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Honoring Alutiiq Elders: Florence Pestrikoff inspires younger generations

by Dr. Alisha Agisaq Drabek, second language Alutiiq speaker and learner

Celebrating our Elders is an important value in the Native community. The Alutiiq language movement has relied heavily on the expertise and commitment of many fluent Elders. For this week’s article, I’d like to recognize Florence Pestrikoff for her contributions to Alutiiq language education.

While Florence likes to say she became involved in Alutiiq language revitalization “accidentally,” her father’s efforts in cultural revitalization paved the way for her significant contributions. For the past 20 years, Florence has remained an active Alutiiq speaker, teacher and Elder advisor.

Florence was born in Akhiok in 1937, through her birth certificate says Alitak. Akhiok was called Alitak when Pestrikoff was a child, to distinguish it from Akiak, a village on the mainland, where Akhiok’s mail frequently ended up by mistake in those days. During her childhood in Akhiok, Pestrikoff observed and absorbed the local wisdom, which became the foundation of her own ethical compass and life philosophy: independence and self-reliance. Her strength of conviction has sustained her throughout her life and continues as a central pillar in the Alutiiq cultural renaissance.

Born to Larry Matfay and Martha Naumoff Matfay, the Matfay family, along with other Akhiok villagers, depended on themselves for food. In the spring and summer the whole family engaged in subsistence activities. Pestrikoff recalls, “We did a lot of subsistence, for our table—wild, natural foods: reindeer, duck, seal, fish, clams, berries.” In the winter, Larry Matfay earned a living trapping fox. While Florence embraces Alutiiq traditions, she also appreciates modern conveniences. She explains that, “People say they want to return to the old days—I say, ‘You go ahead.’” Rather, she emphasizes the importance of bridging both the modern world with Alutiiq traditions. For example, she points out the healthfulness of the traditional Alutiiq diet, stating that “The [American] diet now is bad for you. Fast foods, once in a while, for a change, are okay—but we ate a lot of baked and boiled foods. We lived by the seasons.” She still enjoys traditional Alutiiq foods and the health benefits this lifestyle brings.

As a young girl, Florence was taught the skills to live self-sufficiently. “We learned how to bake and we learned crafts: knitting, crocheting—my mom had a hand sewing machine. She taught me how to embroider and darn. We made a lot of homemade cakes when we had eggs. The woodstove was the only source of heat. We hand washed clothes on the washboard and carried our water on wash day. It was an all day job. We’d hang clothes out on the line all year long. Clothes would freeze dry in the winter!” Florence admits that while they were learning to be independent, in Akhiok they were also spared many negative, outside influences—something youth today must be vigilant to guard against. “Everything was just set. There was no turning this way or that—no fads.”

Florence advocates for choosing a role model as a means of improving oneself. She learned this from her father, who told her to always be a “people watcher. ‘Study people.’” She explains, “Those were my dad’s words. He watched people to see how their choices affected them. To his last illness, when he couldn’t sleep, he’d sit in his chair beside his bed and he’d think, ‘I want to do such or such.’ His last work was improving the porch for my mom. He was always improving himself.”

Pestrikoff took his advice to heart when she was approached to help teach the Alutiiq language. She didn’t grow up speaking the language, as the BIA schools discouraged students from speaking Alutiiq. “My family was always wanting me to do the right thing and learn the English language. We could speak Alutiiq at home, but we didn’t. My mom and dad did, and other kids in Akhiok did.” So while Pestrikoff heard and understood the language in her childhood, she didn’t speak it and felt unqualified to participate when Alutiiq language revitalization efforts began. Despite her self-doubt, Archaeologist Philomena Knecht encouraged her. “I thought, ‘I can’t do this. I don’t know how,’ but she pushed and pushed me.” Florence began by using the Chugach Alutiiq literature to learn to read and speak simple phrases. “When it came time to do the sentence, I thought, ‘How would I do that?’ When I learned the alphabet, that’s when the light came on. I like doing it very much now.”

While there were early Alutiiq language teachers during Russian colonization, Florence co-taught the first organized Alutiiq language classes in Kodiak. She has been a central force in Alutiiq language education efforts: mentoring adult language apprentices, assisting in teaching Kodiak High School Alutiiq Language classes, and contributing to numerous publications. Florence was a former voice and consultant for the Alutiiq Word of the Week, which is now in its 20th year. She has served as an active member of the Qik’rtarmiut Alutiit Regional Language Advisory Committee, providing direction and oversight to all Alutiiq language revitalization efforts. She has been an Alutiiq Language teacher and consultant since 2003, and a culture-bearer since the 1990s. She has judged Kodiak Island schools’ science fairs for their integration of Traditional Ecological Knowledge. And she has presented at numerous conferences in Alaska and internationally.

Florence Pestrikoff regularly advises young people to only allow positive influences into their lives. One of her major motivations for staying involved in community education efforts is to help young people make better choices. She says, “I would like to help young people before their minds are set. I want them to be able to choose right, even when it’s difficult. Everything good is usually hard to achieve. You have to make up your mind to do it. Always be careful who you allow in your life to influence you. If that person is not going to influence you in a positive way, move on. They will drag you down. Alcohol and drugs might seem like fun for a while, but they will bite you like an adder, or like a bad, bad spider that will poison you. Alcohol and drugs are not bad in themselves—it’s overuse. There’s that word again—dependency.”

When specifically considering the Alutiiq language as a skill and lifeway to cultivate, she says, “I don’t know why [Alutiiq] people who haven’t learned our language do not learn it because without it you are not a whole person.” To Florence and many Alutiiq Elders, speaking the Alutiiq language is not really a choice.  It is a responsibility to one’s community and one’s own wellbeing.

Florence reflects on her childhood and her father when thinking about gathering strength. “My father used to drink; he used to smoke—but he gave it up. He said, ‘If anything is going to control you, let it go. Don’t do it.’ If I can help a few people, it will be worth it. I want to be one of those who can say, ‘I’ve helped somebody make right choices.’”

Learn more about the Alutiiq language at:  www.alutiiqlanguage.org, www.alutiiqmuseum.org, or on Facebook at “Alutiiq Language Speakers & Learners.”