SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Todd Palin's grandmother talks about her native land
Anchorage Daily News


October 21, 2008

HOMER, Alaska -- Like many Alaska Natives of her generation, Lena Andree, Todd Palin's 87-year-old Yup'ik grandmother, grew up living between two worlds.

Her father was a Dutchman, Glass Eye Billy Bartman, a sled dog freighter in the Bristol Bay region and caretaker of the Alaska Packers saltry on the Igushik River.

Her mother was full-blooded Yup'ik, growing up in a sod-roofed barabara in the now-abandoned village of Tuklung, somewhere on the tundra between Dillingham and Togiak.

Growing up in two worlds along the Igushik River in Bristol Bay, Lena Bartman spoke broken English with her father and more fluent Yup'ik with her mother,. Later she would make a career as a translator, bridging the cultures of Dillingham, speaking English with the doctors and storekeepers and pilots, and "speaking Native" with the residents.

"I just love that language," she says today.

Todd Palin's roots in Alaska run deep -- all the way back to that sod house on the tundra and the winter day Glass Eye Billy made a freight stop at Tuklung on a dog run to Togiak.

The musher, who had come to Alaska after leaving Holland at 14 as a cabin boy, saw a young woman dipping water from a frozen creek. The first thing he noticed about her was her fur boots and gorgeous white parka made from the supple fur of reindeer fawn.

The courtship and marriage arrangements took a year.

Their first-born's full name was Helena.

Andree grew up in the 1920s along the Igushik River.

The idea that someday a grandchild of hers would be married to the governor of Alaska, much less to the Republican candidate for vice president of the United States -- needless to say, such an idea never remotely entered the mind of a little Yup'ik girl playing along the tideflats of the Igushik.

"I have to say, is it really happening in my family?" says Andree, a short and sunny woman who now lives in Homer near a son and daughter. "Just to see her running. We love Sarah. She is kind of a special gal to me. She honors my Native side."

As a candidate for governor two years ago, and more recently on the national stage, Sarah Palin has avidly pointed to her husband's Eskimo heritage. Lena Andree is one-half Yup'ik, and Todd Palin is one-eighth.

Sarah Palin's display of Todd's Yup'ik grandmother drew some grumbles in Native political circles in 2006.

"It's distasteful to say my husband is Native, my children are Native, so trust me. Just tell me what you believe," said a Palin critic, former state Sen. Georgianna Lincoln, following a debate that year.

But in a Native culture that respects its elders, no one has ever leveled criticism in Andree's presence. People are just excited around her, Andree says.

"Minor things, we joke about," she says. "They never disagreed with me, with Sarah."

There are things about Lena Andree's life that maybe aren't typical of all Alaska Natives.

She grew up in the mixed racial region of Bristol Bay, not an isolated Native village. Her two husbands, both passed away, were white. She is a Native corporation member but said she is not enrolled in a tribe. She was a Republican in a predominantly Democratic part of the state.

"She bridged both worlds, and was successful in both of them," said her daughter, Audrey Rearden.

Though Andree moved away from Dillingham after retiring, she returned to help campaign in 2006, speaking with Yup'ik elders who didn't follow politics closely.

"I said, 'You know Todd?' All the Natives know Todd. I said, 'His wife is running for Boss Alaska.' "

There was special excitement in the village of Manokotak, she said, where survivors of the village of Tuklung moved after a flu epidemic. Today, Bartmans make up a significant part of the two-page phone listing there.

"Some of them call Sarah their cousin," said Andree. "In Manokotak, there's lotta cousins."

But Bristol Bay, traditionally Democratic, followed the rest of Bush Alaska that year, despite the former Wasilla mayor's family ties and setnet fishing experience.

Sarah Palin lost the 2006 governor's election in Dillingham, 480-242. In Manokotak, Palin lost 63-33.

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