June 30, 1997

Willie Kasayulie

After attending high school in Oregon and Vermont, Willie Kasayulie returned to Akiachak to promote tribal self-government. "I stated I would fight for the rights of my people, even though I might be discouraged," he said. "Never giving it any thought I would be doing it on a full-time basis." (Anchorage Daily News photo by Anne Raup)

Kasayulie devotes life to sovereignty for Yupiit

By Sheila Toomey
Daily News reporter

Willie Kasayulie looked up the definition of ''nation'' in the dictionary, then came home to Southwestern Alaska and started one.

That's not how Kasayulie would put it. He would say the Yupiit nation has always existed. It's just been beaten down for 250 years -- a mere blip in the 30,000 years of Yup'ik history -- by a destructive, alien culture.

Kasayulie, 46, mirrors the evolution of other Native sovereignty leaders who were born into the tail end of the Bureau of Indian Affairs era, raised in the assimilation era, and radicalized in the settlement act era.

He wants to leave his five children and two grandchildren a healthy tribal community and has been working since his teens to make sure the new sovereignty flourishes, at least among the villages of Southwestern Alaska.

Born in Fairbanks, raised in Akiachak, 15 miles upriver from Bethel, Kasayulie went to the village Bureau of Indian Affairs school through sixth grade, then off to the BIA's Wrangell Institute for two years, followed by a year at a BIA school in Oregon. He ended up spending three years at a non-BIA high school in Vermont, beneficiary of something called the ''Better Chance Program'' for Native youth. He came home three times a year, and spent summers at Dartmouth College.

He missed home but recognized even then that the ''mainstream'' education was much more challenging, and more broadening, than anything offered by the BIA.

''It was a good thing for me because it allowed me to be exposed to Outside influences.''

He returned to Akiachak in 1971, the year the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act became law, and took over management of the village-owned store. In less than three years, he was deep into village and regional politics.

ANCSA, a growing number of villagers argued, had not helped them address the issues they cared most about -- education, fish and game, child adoption, liquor and drug abusers. Villagers argued they were losing the ability to govern themselves, but the government imposed by outsiders didn't work, either, especially in court.

''We felt our people weren't getting fair justice because of the language barrier,'' Kasayulie said. ''Certain words used in white courts have no meaning in Yup'ik.''

The dictionary Kasayulie consulted said a nation was a people with a language, land and culture so he became an early advocate of using Yup'ik in the schools, along with English.

Inspired by an Oklahoma lawyer who suggested villagers explore tribal government as a way to take control of their lives, Kasayulie and a core group of friends began in 1983 to re-establish Yup'ik control over the country, barreling ahead with tribal police, courts, schools and a regional confederation called the Yupiit Nation, simply ignoring warnings that they couldn't do that sort of thing.

Always, said Kasayulie, he thought of Bethel, the horrible example of what his village might become if he failed. ''In Bethel, it's hard to get a Native elected.''

Over the years Kasayulie has carried just about every title, served on just about every board, lobbied just about every agency on behalf of his village and others in the area, including a year's stint as co-chairman of the state's biggest organization of indigenous people, the Alaska Federation of Natives. He recently stepped down after 23 years as head of the Akiachak Native Community.

Somewhere Kasayulie has a poem he wrote back in school. ''I stated I would fight for the rights of my people, even though I might be discouraged,'' he said. ''Never giving it any thought I would be doing it on a full-time basis.''

Full time. Not 40 hours a week. Full time meaning the rest of his life.

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