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Aleut elder Nicolai Galaktionoff helped keep Unangan language, culture vital

Courtesy Tesha Galaktionoff

When Nicolai Galaktionoff passed away last month, a piece of Alaska left with him.

Galaktionoff, 87, died in Unalaska on May 21, and though he’ll be remembered for many great accomplishments, perhaps he was most known for his passionate commitment to keeping his heritage alive through language and subsistence living.

“He taught the language to the younger generation, including myself,” said Galaktionoff’s eldest son, Joe. “He taught many about our culture.”

Nick was born in 1925 in the village of Makushin and learned to fish at an early age. Saving food for winter included drying, salting and smoking fish and was a skill that Nick learned early and passed on to his children at every opportunity, said Joe by telephone from Adak.

Nick is survived by five children -- four sons and one daughter.

“He was always trying to teach us the Aleut language,” said Joe. When Joe went school as a youngster, he wasn’t allowed to speak his native language and so he came home each day and taught his parents English. But in the house, Unangan (Aleut) was spoken among family members.

By teaching the language through his stories, Nick shared his heritage with many, and Joe said he is hoping that because of his passion for the Unangan language and culture, others will continue to share the spoken word. The language is taught in regional schools, but Joe admitted that much tradition will be lost with the passing of his father.

Late in life, Nick worked with linguists, anthropologists and historians who would record him speaking in Unangan in order to preserve the traditional language.

“Nick Galaktionoff’s grandmother taught him traditional Unangan values and ways of living, rich with knowledge no longer being transmitted to much of the Unangan population due to acculturation,” said Nick’s friend Barbara Carlson, who also referred to Nick as a mentor.

She added that he absorbed and remembered everything he learned, not by putting pen to paper, but with his mind.

“Nick’s memory was truly remarkable — with regards to plants, animals, the environment, stories, narratives, and dialect differences,” said Carlson, who lives in Anchorage but still has family in Unalaska, where she was born. “It was hard for him to understand why some people are depen- dent on written notes or books. Nick was eager to share his knowledge of the language and culture, especially during the last few decades of his life.”

He was exceptionally gracious when it came to sharing stories and information, Carlson said.

“He strongly supported the revitalization of the antonym Unangan (instead of the Russian-assigned Aleut)...” Carlson explained, adding that she had been “studying the Unangan culture through academic research and found that Nick welcomed the opportunity to be a sounding board for what she was learning, and in so doing, provided informal mentorship.”

Nick spent most of his life in Unalaska, said Joe, but would spend time each year in the Pribilof Islands during sealing season. And even during his last years, though he was ill and “could hardly see,” according to Joe, Nick could be found fishing for reds at Unalaska Bay right in front of town.

Nick’s sons Nick Jr. and John, who live in Unalaska, would help him preserve the fish, said Joe, adding that his other two siblings, Mary and Jack, live in Petersburg.

Today, Joe and his family still put up fish for the winter, a skill that Joe attributes to his father.

“He was a tough man,” said Joe. “I always thought he’d live forever.”

This story first appeared in The Dutch Harbor Fisherman.