Alaska News

Yup'ik cultural leader Paul John of Toksook Bay dead at 85

BETHEL -- Paul John, a revered Yup'ik elder and cultural mentor who grew up in a sod house on the edge of the Bering Sea, died Friday morning in Anchorage, his family said. He was 85 and had been ill and hospitalized in Anchorage.


He was unable to make a last trip home to Toksook Bay, a Western Alaska village he helped settle, the family said.

John was a traditional chief for the Association of Village Council Presidents, the Bethel-based nonprofit Alaska Native corporation.

For decades he promoted Yup'ik language and subsistence life, the hunting, fishing and gathering of wild foods that still sustain his people. He spoke at conferences -- in Yup'ik.

He was featured in books by anthropologist Ann Fienup-Riordan including "Yuungnaqpiallerput" or "The Way We Genuinely Live."

"He was the ambassador of the old way of life to what we are today," said Tim Andrew, who lives in Bethel and is one of John's great-nephews. No one did more to promote the culture, Andrew said. Monday he was in Anchorage and visited John at the Alaska Native Medical Center. "My ap'a."

At the hospital, John, who spoke only a little English, told him a story in Yup'ik about a little boy who lived with the seals. The message was one of respecting animal life.

Just a few days ago, one of his relatives posted a video on Facebook of John speaking about the importance of Yup'ik people being at the table when subsistence is being discussed by government agencies, said Willie Kasayulie of Akiachak, board chairman of Calista Corp., the regional for-profit Alaska Native corporation.

"That was the last message I saw from him, just a few days ago," Kasayulie said. He's known John since the late 1980s, when John traveled to Akiachak for meetings of Yupiit Nation, a group pushing for a regional tribal government, an effort that is being revitalized today by Calista.

John spoke to the group about the ways of traditional government.

"It was more or less a learning lesson for our generation," Kasayulie said.

For researchers, John described the old ways as well as artifacts. He was part of a group who traveled to museums, including in Berlin, New York and Washington, D.C., to see collections of items that originated in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

In "The Way We Genuinely Live," John's knowledge is referenced dozens of times. He described the traditional communal men's house, the qasgi, as a place for teaching "how to live and how to work."

"The qasgi was like college, and our elders were like our professors," John says in the book.

Ultimately, John received an honorary doctorate for his work on Yup'ik culture, said one of his sons, Simeon John of Toksook Bay.

He was a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and an original board member of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. as well as a leader with the Association of Village Council Presidents, Simeon said.

"Growing up with him, from the start, he took us out to fish traps, mink trapping, fur trapping, whatever he did. Seal hunting. Every one of us. He taught us how to survive," Simeon said.

John leaves his wife, Martina, and nine surviving children as well as numerous grandchildren, great grandchildren and other family members.

Donna Bach, who works for Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., posted a long Oscar Wilde quote about art and being on Facebook Friday morning that included this: "I awoke the imagination of my century so that it created myth and legend around me."

Later she explained:

"Rest in Peace Paul John. We are at our very core, more Yup'ik than we imagined ourselves to be on account of your strength and tireless will to teach us. Let us not forget."

Lisa Demer

Lisa Demer was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. Among her many assignments, she spent three years based in Bethel as the newspaper's western Alaska correspondent. She left the ADN in 2018.