Coffee with Ethel: An Alaska Native leader looks back

When Ethel Lund invited me into her Douglas home, I was expecting a lesson in the Tlingit language or Native land rights or health care reform or how to do a cartwheel on an old gymnasium floor.

 

Lund has done all those things, some better than others. What I didn’t expect was to fall in love.

Lund, now 84 and showing the effects of Parkinson’s disease, is as vibrant, entertaining and intelligent as when she wore the red and black colors of the Wrangell High School Wolves.

“I never took too much time to think about my life,” Lund said. “I was just too busy living it. It was like a dramatic opera, some highs and lows.”

Born Nov. 4, 1931 to Tlingit Martha Ukas and Swede Carl Lund, Lund is Raven Moiety, Kiks.ádi Clan (Frog), Sun House, and her Tlingit name is Aanwoogex’ Shtoo.aak. Her father died in a fishing accident when she was 3. Her grandparents tried to take his place: Tom Ukas was a well-known Tlingit carver, and his wife, Josephine, was a charter member of the Alaska Native Sisterhood, founded in 1915.

Lund recalls an immense freedom growing up in Wrangell, a busy community with three salmon canneries that her grandparents and uncles would travel to for work.

“Most of our parents were working and we didn’t have a baby sitter. As 5-year-olds we would just walk all over the place, but it was really true that the whole town looked out for you. We had a sense of safety and innocence, like that old TV series ‘Happy Days.’”

That would be a good thing, as at age 5 Lund and other little ones wandered down to the town dock and Lund tried getting into a row boat. Instead, she fell into the water.

“I remember going down and down,” Lund said. “But it was pretty; the sunlight was coming through the water. The colors were so amazing.”

A fisherman passing by grabbed a pike pole, fished her out and gave her a stern talking to.

“We had a sense we could go where we wanted,” Lund said.

Her grandfather told her that if she saw a bear to just tell it she would not eat all his berries and to never run. While picking berries for breakfast one morning, Lund, then 7, bent to drink from a stream. Across the current a bear was doing the same. She took off running.

Lund has always had a thirst for knowledge. Her grandmother, as a way of punishment, used to say that if Lund didn’t behave she couldn’t go to school the next day.

“I remember the November I turned 5 I was so excited I could go to first grade that I ran all the way. I used to have a love of learning that I still have today,” she said.

She was a skinny and quiet girl in grade school who loved to play and skip rocks at the beach.

“We found all kinds of wonderful things. Crabs and in pools of water there were all kinds of fish. We made mud pies and found driftwood and built houses,” she said.

At age 14 her mother died of tuberculosis, an illness that would later come to shape Lund’s life.

While in high school Lund did something that’s not common in Alaska. She played on the Wrangell girls’ basketball team and was a cheerleader for the boys’ basketball team.

Basketball was a part of life there, Lund said. “There was always a game, there was always kids just throwing it into some kind of hoop.”

As a junior and senior she was a “Yell Queen,” a position high on the social ladder, selected by the student body. Their tricks included rolling cans of tobacco snoose across the floor when playing the Petersburg Vikings. Their top cheer was “G’hee, g’haa, g’haa ha ha. Wrangell High School rah rah rah.”

As a senior, the girls’ basketball team, then called the Wrangell Wolverines, was the southern champions of the Panhandle.

Lund remembers traveling by fishing boat to Ketchikan for the tournament and being so sea sick the teams could hardly play.

“The boys’ team sent us a dozen roses. We were flabbergasted because nobody ever did something like that,” she said.

Lund graduated as class valedictorian in 1949 and went to work at the orthopedic hospital at Mt. Edgecumbe to earn money for college.

The patients there, children from all over Alaska, had tuberculosis. The doctor’s loving care and the nurses’ positive attitudes impressed Lund.

“They would travel through Alaska and bring little children back,” Lund said. “... The kids were there for six months and after surgery they were strapped to a board until they healed enough for physical therapy.”

She said that’s what made her decide to go into physical therapy. The children “were so brave. Most had come from up north and hadn’t seen forests. They were taken away from their homes at ages 5, 6, 7, up to teenagers and put in a strange environment and eating strange food. I was just loved working with them.”

Lund was accepted to a physical therapy school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and at UCLA but her priest and family felt she wasn’t prepared for the big city and suggested a nursing degree.

“I didn’t want to,” Lund said. “I had seen so much death with tuberculosis.”

A family doctor convinced her she would be there to prevent death and Lund went to the Good Samaritan Hospital of Nursing in Portland, Oregon.

In her first year of schooling, the disease that had drawn her in also afflicted her.

Lund was in the Cushman Indian Hospital in Tacoma, Washington, for a year and a half, including six months on bed rest. She searched for some sort of meaning behind this.

“I couldn’t even get out of bed to go for a walk,” Lund said. “I was upset that I couldn’t do what I had wanted to. I just thought life was simple, if you were good and did good things it would work out for you because of good intentions. I have had several serious discussions with God over the years.”

Grandpa Tom Ukas would say that the things you don’t understand and are angry about would make you strong.

“I came to the point where I would ask God how strong I had to be before I keep getting these lessons,” Lund said.

She read and studied books and got better. Told not to return to school for at least a year after recovery, Lund couldn’t wait and was back in six months. Her tuberculosis returned and she spent another year in the hospital.

When she was released the second time, she took classes to be a nurse receptionist and married in 1954. She and her husband had four children: David, Steven, Diane and Leah Comer. All but Diane have since passed. The family moved from Washington state to Wrangell in the late 1960s. But her husband couldn’t find work and returned down south.

“That was the beginning of the end of our marriage,” she said.

Lund stayed in Wrangell and became more deeply involved in Alaska Native and health care issues.

“I became aware, not only in my home town, but in the villages that there were needs,” she said.

At an Alaska Native Brotherhood/Alaska Native Sisterhood convention, Lund volunteered to be on a health committee.

In 1970, she took the first of many trips to Washington, D.C., to speak to members of Congress about the need for health care.

“My first trip there were so many tribal groups and my heart was just touched,” Lund said. “They were begging for money. I just thought that was wrong but they had such a need.”

She helped found the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, now one of the largest Native-run health care organizations in the country. Her work, and that of the consortium, which she began leading as president in 1977, in Juneau, caught the attention of Congressman Lloyd Meads, of Washington, one of the drafters of the Indian Self Determination Act. He offered to help, and advised the organization’s leaders on significant people to work with, but refused to speak on their behalf.

“He wanted us to do it ourselves,” Lund said. “Which I thought was a good thing.”

Lund’s first test was speaking before the Indian committee, testifying on behalf of a health aide program.

“I did a really poor job,” Lund said. “I got my name right.”

“In the middle of my speech my nose started running, I was so nervous. I didn’t know whether to wipe it on my sleeve or take out a Kleenex,” she said. “I said ‘Excuse me’ and blew my nose.”

Over time, Lund worked closely with then-U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens. When Lund retired from SEARCH in 2000, she brought Stevens a book in D.C.

“I knew this was the last time I would see him and I told him he was truly my hero,” Lund said. “As soon as I said that I was embarrassed but he kind of ignored that and remarked, ‘Well, why are you leaving? There is still a lot of work to do.’ We spent a lot of time with him over the years.”

A highlight was in 1984 with the two-year completion of the Memorandum of Agreement for Indian Health Services.

A celebration was held in D.C. to thank Stevens and other senators.

The various tribes on the board brought with them Native delicacies.

“Smoked salmon, of course, and dry salmon,” Lund said. “And seaweed and muktuk. We watched the senators as they politely took a little bit and the expression on their faces. It was a highlight for us. Some politely wanted to get rid of it but didn’t know how.”

A bigger celebration was in Juneau in 1985 when SEARHC assumed management of the service unit in Southeast.

Lund designed a flag with a devils club on it to replace the United States public health flag.

“I just was very emotional,” Lund said. “I didn’t think anything about it. We just needed a flag.”

The flag has changed but the devils club remains.

“The devils club is a powerful plant,” Lund said.

She considers herself fortunate to have lived the life she has. In 1984 she was named Woman of the Year by the Juneau Chapter of the Business and Professional Women, becoming the first Alaska Native woman to receive the honor. In 2008 SEARHC renamed its Juneau clinic in her honor. In 2011 she received the Shirley Demientieff Award at the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention, an honor awarded by the governor for advocacy on behalf of Alaskan Native women and children.

As Lund spoke about her past, her body trembled slightly, her hands emphasizing each word unintentionally.

“My memory is going,” she said. “This summer I was fighting depression. I see those pictures of people running up on the ridges and that is what I love to do. I love to climb.”

Her favorite place to hike is on Mount Jumbo.

“I liked to go in June because there are all kinds of flowers and those little marmots,” Lund said. “I like those little pink Shooting Stars.”

It has been seven years since she has been on a “real” hike, not just strolling, and it was the Treadwell Ditch Trail leading toward Jumbo.

She’s still a sports fan, and knew my name from my work as sports editor of the Juneau Empire.

“I cut out all your columns,” she said. “I love your sense of humor.”

Lund was once approached by a student who wanted to interview an elder, a term she thinks is used too loosely.

“Just because you have gray hair doesn’t mean you even understand your own life,” Lund said. “It doesn’t mean you have learned the lessons of life. You may not have the wisdom that people expect. I think some do, but even a younger person can be called an elder because it is not defined by age but by knowledge and being able to share that knowledge to the benefit of your community. Gray hair doesn’t mean you have learned the lessons of life.”

For Lund, those lessons include an essential truth, gleaned from 84 full years.

“All religions have the same basic truth, a belief, and they have different names for it. They all have the basic teaching but a different way of expressing it,” she said. “I have come to the conclusion there is one basic being, or powerful force, that we don’t fully understand but the basic teachings of it are that we are here to help each other and love.”

 

• Klas Stolpe, who grew up in Petersburg, is sports editor of the Juneau Empire. He can be reached at klas.stolpe@gmail.com

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