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The Passing of a Legend: Rita Pitka Blumenstein (1936-August 6, 2021)

Tribute by Patricia Cochran

Aunty Rita, as she was known to the AIANNH Caucus, was an esteemed Elder, mentor and friend to everyone. She participated in the Wisdom of the Elders Sessions and shared her wisdom gleefully. I was honored to serve as an apprentice to Aunty Rita and learned much of what I know about traditional knowledge, medicine and practices from her. She was beloved not only in Alaska, but worldwide, serving on the International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers. She loved visits to the kupuna in Hawaii and spent time sharing stories with them. She will be sorely missed but not forgotten – she lives on in her teachings and sharing of her wisdom. Aunty Rita’s WOE bio reads:

Ms. Blumenstein is a mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, wife, aunt, sister, friend and tribal elder. She was born on a fishing boat and raised in the Yup’ik village of Tununak on Nelson Island, Alaska. Her cultural background included Yupi’ik, Aleut, Athabascan, and Russian. Rita’s early education came from studying with her mother, aunts, and village elders. Because of this unique education, she intimately understands the traditional ways and beliefs of her people. Well known as a traditional healer, teacher and artist who has spent over forty years investigating, producing, and passing on many aspects of Alaska Native culture such as song, drumming, skin sewing, basketry, storytelling, and use of plants for dyes and medicinal purposes.

Southcentral Foundation has certified Rita Blumenstein as a Tribal Doctor (the first certified in the state of Alaska to see Alaska Native and American Indian patients at the Alaska Native Medical Center, Primary Care Center). Her philosophy is that the person must be treated as a whole since the various parts (physical, mental, and spiritual) are dependent upon each other.

She has traveled and taught all over the world including 167 countries – Alaska Native plant medicine, basket weaving, songs and dances, leading cultural issue classes where she instructs on the “talking circle.” Her curriculums have been recorded and published, such as Earth Dyes: Nuunam Qaralirkai. Rita has always focused on the health and social development of people. Rita believes in quality, family wellness and personifies these values by promoting her culture throughout our global community. She believes in educating and healing others through sharing cultural and traditional ways to promote self awareness and understanding as well as empowering individuals to move from illness to wellness; creating a collaborative environment in which individuals choose their path or their way in the wellness process.

International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers:

“The past is not a burden, it is a scaffold which brought us to this day. We are free to be who we are – to create our own life out of our past and out of the present. We are our ancestors. When we can heal ourselves, we also heal our ancestors, our grandmothers, our grandfathers and our children. When we heal ourselves, we heal Mother Earth.”


Rita Pitka Blumenstein (born 1936) is the first certified traditional doctor in Alaska.[1] She works for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. Blumenstein has been a member of the International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers—a group of spiritual elders, medicine women and wisdom keepers—since its founding in 2004.[2]

Early life

Born to her recently widowed mother who lived in the village of Tununak, Nelson Island, Alaska, Blumenstein was born while her mother was in a fishing boat.[3] Blumenstein felt angry not having her father around when she was a girl, because he died a month before she was born.[4] Blumenstein was given a Yup'ik name means 'Tail End Clearing of the Pathway to the Light'—Rita sees the poetry in the name as she regards herself as being born during "the tail end of the old ways".[5]


Blumenstein's healing abilities were recognised by the wise elders (grandmothers) of her tribe from an early age. Blumenstein began healing at the age of 4.[4]

At the age of nine, Blumenstein's great-grandmother gave her thirteen eagle feathers and thirteen stones to give to the International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers.[6] Years later, when the International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers convened for the first time, Blumenstein passed out these precious objects to the rest of the members with tears in her eyes.[7]

After Blumenstein started healing people from the age of 4.[4] She "worked at many hospitals delivering babies as a doctor's aide in Bethel and Nome".[8] Rita carried on learning from her elders to become the first certified traditional doctor in Alaska and presently works for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.[9]

Blumenstein has taught in over 150 countries on cultural issues, basket weaving, song, and dance, "earning money for Native American Colleges".[10][8] Her teachings about the "Talking circle" have been published.[10]

In 2004, Blumenstein was approached by The Center for Sacred Studies to serve on the International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers. The Council has been active in protecting indigenous rights and medicines, and traditional teachings on wisdom. She was interviewed on her work with the Council by the Women Rising Radio Project in 2011.[11]

Personal life

Blumenstein was married to her husband, a Jewish man, for 43 years. Five of Blumenstein's six children have also died.[10] Blumenstein's own health has not always been good and in 1995, she found that she had cancer.[1] Blumenstein saw that being diagnosed with cancer made her realise that she needed to heal herself at a 'deeper' level—concluding that the cancer was due to being angry that her father had not been present in her early years.[4] Blumenstein is training her granddaughter to follow in her footsteps in order to be a healer and to know their Yup'ik traditions.[10]

Awards and honors

  • In 2006, both Blumenstein's tribe, the Yup'ik and her mayor declared the 18 February to be Rita Pitka Blumenstein day.[10]

  • In 2009, Blumenstein was one of fifty women inducted into the inaugural class of the Alaska Women's Hall of Fame.[12]


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