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Alutiiq anthropologist honored as a MacArthur 'genius'

Mike Dunham

An Alaska Native anthropologist from the Kodiak Island village of Old Harbor has received one of the most prestigious -- and lucrative -- awards for intellectual achievement in America. Sven Haakanson, 41, is among 24 new MacArthur Fellows announced Monday.

A press release from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's Fellows Program called Haakanson "the driving force behind the revitalization of indigenous language, culture and customs in an isolated region of North America." It also mentioned his artistic accomplishments as a mask carver and photographer.

The so-called "Genius Award" comes with a f $500,000 grant that recipients may spend as they see fit. The selection process is famed for its secrecy and candidates usually have no clue that they are under consideration.

Haakanson learned of the award in a crack-of-dawn phone call on Monday of last week/ "They woke me up at 6:30 in the morning," he told the Daily News. "Anybody calling you that early, you think: Is this a joke?"

When he realized the caller was serious, he felt humbled, he said. "To have someone even nominate me is wonderful."

Then the caller informed him that he would receive a half million dollars, no strings attached, over the next five years.

"I was shocked," Haakanson said, still sounding a little breathless.

For 20 years, Haakanson earned money as a commercial fisherman. He is the son of the late Sven Haakanson Sr., the longtime mayor of Old Harbor and a respected elder.

The younger Haakanson said his interest in anthropology began when he attended a youth conference in Denmark in 1988 and heard University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Lydia Black speak about the history of "Aleut people."

"I thought to myself, 'Why am I on the other side of the world learning about my culture when I should be at home doing that?' " After the lecture, he sat and talked with Black for an hour or more.

Inspired by Black, he attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he received a bachelor's in English in 1992. He then went on to graduate studies at Harvard University, where he earned his master's and doctorate in anthropology. He was selected as the executive director of the new Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak in 1999, a year before receiving his doctorate, and had to defer taking the post until he could finish his degree.

Through the museum, Haakanson has spearheaded efforts to acquire and exhibit rare items from Alutiiq history scattered in collections around the world. His recent projects include taking a group of Kodiak elders and artists to France to inspect Alutiiq masks collected in Alaska in the 19th century. As a result of that trip, some of those masks will be displayed in Kodiak, then in Anchorage next year.

He's also in the process of identifying a trove of petroglyphs and other stone carvings near the village of Akhiok, on the south coast of Kodiak. Working with villagers, he said, he has been able to locate 800 such carvings in recent years.

He relishes such fieldwork, he said, but can break away only for about one week each year. Administrative responsibilities keep him near the office in Kodiak, where he lives with his wife, Balika, and daughters, Eilidh and Isabella.

He hopes that the MacArthur money will free him up to get out to historic Alutiiq sites more often, he said. And some will be used to send his mother, Mary, on a pilgrimage to Orthodox churches in Russia.

But the majority will go into savings, Haakanson said, because "I don't have retirement for my job at the museum."

This is the second time an Alaskan has won a MacArthur Fellowship. In 2004, Katherine Gottlieb, president of Southcentral Foundation, received the award for helping to streamline the health care services for Alaska Natives.

Also on this year's list of 24 "geniuses" named by the MacArthur Foundation today are scientists, engineers and artists, including short-story writer Stuart Dybek, blues musician Corey Harris, historian Jay Rubenstein and painter Joan Snyder.

John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellows

Proposed fellows are suggested by anonymous nominators who are selected by the foundation. The 20 to 25 fellows chosen each year receive $500,000 over five years to spend as they please. The MacArthur Foundation is a private institution named for insurance mogul John D. MacArthur and his wife, Catherine. John MacArthur was one of the wealthiest people in the United States when he died in 1978. The MacArthur Foundation makes about $225 million in grants per year. Some of this year's fellows:

• Mercedes Doretti, a forensic anthropologist unearthing evidence of crimes against humanity and of human losses omitted from historical record.

• Cheryl Hayashi, a spider-silk biologist revealing the architecture, evolution and structural properties of spider silks and the possibilities of developing new synthetic materials.

• Saul Griffith, an inventor engineering innovations that include optics, high-performance materials and nanotechnology.

• Paul Rothemund, a nanotechnologist folding DNA to create complex shapes and patterns that provide a powerful tool for building devices from single atoms and molecules.

• Lisa Cooper, a public health physician improving medical outcomes by analyzing and developing new approaches to patient-physician communications.

• Shen Wei, a choreographer drawing from Western dance traditions and Chinese opera, acrobatics and martial arts to create bold and visually arresting dance-theater.

Source: The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation


By MIKE DUNHAM
mdunham@adn.com