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  • Writer's pictureMichael Christian

Emily Edenshaw: Power in Perseverance

Photo: Courtesy of Emily Edenshaw

Emily Edenshaw was raised in the Rio Grande Valley deep in the heart of Southern Texas. After moving from Alaska with her father at age five, she attended the Margo Elementary School in the small town of Weslaco while living on the outskirts of the city's limits. Spending her summer evenings watching novellas or listening to Selena on her CD player while practicing folklorico, She fondly recalls her mother reminding her that she isn't Hispanic.

"I just felt so connected to all of my friends and hometown. Ethnicity didn't play a part in how I saw myself" Emily shares. Her mother, however, couldn't forget so easily. Adopted out at birth, Emily's mother had a difficult relationship with her community given its lack of presence in her childhood.

But there was more than just timing between both matriarchs and a young Emily. They had been born and raised in a very different part of the country, within a very different culture; the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta in Alaska.

Within Alaska, the Indigenous population isn't split into Tribal Councils like most of North America but instead is divided up into 229 Federally Recognized Tribal Corporations with members and shareholders.

Among these corporations are the Yup'ik, and Iñupiaq, the people and place that Emily's mother and grandmother called home.

Emily didn't understand the complexities of such affiliations, being so removed from her Native roots and so far south.

"It wasn't that I didn't care, I just didn't understand." Offers Emily. "There is so much beauty in how I was raised, no matter where my genetics came from. I remember crossing the border to Nuevo Progreso to get our medication and fresh fruits or vegetables. It was just how life was and I couldn't be the woman I am without the strong Latina women in my life that helped raise me."

But that lifestyle wasn't suitable for her mother and after a time, Emily's mother and little sister went back north to Alaska for good. This splintering of the family unit placed Emily in a difficult position.

"I got along too well with my father to leave" Explains Emily. "He's my person in this world, no matter how difficult of a choice that was."

At age eighteen, however, her mother's father's health declined and a trip to visit her grandfather in Alaska became a top priority.

"I remember stepping out of the Chevy Suburban in high heels from the airport after landing in Fairbanks and breathing in the air, I had a feeling that Alaska would be my new home."

Emily checked in with her mom and little sister (who was seven years younger) but was shocked to see the toll her mother's pain had caused upon arrival. Being given to alcoholism, her mother had adopted a violent tendency and an abusive nature. Fearing for her sisters' safety, Emily took responsibility for her younger sibling and was determined to reverse the damage.

It turns out that her gut feeling was right, she wouldn't be going back after all.

Once settled in, Emily met a young bush pilot at age twenty-one and became pregnant with her son Oliver a year later. Married at twenty-two, Emily and her newfound family began a beautiful life, right before her husband lost his life in a motorcycle accident as she turned twenty-three.

Emily had yet again been placed in a position to start over, but this time; she had others depending on her.

"I wanted to create a life for my little sister and son that was never provided for me. I knew I needed to return to school to do that." Says Emily. "I couldn't drink after that, only focus."

The heartbreak and sorrow brought into her life by alcohol were earth-shattering. She couldn't stay in the same place, she needed to move away from it all, or more accurately, towards something else.

"We all have traumas, but I had to submit myself as evidence of triumph, for my son and sister, it wasn't optional." -Emily Edenshaw

With her mother's birth certificate, she was able to obtain in-state tuition in Anchorage for her bachelor's degree.

In time, Emily obtained her bachelor's degree and with the encouragement of a mentor returned to school for the completion of her Master's degree. Currently working on her Ph.D., she currently operates as the Chief Executive Officer for the Alaskan Native Heritage Center providing cultural context and a place for healing to all those seeking to better understand Indigenous Heritage.

"We all have traumas, but I had to submit myself as evidence of triumph, for my son and sister, it wasn't optional." Shares Emily. "My feet are trained to say "yes" and with the leading of my ancestors, my capacity is more full than ever before to love and lead with that love."

She concludes by urging reconciliation: "All of us have only one set of parents, one life, and one story. Don't let it go to waste, we have more commonalities than differences and we can persevere in time."


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