First Lady visits Anchorage. Her message: Get vaccinated

Two women talk, both wearing face masks, near medical equipment.
Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson, president of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, speaks with First Lady Jill Biden on Wednesday. (Hannah Lies / Alaska Public Media)

First Lady Jill Biden was in Alaska for a few hours Wednesday. She came with a message.

“I’m asking all of you, who are listening right now, to choose to get vaccinated,” she said. “COVID is more contagious than ever, and it continues to spread. Even one hospitalization, one life lost is too many.”

This was a refueling stopover for Biden. She’s en route to Tokyo to lead the U.S. delegation to the Olympic Games. But Biden said she asked to do a little more while she was on the ground in Anchorage.

A woman in blue blazer speaks into a microphone, with women in face masks on either side of her.
First Lady Jill Biden speaks at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium in Anchorage. To the left is Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink and to the right is ANTHC President Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson. (Hannah Lies/Alaska Public Media)

On Wednesday afternoon, Biden visited the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, the state’s largest tribal health organization.

There, ANTHC President Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson and the state’s chief medical officer, Dr. Anne Zink, gave her an overview of the Alaska Native health care system and demonstrated how telehealthcare works for rural Alaska.

Two women wearing face masks talk inside, near big windows.
First Lady Jill Biden talks with Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink. (Hannah Lies / Alaska Public Media)
A woman waves at another woman who appears on a screen.
First Lady Jill Biden waves at Dr. Cate Buley, the medical director of Primary Care Clinics at the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium. (Hannah Lies / Alaska Public Media)
Four people stand in a line, looking at a woman in a white coat who appears on a screen near them.
First Lady Jill Biden is briefed on telemedicine services. From left to right: Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink, President of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson, First Lady Jill Biden and Cardiologist Dr. Joseph Park. (Liz Ruskin / Alaska Public Media)

This was an opportunity to brief someone who has the constant ear of the most powerful man in the world, and Davidson took it. She explained how tribal organizations took over from the Indian Health Service to run the Alaska Native Medical Center. She also explained ANTHC’s work to build water and sewer systems in rural Alaska. And she told of the success they’ve had in fighting COVID-19.

“In some of our communities we have 100 percent vaccination,” Davidson said.

Biden also met with military families at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

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A woman in a blazer looks out of a window.
First Lady Jill Biden at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. (Hannah Lies/Alaska Public Media)


A day in the life of a Russian pianist | INDIE ALASKA

Russians have a long history in Alaska, with some Siberian migrant groups dating back as far as the early 1700s. The first European settlement in Alaska was in Kodiak in 1784 during the Russian fur trade. Eventually, Russia officially sold Alaska to the United States in 1867 but many Russians stayed and continued to grow.

One notable member of the Russian Orthodox community in Anchorage is professional pianist, Margarita Merkusheva. Since moving to Alaska from Vladivostok 20 years ago, she’s continued to advance her musical career by writing custom music for the Alaska Dance Theatre and giving piano lessons to dozens of families in the Russian community.

Video and story by Valerie Kern
Additional video by Margarita Merkusheva, Sabine Poux, and Hope McKenney
Music by Margarita Merkusheva and FirstCom Music
Special thanks to Alaska Dance Theatre
Historical information from


Show highlights: The legacy of boarding schools in Alaska

A white building with a black roof in front of some steamy mountains
Students stroll the sidewalk behind the Wrangell Institute school and dorms, looking south, probably in the early 1960s. The boys dormitory is at right, the school (with bell-tower) is left of center, and the girls dormitory is at the far left. (NPS Photo)

The recent discovery of the remains of hundreds of Indigenous children at a residential school in Canada has prompted discussion, grief and memories of past trauma in Alaska. Thousands of Alaska Native children were sent to boarding schools in and outside the state. The effects of forced assimilation continue to impact the lives of Native people.

Two boarding school survivors and one cultural expert shared their perspectives on Talk of Alaska on the legacy of boarding schools in Alaska.

Here are some highlights of what they shared edited for length and clarity

Paul Ongtooguk, former director of UAF’s Alaska Native Studies Department on the origin of U.S. boarding school policy as labor development

In the early era, one of the strategies that was developed was to end the Indian Wars by ending Indianness. One of the venues for doing that was missionaries — converting people not only to Christianity but away from being Indian. That was not completely successful. 

The origination of the federal policy was of using boarding schools as a way of pulling the next generation away from the tribes and trying to eliminate what they considered to be the savageness, and force those young children into becoming good laborers for the white population in the United States. There really wasn’t even a promise of citizenship — the goal was to to develop good laborers for the white population of the US.

Eagle feathers stuck in a law in front of a white building
Last week, 215 feathers were placed on the lawn of Sitka’s former church-affiliated residential school, Sheldon Jackson, in remembrance of the 215 children whose remains were discovered at a former residential school in Canada. Another 751 remains were found a few weeks later. (KCAW/Tash Kimmell)

In the summertime, the students were essentially loaned out or sold, leased to members of the white community to serve as labor servants or maids, whatever manual labor that was available for them. So there was a very high attrition rate. There was a very high number of students who died from probably the geographic shift, probably from the population shift and from loneliness, from abuse and from malnutrition. There were also multiple reasons for accidents, given the kind of labor that they were involved in — this was all pre OSHA.

Boarding school survivor Jim Aqpayuk LaBelle on his memories of being sent to the Wrangell Institute

My mother took us to the airport and our mom in Fairbanks left my younger brother and me there at the hands of the BIA officials. The first thing that they did was they tied us together with other children with ropes at the Fairbanks airport. There were dozens of other children that were already tied there. 

I remember this so well, even though it happened 67 years ago. I can still recall some of the younger children as young as five were there. I was eight, my brother was six and we were thrust into just an alien situation where there was a lot of barking of orders. We were given yellow name tags to affix to our clothing that had our names or destination written on it, that kind of thing. And then it took almost a half a day sometimes longer, to get to Wrangell.

The first thing they had us do was to strip completely naked on this receiving room concrete floor. A lot of children did not understand the commands that the directions and oftentimes in frustration a lot of matrons ran over to these little guys and just kind of ripped their clothing off. 

We were all told to get in a line to get her haircuts. These were done in a way that was kind of like being sheared — Ever see these videos of sheep being sheared off? Well that’s what happened to us. 

We were given clothing. The government issued clothing with our numbers. Our number was on our clothing and on our bedding. Children who had difficult names were often referred to only by their number by many matrons. And I can still remember years later as children who were much older, saying ‘I thought my name was my number.’

Fred John Jr. on the punishment given at Wrangell Institute

My younger sister was five and I was seven when we went. We were there almost seven years. 

It was like a military thing…If we do the smallest thing we would get punished. Like our coat be on the floor, or if we were late getting up. On Saturday morning the big kids would line up for spanking with their pants would be around their knees in the barbershop. They get I think 12 swats, I don’t remember now. But it was lots. 

The big kids wouldn’t cry. But as little ones, we get the same amount of spankings and we are all lined up beside them. The big ones could get spanking before the smaller ones. But we’d be crying before when we saw the big guys get their spanking and we watch them. 

When it was our turn, the only good thing about that is the big boys could take our place if they wanted to — a lot of them did. They took their second spanking. My brothers would take two spankings for me. 

Another one is the gauntlet. They’d strip us down if we behaved like what they call really bad, if we were bad boys. And they would have two lines to line up and down beside the beds. And the guys that tattletale were standing on a bed and watch the whole thing. The boy – they stripped them down naked and let them run down through the complex. The boys on both sides pulled their belt out and hit them with the hard end — the buckle end as he ran. Sometimes they fall down and cry and everything and they’d be really beat up by time they make it to the end. 

Whoever don’t hit hard would be stripped down and then run down the gauntlet. 

Even though I don’t want to, I even hit my friends. Luke Titus was one of them, my friend from Minto. He was one of them that I ran down that thing and I hit him hard. And he did the same to me. About 60 some years later, we met in Old Minto Recovery Camp. We apologized to each other for hitting each other. We didn’t we didn’t have any choice. 


Vigil held in Juneau for children found at Kamloops boarding school

Last Saturday, the Alaska Native community and allies gathered at Overstreet Park in Juneau for a candlelight vigil honoring the 215 children found at a residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia. 


Alaskans discuss Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month | Alaska Insight

Alaskans are celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May. Today, Alaskans of Asian and Pacific Island descent are an integral part of the state’s communities and culture and are thriving in local business, government and education.

Lori Townsend speaks with Lucy Hansen, president of the Polynesian Association of Alaska, Filipino Community, Inc. President Edric Carrillo and community organizer Kengo Nagaoka about the rich history of Asian and Pacific Islanders and their hopes for the future.

Upcoming event: Alaskan Asian Pacific Islander Desi Americans host “Unnameable losses: The unmetabolized ambiguous grief of adult children of refugees” on Monday, May 31


Some accuse Instagram of censorship after posts for Missing, Murdered, Indigenous Persons Awareness Day disappear

On May 5, people all across the country shared stories and pictures, and memorialized the thousands of Indigenous people who have disappeared.  Later, many users reported that content they shared to their stories disappeared too. 


Nearly 3 months after water plant fire, National Guard meets with Tuluksak tribal leaders about next steps

During the meeting, council members shared their current needs and discussed potential spring flooding.