While Battling Breast Cancer, an Alaska Native is Determined to Save the Sugpiaq People's Language
Isabella Blatchford is the founder of Sugpiaq Seafoods, a company aimed at giving fair prices to native fishermen who ship wild Alaskan salmon, halibut and black cod to renowned chefs like Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse. She is also on a mission to revive and preserve the native language of her mother’s people, the Sugpiaq, also known as the Aleuts, reported the Alaska Dispatch.
And even as she assembles a book and documentary about a critical point in Sugpiaq history, which she hopes will inspire the tribe’s youth to explore their history and learn the language, Blatchford is battling infiltrating lobular cancer—a rare and aggressive form of late-state breast cancer, according to the Oregonian.
“My mother is Sugpiaq Eskimo, and my father is Inupiaq Eskimo,” Blatchford said in a video by The Oregonian. “We come from a family of warriors, and we just don’t give up.”
Blatchford was diagnosed in February 2009, after seeking doctors’ opinions for fatigue she had been suffering since 2007. This February, her condition took a turn for the worse. “The cancer burns in my chest like someone spilled gas on me and lit a match,” she said.
But the pain is not deterring Blatchford from her mission to save her diminishing language, spoken fluently by 28 elders of the only 2,400 Sugpiaq people on or near Kodiak Island. “Without our elders we have no oral tradition and we have no culture,” Blatchford told The Oregonian. “And it’s only in the language that we really have been able to get an identity of who we are. The identity washes over us when we speak the language. The only way a people survives is through the language. That’s it.”
Blatchford is currently in Mexico receiving hyperthermia therapy, a German-developed treatment that raises the body temperature to kill off cancer cells. (The treatment is still in clinical trials in the U.S.) She also hopes to receive the dendrite cancer vaccine, which essentially boosts the immune system’s response to rid tumors from the body.
Blatchford, who has chosen to heal through both Western and alternative medicine, elected to travel to Mexico for the therapy after her doctors indicated she needed to change her treatment.She was offered a discount, if she could pay $10,000 by April 30, 2011. One of her brothers set up a website requesting donations: Bellasfund.org, and as of April 25, donations to the site had reached $9,239.
“What’s telling for me about her as a person is that in her time of personal crisis she is thinking about other people instead of focusing on herself,” said April Counceller, a tribal member and manager of the Alutiiq Language Program on Kodiak Island, to The Oregonian. “She’s trying to find ways to raise money to save the language and find ways for people to learn from the elders."
Blatchford, who began learning her language through immersion in 2005, credits it with being a driving force in her life: “I heard the words Sugpiaq, and saw the words in a newspaper, and that’s my number one bucket list dream.”