CIRI shareholder Tia Hale (Athabascan and Inupiaq) is passionate about, well, just about everything. Whether discussing her Alaska Native heritage, her work as a labor and delivery nurse, or being a wife and mother to two young children, her enthusiasm is infectious.
“When I decided to apply to nursing school, my husband was like, ‘OK, here’s another one of Tia’s goals!’” she laughed. “I always talk with him; we’re partners, and I know if I have a goal that he’ll support me. But he jokes that I always have a lofty goal or something I’m working toward.”
Tia is connected to CIRI through her mother, original enrollee Barbara Williams, whose family hails from Eklutna, Alaska; Tia’s great-great-grandfather was the village’s last traditional chief.
Though her parents both worked at the original Anchorage Medical Center (now the Alaska Native Medical Center, or ANMC), Tia said she didn’t grow up with particularly close ties to her Alaska Native heritage. “My first introduction to CIRI was when I went to college and received educational funding through The CIRI Foundation,” she said. “But since moving back to Anchorage as an adult, I’ve embraced my background and it’s become very natural. My mother gifted me some CIRI shares and that’s been great because I feel much more connected, especially with my extended family who are also shareholders. When my kids and I drive by Eklutna, we say ‘Hi, family!’ We try to make culture part of our daily lives.”
A ballet dancer as a child, a swimmer and runner in high school, and a triathlete in college, Tia was drawn to health science and earned a bachelor’s degree in exercise and sports science from Oregon State University. She started working as a personal trainer after college, “but it wasn’t enough,” she said. “I loved the coaching aspect, but I didn’t have the business mindset to take it further and open up a gym or be a director. I thought, where can I go with this? It seemed that nursing could be a good fit—it’s similar to exercise science in that it focuses on wellness and disease prevention, but there are so many different areas you can go into.”
Tia and her family moved from Anchorage to Oregon in 1997, the same year the modern-day ANMC was established. “I remember seeing the new hospital being built and thinking, oh my gosh, it’s absolutely gorgeous,” Tia recalled. “I was really sad we left Alaska when we did because I thought that I would like to be a part of it one day. I never dreamed I’d come back and work there 20 years later.”
Tia earned a second bachelor’s degree—this time in nursing from George Fox College—and, for the most part, she was enjoying life in Oregon. “I was working as a nurse and I kind of thought, this is where my life is—established friends and feeling part of the community. But at the same time, I had this feeling that it wasn’t enough, like my potential hadn’t been reached,” Tia said. “My family had been slowly moving back to Alaska and I visited them every year or so, and I just had this nostalgic feeling, like I really want to come back (to Alaska) and live closer to family.”
It didn’t take much to sell her husband on the idea—along with Tia’s twin sisters, the couple had worked for CIRI-owned Alaska Heritage Tours as deckhands out of Whittier in the summer of 2005. “We were in college and dating at the time, and I think he thought, I don’t want to let this girl go, so I’m going to Alaska too!” Tia laughed. “He hadn’t visited Alaska before, but he had a really good experience. He knew my sisters and it was really fun, the four of us working together.”
In 2017, Tia applied for a job at ANMC and was hired during the interview. Driving through Canada and crossing the border into Alaska, “I felt this overwhelming sense of joy and peace, like coming home,” she said. “It made me realize that even though I’d come back to visit, I’d essentially been gone from Alaska for 20 years. It really hit me.”
In addition to having worked at ANMC as a labor and delivery nurse the last five years, Tia is also a busy mother to two young children and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in nursing at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Trying to balance a career, parenthood and graduate school during the COVID-19 pandemic “was really difficult,” she admitted.
“In the beginning (of the pandemic), most of us were pretty scared and frustrated and sometimes angry,” Tia recalled. “We didn’t know how the virus would affect us as nurses, and we didn’t know how it would affect our families. It was especially hard on my kids because I’d come home and I’d say, ‘OK, mom’s home!’ and I’d immediately hop in the shower. They’re young and they didn’t quite understand; they were used to me coming home and being able to play with them and give them hugs. My husband and I didn’t want to tell them too much because we didn’t want them to be scared—we were trying to maintain whatever normalcy we could at home while staying safe.”
Despite the challenges, Tia “absolutely loves” being a nurse. Her job runs the gamut, from assessing patients in triage and managing labor to assisting in operating rooms and administering postpartum care. “Now that I’m at ANMC, there’s so much more I’ve gotten out of my job because I can relate to the patients a little bit more with what I’ve learned about my family and what I aspire to do,” she said. “I know a lot more about the historical trauma that’s occurred with Alaska Native people—how it can create health inequities and have profound implications on mental and physical health, even generations later. Historically, a lot of providers (at tribal health centers) haven’t been from the same background as those being served. What I want to do is be that face, to be a Native person serving Native people. It does make a difference, being a patient and coming in and being taken care by someone from a similar background.”
Next up for Tia: earning her master’s degree in nursing and becoming a commissioned corps officer with the U.S. Public Health Service, both of which should occur in 2022. “My goal is to focus on working for the Indian Health Service (IHS) because it has such a personal, deep-rooted sense of belonging for me,” she said. “I know the history of IHS with Native American and Alaska Native people, and I know they’re trying to better their approach and improve care.”
Whatever happens, we know Tia will keep making—and achieving—her goals.
For a link to Tia’s “Frontline Fight Song” created during the COVID-19 pandemic to honor her fellow nurses and health care workers, visit YouTube.