome such obstacles.

“I believe in the Forum’s mission and I believe in the method—humans are evolved to learn through storytelling,” Jayson remarks. “I strive to strengthen community through all my relationships. I have the experience in strategic planning and fiscal management required [to serve on the board], but also I’ve traversed the spectrum of socioeconomic statuses. I’ve been part of the ‘leisure class’ at both the top and the bottom of the economic spectrum. Now I’m far more interested in what works for the most people, rather than dogma or ‘being right’.”

Also joining the Forum board is Kristi Nuna’q Williams. Kristi is an attorney, small business owner, and community advocate whose experience spans public, private, and government sectors. Kristi previously served as a member and as vice chair of the Forum board until a job change moved her away from Alaska. Now able to rejoin the board, she brings a passion to empower Alaska communities and to bring Alaskans together to create opportunities. “I’m ready to hit the ground running,” Kristi says.


Arliss Sturgulewski’s reflections on citizenship and government are preserved in one of the first round of Magnetic North films.

AKHF STAFF Ryan Ossenkop Joins Forum as VP of Operations

Born and raised in Alaska, Ryan earned his accounting degrees at the Foster School of Business in Seattle. He is a business professional who has spent the last decade working in corporate finance, public accounting, and operations management. After several years as an auditor traveling the state, Ryan most recently ran operations at the largest automotive recycling facility in Alaska, where his mission was to ensure every team member had the support necessary to thrive. Outside of work, Ryan loves the great outdoors and spending time with his wife as they introduce and share this great state with their two young children.

New “Magnetic North” Films and Discussion Guides in Production

Magnetic North is a documentary film project produced by the Alaska Humanities Forum in partnership with Rasmuson Foundation. The series explores important stories in our state’s history—stories that challenge preconceived notions of the “Last Frontier,” promote a richer understanding of its unique identity, and speak to our shared experience of life in contemporary Alaska. Told through the lens of Alaskans whose actions and ideas fundamentally shaped these stories, Magnetic North offers a deeper look into the history, identity, and values of our state.

The films are written and directed by Marla Williams, who has led filming projects in more than 100 communities across the state. Her work has appeared on national public television and other major networks.

A set of six films were completed in 2020 in the first phase of the project. Production and filming are now underway for the next phase with the creation of six more films. Each film is accompanied by a Discussion Guide designed to foster intentional conversation around the series’ themes. ■




ALASKA VERSION 3 (AK V3) is a grassroots effort interested in supporting the work of Alaskans who want to strengthen Alaska’s communities, people, and opportunities—resulting in a vibrant, self-sufficient, and globally relevant Alaska that supports its rural and urban citizens and economies for generations to come.

AK V3’s steering group meets weekly and welcomes individual and organizational guests to join the discussion. The desire is to compile, contextualize, connect, and create materials that will assist in bringing Alaskans together to explore the questions:

What is next for Alaska’s civic and market economies?

How will we get there?

Last year, AK V3 invited the Forum to partner in hosting a writing contest that would harvest community members’ fresh views and wild new ideas for what the future could look like. Those winners can be found in the Fall 2021 issue. For 2022, the contest was again open to Alaskans of all ages to submit entries exploring the prompt:

You as Alaska’s Future: What will you do to thrive in a future Alaska fundamentally altered by climate change?

Following is our winning entry from poet M.C. MoHagani Magnetek. Congratulations and thanks to all the participants who submitted entries! Learn more at


To survive future Alaska climate change Keep Calm will be my legal name Sure, it’s sweltering heatwaves in November Wildfires weekly dancing of embers damn hot will be to say the least Consider an even more daunting beast

Increased population of mosquitoes

Blocking scenic views out of windows To a world complete with poverty (Some things won’t change fundamentally).

But hey the future ain’t that dark and bleak Mental wellness and self-care for all who seek To ride and overcome the obstacles

More carpooling, folks walking and riding bicycles

To the farmers’ market for fresh produce deals

Social justice equality diversity inclusivity for real Children will appreciate their inherited planet Land acknowledgement much love for Tlingit Gender expansive queer identity is the norm

A safe place in space for this girl called Keep Calm.

From my perspective. The way I see it.

I’ll thrive because the people will absolutely adore me for providing free and guided 3-mile hiking tours accumulating in a Tai Chi retreat at the Mendenhall Glacier which will have receded another half a mile deeper into the valley. All glowed-up, I’ll be a roller derby superstar in the year 2076. Yep, I’ll be 100 years old still on 8’s and the crowd will go bananas for Keep Calm (cuz that’s my legal name) inside Juneau’s floating biodome... a floating city as a result of rising sea levels on the coastline and closed-in to meet the need for continuous protection from those damn mosquitoes. ■


Following In Her Footsteps

Iwant to tell you how I became a mom. In the fall of 2012, I completed a series of fertility tests. The last procedure was a little more than 10 years ago, and it was painful and invasive. The man I was married to made inappropriate jokes, which is what he would do when he was uncomfortable. A few days later, the doctors called me and said that I should not risk pregnancy. Being told that I shouldn’t hurt more than being told that I couldn’t.

Winter was coming and with it the snow and the darkness, and I stumbled into a deep depression. Meanwhile, my best friend was pregnant, and I tried to find catharsis in supporting her through her pregnancy. It was one of those things where you fake it till you make it, and somehow around winter solstice, I started to see the light. I worked with my mom to make the bedding and all of the decorations for my friend’s son’s nursery.

We picked out material that was blue and orange with little owls on it, and we made a quilt and a curtain and a dust ruffle for the crib. I worked with my friend’s mother-in-law to throw a baby shower. I picked up the invitations and I addressed each envelope by hand, and my friend got almost everything she needed off of that registry except for a changing table. When she was thirty-eight weeks pregnant, she asked me to go with her to Babies-R-Us. She was going to get one. As we walked back to the furniture section, we had to pass the clothing. I saw a little gray and white striped onesie with a red crab sewn across the bottom. I said to my friend, “If I ever have a son, I’d


What is something your family does or says that no one else does?

Why do family traditions matter? Or do they?

What is a behavior you accept from family that you wouldn’t put up with otherwise?

In what ways do you reinforce traditional family roles? In what ways do you challenge them?

Are you interested in bringing conversations to your community?

The Kindling Conversation program offers toolkits, springboards for discussion (like the essay here), facilitator training, conversation spark cards (the “Family” deck is sampled above), and micro-grants for hosting conversations.


want him to have that.” Of course, she knew my fertility challenges, and she knew I hardly ever talked about having children. So she was surprised. She smiled and said, “Sarah, you have to get it. You have to! It’s going to happen.” I shook my head no.

The next day, my husband and I went to church for the first time in almost a decade. We decided to go to St. Mary’s Episcopal because we’d heard it was a welcoming community. We went back the second week, feeling proud of ourselves having gone to church twice in a row. As we walked into the sanctuary, I saw a woman who appeared to be a grandmother holding an infant in a gray and white striped onesie with a red crab on it. I nudged my husband and whispered, “That’s the outfit I was telling you about.” He looked around and noted that there didn’t seem to be a mother nearby.

As the liturgy happened, I tried not to stare at that baby. Luckily, the way the sanctuary is positioned, the Chugach mountains provide the backdrop. The sun was coming over them, and the snow was melting. I tried to get lost in that beautiful landscape.

At the end of the service, the reverend was standing there giving announcements, and he called up the woman holding the baby. She came to the front holding the child in such a way that the little red crabs stared out at everybody in the congregation. He said, “Most of you know this woman, and many of you know her daughter’s situation. But what you may not know is this baby needs a home, and he needs it by Thursday. If there’s anyone here who’s interested in adopting him, will you let us know?” Tears began to stream down my face, and I didn’t want to make a sound because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. I didn’t know anyone there. I never thought my husband would do something that spontaneous. Then I felt a hand on my lap and I looked over. My husband had tears in his eyes, too, and he whispered to me, “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” I guess we figured we had nothing to lose.

So at the end of that service, we introduced ourselves. My husband asked to hold the baby, but I was too afraid to touch him. We gave them our phone number and left to go on a hike at Hatcher Pass. On the way home, my phone rang, and they wanted to interview us that evening. I’d be lying if I told you we didn’t start speeding. We got home and changed out of our hiking clothes and began vacuuming, making cookies, putting on coffee, and doing all the things adoptive families are notorious for doing to convince a birth family to give them their baby.

At last, there was a knock on my door. The birth mother and

the grandmother stood there with the infant, and we invited them into our home. They sat in the wingback chairs in my living room, while my husband and I sat on the couch across from them. I remember that the birth mom nursed, and they wanted to know who we were and what my educational background was. When I told them that I have a master’s degree in English, the birth mom lit up.

Apparently, she loved storytelling. She told me that Senator Murkowski had given her a congressional honor for being the youngest award-winning storyteller in the history of the United States. They left that day without giving us any promises whether they would pick us as the adoptive family, and I don’t have to tell you that I couldn’t sleep that night. The next morning, my husband left for work, and I stood at the sink brushing my teeth. My phone began ringing, and I knew it was the grandmother because I’d already programed her into my contacts.

I hurried to spit the toothpaste out and answer it. I began pacing around my bedroom and she wanted to make small talk, and I wanted an answer. At last, she told me that they had picked us as the adoptive family. Two days later, that little boy moved into my home, and he’s never left. In October 2023, we will celebrate our tenth adoption anniversary. He became my son, and I became his mom.

A lot has changed in our life since then. But through it all, my son’s birth mother has reiterated to me how much she values stories. In fact, when she was eight years old, she stood on the stage of the Discovery Theater at the Performing Arts Center in Anchorage to tell a story of her own. I’ve been told she came out with a red scarf around her neck and she grabbed the mic, tapped it, and said, “Is this thing on?” Once again, I followed in her steps. I too got the opportunity to stand on that same stage and tell a story — the story you are reading now.

But the truth is, I think she’s a lot braver than me. She inspired me to tell my stories. I’ll go one step further and say she even compelled me to tell my stories because I feel like I owe it to her and to our child. Now our son is finding his voice and telling his stories—and maybe one day he’ll walk out here and stand on the Discovery Theater stage, too. ■

Sarah Reynolds Westin often navigates liminal spaces and invites others to do the same. When not writing, she’s with her son, exploring the outdoors, imagining possible worlds, and reminding him of his power to shape his future. Her essays have been published in  The New York Times, Reader’s Digest, and elsewhere. This essay is an updated and revised version of “The Crab Onesie,” first presented at the October 2018 Arctic Entries.

This baby needs a home, and he needs it by Thursday.

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Shift at Williwaw Social


Two presenters take turns each sharing a radical idea. Then the audience takes part in an interactive Q&A to find connections between the two.

TICKETS are “pay-what-you-can tickets,” from $5–$30, with a suggested price of $20.


The Alaska Humanities Forum Presents: Culture Shift at Williwaw Social!

Every first Wednesday of the month 6-8pm


Radical Ideas.

Unexpected Connections. Stronger Community.

Tickets are "pay-what-you-can tickets" from $5-$30, with a suggested ticket price of $20

@MatsoninAlaska Two presenters take turns each sharing a RADICAL IDEA. Then, the audience takes part in an interactive Q&A to find connections between the two.

NUTAAQ SIMMONDS prepares to join teachers from the Creating Cultural Competence (C3) program on a snowmachine ride to Point Barrow, north of Utqiagvik. Nutaaq was a course instructor and culture bearer for the North Slope C3 program in 2022. The Alaska Humanities Forum partners with communities, Alaska Native organizations, and school districts across three rural regions to provide the C3 program. Newly hired teachers participate alongside Elders, culture bearers, local youth, and peers in cultural immersion experiences and supportive gatherings, all under the structure of a university-level multicultural studies course.


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Alaska Humanities Forum Calendar

First Wednesday of the month

Culture Shift

6–8 p.m.

Williwaw Social

Radical ideas, unexpected connections, stronger community—join us for Culture Shift, a monthly series hosted by Alaska Humanities Forum hosted at Williwaw Social. Two speakers share their radical ideas, while the audience competes to find a question that connects them. Buy tickets at

April 7, 14, 21, & 28

The Art of Powerful Questions

9 a.m.–11:30 a.m.


Register now for The Art of Powerful Questions, a highly interactive and experiential workshop that is held in a series of four 2.5 hour sessions. Participants can expect to hone their questioning skills and gain new insights about real dilemmas they are facing in their personal and professional lives. Register at

April 4 & 5

Leading Conversations that Build Community

8:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.

Alaska Humanities Forum Offices

How can we design satisfying conversations that connect us not just in spite of difference but because of difference? How can we convene people in ways that allow their intelligence, creativity, and unique perspective to shine? Join the Alaska Humanities Forum for a two-day workshop to discover the answers together! Over two days, participants will join reflective discussions in large and small groups and learn techniques to lead them. All participants have the opportunity to plan and facilitate a conversation and receive feedback from trainers and other participants. Register at

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