Alutiiq Woman Races the Clock to Discover Cultural Truths Before Losing Battle with Cancer in Finding Refuge

Isabella Blatchford (Alutiiq) on her mission to discover the meaning of the massacre at Refuge Rock off the coast of Kodiak Island. Photo by: Torsten Kjellstrand of Dog Mountain Studio.

Isabella Blatchford (Alutiiq) on her mission to discover the meaning of the massacre at Refuge Rock off the coast of Kodiak Island. Photo by: Torsten Kjellstrand of Dog Mountain Studio.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in Native News Online on July 19, 2015. It is being republished today in recognition of October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the film’s premeire.

Premiering October 3, 2015, through NETA

LINCOLN, NEBRASKA—Follow Isabella Blatchford (Alutiiq) as she embarks on an urgent quest to understand her cultural heritage before stage–four breast cancer leaves her too weak to complete her journey. Finding Refuge, a new 30-minute documentary available through the National Telecommunications Association (NETA), premiers October 3, 2015. Isabella yearns to shed a lifetime of shame and cultural denial and replace it with pride in her Native culture. Supported through a broader view from scholars, elders, fishermen, hunters, parents, and community leaders working to repatriate Alutiiq culture, Isabella learns the history of her people, the origin of shame, and the value of Native storytelling.

Produced and directed by Torsten Kjellstrand, and co-directed by Jamie Francis, the film follows these intertwined narratives with the central theme that hope of rebuilding a culture can replace generational shame with cultural pride. Isabella was raised in Kodiak Island, Alaska, under the influence of her mother and grandmother who urged her to deny her Alutiiq heritage to avoid the shame of being labeled a “Native.” Many stories about cultural identity in the United States come from the point-of-view of immigrant cultures. Finding Refuge explores how some Indigenous people in North America also struggle to find community and a sense of belonging.

The supporting narrative begins with Sven Haakanson (Alutiiq) who grew up in Old Harbor, where he was one of few students to go to college and continuing even further to earn a PhD in anthropology from Harvard University. Sven has been recognized as a MacArthur Fellow, served as term director for the Alutiiq Museum & Repository in Kodiak, and is now a professor at the University of Washington, additionally serving as the curator of Native American Anthropology at the Burke Museum. In spite of his clear professional success, Sven too, talks about the legacy of shame that haunts Native peoples:

“I grew up being ashamed of who I was–as a Native here in this village. But after eight years at Harvard, I was like, ‘Wait a minute. I can’t be that stupid!’ But yet, it’s been so ground into me. I hope that one day people will get over that because I think it is survivor’s guilt. We survived, they didn’t. That’s why people like Isabella are so important. They make it personal, which helps others–both Alutiiq and not Alutiiq–find meaning beyond the academic and historic.”

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