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Former AFN vice president dies after fight with cancer

Alex DeMarban
A family photo of George Irvin. "He was really dedicated to Native people and put all his work and effort into them," said Tecumseh Fredenberg, one of two Alaska Native sons Irvin adopted. Courtesy of George Irvin's family

A prominent figure in the Alaska Native community who helped shape policy for the influential Alaska Federation of Natives passed away Wednesday after a battle with colon cancer. George Irvin, known for his vast knowledge of complex issues such as subsistence, was 73.

"People teased him that he was a walking encyclopedia," said his longtime wife, Ursula Irvin, a dollmaker from Chevak. "Everyone used to say he is smart, he knows everything." 

Having lived in Alaska for decades and seen some of the early hardships faced in the Bush -- such as a lack of running water and other basic services -- Irvin spent decades trying to improve life for Alaska Native people, often behind the scenes doing such things as writing speeches, or trying to raise money for AFN, one of the state's largest political groups.

Over the decades, family said, he helped with efforts that brought important change, including the 1971 federal law creating Alaska Native corporations -- designed to provide jobs and economic opportunities for Native shareholders -- that today have become powerful voices in the state's economic and political scene.

"He absolutely looked out for the rights of Alaska Natives," especially in finding ways to protect hunting and fishing traditions, said Nelson Angapak, a former senior vice president for AFN. 

Tall and quick-thinking, Irvin had worked his way up to become AFN vice president, playing an important administrative role to support president Julie Kitka, family said. But he decided last year to retire, though he continued to volunteer his time.

Originally from Cleveland, Irvin played a key role organizing the group's annual conventions, events that draw together thousands of Alaska Natives from across the state to formulate policy and create a united front that seeks changes before Congress. He often wrote resolutions for things such as expanding subsistence rights.

"He was almost like the director of the AFN convention, making sure things went as smoothly as possible," said Tecumseh Fredenberg, one of two Alaska Native sons Irvin adopted.

Irvin was pivotal to the effort to move the annual convention from Anchorage to Fairbanks in 2005, after he felt the municipality of Anchorage and the police department took the convention, and the money it brought to the Anchorage, for granted, said his step-daughter, Janice Tamang.

"He was really dedicated to Native people and put all his work and effort into them," Tamang said.

Ursula Irvin said her mother, the late Rosalie Paniyak, called Irvin by her own mother's Eskimo name, talegalrea. The Cup'ik word, roughly pronounced dal-gal-guh, symbolizes strength, Ursula said.

AFN officials could not be reached for comment Friday. The family is planning a feast at home this weekend to celebrate Irvin's life. A funeral will be held sometime in the coming week, Tamang said.  

"From what my dad was telling me before he was getting sick he wanted everyone to be happy for him and to celebrate his dedication for Native people, instead of feeling sorry for him and our loss," said Tamang.

Earlier in June, AFN announced Maude Blair, who grew up in Kiana and was formerly with NANA Development Corp., as the group's new vice president.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com