Amelia Simeonoff needed a change.
She’d spent most of her life working with her hands. After studying electrical work in Alaska Job Corps and learning carpentry and other construction skills with Cook Inlet Tribal Council’s YouthBuild program, Simeonoff worked in building maintenance and considered getting a commercial driver’s license. Even though she loved using her skills, she started to feel like the industry just wasn’t the right fit.
“When you’re a female in the construction field, it’s hard being a mom,” she said. Like many women in the building trades, she had experienced sexism, and while she didn’t let it get her down, eventually she felt moved to find a career path that would let her use her skills and creativity to build up people rather than buildings.
In 2016, Simeonoff applied for a temporary position as part of Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium’s Talent Bank. For a year or so, she worked on assignment in different departments, but nothing felt like the right long-term fit.
Then ANTHC’s Behavioral Health department called, and everything fell into place.
Four years ago, Amelia Simeonoff was a tradesperson in search of a calling. Today, she’s on her way to becoming a certified Tribal healer.
A serendipitous pairing
When Simeonoff went to work for ANTHC Behavioral Health as a program associate, she was assigned to the kind of behind-the-scenes administrative tasks that keep a department running -- managing contracts, securing meeting space, ordering supplies.
But this administrative job came with a twist: She would be providing assistance to ANTHC Tribal healer Rita Pitka Blumenstein, the first traditional doctor recognized by the state of Alaska and a member of the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh -- really?’” Simeonoff recalled.
Until Blumenstein’s retirement from the department, Simeonoff was responsible for managing her schedule and escorting her to engagements. It was during this time working with Blumenstein that Simeonoff began to discern her calling.
“(Blumenstein) was doing talking circles at (Alaska Psychiatric Institute), and she came up with an idea of starting a craft group over at API,” Simeonoff said. “Any kind of traditional crafts that you’re doing, it helps. It heals.” Once grant funding was secured by ANTHC Behavioral Health, Simeonoff was asked to lead the activities. An avid beader since she was a little girl, she leaped at the opportunity to put her skills to use.
That was three years ago. Today, Simeonoff still leads regular craft activities at the psychiatric hospital. Patients make beaded ornaments, dreamcatchers, sealskin bracelets, earrings, window charms, and painted paddles. They’re crafts that can be completed in a single session and produce finished items that make nice gifts for loved ones at home. More importantly, it’s time during which patients can relax and enjoy the therapeutic benefits of crafting.
“Working on a craft, you’re thinking about the pattern, you’re thinking about whatever you’re going to be doing, so it’s stopping whatever (other) thoughts that they have,” Simeonoff explained. “It’s being able to stop those negative thoughts and think about, ‘Oh, I get to make something. I’m making something.’ … I’m so happy I get to see that.”
Simeonoff’s involvement with Tribal health and wellness goes beyond her job duties. She is part of the Sunshine Committee, a group that supports the workplace community within Community Health Services by celebrating birthdays and recognizing losses. She has brought her beading groups to youth groups and programs like Calricaraq, which utilizes Yup’ik and Inupiat cultures, values and traditions to improve behavioral health, and Garden of Roses, a camp for girls and families who have survived sexual abuse. She also serves on ANTHC’s Cultural Committee and volunteers at Ronald McDonald House, in addition to raising her four children and participating in her family’s drumming group.
Simeonoff’s myriad efforts were recognized with the 2019 Volunteer of the Year honor at ANTHC’s annual staff holiday party.
“She is what she is talking about,” said Director of Behavioral Health Aide Training Xiomara Owens, who has worked with Simeonoff for four years.
She added that Simeonoff also brings a strong cultural presence to the Behavioral Health program.
“Amelia just has such a knowledge base of Alaska Native culture and cultural activities,” Owens said. “We have really, over the past couple of years, enhanced our students’ experiences by involving her in different areas of our training program. It really helps us to engage our students, our Behavioral Health Aides.”
Owens said there’s a unique sense of openness that blooms during Simeonoff’s activities.
“She helps me remember that mindfulness is important,” Owens said. “I love that. I need that.”
A new journey
As Simeonoff grew into her role at ANTHC, her path soon became clear -- or rather, it was made clear for her. One day in a meeting with the senior director for Community Health Services, the department that oversees Behavioral Health, Blumenstein announced that she planned to train Simeonoff as a traditional healer.
“That was my first time hearing that,” Simeonoff said. “I was just in shock.”
Once the shock wore off, excitement set in -- and the work began.
“The first thing was, I quit drinking,” Simeonoff said, explaining that she wanted to have clarity of mind along with more patience and the ability to let go of small frustrations. “I’ve really had to work on myself. Healing is a daily thing. It’s an ongoing thing.”
Unlike Western medical training, the path toward becoming a Tribal healer is not a standardized process. Traditional healers have different abilities and approaches to applying the vast, collective body of healing knowledge. There’s no official state certification for Tribal doctors, no board exam to sit for; rather, the training process is something more like an apprenticeship that’s tailored to the individual.
“Everyone has their own gifts and their own talents, and they use them accordingly,” Dr. Ted Mala, then director of Southcentral Foundation’s Traditional Healing Clinic, told APRN in 2007.
During the first year of her training, Simeonoff worked with Blumenstein, primarily focusing on craft groups and talking circles. Now she is beginning to learn additional skills from other Tribal healers, gradually expanding her knowledge.
“When learning healing, it comes in different ways,” Simeonoff said. “There isn't a timeline of when or what I would learn.”
With no test or licensing process to study for, Simeonoff sees her growth as a healer as a lifelong journey -- one that combines her love of working with her hands and making things whole with her desire to help others.
The joy Simeonoff finds in her traditional healing work is the same joy she finds in hosting her hospital craft groups.
“To see the transformation from the people that we interact with -- that’s what I like seeing,” she said. “Seeing that change in them, seeing them recognize that change in themselves.”
Living the vision
Simeonoff isn’t sure what her future as a healer will look like. She said Blumenstein told her she’d had a vision of Simeonoff as a healer, but “Grandma Rita” didn’t share any further details. For now, she is enjoying the journey that started when she accepted that temporary job assignment four years ago.
Simeonoff’s story is wonderful, Owens said, because of the serendipity. Not only did she happen to be the perfect person for her job in Behavioral Health, but that chance work assignment brought Blumenstein into her life -- someone who was able to recognize her gifts and help her channel them.
“For someone to be a Tribal healer -- that’s not taken lightly, nor is it something that just anyone can accomplish,” Owens said. “It really is honoring an innate ability. You can’t quantify it, you can’t measure it, it’s just there … this desire and natural ability to connect with people, but also to see that all things are connected.”
Simeonoff is the kind of person, she continued, who is vital to achieving ANTHC’s vision of Alaska Native people as the healthiest people in the world.
“To me, you can’t reach that without really embracing culture,” she said. “We can have all the technology and education in the world, but if you don’t have a way of connecting people to their roots, I don’t know that we are doing justice to our vision.”
This story was sponsored by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a statewide nonprofit Tribal health organization designed to meet the unique health needs of more than 175,000 Alaska Native and American Indian people living in Alaska.
This story was produced by the creative services department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.