'Be good to each other' (and share a virtual coffee)

Tonya Garnett (at left) and Didder Tritt are both Gwich’in Athabaskan from Vashraii K'oo (Arctic Village) in the Eastern Interior of Alaska. They’re the co-founders of “But We're So Happy," a Facebook page designed to create laughter and promote healing through humor. (Photo courtesy of But We're So Happy)

Joaqlin Estus

'Wash your hands like you just dumped the honey bucket!'

Didder Tritt and her friend Tonya Garnett crack each other up. Both are Gwitch’in Athabascan from Vashraii K'oo or Arctic Village, in eastern Alaska.

They swap videos -- “But we’re so happy” where they chat and laugh. They share lists.

-- “Things that make us crabby: Skinny people who say they forgot to eat.

-- “Top Five Rules of Life.” Rule number four, says Tritt, “If you’re feeling down, Google videos of Oprah or Mr. Rogers, ‘cause they know everything, and they are guaranteed to brighten up your day, put things into perspective.”

Garnett agreed, “I love Oprah. I love Oprah.” She called in a lovelorn voice, “Oprah, if you’re watching, I love you!”

Social media in a world of social distancing.

Recently about a hundred people joined an on-line get-together for stories and words of encouragement during the COVID-19 pandemic. The virtual “Coffee Time,” was hosted by First Alaskans Institute, an Anchorage-based Alaska Native nonprofit.

Elders and other guests told stories, joked, called on the strength of Alaska Native people in the face of adversity. Myths about COVID-19 were debunked. Speakers reminded participants of the importance of traditional values, tools that have always helped Alaska Natives survive through hard times, including the Influenza pandemic of 1918.

First Alaskans Institute, the host of the virtual get-together, invited people via Facebook with these words: “Let’s be good to each other during these strange times and claim some space for our calmness, steadfastness and our stories.”

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Rev. Trimble Gilbert, Gwitch'in Athabascan, tells stories of the resilience of Alaska Native people. (Photo courtesy of First Alaskans Institute)

Dr. Rev. Traditional Chief Trimble Gilbert, also Gwich’in Athabascan from Vashraii K'oo, said when he was growing up elders often would say to always be ready for big, sudden changes. Gilbert said COVID-29 “changed our way of life in a minute … everything changed, the way of life, because of the virus.”

Gilbert said he’s getting phone calls from young people who don't know what they can do to help.

“It's hard to answer,” he said. “Many people out there, homeless, sick people and a lot of them, they don't even have a place, no where.”

The long-time Episcopal minister said, “I believe that God can heal us through our food. You can heal yourself too. Make sure you eat your own food.” He said animals who survive the cold are healthy, “good food. That's just like medicine for us.”

Shaagunastaa Bob Sam, Tlingit, is a storyteller, ancestor caretaker, and a tribal council member for Sitka Tribe of Alaska, of Sheet'-Ká or Sitka in Southeast Alaska. He remembers being discouraged at the challenges facing Native people. He said he would hear a story from an elder, a story with hope at the end. "We need to talk in the right way. They [people] all need comfort, good words," Sam said.

He told a story of the wind getting cold, being shut out by humans, then getting taken in by a shell on the seashore. He said, today when you hold a shell to your ear, you can hear the whisper of the wind in his home.

“All of us survived the cold, cold wind,” said Sam. “So we are all the same. Take care of each other. Take care of each other. Remember the elders this morning. We are in the same boat.”

“Say good things about each other," continued Sam. "And forgive. Forgiveness is so important. If we hurt somebody. If we said harsh things about them, forgive them. It is so important to send good energy to our people.”

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Valerie Nurr'araaluk Davidson, Yup'ik pointed out the black and white photo at the top left of her grandparents. Davidson said the couple had nine children but only four survived. (Screenshot by Joaqlin Estus, Indian Country Today)

Valerie Nurr'araaluk Davidson, Yup'ik, was recently named president of Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage. She is also a trustee for the First Alaskans Institute, former Lt. Governor, and former commissioner fpr the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. She's held leadership positions in statewide and regional tribal health organizations. She's also served in policy making roles on the national level. She’s from Mamterilleq or Bethel in western Alaska.

But in this conversation she’s a storyteller.

“This is the time to celebrate our ancestors,” said Davidson. “They made it through. We’re fishermen, we’re hunters, we’re gatherers. We share what we have with others and that’s what’s going to help us.”

She debunked myths, one being that the media is making too much of the threat of COVID-19. “This isn’t overblown. The danger is not being exaggerated,” Davidson said people may feel fine, but have the disease and pass it on to people who may get seriously ill.

She spelled out how many people live in Alaska and how many hospital beds there are in the state.

“Even if only one half of one percent of Alaskans require hospitalization … one out of three people would have to be turned away at the hospital because they just can't handle that number of people," Davidson said. "So this is really serious. It is bad and we need to take it seriously."

“So the other thing I heard that's not true is, ‘well, this is a conspiracy’… That's not true,” Davidson said. “It's not about elections. It's not about politics. It's about keeping people alive.”

“We know a lot of folks who are saying, ‘why are people so worried?’ And one of the reasons is just one generation ago, my mother's generation, we lost half of our population,” Davidson said.

She pointed to a photo on the wall of her grandparents. “In their time they had nine kids and only four of them lived. And so it's really, really important to share their story. My mother was one of the four who lived and she has heard she and her sisters survived because they were really good hand washers. All of those ladies are really good hand washers and so I am extra vigilant.”

In the thirty villages in Alaska that lack running water and flush toilets, people use five-gallon "honey buckets" as toilets. So Davidson preaches … “wash your hands like you just dumped the honey bucket!”

Then she returned to debunking myths.

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Notes from Valerie Nurr'araaluk Davidson's talk. (Photo courtesy of First Alaskans Institute)

Davidson said a label on a bottle of cleanser bought years ago stating “this kills coronavirus,” is not evidence of a conspiracy. She said coronavirus is a bigger group of viruses that has been around a while and now includes COVID-19, which is new. This coronavirus has a higher infection rate, a higher hospitalization rate, and a higher death rate, explained Davidson.

Also, she said using a hair dryer to heat your nostrils and sinuses won’t kill the virus, nor will a steam bath. A salt water gargle may make your throat feel better but it doesn’t kill COVID-19.

The "Virtual Coffee Time,” was hosted by First Alaskans Institute, a statewide Alaska Native nonprofit focused on advancing Alaska Natives for the next 10,000 years. The institute used Facebook to invite people to the virtual "tea time, mug up, or ol' fashion story time," to "hold each other up, just as our Ancestors always did.” In the face of concern and stress related to COVID-19, the invite stated “let’s be good to each other during these strange times and claim some space for our calmness, steadfastness and our stories.”

The virtual gathering began with some songs, including “You Are My Sunshine,” in Tlingit, performed by Lgeik'i Heather Powell, Tlingit, Ojibwe, of Xunáa or Hoonah.

Institute director Elizabeth Medicine Crow wrapped it up by saying “Thankfulness, gratitude, kindness, how powerful it is to be able to hear these stories of our people. It’s always the right time and always the good way to do it from a place of love, and holding our community up, and remembering where we come from and how much we have to give.”

(Check out: Indian Country Today's COVID-19 syllabus)

Didder Tritt and Tonya Garnett have other ideas, too. How about a dating website? Notyourcousin.com could be in partnership with Ancestry DNA because, Garnett said, “we’re all not sure if we aren’t cousins … you never know.”

“I know my Mom pulled that, ‘He’s your cousin,’ before. And lots of times he wasn’t,” said Tritt.

They discussed ways to make money at notyourcousin.com and decided it’d be smart to charge $9.99 a month. But “If you can’t afford that,” Garnett said, “in lieu of payment, we will accept …”

“Dry meat,”

“Smoked salmon,”

“Half-dried salmon,”

“Pilot Bread crackers,” (a flat dry cracker popular in Alaska and almost nowhere else),

“Spam,”

“Adam Beach’s phone number…”

On the fictitious site notyourcousin.com, they would have a “Snag of the Week." And they'd list body-type options that include “long back, no butt,” but leave out “skinny.” And they’d offer pick-up lines to start a conversation, “What’s your favorite pull-tab?”

They also have a video called, “Native Pick-up Lines,” in which Garnett plays the guy.

“I got a house.”

“Oooh! You got a snow-go [snow-machine]?”

“No, just snowshoes ... You want to shack up?”

“You lost me at snowshoes.”

Garnett told one story that makes her especially proud.

“So my grandpa, called Louis, lives in Arctic Village and he's 82,” Garnett said. “A couple days ago, when everything really started getting serious and quarantine started coming down from the government,” he went up a nearby mountain and shot three caribou for the village.

She said elders always used to say, “In times of trouble, go back to the land. And that's exactly what he did. An 82-year-old elder went out on his own to get caribou and came back to the village to provide … And that has everything to do with our culture, we share.”

“In a time of crisis there's still always beautiful stories coming out of the people. How people help one another. Going out there and hunting, of people finding their faith and strengthening their faith and trying to be proactive, villagers preparing,” Garnett said.

“I’ve seen the helpers. There’s really beauty in this tragedy and that's the biggest thing I've seen is there's so much,” Garnett said. “We really think that [the pandemic is] having us slow down and see what's important to us, what's important to you.”

Garnett said someday people will look back and tell stories about the COVID-19 pandemic.

“What kind of stories do you want to have?” she asked. “What kind of stories do you want your kids to have?” She advised people to make a good family time out of working from home and having kids out of school.

Then, in a mock serious tone, she said, “One of the most important things is to get on birth control, right now,” and mentioned "corona babies."

Laughing, Garnett went on, “And that brings us to our next topic: humor. That is, humor has always brought us through everything. It's part of our cultural values. Don't forget to laugh.” She said these are scary times, not to be taken lightly. But, “just don't forget laughter. That's the best medicine that will get us through this.”

Updated to show the official name of Vashraii K'oo is Arctic Village, and to add "half-dried" salmon to the list of payment options for the fictional website notyourcousin.com.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist. 

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