Yup'ik scholar Oscar Kawagley dies at 76

Validated Native learning among scholars

April 26, 2011 

Alaska has lost one of its most influential teachers and thinkers. Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley died in Fairbanks on Sunday of renal cancer. He was 76.

Over the course of a prolific career, he explored how the Yup'ik concepts he learned as a boy on the tundra could work in concert with western education and he became a pioneer in the field of indigenous knowledge, not just in Alaska but in the academic world at large.

Kawagley was born in Bethel to David Kawagley of Akiak and Amelia Oscar of Bethel on Nov. 8, 1934. His parents died when he was 2 years old, and he was raised by his grandmother, Matilda Oscar.

Matilda Oscar spoke only Yup'ik and trained him in traditional Native life ways as he grew up in the fish camps and villages of the lower Kuskokwim region. At the same time she insisted that he learn the western ideas taught in the government schools.

According to the obituary published in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, "Although this created conflicting values and caused confusion for him for many years, he sought to find ways in which his (Yup'ik) peoples' language and culture could be used in the classroom to meld the contemporary ways to the (Yup'ik) thought world."

Despite the difficulties, he did well in school. He is said to have been the first Yup'ik to graduate from high school in Bethel. In 1956 he became a research assistant at the Arctic Health Research Center. In 1958, before Alaska became a state, he earned his bachelor's degree in education at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

For the next several years, which included a stint on active duty as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Medical Services Corps, he taught elementary and high school in Tok, Glennallen and Anchorage. He received his master's degree in education at UAF in 1968 and superintendent certification in 1987.

From 1977 to 1981, he was the president of the Calista Corp. He also did some acting, with a major role in the independent movie "Salmonberries" with k.d. lang, an appearance on the television show, "Northern Exposure" and a voice in the Disney animated feature "Brother Bear."

But education remained his life's work. Among other positions, he was the director of the Indian Education Project for the Anchorage School District, the supervisor for the State of Alaska Boarding Home Project, and had a long association with the Rural Alaska Honors Institute.

In 1991, while working on a doctorate degree in social and educational studies at the University of British Columbia, he published a paper, "Yup'ik Ways of Knowing," that set a new course in the study of indigenous knowledge systems. Expanding it into a book, "A Yupiaq Worldview: A pathway to ecology and spirit" (Waveland Press, 1995), he explained how western science could benefit from Native ways of understanding -- and vice versa.

In the process, he developed the concept of "indigenous methodology" a term not used in academe at the time. It is now.

Kawagley would continue exploring these ideas for the rest of his life, in publications, essays, speeches, participation at international conferences and, above all, as an associate professor of education at UAF. There, he taught an encyclopedic range of subject matter, from Yup'ik language to psychology to law.

His honors included serving on the executive committee of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, receiving the Governor's Award for the Humanities and the Distinguished Service Award from the Alaska Federation of Natives.

Sean Topkok, who manages information systems for UAF's Alaska Native Knowledge Network, has both worked with and been a student of Kawagley. The program is founded on Kawagley's ideas, Topkok said.

Topkok recalled Kawagley's cross-cultural course, in which he was a student. "He was really well aware of the topic and passionate about different aspects of indigenous knowledge. He was an excellent listener to the students, knowledgeable not only in learning but in expressing his ideas."

As a teacher, Kawagley stressed giving Native and western knowledge equal weight, Topokok said. "Not one over the other, but at the same level."

"He helped validate indigenous knowledge systems within academia," said Topkok. "I think he inspired people worldwide. Today a lot of indigenous groups are trying to emulate what he did."

His ashes will be scattered on the tundra in the lower Kuskokwim.


Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.

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