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Alaska reeling from sudden death of revered Eagle elder and renaissance man

Jill Burke
Courtesy Jody Potts

Seventy-year-old Isaac Juneby's life wasn't supposed to end the way it did, abruptly on the streets of Anchorage in the aftermath of a car crash police say he caused. He'd run a red light, was T-boned by an oncoming car and pushed into a vehicle traveling the opposite direction. 

In the seconds it took for the grinding squeal of metal and tires to crush together, the respected village chief from Eagle, Alaska was gone. Remarkably, police say the other drivers, a woman and a 16-year-old, weren't badly hurt. 

Juneby had come to Anchorage to make a heartbreaking decision. Someone had beaten and left his sister for dead at a homeless camp in Fairbanks. With severe injuries and a bleeding brain, his sister was flown to a hospital in Anchorage. But there was nothing the doctors or nurses could do. They needed a family member to make the decision about when to let her slip into the beyond, to choose the moment when the machines keeping her alive would be turned off. If her son couldn't arrive in time to do it, the responsibility would fall to Juneby. He'd just left the hospital late Sunday night to return to a friend's house for some rest when the accident occurred, according to family members.

The family wonders whether he fell asleep at the wheel, tired from the stress of dealing with his dying sister. Or perhaps he had a heart attack or another medical emergency of his own. For now, they have to accept there's no way to know for sure. 

Statewide shock

By Monday, Juneby's home community deep in Alaska's Interior on the Yukon River close to the Canadian border was reeling. Friends and family members spread throughout the state were in shock.

Gone was the man so many had come to know in his lifetime as a valued friend, mentor and community leader, a village chief and respected culture bearer who thrived on of his love for other people. 

The man Juneby had become on the heels of his 71st birthday might have seemed a lifetime away to the toddler raised in the 1940s on the back of a dog sled traveling between area hunting and mining camps. A member of the Han Athabascan tribe -- which hails from the narrow Yukon River region between Eagle, Alaska and Moosehide in Canada's Yukon Territory -- he didn't learn to speak English until he went away to boarding school later in his childhood.

It wasn't uncommon for his parents to pile their children into a toboggan in winter to travel to the "middle of nowhere" by dogsled to work the family traplines, recalled Adeline Juneby-Potts, his sister. When there was snow, the family would trap wolves, fox, marten, and wolverine. During the warmer months, they made their living mining gold. 

He learned how to use landscape and natural surroundings to learn when salmon would return. When a nearby peak became snow-free, the fish would be on their way.

Two stints as chief

He spent time in Germany after enlisting in the Army during the 1960s. Soon after he returned to Eagle from this service to his country, he became the village's youngest chief, a position he would hold again in the second half of his life.

In Eagle he met his wife, Sandra. According to his family, "He stole her heart." The couple married and raised four children together, and loved traveling the world on cruises.

As as young man, he'd struggled with addiction, a heavy drinker up until the day he suddenly had the strength to resist that demon. For 25 years, until the day he died, he maintained his sobriety, an accomplishment for which he was much admired.

"Isaac's impetus for maintaining his sobriety was to bring back the traditional and cultural values of the Han," said Pat Sanders, a friend and colleague of Juneby's for more than 30 years. 

Over the years, Juneby had shared the story of his sobriety openly. "One day, God just took it away from me. It's called God's grace," his sister, Adeline, and niece, Jody Potts, remembered Juneby telling them. 

The same hand of providence would later give Adeline the strength to stay sober, too. But the dark disease had eventually gripped their sister, who days after Juneby passed away lay dying herself in an Anchorage hospital. She'd recently become homeless, and fell victim to an act of violence that would shatter more than one life.

"He would have never have been down here or never been dead if it wouldn't have been for this violent assault on my aunt," Potts said from an Anchorage hospital.

The Senator

Juneby's greatest talent may have been his ability to connect with people, even those he'd just met, in meaningful ways. He had many intellectual gifts. But it was his knack for reaching out to people and making them feel at ease that earned him his nickname, "The Senator." It seemed everywhere he went, people knew him. And if they didn't, they soon would.

In a world where so many of us say hello to someone and keep passing by, Juneby was one of the rare people who actually stopped to have a conversation. Through humor and caring, he made people feel valued.

National Park Service employee Pat Sanders credits Juneby with her career. Juneby backed off of a job opportunity when he learned the job he'd be taking was the one Sanders had already held for seven years. That single act of generosity came to symbolize for Sanders the man she'd later grow to call a close friend. "I would not have the job I have today had it not been for Isaac's charitable spirit," Sanders said from her office in Eagle Tuesday.

"Once he had you as a friend, you were a friend for life," recalled longtime friend Spud Williams, former president of Tanana Chiefs Conference.

Juneby was an elder who also enjoyed spending time with young people. He'd make room in his boat for little kids, taking them out to check his fish nets on the Yukon River. One time, he even fashioned a rain coat out of a garbage bag to keep Potts' young son dry during an outing, the boy riding on his great uncle's lap as they made their way along the river.

Culture bearer

After he got sober, Juneby went to college and became one of the first Eagle Village residents to earn a bachelor's degree. Land management was his chosen field, and it became a career that served him well in Alaska, Canada and with tribes Outside. 

He was also one of the last speakers of the Han language, one of Alaska's endangered Native languages. To keep the language alive, he authored Han dialect books and lessons for both elementary children and university students.  

He'd also collaborated with university researchers studying his culture and traditional ways. He'd served as an interpretive ranger for the National Park Service, and throughout his life had positioned himself to fight for his people and their quality of life. 

Tirelessly, Juneby "fought all adversity," Williams said. He was active in village tribal matters, subsistence issues, hunting and fishing rights and management, and was an environmentalist.

Shoes to fill

When he was killed Sunday, Juneby was in the midst of a vibrant life. He'd successfully harvested two caribou this winter. He was halfway through earning a master's degree in traditional knowledge at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. He'd been planning a move to Fairbanks later this summer to take a new job in realty with Tanana Chiefs Conference, and had this spring become a member of the Eastern Interior Alaska Subsistence Regional Advisory Council.

A memorial service for him will be held Monday in Fairbanks at the Chief Peter John Tribal Hall, followed by a Chief's burial and potlach Wednesday in Eagle. As he makes the crossing, he will wear an embroidered moose-hide vest, a chief's necklace of shells and trade beads, and a new pair of slippers for his "new walk into heaven."

Juneby lived a true renaissance life. From a toddler reared in camps and on dogsleds to a world traveler and academic, from drunkenness to sobriety, he managed to weave the old and new together as he made his way forward, drawing strength from all he'd experienced. 

"If he can do it anybody can," his sister, Adeline Juneby-Potts said Thursday as the family tended to the details of saying goodbye. "He's an example of how anybody can make a good life for themselves."

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com