A story about the baby formula shortage in Russian Mission caught the eye of artist and activist CeeJay Johnson, who stepped in to organize a big donation. The post office in Russian Mission has been intermittently closed for nearly half a year. Both the village store and mothers who receive benefits from the Women, Infants and Children Program rely on U.S. Postal Service for formula shipments and have been running dangerously low.
When Johnson caught wind of the story, she posted the information to her Facebook page, Kooteen Creations, and her page on Reddit. She received many messages of support and offers to donate supplies. Johnson organized the donation deliveries, which were dropped off before Christmas.
Although Johnson has never been to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in person, she knows the struggles of the region well. She was born and raised in Sitka, and she went to Mt. Edgecumbe boarding school where she made friends with many students from the Y-K Delta villages.
She’s also Indigenous herself, with Sioux and Tlingit ancestry. Johnson spent many years working in tribal governance in Alaska as well as in the Lower 48. In short, she was uniquely prepared to help with relief efforts.
Johnson originally started her Kooteen Creations Facebook page as a platform for selling her art and beadwork. But when the pandemic struck, she started using it as an antidote to feelings of isolation among Native communities.
“I noticed that a lot of Native peoples were having some difficulties coping with the burden of self-isolation. So I started this project called ‘Bead Your State,” she said.
For the project, Johnson beaded Alaska and Washington and she invited Indigenous people from all over the U.S. to join in and help her complete the map. The project grew to include the provinces of Canada and her platform grew to thousands of followers.
Johnson always used her platform for political posts, but she started organizing donations in October when she read an article reporting that the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation was dangerously low on gloves. She organized a team to donate supplies and soon the efforts expanded.
Now she coordinates donations of hand-sewn masks, other personal protective equipment, baby formula and many other supplies to villages. In just two months from her initial relief effort, her team has grown to dozens of volunteers. Donated supplies are sent to a storeroom owned by Calista Corporation in Anchorage, where they are inventoried, packed up and shipped off to the villages.
“Because the last thing we wanted to do was send 5,000 masks to villages with 400 people because they don’t need that many,” she said.
Johnson knows that post offices can’t always be relied on in rural Alaska, so it’s best to coordinate deliveries directly through small shipping services like Ryan Air, which gave their services to her relief efforts for free.
“I’m really good at getting people to help,” laughed Johnson.
She’s not lying. To get Ryan Air to help, she reached out to her former high school classmate who is married to its president.
Russian Mission is benefitting from Johnson’s efforts.
Margie Larson, who is a mother of a 5-year-old and a 7-month-old, hasn’t received a formula delivery from WIC in almost two months so she was relieved to get the formula canisters.
“I was posting almost every day on Facebook channel for formula, any kind of formula ’cause my daughter was out. We were really, really happy for that package that came in from KC,” Larson said.
But the donation formula will only last her two weeks. A temporary postmaster was supposed to show up early last week, according to a representative for USPS. But Olga Changsak, the tribal administrator, said that she was two days late. The tribe was concerned that she would only be in town for one day, and would not have enough time to get to all of the WIC boxes.
Russian Mission still has one applicant for the position of postmaster, who is waiting to hear back. But the process usually takes at least 30 days, and the company handling the background checks has been slow since the start of the pandemic.
In the meantime, Johnson is sending more donated formula.