In honor of Celebration, here is a look at a few people who left a big impact on the Alaska Native community before “walking into the forest” this past year:
Elaine Abraham (June 19,1929 – May 16, 2016)
Elaine Abraham is said to have been the first Tlingit registered nurse.
She was born and raised in Yakutat. Her father was a clan leader and she was raised in a traditional Tlingit household in which her first language was Tlingit, according to the Alaska Dispatch News. She was Naa Tláa (clan mother) of the Yéil Naa (Raven Moeity), K’ineix Kwáan (people of the Copper River Clan) from the Tsisk’w Hit (Owl House).
She studied nursing in Arizona and returned to Alaska to work for the Indian Health Service in Bethel, Sitka and Anchorage. She worked at Sitka’s Mount Edgecumbe Hospital and helped organized the Southeast Health Aide Program, which became the model for the statewide Alaska Native Health Aide Program.
She held various positions at Sheldon Jackson College, developed the Tlingit and Haida Language Teachers Training program and helped in the creation of the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska.
John Borbridge Jr. (July 15, 1926 – May 9, 2016)
John Borbridge Jr. was elected first full-time president of Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska in 1967.
Born and raised in Juneau, Borbridge’s Tlingit name was Duk saa.aat’. He was Raven L’uknax.ádi (Coho clan) from the Frog House and Wooshkeetaan yadi.
In a memoriam posting, Central Council hailed Borbridge for his involvement with the tribe during the start of its Six Point Plan in the 1960s to protect federal funding and his efforts to settle the Alaska Native Land Claims.
Then-Gov. Walter J. Hickel appointed Borbridge to the Land Claims Task Force, which helped lead to the inclusion of Southeast Alaska in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
Later, Borbridge was elected as the first president and chairman of Sealaska Corporation’s Board of Directors, serving from 1972 to 1978.
Jolene Belle Edenshaw (August 10, 1964 – April 26, 2016)
Jolene Edenshaw was 4th Vice President of Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska and an artist.
Known by many as “Mama Jo,” Edenshaw was Haida Eagle born in Ketchikan. Her Haida name was L’aáquunaa Jada Hungii Haáns.
According to Central Council, Edenshaw was a public servant in Hydaburg for most of her adult life. She cared deeply about her community and dedicated her time to helping others through her work by serving on various boards throughout her life.
She represented Hydaburg Cooperative Association as a Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium board member, serving as Chairwoman from 2011 to 2012. Edenshaw was also Executive Director of SEARHC’s 1 is 2 Many Suicide Prevention Task Force.
Other public service included Inter-Island Ferry Board, Haida Corporation President/Director, City of Hydaburg City Council, Hydaburg City School President and Alaska Native Sisterhood.
Edward J. Gamble Sr. (May 4, 1935 – Feb. 20, 2016)
Edward Gamble was a founding member of Kootznoowoo, the village corporation for Angoon. Gamble served on Kootznoowoo’s board until 1996. In 1999, he was reelected to the board and served until the day he died.
Born in Angoon, Gamble was T’leneidi (Dog Salmon Nation) from Anxha Kee Hit (Central House). His Tlingit name was Kutgeak.
According to a bio from his family, Gamble served in the 82nd Airborne Division of the United States Army. When he returned to Angoon, he served on the city council for more than 20 years and was the mayor of Angoon in 1984 to 1987. Gamble was also a councilman on the Angoon Community Association and a president of ANB Camp 7.
Helen Watkins (Nov. 16, 1939 – Feb. 9, 2016)
Helen Ann Watkins’ traditional knowledge on processing natural resources was seemingly endless. Her areas of expertise included devil’s club, red seaweed, smoked salmon, salmon caviar, aged salmon heads, soapberry meringue, salmon berries, raspberries, blueberries, currants, huckleberries, high bush cranberries, thimbleberries, hooligan oil, seal oil and seal meat.
Watkins was born in Haines, raised in Haines and Klukwan, and spent her adult life in Juneau. She was a Chilkat Eagle Tlingit of the Shangukeidi Clan from the Thunderbird House, Kaawdiyaayi Hit in Klukwan.
Watkins often gave presentations in the Juneau School District, throughout the community and helped with different cultural camps to share her traditional knowledge. She spent many years with Tlingit and Haida Head Start as a cook and a teacher; she later worked at REACH and volunteered at the Glory Hole Shelter and Soup Kitchen.
For this year’s Celebration, Sealaska Heritage Institute dedicated the soapberry contest to Watkins. She competed in every contest since its inception. It is taking place Friday, June 10, 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center.