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History and Culture

Home  >  History and Culture  >  Cultural Heritage
Elder Interview with Alberta Stephan

Leslie Hsu Oh, Interviewer
Anchorage, Alaska

Alberta Stephan is author of several books on the traditional lifestyle of Dena'ina Athabascan. In 1994, she wrote a recipe book on how to prepare traditional Dena'ina Athabascan salmon. Two years later, in 1996, she wrote The First Athabascans of Alaska, followed in 2000 by Cheda, a story about her grandmother. Alberta was born in Whitney, Alaska, (about three miles from Anchorage) in a tent. She and her family lived along upper Cook Inlet, following a subsistence way of life (traditional uses of fish and game which includes food, clothing, fuel, transportation, construction, home goods, sharing, trade, ceremony, arts and crafts). Her grandfather, Chief Ezi, was the last recognized chief of the upper Cook Inlet area, and her grandmother came from Copper Center.

Alberta preserves the Athabascan culture by sharing stories about her tradition and the history of her people at various schools and public functions. She has held multiple jobs, ranging from Native Arts instructor at Southcentral Foundation's Quyana Clubhouse, serving as committee member for the Alaska Native Heritage Center, and joining the "Dena'ina Team" of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Alberta earned an Education Degree from the Anchorage Community College in 1976, and currently resides in Anchorage.

Who are your parents?
My grandma and grandpa had a large family. Five of them became adults. Only two of them had children: my uncle and my dad. My dad was always busy working. He got deaf in his early 1930s. I couldn't converse with him. His name was Pedro Esi. Somewhere along the line, the Russians or employers changed to Pete and Ezi. My mother's name was Christina Stephen. She was born and raised as Christina Stephen. But when she got to the orphanage (later the Eklutna Vocational School) in Tyonek, there was maybe about two other girls who had the same name. So they changed her name to Ruth Ross. It doesn't even sound Athabascan.

What's a favorite memory from your childhood?
My grandmother used to babysit me a lot. I talk about it in my book Cheda. I harass her all the time, take me for walks and stuff like that. I was just like my little great-granddaughter that spends the weekend with us sometimes. She is three years old. That's the way I was. I was curious about other things. She take me out there and show me different birds and tell me what they are saying.

How did you start writing?
I started school at the age of seven at the Eklutna Vocational School-that school was moved away 1945. I started reading a weekly reader, like a newspaper, learning about all parts of the world. Books are something I really enjoy. In 1992, they had a Historian Training through efforts of tribal council at Eklutna. That was just before my brother passed away. My son took over my brother's office and he says, "Do you want to go through these papers to see if there's things we need? Things we can throw away?" So I spent a couple days doing that.

Later, when we were going to Historian Training classes, I went to library and couldn't find anything written about our culture at all. I couldn't find anything written about other cultures, except those written by explorers, people who were mapping out Alaska. They wrote diaries. So, I wrote First Athabascans of Alaska. It's about how the Athabascans live before contact. We always, my mom and dad, relatives, all lived traditional way. Just lately, they are living in houses, running water. Always have to go to fish camp and put up fish. It wasn't on paper, so that's why I wrote it. The books are thin, but it covers a lot of territory. Cheda is my grandmother's story, she has quite a story, so I wrote hers. My story, I'll let my children write my story.

What's your next book?

Parenting.

How were you inspired to write?
It was something that I had to do. Something that nobody else had done. My generation, my own cousins, say we don't need that, but it's important to know, it's important to pass it on. If someone took away all the vehicles and stores, it is important to know how people lived and what they had to do. Not long ago there was a snow slide this side of Girdwood, and trucks couldn't get in. People were running out of food. There's moose walking around all over the place and rabbits, but they don't know how to get them. It's important to know how to survive without modern conveniences.

What jobs have you held?
I have worked as a Native Arts Instructor at Southcentral Foundation's Quyana Clubhouse for four years. I spoke on survival skills and taught bead sewing. I have been involved in EPA since 1994. I also participated in Anthropology work to make sure everybody knows where the Natives lived. We have a group called the "Denaina Team." I have been involved as a committee member for the Alaska Native Heritage Center. It is my goal to make sure that the Athabascan culture is adequately told and that it be known that we were here all around Cook Inlet for many years.

What was the most interesting job?
Working with the Native Village of Eklutna. Mostly I'm showing them how to do this and that. We have summer camps for the kids. One year, we had other kids from the Interior. There was a camp sending down 60 children everyday. We had to talk to them, you know, and took the children to see plants, fishing, tours of Archeology sites and churches. For three days, we had 60 kids a day. A lot of people in the North are doing it now. They all got those things going.

What I like mostly is working among my own people. I spent four years at Behavioral Health, Quyana House, teach them job skills. I was teaching beading and things like that, things that they could sell. I tried to teach some of my kids. My granddaughter picked it up so easily. It's a good skill to fall back on. If you make a necklace or earrings, you got money. That's what I'm getting across to them. You can find ways to make money. They have a beading class, a women's group at Eklutna and one at Southcentral Foundation I think it's Tuesday evening. The Heritage Center also has classes on beading and skin sewing and stuff like that.

How do you spend your day?
I like to do things myself. I don't like to depend on anybody. I don't want to be obligated to someone to give me a ride or anything.

What do you like most about your job?

I think what I like most is to know, what makes me feel good, is to know that I have done somebody some good by telling them something. One person I know getting me to speak in front of people says, "Every time you speak, I learn something new." That's what I want to know. I want to know that I'm not just talking for nothing. That's the satisfaction I get out of what I do.

What do you like least about your job?

People trying to tell me what to do.

How do you know what you are called to do?
You have to watch a kid for a while and see what they are interested in. Some kids, you give them paper and pencil and they are real good artists. They can draw things. Everybody is good at something, but they don't know it. Some people are good at public relations. But like me, a lot of people don't want to be told what to do.

So, how do you know whether you found the right job?
Well for instance, my granddaughter she lived with me for two years, her and her little boy. Her little boy was eight, I think, when they come live with me. She didn't like it when I get him to help. Now, she understands why I did what I did. Now, he is willing to help all the time. It's just the two of them. She, well, in the beginning, she has an older sister and a mother. She was always waiting for them to tell her what to do. She didn't have individuality. She didn't have the goals for her that they did. And they were telling her what to do. I told her, you can always say no. All you have to do is make up your own mind. You gonna do something. You are in charge of yourself. She took driver's training. Oh, she had a hard time with that driving instructor. Sometimes she come back home ready to cry. But she was determined to get her driving license. Day she went to take her test, she says, "I'm not going to pass. I'll fail, I know." I said, "Well with that kind of attitude it's not going to work. You go in there with the attitude that you are going to pass it. You are going to get your license. That's what you are after. If you say you are going to fail, you are going to fail." She came back and said, "I passed!" The driver apologized to her for being so mean about it. He said, "You have to do it under stress, that's why I was doing that."

Eventually, she's working everywhere. She runs a youth group and runs the women's group. She says, "Now, I know that I'm working for my people. I like my job. I'm happy." That's what it took. Get a hold of her and say, "You can say no. You can make up your own mind what you want to do." That's what I'm doing with the other kids.

Did you ever have a mentor? If yes, what did he/she/they contribute to your life?
I learned a few things from everybody. I learned most things by experience. Actually, my mentor throughout the last fifty years is my ex, my children's father. He said, "The past is gone. It's never gonna come back." I really like that. I learned a lot from the Bible too.

Do you have any advice you'd like to offer?
I have a large family. Togetherness. We stay together by having special dinners, birthdays. That's the way we build togetherness. They always have something on Mother's Day. We have a cookout or something. My birthday is in September. So, we always got together on those days. If they don't show up, they better have a good reason, you know. That's one way to build togetherness so that children don't get separated, you know, and start living their own lives like I don't need you anymore. They don't do that in my family. My family is the only one that I see that really has a lot of respect for their parents and they are always concerned about each other. That's the way to live, you know. And we do that by always getting together often.

We were always real broke and poor when my kids were growing up. We had to wear hand-me-downs. My daughter says, "How come we always have to wear old clothes? And how come we can't have new things? How come this and that?" Okay, there is no way I can answer that except we can't afford it. But, at that time, there was a neighborhood group called "neighborhood youth corp." My oldest daughter was already working there. My second daughter got a job. They gave me a choice, where do you want her to work: in the hospital or they name another place. I said the hospital. After school, she could go there and work there. One day, she came home and said, "Mom, this little baby had all burned skin." Other times, "This little boy has no foot or something like that." She quit complaining about new clothes. That's an experience I like people to know about. Children have to see things for themselves.

Another thing I tell everybody about raising children is "Don't downgrade each other in front of your children. Don't say bad things about other people, because that's the way they are going to be." Children, maybe even two, three, four years old, pick up on things like that. My daughter adopted a little boy. Right away, I told them teach him things right now. He is only two, three years old. Teach good habits. All these things I had to learn the hard way. I learned by experience. Soon as they start talking or moving around, wash before they eat, put your garbage where it belongs, stuff like that. Another thing, put their toys away. That little boy, I talked to my daughter and her husband about that right away, teach him good habits now and he won't give you a hard time. So when they say they are going home, he puts all his toys away. He's already doing it. Get them used to books, numbers. This is one, two. Won't be such a shock when they go to school.

Right now, I'm pushing the fact that your mind is the strongest tool you have in your body. Treat other people the way you want to be treated.
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