Alaska Life

Remains of Alaska movie star Ray Mala come home 65 years after his death

On Monday, Alaska's first — and only — movie star returned home, 65 years after his death.

Ray Mala was an Inupiaq movie star during Hollywood's golden age. His biggest hit, the 1933 MGM epic "Eskimo," was filmed in Alaska and featured Mala as the leading man.

It won an Oscar for film editing and became not only a hit with critics but a touchstone for generations of kids in Alaska villages, where battered copies of the film were passed around on reel-to-reel and videocassette for decades.

Mala went on to success as both an actor and a cinematographer in Hollywood, appearing in more than 25 films before he died in 1952 at the age of 46.

It always felt wrong that Mala was buried in Hollywood, said his son, Ted Mala Sr., a retired Anchorage doctor and Southcentral Foundation administrator.

So Mala Sr. and his son investigated what it would take to move the remains of the star and his wife, Galina, back to Alaska.

The process turned out to be complicated and expensive. It took about three years to secure the necessary permissions, Mala Sr. said.


"It took tons of paperwork and tons of money," he said. "But it was time. I'm 72 now and it was on my bucket list, bring them home so they can be with lots of people."

In more recent years, the publication of a biography about Mala and his unique role as an Alaska Native actor in early Hollywood has elevated his profile in Alaska.

Born in a sod house in the now-abandoned Northwest Alaska settlement of Candle in 1906 and raised by his grandmother, Mala's successful pursuit of a "genuinely improbable dream" in Hollywood set him apart, said Lael Morgan, author of a biography about Mala, "Eskimo Star: From the Tundra to Tinseltown: The Ray Mala Story."

He was the first nonwhite actor to play a leading role in a Hollywood movie.

"He was just way ahead of his time," she said.

More people than ever know about Ray Mala's career, said his grandson Ted Mala Jr., because films like "Eskimo" that were once hoarded in a few fuzzy copies have been remastered and are now available on DVD.

Mala Jr. is part of an effort to get a posthumous star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his grandfather.

'Mr. Mala inspired me'

On Monday, the couple's cremated remains were reburied in a plot at the Anchorage downtown cemetery.

There was a simple gravestone with the family name Mala on it. Pamyua musician and artist Ossie Kairaiuak, from Chefornak, created a sculpture of a seal with a person's head above it — symbolizing a person's spirit riding on the animal's back in another realm, Kairaiuak said.

A Jewish prayer was followed by a Russian Orthodox blessing, which was followed by a Choctaw and English rendition of "Amazing Grace."

Then two dozen people from Buckland stood to sing a hymn, punctuated by the sound of floatplanes flying overhead. A prayer in Inupiaq followed. After that, a Chevak spirit traveling drumming song.

Among the crowd of dozens were some people who counted themselves as distant relatives of Mala, or who just loved his story and his movies.

Elmer Bekoalok, an aspiring actor from Shaktoolik, wore a tuxedo and sealskin boots. He'd been an extra in the "Big Miracle" movie and had decided, after reading Mala's biography, to pursue a dream of acting.

"Mr. Mala inspired me," he said.

The going had been rough — he'd been rejected from countless auditions.

"I gave up," he said.


But just a few weeks ago, he'd heard that a group of UCLA film students were making a movie in Alaska. They'd had a few no-shows in their intended cast. And now he had the first speaking role of his acting career, Bekoalok said.

The whole thing made Helen Simmons a bit teary. Growing up in Barrow, now called Utqiagvik, she remembered seeing a showing of "Eskimo" at the theater and marveling at Mala.

"I could just imagine the life he led," she said. It felt good to be able to claim an Alaska Native movie star.

"I mean, what other big movie star is Alaskan?"

Then it was time for the urns to be placed in the ground.

One by one, people took a handful of Alaska soil and dropped it over the urn, welcoming Alaska's own movie star and his wife home for good.

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.