Like many Alaska Natives of her generation, Lena Andree, Todd Palin's 87-year-old Yup'ik grandmother, grew up living between two worlds.

Share story

HOMER, Alaska — Like many Alaska Natives of her generation, Lena Andree, Todd Palin’s 87-year-old Yup’ik grandmother, grew up living between two worlds.

Her father was a Dutchman, Glass Eye Billy Bartman, a sled dog freighter in the Bristol Bay region and caretaker of the Alaska Packers saltry on the Igushik River.

Her mother was full-blooded Yup’ik, growing up in a sod-roofed barabara in the now-abandoned village of Tuklung, somewhere on the tundra between Dillingham and Togiak.

Growing up in two worlds along the Igushik River in Bristol Bay, Lena Bartman spoke broken English with her father and more fluent Yup’ik with her mother, whose Yup’ik name was Ahchitmook and western name was Amalia. Later she would make a career as a translator, bridging the cultures of Dillingham, speaking English with the doctors and storekeepers and pilots, and “speaking Native” with the residents.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

“I just love that language,” she says today.

Sarah Palin’s personal story has captivated America from the time she was named John McCain’s vice presidential candidate.

Yet the Heath family story is a familiar one in Alaska, a pioneer narrative. Her father was a schoolteacher who loved to hunt and fish. They moved to Alaska when Sarah was a newborn.

Todd Palin’s roots in Alaska are more complicated and run deeper — all the way back to that sod house on the tundra and the winter day Glass Eye Billy made a freight stop at Tuklung on a dog run to Togiak.

The musher, who had come to Alaska after leaving Holland at 14 as a cabin boy, saw a young woman dipping water from a frozen creek. The first thing he noticed about her was her fur boots and gorgeous white parka made from the supple fur of reindeer fawn.

The courtship and marriage arrangements took a year.

Their first-born’s full name was Helena, her Yup’ik name Tikchu, or Chickadee.

Andree grew up in the 1920s along the Igushik River. Along with her father, a couple of other white men lived nearby and looked after the saltries in winter — White Headed Pete and Rum and Gum Johnson.

Otherwise, her neighbors were Yup’ik families drawn by summer fishing jobs to live along the river.

“Kids would come to play, and sometimes my sister and I talked English and the kids said, ‘Don’t talk funny,’ ” Andree recalls today.

The idea that someday a grandchild of hers would be married to the governor of Alaska, much less to the Republican candidate for vice president of the United States — needless to say, such an idea never remotely entered the mind of a little Yup’ik girl playing along the tideflats of the Igushik.

“I have to say, is it really happening in my family?” says Andree, a short and sunny woman who now lives in Homer near a son and daughter. “Just to see her running. We love Sarah. She is kind of a special gal to me. She honors my Native side.”

As a candidate for governor two years ago, and more recently on the national stage, Sarah Palin has avidly pointed to her husband’s Eskimo heritage. Lena Andree is one-half Yup’ik, and Todd Palin is one-eighth.

The Palin children are Native, too — one-sixteenth, eligible for Indian health benefits under federal law, as lineal descendants of Native enrollees under the 1970 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

During the 2006 governor’s race, Palin introduced Andree on stage at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention and described her own family’s mixed roots as an example of how whites and Natives can surmount controversies that divide them.

“I look at Alaska as a family, and I want my own family to be used as an example of how it can work,” Palin told the state’s biggest Native organization that year.

When it came time to debate, however, Palin was often at odds with her Native listeners. On sensitive subsistence hunting and fishing issues, her positions resembled those of urban sportsmen’s groups who backed her.

In the election, she finished far behind Democrat Tony Knowles in rural, Native-dominated districts. Urban and small-town votes carried her to victory. As governor, she has come under criticism for not reaching out to Natives, though her efforts to assist rural Alaska economically have been praised.

Culturally, the Palins live a lifestyle of small-town Alaska. Todd does not take part in Native organizations or tribal politics. He grew up in Glennallen and Wasilla. His Native roots can be seen in his dividends from the Bristol Bay Native Corporation and boyhood visits with his grandma, where he learned to tend fish nets along the Nushagak River.

Efforts to reach Todd Palin for this story, through the governor’s office and the McCain campaign, were unsuccessful.

Sarah Palin’s display of Todd’s sweet Yup’ik grandmother drew some grumbles in Native political circles in 2006.

“It’s distasteful to say my husband is Native, my children are Native, so trust me. Just tell me what you believe,” said a Palin critic, former state Sen. Georgianna Lincoln, following the AFN debate that year.

But in a Native culture that respects its elders, no one has ever leveled criticism in Andree’s presence. People are just excited around her, Andree says.

“Minor things, we joke about,” she says. “They never disagreed with me, with Sarah.”

Todd was the grandson who took to fishing, Lena said.

Todd’s parents, Jim Palin and Lena’s daughter Blanche, met in Dillingham. After their divorce, Todd spent winters with his father in Glennallen but returned to Dillingham in summers, where he fished with Lena and Al Andree, learned about outboards and running lines, and helped smoke and can the salmon.

“Todd was always doing something,” his grandmother recalls. “He never likes to just sit down and talk.”

She said Todd purchased their limited entry permit and fish site in the early 1990s, after they had retired to Homer. Todd and Sarah Palin still return to fish the marker site at Kanakanak in summer.

There are things about Lena Andree’s life that maybe aren’t typical of all Alaska Natives.

She grew up in the mixed racial region of Bristol Bay, not an isolated Native village. Her two husbands, both passed away, were white. She is a Native corporation member but said she is not enrolled in a tribe. She was a Republican in a predominantly Democratic part of the state.

“She bridged both worlds, and was successful in both of them,” said her daughter Audrey Rearden.

Though Andree moved away from Dillingham after retiring, she returned to help campaign in 2006, speaking with Yup’ik elders who didn’t follow politics closely.

“I said, ‘You know Todd?’ All the Natives know Todd. I said, ‘His wife is running for Boss Alaska.’ “

There was special excitement in the village of Manokotak, she said, where survivors of the village of Tuklung moved after a flu epidemic. Today, Bartmans make up a significant part of the two-page phone listing there.

“Some of them call Sarah their cousin,” said Andree. “In Manokotak, there’s lotta cousins.”

But Bristol Bay, traditionally Democratic, followed the rest of Bush Alaska that year, despite the former Wasilla mayor’s family ties and setnet fishing experience.

Sarah Palin lost the 2006 governor’s election in Dillingham, 480-242. In Manokotak, Palin lost 63-33.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.