TWC hosted its 12th Annual Yukegtaaraat Celebration on April 12th, 2014 at the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center in Bethel. Nels Alexie of Bethel, Andrew Jasper of Akiak and Bethel, and Annie Kinegak of Akiachak were recognized for their work in preserving and passing on elder wisdom in the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta. Tiffany Tony prepared the meal. Members of TAAV helped throughout the night, and offered a reading of their poem, “When We are Elders.” Many local organizations and individuals supported TWC’s silent auction and were sponsors of the event. Below is a short biography of each of the elders who were recognized.
Nels “Ciukq” Alexie
Nels Alexie was born at his family’s spring camp on May 15, 1943 when the geese were flying and the muskrats were swimming. His parents, Willie and Anna, raised him and his siblings in Napakiak and later, Tuntutuliak, where Nels met his classmate, Katy Green, of Eek and Tuntutuliak. Katy and Nels married in 1966.
As a young man, Nels enjoyed trapping and fishing during warm weather, and traveling and camping with his dog team during the winter. An elder in his community, Mary Nicholas of Kasigluk, gave him advice about caring for his dogs, but also about “utumalluni yulerkaq”—how to be a better person and how to live better. Nels mushed until 1968 when he realized that he could no longer live off the land and needed to pursue a degree so that he could have a full-time job. When Nels went to work at a fish cannery in North Naknek, his coworkers encouraged him to pursue an education and learn English.
In 1967, Nels enrolled at Anchorage Community College for three months, where he learned how to work as a teacher’s aide. From 1967-1969 he was a teacher’s aide at BIA School in Tuntutuliak. He and his family moved to Bethel in 1969, so that he could work for Northern Commercial Company and as a teacher’s aide at the state-sponsored school. In 1970, Nels was invited to take educational courses through Teacher Corps, and he continued to work as a teacher’s aide. He began school with a 2.5 reading level in English and no high school background. He remembers that school “wasn’t easy,” but that he had support from friends and family. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in education in August of 1974, and soon began travelling to villages and teaching small engine repair classes as an instructor for Kuskokwim Community College.
In 1990, Nels started working full-time at Bethel Regional High school, where he was “the detention man” and later a Yup’ik teacher. Every time that he stood in front of his students to teach, he remembered his father’s words: “Speak not what you cannot do. Speak not what you have not done.” Nels believes that you can only teach things that you have learned from your own experiences.
Nels retired in 2010 and for the last year, when they are invited, he and Katy speak with participants of Healthy Families. They offer guidance about living healthier, better lives—utamalluni yulerkaq. Nels says, “Once you share what you know, you will not lose anything.” He enjoys sharing his skills and learns more every day. Nels is well-known for his leadership of the annual Kuskokwim 300 dog sledding race, of which he is the Race Marshal. Katy and Nels have six children (Lucinda, Gookey, Alton, Berrina, Antone, and Hans) who all live in Bethel.
Andrew “Miissaq” Jasper
Miissaq Andrew Jasper, named after his mother’s father, was born on July 3, 1944 in Akiak to Willie and Agnes Jasper. He had two brothers and one adopted sister who has since passed and one surviving sister. He still remembers the wisdom that his mother told him growing up in Akiak. Foremost among those lessons is a commitment to confidentiality. Beyond the adherence to confidentiality mandated by law for many these days, Andrew’s mother told Andrew not to gossip and to answer inquiries about others with “I don’t know.”
Andrew continued living in Akiak until he began attending the Chemawa Indian School. Two years thereafter, he transferred to Mount Edgecumbe. In the 1960s, Andrew graduated from the Alaskan Moravian Bible Seminary before earning his GED in 1981 and his Rural Human Services degree in 2000.
Andrew married his wife, Sarah, in 1974. They have six daughters and two adopted sons, both of whom passed tragically in 1999. From their surviving children they have been blessed with sixteen grandchildren, one of whom they adopted.
Andrew’s career has spanned a variety of placements over his decades of service to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. A theme of care for others is common to all those positions. After serving the people of Akiak as mayor for ten years, Andrew became a tribal chief in 2000. During much of his time in political office, from 1995-1999, he also worked as a behavioral health aid stationed in Akiak. He was later employed by what is now the Yupiit School District. Students benefited greatly from his tenure as a janitor and bilingual teacher. Andrew then started working for the Early Childhood program until he was hired as family support by ONC. Andrew’s positive influence continued to spread when he worked for AVCP as a Healthy Families facilitator before returning to ONC as a rural child welfare worker. Andrew is currently living in Bethel where he continues his work with ONC and facilitating both Healthy Families with his wife, Sarah, as well as Healthy Relationships. Continuing his work at ONCE has meant that Andrew has had to adjust to living in Bethel, separated from the majority of his family, who largely live back in Akiak. Although the separation from his home and family has been hard, Andrew maintains a fervent commitment to staying in Bethel and caring for the people of the YK Delta. He cites home-visits and having the opportunity to facilitate Healthy Families as two of the most rewarding aspects of his work. His contributions extend beyond employment and into his family life as well; as foster parents, Andrew and Sarah have long welcomed children into their home.
Annie “Paniluk” Kinegak was born on October 31, 1945 at fall camp in “Tundra, Alaska,” to Wassillie and Helena George. She is the oldest of five brothers and four sisters and grew up in Akiachak with them. Every year, Annie went to spring and fall camp with her family. At spring camp, she remembers going with her grandmother on her mom’s side to hunt for eggs and gather wood. Because her grandmother was blind, she would sit on the tundra and Annie would run around and gather dry wood to bring to her so she could cut them and fit them into a gunny sack. During fall camp she liked to gather grass with her grandmother for it to be tied up and made into baskets.
When she was growing up in Akiachak she was told many things by her elders. Joe Lomack used to tell her to go to Sunday school and that she will gain her wisdom and knowledge from those teachings. And from her mother she was told no matter who you see or look at, don’t pass judgment on anyone, because you don’t know what’s in their heart. Her Grandpa George would tell her there are powers and energies in the world. And he would compare the sun with the water. He would say that the sun has power, but you can find shade and cool off from its heat. And the water has the most power because it can drown you. These things she remembers. She always believed that what her elders told her was important and listened when they talked.
The other four to five months of the year Annie spent in school. When she finished 8th grade in Akiachak she went to Mt. Edgecumbe in Sitka for four years and graduated in 1965.
After she graduated from Mt. Edgecumbe she came back to Akiachak and worked at the Alaskan Department of Health, where she met Ralph Kinegak. They married in 1967 and had five children together who are all grown with families of their own. Annie and Ralph have 20 grandchildren and 6 great-grandchildren.
In 1977 she went to the Oregon College of Education to pursue a degree in teaching. In 1980 she graduated with a certification in secondary reading and language arts. She taught for over 30 years in the Akiachak School. The best thing about teaching for Annie is the “ah-ha” moments that kids have when they come to understand something. In her last year at the school she worked in the front office and was nick-named the Dean of Students. She retired in 2011.
Annie has always been active in her Moravian Church. She loves that music is a stronghold of the church and that many events focus on music. The Church Elders often ask her to counsel couples before they get married and she tells them that trust comes with love. That couples need to trust each other, and most of all, love each other.
She learned from both western and traditional schools. She learned how to earn a living from her western education. But she remembers her traditional wisdom more, in a way. The wisdom she learned from her ancestors is what she passes on to her own people. She honors both and is grateful for both.