We are free to be who we are—
to create our own life
out of the past and out of the present.
We are our ancestors.
When we can heal ourselves,
we also heal our ancestors,
our grandmothers, our
grandfathers and our children.
When we heal ourselves, we heal mother earth.
photo by: Laura Avellaneda-Cruz
Grandmother Rita Pitka Blumenstein is a Yupik Elder and the first certified traditional doctor in Alaska. She is also an artist, a teacher, speaker and storyteller. Rita’s teachings of the “Talking Circle” have been recorded and published, and she’s traveled the world to teach song, dance, basket weaving and cultural issues. She donates these earnings to Native American colleges.
Grandmother Rita was born on a fishing boat. Because her father died before she was born, Rita was raised by mother, grandmothers and great-grandmothers. All were wise women elders of her Yupik people. “I grew up with the Grandmothers, walked with the grandmothers and learned with the grandmothers,” she said of her family’s powerful teachings.
Grandmother Rita’s family lived in Tununak on Alaska’s Nelson Island. The bitter cold and barren tundra made life hard for the Yupik, whose name means “Real People.” With no forests or trees, the Yupiks said special prayers for the return of the driftwood each year. They also prayed to the animal spirits for help.
Rita began learning while in her mother’s womb. “My mother taught me that her tummy was my first world, and whatever she did while I was in her was something I learned,” Grandmother Rita says. ” Being in the Mother’s womb is like being under the ice; unsure of the light and hearing things but not clearly.” From the time of her birth, the Yupik grandmothers recognized Grandmother Rita’s spiritual being and healing powers.
When she was a young child, Grandmother Rita had diphtheria for two years and could barely breathe. All she could do was listen. By age 9, she was already receiving visions and was working as a healer. In a recent vision, she saw people looking up at the sky in terror. It turned out to be 9-11.
Rita’s grandmothers stressed that school is important, but more important was learning about oneself. From a young age, Yupik youth are taught that when they think of something, they also need to feel it. And when they feel something, they also need to think about it. “It is essential to allow yourself to know what you know, instead of driving yourself to be,” she believes. “When there is so much striving to be and become, we don’t often recognize what it is we really want when it’s right there in front of us.”
School helped balance Grandmother Rita between two worlds. Yupik people struggled with U.S. policies that ended the tribe’sfishing and hunting rightsand forced their children to attend schools outlawing tribal languages and traditions. “I caught the tail end of the old ways,” said Grandmother Rita. She believes her name, ” Tail End Clearing of the Pathway to the Light” reflects her mission to heal. “The ceremonies, the Potlach are old ways. I can see now, today, that all that happened back then was for this purpose, for this life we are living today. It was for my work now. The ceremonies were about what all our ancestors were doing for the future, for future use. We just didn’t know back then that meant today.”
Grandmother Rita was married happily and peacefully to a Jewish man for over 40 years. During those years, they had six children but five died. Today their living daughter jokingly calls herself a “Jeweskimo.”
In 1995, Grandmother Rita learned she had cancer. The cancer helped Rita recognize her lifetime of anger and sadness from not having a father. She knew she had to heal at the deepest levels. “Emotions become physical, and the physical becomes emotional. Healing is about peeling,” she says. “God said there is only abundance, and the only way through is to forgive. Holding on to negative emotions becomes caner or another illness. Our healing is not just for ourselves, it is for the universe. We forget who we are, and that is the cause of our illness.”
Today Grandmother Rita Blumenstein is a tribal doctor for the South Central Foundation. She uses plant and energy medicine to heal along with the wisdoms learned from her own grandmothers. “I really still don’t know what it is I do, and I don’t know after what I did,” she explains. “The secret is that I don’t know anything. I am your friend, I am not sick, not sad, not angry. But what about you?”
Grandmother Rita is also teaching her teen-age granddaughter — who “talks to Mother Earth” — to be a healerand carry on the traditions. She tells her granddaughter that the whole universe is for everyone’s use. Nothing is to be owned, only shared. “We are all here for the universe … Everything changes except the land we live on, and when that changes, we must accept it …When Mother Nature shows us she’s angry, that changes all of us. My Grandmother taught me long ago that you become a human being when you learn to accept., when you learn to let go. We are here for the universe.”
Inviting the grandmothers to come visit her in Alaska , Grandmother Rita said,” When people think of Alaska, they go, ‘Brrr.’ But I say, when you have a cold heart, that’s when you’re cold. When you have a warm heart, that’s when you are warm. Come to Alaska, and we’ll warm you up!”