Tapestry: Ruby Carlson driven by her desire to learn

Ruby Carlson is seen June 22. (Photo courtesy Mike Rostad)

Many years ago, when Ruby Carlson was a little girl, she looked into the big Alaska sky and pointed to the moon.

“One day I’m going there,” she said.

“No one will ever go to the moon,” her mother told her.

Carlson made up her mind that, if that wasn’t possible, she’d make it possible.

Carlson didn’t become an astronaut, but she became one of the first female Alaska Native dentists.

She has traveled around the world and currently has a private office north of San Francisco and does work for a Native American clinic.

Periodically Carlson comes to Kodiak Island as an itinerant dentist for the Kodiak Area Native Association.

Although she’s kept busy on the island, she tries to visit family and friends.

“By me coming back, it’s very good for role modeling,” she said. Carlson shows women can do well in what was once considered a man’s profession. “Now we have almost 50 percent female dentists. In the 1940s, that number was probably 5 percent.”

To spice up an already exciting life, Carlson works with the FBI in the forensics field, identifying missing people. “I spread myself pretty thin. I’m always off doing something. I’m also on the hospitality committee with the American Dental Association and very active with the California Dental Association.”

Carlson became interested in dentistry when she was a girl in the village of Chignik Bay on the Alaska Peninsula. At the time itinerant doctors, dentists and nurses traveled to Alaska coastal villages on the North Star. “I thought, ‘Wow, I’d like to do that when I like to grow up!”

Few people looking at Ruby Carlson knew the ambitions that welled inside her imagination.

“I was very shy,” she said. “They probably voted me the least successful. Some people judge the exterior, instead of looking inside. If you don’t like the title of a book, you don’t read it. (Therefore you) might miss out on something.”

Those who really knew Ruby could see that her shy exterior masked a determined girl.

“Whenever someone told me I couldn’t do it, I’m doing it.”

When Carlson attended school in Kodiak, she ran into a teacher who tied to discourage her from taking a chemistry class.

“She said that, since I was from a village and a Native, that there was no use for me to take this kind of class. She told me I wasn’t able to do it.”

That didn’t make sense to Carlson, someone who “always was inquisitive,” she said. “When dad bought radios, I’d tear them apart. You want to know more than what the answer is. If you get a little answer now, you’re hungry for something more.”

Carlson credits her parents, Rudolph and Tina Wallin Carlson, for teaching her the love of learning. Some of that learning was practical, every day survival.”Dad tried to keep us busy fishing. We fished salmon in the lagoon every summer, from the time I was 10 until I was 18 or 19. I liked the excitement of getting a net full of fish. Sometimes we’d get 4,000 to 5,000 fish in one haul. We’d have to drag the seine because we couldn’t get it all in the boat.”

Carlson and her siblings also trapped weasels, mink and foxes. “We’d skin them and send them out and get a dollar for them,” she said.

The children often had to check the traps before they went to school.

Carlson’s father taught her the ethics of working hard and surviving own. He was 12 years old when his father, Axel Carlson, died.

“He got a job at the cannery, washing dishes and cooking. When he was 17 or 18, he had first little boat, the Spencer.”

That boat went aground when a group of Chignik people traveled to Kodiak in winter 1948.

“My dad was a very social, care-giving person. When he did well with fishing, he would buy extra stuff, make us put it in bags and take them to village people” who weren’t as fortunate as they were.

Life changed for Carlson when she moved to Kodiak to go to high school. Her world expanded even more when she left Alaska at age 19 to attend school in Seattle. She married a Navy man and lived at bases in Hawaii, the Philippines, Adak and other places.

She took classes at universities and university branches in Adak, Hawaii, Virginia and Washington.

She received her degree at the University of the Pacific School of Dentistry 1990.

She worked on a Holland America cruise ship as dentist for 10 years and was a volunteer in Grenada.

Carlson has visited every continent on the globe.

Now that she been to about every place one can travel to (except the moon), she realizes that Alaska is the best.

Like her ancestors, she’s learned how to live in two worlds.

“I try to maintain my roots,” she said. “I still like hunting and fishing. I learn to be adaptable.”

She can spend the day in sealskin slippers and other Native clothing and, in the evening, put on a cocktail dress and slip into high heels in 15 minutes to go to the president’s ball. “It don’t take long to change yourself around,” she said.

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