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Shirley Nielsen was born in Iliamna, Alaska and has also lived in Levelock and Kokhanok, Alaska. Her father died in 1945, leaving her mother to care for fourteen children, Shirley being the oldest. The family traveled around the region by dog team to go hunting, trapping and fishing to support themselves. She married John Nielsen in the late 1950's and they lived in various communities in the area, until permanently settling in Kokhanok in 1964. Shirley starting working as the health aide in Kokhanok in 1966 when it was just a volunteer position and continued providing health care to the community into the late 1990s.