One of Alaska’s most esteemed elders, Annie Cungauyar Blue, whose wisdom and integrity earned her the rank of a tribal judge in the Bristol Bay region and whose understanding of traditional Yup’ik language and culture was sought by scholars around the world, died Monday at her home in the Western Alaska village of Togiak. She was 97.
“She passed away very peacefully,” said her daughter, Nellie Thomas. “I thought she’d fallen asleep.”
Blue was born Feb. 21, 1916, in Qissagyaaq, a camp on the Togiak River not far from the mouth of Togiak Lake. She lived what she once described as “a hard life,” losing seven of her eight children and coming close to death herself at least once. But with the establishment of the first school in Togiak, in 1959, she began sharing the knowledge and stories she’d learned as a girl with local students.
She left Alaska for the first time in 1997, part of a group of Yup’ik elders who traveled to New York and Berlin to inspect artifacts collected from Western Alaska in the 1800s that seldom had been seen since. The group looked at thousands of items, told stories that they knew about such things and advised researchers about the items’ meanings and purposes. The result of their trip was the groundbreaking exhibit “Agayuliyararput: The Living Tradition of Yup’ik Masks,” which opened at the Smithsonian Institution in October that year and was later seen in Anchorage.
That same year she shared Elder of the Year honors with Stanton Katchatag of Unalakleet at the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention. AFN gave her a Culture Bearer Award in 1998. In addition to her contribution to the “Agayuliyararput” exhibit, the award cited her work as a judge on the Togiak Elders Court and her talent for telling stories.
Those stories and her recollections made an appearance in a range of Alaska literature from elementary school books now in use in Western Alaska to academic studies and international publications. Her book “Cungauyaraam Qulirai: Annie Blue’s Stories” received a 2007-2008 HAIL Award (Honoring Alaska’s Indigenous Literature) in 2007-08. The University of Alaska Fairbanks awarded her an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters in 2009.
Blue was also a repository of Yup’ik songs and dances. When people started getting homesick during the long trips she made with other elders, she would often cheer them up by singing. At one time in Germany, when the elders were serenaded by a musician at a medieval festival, she joined the late Andy Paukan of St. Marys and others in responding with Yup’ik tunes to the astonishment and amusement of the Europeans.
Short and bespectacled, with hair that remained jet black even in her 80s, Blue could often be found at Native arts and craft shows. She was particularly admired for her fine basket-making. She had stopped her artwork for some time before her death, Thomas said. But some of her exquisitely woven, brightly decorated baskets are now in museum collections.
She is survived by her daughter and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Her funeral is planned to take place in Togiak on Saturday.
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.