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Posts from the ‘Success Stories’ Category

Subsistence Living Can Help Raise Strong Children

Highlighting the strength, pride, and familial resilience that subsistence activities offer

By Kayla Gilbert

Growing up, I was introduced to subsistence living from infancy in rural Alaska, as a child of the Copper River Valley. Fast forward 30 years and here I am raising my family of 8 in the same way in Tazlina, Alaska.

Subsistence can have many different meanings to people, but in our family, subsistence is the act of maintaining, producing, and supporting our household self-sufficiently and taking from the Earth at a sustainable levelWhether that’s hunting, fishing, trapping, gardening, or preserving, anything that resources very little to nothing from manufacturers or at a mass production level is subsistence to us.

I see so much value in teaching my children to pursue subsistence living. I feel that pursuing a subsistence lifestyle creates unity in our family dynamic and brings us closer together, building trust and confidence, which can be lost arts in our society. 

Hard work. Self sufficiency. Independence. Learning. Teaching. Growing. All these play a huge part in our happiness and are also necessary for survival. I like to teach my children that we work hard and play hard. We turn normal everyday chores and survival needs into entertainment and fun. For example, when we are picking vegetables and berries, I will make a game of it by giving my children a weight and whoever gets the most in weight gets to help bake a dessert or choose the dessert we bake. I know that by working hard and constantly learning how to ‘figure it out’ my kids will also feel more satisfaction and success in the long run.

Show your children that the experiences you create together, learning, growing and doing with a subsistence living mindset is what can help build your healthy family bond. Instead of hushing a child with a smartphone and trying to get their excitement under control with technology, try to get outside together! You’ll be astounded by how spending time in the great outdoors can calm (and exhaust) children and how much pride they will feel when harvesting… and of course, getting to eat some sourdough Alaskan blueberry pancakes that they know they contributed to. The delicious eating part always helps!

Plus, a subsistence lifestyle allows you the time to get to know your children in a deep and meaningful way. Families nowadays can become distant and know more about buttons on a controller than they do about the individuals they live with. I can’t tell you the number of times I have seen families gathered for a meal that don’t know how to have good old fashioned dinner table talk! The time you spend outside with your kids helps them open up like a tundra flower, giving them space to be loud, be free, and get the attention and love they deserve and need.

One subsistence story that always stands out in my mind is a time when we were moose hunting and every attempt was a fail. I had just hours before I had to be out of the woods. We made the decision to make one more hopeful attempt….it seemed promising, yet so did every other time. There is a lot that is factored into the pursuit of wild game, especially when it is your food for the next year. With just a few minutes of daylight to spare before needing to head back on the trail, we were successful! I was so proud of the success because I had the opportunity to show my children that despite the failures and seemingly unending road blocks, success is founded in perseverance, a good attitude, and focus. These traits transfer over to all areas of life, not solely subsistence living, and my children had the opportunity to learn how important it is to take pride in what you put your mind and heart into and love the life you lead.  

Subsistence living is so ingrained in me that I don’t really know how to live any other way. While my husband went to college, we were newlyweds living in a tiny apartment in Eugene, OR and I had literally everything ‘easy’, manufactured products were right at my fingertips. Yet, I couldn’t help myself but to go back to my roots. I thrive when I am creating, making, and figuring out how to DIY (Do It Yourself). I would grow my plants in tiny planter pots, preserve, use everything, and make things go as far as I could. Picking wild berries was a favorite of mine because it seemed like such a shame to go buy some from the market when nature was providing an endless bounty right out my backyard AND I got a good dose of Vitamin D while doing it!

Of course, your level of subsistence use can vary greatly, I’m not saying you need to completely isolate yourself from consumerism and kill and grow only the foods in your backyard, but rather that you take opportunities to harvest from the world around you, use your resources, and involve your family by learning together how to do things for yourself and feel successful without spending a dime or worrying if you’ll have WiFi.

My favorite season in Alaska is fall, it is a special time here and, for rural Alaskans, extremely important for preparation. There is something special about gathering your harvest. About going out and storing up for the cold dark winter. Harvest season in Alaska is abundant and can overfill your freezer several times over if pursued correctly. Just think, eating meat that you sought out, worked hard to shoot, field dress, and prepare for the coming days. Think about the endless berries and herbs that you know have been nurtured and grown free of chemical sprays, dollar signs and quantity limits- goods not shipped up from the lower 48 or countries far away. Goods that go right from nature to your dinner plate or your canner to prepare for later in the year. In winter, you’ll have the security of knowing all is well AND I bet you and your children won’t take for granted what now stuffs your freezers because your sweat was poured out for it, your diligence persevered it and your goals were successfully met. Think of the powerful effect it will have not only on you but on your children and their children. The act of feeding your family from the land connects you not only with the land itself, but also with each other. You’re able to step back and see (and eat!) your handiwork and have memories to bond over with your children for years to come.

I grew up knowing many other kids with a similar lifestyle to me and I have not met a single person that doesn’t talk about their experiences without at least a little pride and satisfaction. It’s amazing what we can accomplish and succeed in when we use the resources that nature provides. The memories I have growing up in a subsistence living family provided me with the stamina to pursue life with a perspective that I can do anything I put my heart and mind to, and I know the same is the case for my own children. It has also helped create a beautiful harmony of living life together as a strong and confident family.


*** Alaska Children’s Trust acknowledges the critical role subsistence activities take in Alaska Native culture as a means of gathering food as well as a deep and powerful tie to the land and to family and ancestors. We are always encouraging new voices in our blog, and encourage you to contact us at kidsfirst@alaskachildrenstrust.org if you have a blog topic you’d like to write about or a topic request you’d love to read about. You can also comment below!


Kayla Gilbert was born and raised in rural Alaska. When she turned 20, she began to travel to see what there was beyond the tundra life. It wasn’t long before the deep love for the Alaska lifestyle brought her back to her roots where she now lives. She is a full time Traveling Photographer and business owner of ZAG Photography. When she is not traveling to capture weddings, couples and new places she is a full time mom to her 6 crazy cool kids. Kayla and her husband, Justin, have been married for 10 years; they love adventure, nature and raising their family to appreciate what life has to offer. They have one son in heaven, Zimeon Arrow Gilbert. While he isn’t with them physically his legacy lives on through his family by being their drive to live every day to the fullest with gratitude for all those around them and to treasure the close-knit family unit. Kayla’s heart in life is to be inspired by others while also inspiring others to have incredible joy for everything in this crazy journey called life. It’s not always an easy path but it is so much fuller when we choose to have joy and positivity as we embrace each new and crazy situation. She loves meeting new people and connecting with them!  Feel free to follow her journey as a photographer-mom on her social media platforms: Website: www.zagphotography.com  Facebook: ZAG Photography Instagram: @zagphotographer 

Celebrating Culture, Connecting Community

Old Harbor Alliance Aurcaq Carving Workshop

Growing up in a rural village, Melissa Berns didn’t have a close connection with her culture. “Back then, there was a kind of shame associated with our culture. We knew we were Alutiiq but we didn’t know what that meant,” she says.

Today, through opportunities such as the Aurcaq carving workshop held in Old Harbor in April, youth are experiencing – and enjoying – their culture, while participating in healthy, positive activities. Among these youth is Melissa’s son.

“He’s always watched me skin sewing and beading, and he would ask for my knife and make spears out of sticks,” Melissa says. “To have an instructor teach him was very beneficial. It was eye-opening for him. He’s been doing more carving since the workshop – all the kids have.

The week-long Aurcaq carving workshop, which was hosted by Old Harbor’s community and regional entities, kicked off a series of community events taking place throughout Great Lent. Aurcaq, a subsistence-focused marine mammal hunting game, is historically played only during the six weeks of Orthodox Lent. In years past, the Orthodox faith was strictly followed and the faithful were forbidden to hunt, gamble, eat red meat, or drink alcoholic beverages during Lent. The game of Aurcaq was believed to provide a social outlet for hunting and gambling at a time it was not allowed.

Alutiiq master carver and teacher Andrew Abyo came to the village to share traditional techniques used to carve Aurcaq game sets. Each participant completed a full set that they could take home to continue this tradition with their family and friends.

“The participants got to take a finished piece home and continue playing,” Melissa says. “They didn’t have to stop just because the workshop was over.”

In addition to exposing youth to the traditional game, the event planning team also wanted to encourage positive interactions between youth and adults. Traditional foods were a significant part of the week, which included nightly family-style dinners featuring sikyuk, salmon, alaciq, seal, sea lion, goose, clams, boiled cod, goat, deer and all of the fixings. At the dinners, elders, parents and children shared stories and visited about their daily activities, much like their ancestors did in years past.

“The workshop was a good mix of kids and adults working together. It helped bridge that gap,” Melissa says, adding that a total of 53 participants from 32 households participated throughout the week.

As the workshop finale, a community potlatch and Aurcaq tournament was held at the school. Youth and adults alike took great pride in their finely carved whales and laughter was heard throughout the evening. Instead of going home with material possessions won through gambling, there was a gain in cultural pride and the knowledge of an almost lost art, which can now be shared with generations to come. As the tournament concluded, smiles were seen on the faces of young and old, who repeatedly asked, “When are we going to do this again?”

“Activities like these give kids a sense of pride and a positive way to connect with their families and community,” Melissa says. “We can also pass on messages about respect, pride, and caring for yourself and your neighbor. Through these types of programs, we can perpetuate our art and build stronger leaders for the community.”

The Aurcaq carving workshop and tournament was supported by the Old Harbor Alliance’s grant through Alaska Children’s Trust, Alutiiq Tribe of Old Harbor’s Tribal Youth and Office on Violence Against Women Programs, Kodiak Area Native Association Family Violence Prevention Program, Koniag Inc., Old Harbor School and Old Harbor Native Corporation. The Aurcaq carving workshop is one of many workshops and events held throughout the year to perpetuate Alutiiq culture through the arts.

You can support efforts like these and make a positive statewide impACT for Alaska’s children and families when you Pick. Click. Give. to Alaska Children’s Trust!

Old HarborMelissa Berns is active in the community of Old Harbor and volunteers with youth programs as Nuniaq Alutiiq Dance Instructor, Nuniaq Traditional Camp Planner, Alutiiq Week Organizer and Old Harbor School Programs. Melissa perpetuates the continuation of Alutiiq Cultural Arts by teaching Subsistence Harvesting and Processing, Alutiiq Basket Weaving, Skin Sewing and Beading through youth programs year around.

From Struggling Student to Straight As: An Afterschool Success Story

Dale Austermuhl’s daughter was struggling academically when she started the afterschool program at her Fairbanks elementary in the second grade. Dale did his best to help, but there’s only so much a single dad working full time on a swing shift can do.

“Taking care of her all by myself while working – that’s difficult even for two parents. It’s challenging to handle this alone. You need a community,” Dale says.

Fast-forward four years, and Dale’s daughter is still enrolled in the program – and bringing home straight As. Perhaps more importantly, though, is the positive changes and growth he has seen in his daughter.

“It’s helping my child become more confident with herself,” he says. “With the support of the program, she’s growing into a responsible, sincere, beautiful person. That’s what I’ve seen as a parent.”

And, of course, you can’t put a price tag on the peace of mind the program offers to parents. “Knowing she is safe and that people are there making sure homework is done and helping her learn new things – I’m not sure what we would do without it,” Dale says.

The program Dale’s daughter is enrolled in is a 21st Century Community Learning Center. These grant-funded afterschool programs strive to improve student academics by providing a safe environment for students to explore interests, develop confidence, and celebrate success, while promoting positive connections between schools, families and the community.

“The program is not just about homework – it’s also activities like knitting, cooking and gardening,” Dale explains. “Afterschool programs offer a safe environment where the kids are learning and becoming confident with themselves. The people involved in the afterschool program are helping make sure these kids become successful adults. Positive influences create a better person.”

Dale praises the program teachers and coordinators, as well as elected officials and organizations like Alaska Children’s Trust that support program funding.

“These programs need to be funded,” he says. “These children are our future. They will be taking care of us in the future. I’m very passionate about this.”

“This afterschool program has had a phenomenal impact on our family. It’s indescribable.”