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Long-time Native leader reflects on gaining strength from hardship

Dermot Cole
Nelson Angapak, who was vice president of the Alaska Federation of Natives for 35 years, spoke at the convention in Fairbanks. Loren Holmes photo

FAIRBANKS -- At 14, Nelson Angapak stood up when his classroom teacher called his name at the Wrangell Institute, the boarding school he attended in Southeast Alaska.

He quickly asked a student next to him what else the teacher had said, but Angapak made the mistake of asking in Yup’ik.

“The teacher got upset because speaking in our Native tongue in schools was prohibited at that time,” he said in a keynote address to the Alaska Federation of Natives convention Thursday. “He made me stand up in front of the class, got a 12-inch ruler, hit me on my hand.”

Angapak, who grew up in Tuntutuliak, about 50 miles south of Bethel, said the physical scar healed quickly, but the emotional scar remained long after.

He announced to his grandfather that getting hit by the ruler was reason enough for him to quit school when he reached 16. Hearing this, Angapak’s grandfather said he had been praying that his grandson would learn enough English “so that some day you can tell those people that we are people, people just like them with feelings.”

The response of his grandfather that day was enough to prompt Angapak to look at the incident in a new way. What had been his reason for wanting to quit school turned into a motivation for staying. “Had he answered any other way, I wouldn’t be standing here today,” Angapak said. “There is a silver lining associated with the scar on my hand. It taught me to listen to the wisdom of our elders.”

Angapak, who retired in June as a senior vice president of AFN, has played a leading role in Alaska Native affairs for more than 35 years. He told the delegates that he would cherish the opportunity of being their keynote speaker for the rest of his life.

In reviewing the highlights of his life, he said the undue treatment some Natives received in school was overshadowed by the positive experiences that occurred. He put lasting friendships at the top of that list.

After the Wrangell Institute, Angapak graduated from Mt. Edgecumbe High School in 1965 and earned a bachelor’s degree in math in 1969. An Army veteran, he earned a master’s degree in land and natural resources in 1978 and a degree in theology in 2002.

Now 69, the former president of the Calista Native Corporation urged young people to use hardships they encounter as motivating factors to succeed in life.

“Regardless of what choices that you make in life, strive to do the best that you can,” he said.

Contact Dermot Cole at dermot(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcole