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Rosita Kaahani Worl , PH.D.

Photo of Rosita Kaahani Worl , PH.D.
Tlingit Names: Yeidiklats’okw and Kaa.hani 1938
Categories: 2012 Alumnae, Alaska Native Cultural Leadership


Dr. Rosita Kaahani Worl, whose Tlingit names are Yeidiklats’okw and Kaa.hani, is of the Ch’áak’(Eagle moiety of the Shangukeidi (Thunderbird) Clan from the Kawdiyaayi Hít (House Lowered from the Sun) of Klukwan, and a Child of the Sockeye Clan. Worl is a self-proclaimed feminist who has made many contributions to increase awareness about Alaska Native cultures and subsistence economies. She has authored numerous publications on Alaska Native issues and cultural practices including subsistence lifestyles, Alaska Native women’s issues, Indian law and policy and southeast Alaska Native culture and history.

Born in a cabin on a beach without the benefit of a physician, Worl was raised insoutheast Alaska by her grandmother, aunt and mother, and commercial fished with her uncle in Kake. “Females back then weren’t allowed to participate in fishing activities,” Wohl explained. At age six, Worl was taken to the Haines House to learn English and to be “civilized” and “Christianized.” She was there for three years before her mother was able to take her home to live with her 12 brothers and sisters. Looking back on the experience, “I learned how to interact with non-Natives,” Worl said, “but my mother always instilled in me that I had a responsibility to the people.”

At age 13 Worl was told she would be the bride in an arranged marriage but the family agreed she should first finish high school. After high school, Worl ran a program that recruited Alaska Natives for higher education and in essence, she said, “I recruited myself.” Worl started college by taking one class at a time.  “School wasn’t easy because there were so many (English) words I didn’t know.  I had to look them up andometimes I had to read things three times before I understood what I was reading. I had a sociology instructor who mentored me, but I really had to work hard.  I was already a mother of three and my kids and I studied together.”

Worl received her bachelor’s degree from Alaska Methodist University and her master’s and doctorate’s degrees in Anthropology from Harvard University.  In academia, she has served as the social scientific researcher at the University of Alaska Arctic Environmental  Information and Data Center and is currently an assistant professor of anthropology at the University  of Alaska Southeast. Worl has done extensive research throughout Alaska and the circumpolar Arctic. She conducted the first social scientific study projecting socio-cultural impacts of offshore oil development on the Inupiat and she has studied traditional aboriginal whaling, which gave her the privilege of being one of the first women allowed to go whaling. Worl also served as a scientific advisor to the U.S. Whaling Commission and has conducted research on seal hunting in Canada for the Royal Commission on Sealing. She served on the National Scientific Advisory Committee and the National Science Foundation Polar Programs Committee. Worl also served as special advisor to the Honorable Thomas Berger of the Alaska Native Review Commission and studied the impacts of ANCSA.

Currently, Worl is the president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, which is dedicated to preserving and maintaining the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures and languages; and a board member of Sealaska Corporation. Worl also serves on the Alaska Native Brotherhood Subsistence Committee and the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indians Economic Development Commission.

On a state and national level, Worl serves on the board of directors of the Alaska Federation of Natives and chairs the Subsistence Cultural Survival Committees, the National Museum of American Indians and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act National Committee. She was special staff assistant for Native Affairs to Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper and served as a member of President Bill Clinton’s Northwest Sustainability Commission. Worl was appointed to the National Census Board focusing on American Indian issues and is a founding member of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. She also served as a member of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History Arctic Committee.

In addition to her plethora of academic and professional accomplishments, Worl is the recipient of numerous honors, including a Ford Foundation Fellowship (1972-1977), International Women’s Year Conference (1977), the Gloria Steinem Award for Empowerment (1989), Women of Hope (1997), Outstanding Contribution, Alaska Native Heritage Center (2000), Human Rights Award, Cultural Survival (2002), Women of Courage Award (NWPC (2003), Native People Award Enhancing the Native Alaskan Community, Wells Fargo (2004), National Museum of the Indian Smithsonian Institution Honor (2006), University of Alaska Southeast Commencement Speaker (2006), Distinguished Service to the Humanities Award (2008) Governor’s Award for the Arts & Humanities, Solon T. Kimball Award for Public and Applied Anthropology, American Anthropological Association (2008), Lifetime Achievement Award, Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (2011) and the Alaska Federation of Natives Citizen of the Year Award (2011). Worl is also one of 11 American Indian women activists represented in a national poster campaign called “Women of Hope,” which highlights their contributions to their people and society. Worl said, “I continue every morning to implore my ancestors to bestow on me the qualities of an Elder – to be kind, compassionate and to do the right thing.”

Induction ceremony acceptance speech

Harriman Expedition Retraced, site Index, Rosita Worl, Anthropologist.
Dr. Rosita Worl’s Curricula Vita provided by Sea Alaska Heritage Institute with permission from Dr. Worl. (2012)
Dr. Rosita Worl’s bio provided by Sea Alaska Heritage Institute with permission from Dr. Worl. (2012)

Esther Wunnicke

Photo of Esther Wunnicke
Categories: 2009 Alumnae, Land/Resource Rights


Raised in New Mexico, Esther came to Alaska in 1963 with two babies and her husband Bill Wunnicke, an engineer with USGS. She had a law degree from George Washington University, where she had been the first woman to serve on the Law Review. She devoted the next 30 years to leading organizations that actively managed the land and resources of Alaska and advocated on behalf of Native land rights. In 1982, Governor Sheffield appointed Esther the Commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, where she served as the “land lady” of Alaska’s 104 million acres of land.

After retiring from public employment, she initiated a citizen organization named “Alaska Common Ground,” whose purpose is to collect and disseminate information on Alaska public policy issues and to promote citizen understanding through forums and reports. Esther has mentored hundreds of women as they began their own careers in natural resource management in Alaska.

Dr. Leonie von Meusebach Zesch D.D.S.

Photo of Dr. Leonie von Meusebach Zesch D.D.S.
Categories: 2012 Alumnae, Dentistry, Health Care


Dr. Leonie von Meusebach Zesch spent the majority of her life caring for children, the disadvantaged and U.S. service men and women through her profession of dentistry. In 1902 von Zesch, the daughter of a German countess, earned her Doctor of Dental Surgery degree from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in San Francisco at the age of 19. During the course of her lifetime, von Zesh carried her dental expertise from the Hopi Indians in Arizona to the frozen reaches of Little Diomede Island and other points north, often by dogsled, to care for Alaska’s indigenous people.

Von Zesch was born in Texas in 1883, and at age 5 moved with her mother and sister to California. Four years after earning her dentistry degree, von Zesch’s home and office burned to the ground in the San Francisco earthquake and fires of 1906 and she moved on to Texas, then to Arizona where she provided dental services to Army and Navy officers and servicemen.  She also attended to Hopi elders and residents in northern Arizona Mormon communities. On Christmas Day 1915, von Zesch arrived in Cordova, Alaska, where her sister and brother-in-law lived, and she temporarily took over a practice for a local dentist. After obtaining a special license to practice, Gov. Thomas Riggs Jr., appointed her to the Territorial Board of Dental Examiners. In the spring, she made a long trip to Fairbanks, Dawson and Skagway and decided to open her own dental practice in Cordova. She returned to Cordova in 1917. Waiting for her professional certification from the territory, von Zesch set up an interim practice at Katalla and did some postgraduate study at Northwestern University. She then assumed the practice of a Cordova dentist who died in the influenza epidemic.

After the collapse of copper prices, von Zesch moved to the new railroad town of Anchorage in 1920. There she met and worked with Jane Mears, president of the Parent Teacher Association, to develop a dental care program for schoolchildren. She promoted a healthy diet and healthy teeth. In 1923 von Zesch took a break to study writing at Columbia University and to travel in Europe. She returned to Alaska in 1925, this time living in Nome. She opened a dental office, but two months later the building burned to the ground.  Needing money but also seeing a need for dental services for Alaska Native people in their isolated villages, von Zesch signed a contract with the U.S. Bureau of Education (which provided medical services as well as operating schools in Alaska). For the next five years, she traveled, usually just with her assistant – another woman – by dog team from Nome around the Seward Peninsula, north to Barrow and to Little Diomede, Saint Lawrence, and King islands. As she traveled, she provided dental services to others as well, often setting up her dental chair, as needed, at roadhouses.

Travel, summer and winter, around Alaska is challenging. Returning to Nome from a trip to White Mountain and Pilgrim Hot Springs, von Zesch suffered from snow blindness. On a trip at the end of one winter, she and her assistant were stranded on a flooding riverbank and rescued with only minutes to spare by famed dog musher Leonhard Seppala. In July 1929 heading for Point Barrow, the plane she was aboard crashed north of the Arctic Circle. She “walked out” 52 miles to Kotzebue. Picked up by a Coast Guard cutter, she proceeded on her trip to Barrow and East Cape, Chamisso Island, before returning to Nome.

After 15 years in the North, von Zesch left in 1930 to care for her mother in California. During the Great Depression, she provided dental services with the UXA (Unemployment Exchange Association) in Oakland and then for Civilian Conservation Corps workers in California’s gold rush country.  Over two years she drove 150,000 miles from camp to camp providing dental care.  In 1937 she was appointed the resident dentist at the California Institution for Women, the state’s prison for women in Tehachapi, and worked there until 1943.  She died the following year at age 61.

In the 1920s America did not have many women professionals. Dr. von Zesch was one. She was the first woman dentist licensed in the Territory of Alaska. Most of her career was spent working in isolated and remote areas in the southwestern United States and Alaska. Throughout her career she exhibited a commitment to promoting and providing dental care to children and to those who were disadvantaged.

Induction ceremony acceptance speech

Von Zesch, Leonie, Leonie – A Woman Ahead of Her Time. Studio City, California: Lime
Orchard Publications, 2011

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