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A storied life remembered: Richard Nelson’s Alaska legacy

  • Author: Nancy Lord
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: August 8
  • Published August 8

Raven’s Witness: The Alaska Life of Richard K. Nelson

By Hank Lentfer. Mountaineers Books, 2020. 256 pages. $24.95.

’Raven’s Witness: The Alaska Life of Richard K. Nelson, ’ by Hank Lentfer

When cultural anthropologist and writer Richard “Nels” Nelson died of cancer last November at age 77 he was surrounded by a small group of close friends. At his request, they played a recording of bird songs, including raven calls, that Nelson had made years earlier. His friend, collaborator and now biographer Hank Lentfer concludes “Raven’s Witness” with this brief and moving detail, a fitting end to a remarkable life and the storytelling that will help it endure.

Richard Nelson is certainly one of Alaska’s best-known and most admired writers, the author of numerous semi-scholarly works of cultural anthropology as well as the natural history-memoir “The Island Within” and the journalistic exploration “Heart and Blood: Living with Deer in America.” Later, for the radio show “Encounters,” he recorded and narrated the sounds and natural histories of animals and phenomena like glacial calving. Among other accolades, Nelson served as Alaska’s writer laureate in 2000-02 and received the Rasmuson Foundation’s Distinguished Artist Award for 2019.

Nelson was a modest man and would not want to be remembered for his honors. Instead, as Lentfer presents him, his commitments were to watchful learning from those who live closely with the land and its fellow creatures, an intense engagement with nature and natural forces, activism based on respect for the land, and what has come to be called “participatory anthropology.”

Lentfer, a Gustavus resident and author of “Faith of Cranes: Finding Hope and Family in Alaska,” had a wealth of material to work with, and has done a magnificent job of crafting a well-organized and literary book of his own from that abundance. Nelson shared with him not only his stories, memories, notes, and daily journals, but all the letters and tapes he’d sent home to his parents as a young man living in northern Alaska villages.

That young man did not seem to have an auspicious start. Growing up in Wisconsin, he was a restless boy, a poor student more interested in collecting salamanders and snakes than in school. His interests in the natural world didn’t match with classwork until, while he was on academic probation in college, he encountered the sciences of zoology and then anthropology and, with a friend, built an Inuit-style kayak. (Let there be a lesson here for parents and educators about different ways of learning and how a child’s individual passions might be recognized and encouraged.)

An anthropology professor, a specialist in Inuit culture, saw something in Nelson that led him to recommend the 22-year-old to learn from “Eskimos” about sea ice and write a survival manual for the Air Force, for pilots flying over the Arctic and Antarctic. In August 1964 Nelson landed in Wainwright, Alaska, a village of 290 Inupiaq people and 540 sled dogs. The next months not only profoundly altered his life and values but, ultimately, helped redefine the very meaning and practice of cultural anthropology.

At a time when even well-meaning outsiders offended villagers with their attitudes and by helping themselves to cultural knowledge and other property, Nelson’s enthusiasms and willingness to listen, watch, do, and learn built trust and reciprocal relationships. After his formative time in Wainwright, he later lived among other Inupiaq and Athabaskan peoples, studying their ways of knowing and relationships to the land, recording ethnography, and working out his own philosophy of right living. Besides the several books he authored in cooperation with tradition bearers, he helped document dependence on ancestral lands prior to the passage of the Alaska National Interest Conservation Lands Act (ANILCA) in 1980.

Later, turning away from the life of a scholar or professor, Nelson settled in southeast Alaska and made his heart’s home a nearby island. From there, he continued to honor and respect the world views and values he had absorbed from northern peoples. He became an activist in defense of the Tongass National Forest and wrote his more personal books, as well as other writings, that brought him a popular following. He eventually left the meticulous research and seat-in-the-chair life of a writer to spend more time in the wild places he so loved and to share that through his natural storytelling and audio technology.

Lentfer, as a friend and memory keeper, calls Nelson “a monk.” Near the end, he describes him this way: “There are no robes. No frock. No cross. Just jeans, T-shirt, and a ball cap. He hates doing his taxes, rages at his computer, swears like a sailor, and eats a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich almost every day. Yet he’s dedicated his life to seeing the invisible forces binding us all together. In a culture lost in the delusion of separateness, he’s become an unlikely, irreverent holy man. His awareness makes him grateful, which makes him laugh, which makes others want to share his joy.”

From the beginning, Nelson thought he was documenting the inevitable loss of knowledge developed over thousands of years as it was overtaken by Western ideas and behaviors. Not long before his death, Lentfer encouraged him to return to Wainwright, the village he’d last seen in 1965. There, the two of them reunited with some of Nelson’s old friends and discovered that, despite modern conveniences and even a hotel for oil workers, intimate connection to the land and sea were still very much a part of life, as were the underlying, sustaining Inupiaq values.

Readers of “Raven’s Witness” will likely be drawn back to Nelson’s own books, perhaps especially to the personal and literary “The Island Within,” and to his radio series “Encounters,” archived at encountersnorth.org. In a time of separation and discord, we would be well served to consider how ideas of community and health can be enlarged beyond our own small circles.

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