Elder Voices: Dina Sagoonick

Dina Sagoonick of Shaktoolik, Alaska.

Dina Sagoonick’s life growing up in Shaktoolik as a young girl was traditional, and in the ways that she and her family relied on dog teams, hunting, and trapping, it was a way of life that had sustained her ancestors for thousands of years.

And yet her life was also uniquely full of change, a window into the forces that have reshaped subsistence and the ways of life in Alaska over the past century. Her father was one of the early reindeer herders, and when missionaries came to Shaktoolik and Unalakleet to preach, they also built gardens, opened schools, forbade the Inupiaq language, and created an education system that drew Dina’s sisters away from home at an early age.

That balance between new and old is one Dina has seen shift in her lifetime. And while she enjoys the conveniences of modern life, she laments the loss of familial intimacy, of learning from her family members, and of households that did everything together. Modern life, she says, can be too easy, “too rich.”

Dina recalls learning many things from her parents and her community as she grew up, but her love for dogs is profound. “Dogs are next to people,” she says, marveling at their intelligence, their beauty, and their ability to work alongside and help their human masters.

But most important to Dina is her faith. She recalls being overcome as a young girl, berry picking with her mother and seeing a rainbow, “a token rainbow telling us the whole world won’t be covered in water, as in Noah’s time.” She credits her mother and grandmother with kindling that faith, and she continues to share it with her children and grandchildren.