Rita Blumenstein was born on July 11, 1936, and spent the first five days of her life, on a fishing boat while her mother was traveling back to her home village of Tununak on Nelson Island. Although Rita has adopted many cultures over the years, her roots lie with the Yup’ik, Aleut, Athabascan, and Russian people. Her father’s death a month before Rita was born meant that she was raised by her mother, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers. These wise women were able to share their knowledge and from a very early age they were able to see the light and knew that she was destined to be a healer. As a young girl, she became ill with diphtheria, and so for years she could barely breathe and would only have the comforts of the voices that surrounded her. By the time she was nine she began receiving visions and started her lifelong work as a healer. In time, she would also become an artist with work that resides in the Smithsonian, a teacher that has taught in over 150 countries, and one of 13 International Council of Grandmothers from all around world with the mission to heal our mother earth.
Before her father passed away he had set aside some money and insisted that Rita should attend school, so from three to seven years old she attended the Montessori School in Seattle. Rita’s grandmothers also wanted her to receive a formal education but understood that education means that we must learn about ourselves as well. Rita was able to balance the old ways of the Native people and the new from this western influence. By the time she was fourteen years old, she was traveling with a traditional midwife to assist in childbirth, going to fish camps in the summer and people’s homes in the winter. She was able to learn about the plants and how to use them as medicine, not only for childbearing but to heal all ailments. She continues to use and share herbs with people today. Her respect for these plants and how they heal people is reflected in the kind words she has with the plants, regularly thanking the plant and discussing the plant’s part in the healing process.
She continued to work as a healer in a more western tradition as a Community Health Aide, medical assistant and a nurse’s aid in the Bethel area, where area she was able to deliver 180 babies. In 1960 she married, and for 43 years they lived a happy and prosperous life. Together they brought six children into this world. Rita and her husband lived in the Nome area until 1973 when they moved to Palmer. While living in the Matanuska Susitna Valley she was able to refine her skills in skin sewing, basket weaving, and plant gathering, along with becoming a teacher worldwide. In 1995 she became the first certified traditional practitioner at Southcentral Foundation’s Traditional Healing Clinic. Today she is the manager for the Native Ways of Knowing at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium-Behavioral Health (BHRS). She works with Behavioral Health Aides, suicide and substance abuse prevention, and other behavioral health related initiatives, and shares her knowledge of traditional healing to create more culturally rounded programs.
In 1995, she was diagnosed with cancer and realized that it was time to come to terms with the lifelong anger she held onto for her father’s absence. She explained that “God said there is only abundance, and the only way through is to forgive. Holding on to negative emotions becomes cancer or another illness. Our healing is not just for ourselves, it is for the universe. We forget who we are, and that is the cause of our illness.” This belief is at the core of the healing practice she has used since she was four years old. When asked how she uses this energy to heal, she has said, “The secret is that I don’t know anything. I am your friend; I am not sick, not sad, and not angry. But what about you?”
In 2004, Rita joined 12 other grandmothers on the International Council of 13 Grandmothers. During the first gathering Rita gave all the other grandmothers two presents, a stone and an eagle plume. Rita explained that these gifts were not from her, but when she was nine years old her great-grandmother gave them to her and said that she was to give them to the grandmothers’ council the first time that they would meet. She cried as she explained that “Thirteen stones in honor of the thirteen Grandmothers, the thirteen planets in our universe, and the thirteen full moons of the year. We’re late, but we’re here!” The mission of the council is to discuss the issues related to the environment, internationalism, and human rights. They want to change the way that Mother Earth is being destroyed and use traditional indigenous ways to do it.
Rita’s Yup’ik names, Canirraq, Pamyuran and Tanqiar together mean “Tail End Clearing of the Pathway to the Little Light.” She believes this guides her on the path of healing, because although she “caught the tail end of the old days,” she is able to use the new technology of today to spread her wisdom all over the world. Her life is an extraordinary example of what people can accomplish when they believe in themselves and know who they truly are. Her positive energy radiates and has affected everyone she meets. Her outlook on forgiveness, happiness, and tradition is something that we can all strive for and we are blessed that she continues to share her wisdom with us to this day.