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Rural Alaska

Chief Paul John's knowledge, kindness eulogized in Anchorage service

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 10, 2015

Paul John, the Alaska Native leader from Toksook Bay who died Friday at age 85, was recalled in Anchorage on Tuesday as "the dean of Yup'ik elders," "a university professor of Yup'ik knowledge" and instructor who "taught across borders," equally comfortable when addressing schoolchildren or members of Congress, and "a man who inspired action."

St. Anthony's Catholic Church was filled Tuesday afternoon by Alaskans who had come to say goodbye to John.

John was among the last of the generation of Yup'ik men who grew up in the communal qasgiq "men's house," where he absorbed traditional ways. As a young man he worked in canneries and went on to become a successful commercial fisherman.

In his later years he served on the boards of the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp. and the Association of Village Council Presidents. He was a member of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference and held an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Alaska. He was the traditional chief of the Nunakauyarmiut Tribe.

John taught workshops in language, craft and dance to young students. He was sought out by scholars of art and anthropology. He authored and co-wrote several important texts relating to Yup'ik history and folkways. He was the composer of Yup'ik songs and dances that continue to be performed.

David Chanar, John's cousin, spoke of him as an innovator. "He had the first electric generator in the village," Chanar said. "He opened the first store and put in the first jukebox, which is where I first heard Johnny Cash."

More important, Chanar said, "he led. And he did what he did speaking Yup'ik. He didn't speak English. He didn't go to high school or college. But look at how far he went."

Those speaking after the formal funeral service came from across the Yukon-Kuskokwim region, from the Yukon River to Bristol Bay and beyond. "Thank you all for coming from all over," said his son Mark John, "from all over the state."

Mark John said of his father, "The message of respect was always there. Respect for people and for the places we were. (He'd say,) 'Don't ever leave a mess on the tundra.' "

Others spoke of his patience and earnestness as a teacher. His knowledge made him important to the world, as when he was tapped to travel to Europe to inspect collections of Yup'ik material. But the deeper qualities of wisdom and kindness are what endeared him to the people who knew him best.

"He is a symbol of both an Alaska that has a powerful legacy and a future that we must aspire to," said Lt. Governor Byron Mallott. "A future where Native people know who they are and speak their language" and raise their children to have strong and appropriate values.

"He leaves behind a light to lead us," Mallott said.

John was one of the first villagers to race sled dogs competitively, both in Bethel and in Anchorage, Chanar said.

Chanar, who played guitar and sang in most of the music at the service, called John "my awesome big brother," a Yup'ik way of describing their relationship; their mothers were sisters. He spoke of how John, born in Old Cevv'arneq (Chefornak), moved to Nightmute after "marrying into the village."

"When you do that, you have to really watch what you do," he said. "And he did it well. He just did everything right."

John will be buried Saturday in Toksook Bay.

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@alaskadispatch.com or 257-4332.

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