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Honoring Alaska's Indigenous Literature:

2002 Award Recipients:

Mary Peterson

For Birth and Rebirth on an Alaskan Island: The Life of an Alutiiq Healer
Publisher: University of Georgia Press
Copyright: 2001 by Joanne B. Mulcahy

Mary Peterson contributed greatly and was quoted immensely in Joanne B. Mulcahy's beautifully written book , Birth and Rebirth of an Alaskan Island. Though not the author of this story, her life is the center of it. Only through Mary's willingness to share could this story be told. Mary continues to share her life stories and language with individuals she visits with and when she visits school sites, as well as during conferences and other cultural gatherings.

Emma Sam

For Yú.á (They Say)
Booklet, CD and Cassette Tape

Publication date: 2000 by the Teslin Tlingit Council, Teslin, Yukon, with support from the Aboriginal Language Services, Yukon

This book is a primer on the Tlingit language. Emma Sam was born in Teslin Yukon, a daughter of Rosie and (the late) David Johnston. A fluent speaker of Tlingit, she is a member of the Ishkìtàn clan. Emma's traditional name is Waksâni. Emma is employed by the Government of Yukon as Tlingit Language Specialist with Aboriginal Language Services.

Leona Okakok

For Puiguitkaat
Publication date: 1981; reprinted in 1996.
Publisher: Library of Congress; copyright by North Slope Borough Commission on History and Culture.

Kisautaq Leona Okakok transcribed and translated the 1978 NSB Elder's Conference which was put into a book form. It is a great accomplishment of traditional oral stories and Iñupiaq traditions, written in both Iñupiaq and English. Many of the Elders who spoke have now passed on. Puiguitkaat is a proper name for this book, as it means "Things We Cannot Forget."

Kisautaq Leona Okakok has been a true leader in the North Slope communities. She is the daughter of the late Samuel Simmonds, who was a preacher for the Presbyterian Church in Wainwright and Barrow. She has gone to college in Sheldon Jackson Junior College and UAF, majoring in the Iñupiat Studies.

She has held various jobs as the Iñupiat History, Language and Culture deputy director; was a director of the Personnel Department; director of the Cultural Center and is now currently the manager for the Arctic Education Foundation for ASRC. She is also a member of the State of Alaska Redistricting Board.

She has published some articles, "Serving the Purpose of Education" for the Harvard Educational Review; "Why Publish our own Material?" for the Native Press Research Journal; a chapter called "Language and Cultural Considerations" in the book, Kusiq: An Eskimo Life History From the Arctic Coast of Alaska. Her work in translating and transcribing Puiguitkaat has been greatly revered in the North Slope and other regions in that it has preserved our traditional culture by documenting the Elders, many of whom have passed on. We thank Kisautaq for her work for the Iñupiaq people.

Moses Dirks

Moses Dirks of Atka is one of the youngest fluent speakers of Aleut and has worked with Aleut language and literature for over 30 years. In 1971, on the boat to Atka, he met Norwegian linguist Knut Bergsland, who had been working with Aleut since 1950. Their collaborative work began and Moses Dirks joined the long and illustrious tradition of Aleut writers that began in 1824 with the collaborative work of St. Innocent Veniaminov and local leader Ivan Pan'kov and continued with the Aleut priest St. Yakov Netsvetov and many important writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries including some of Moses' contemporaries. The full history of Aleut literacy is reviewed in the Aleut Dictionary compiled by Knut Bergsland (ANLC 1994).

In 1972 Moses went to Oslo to work with Bergsland on the new popular orthography for Aleut, based on Veniaminov's Cyrillic, but using Roman letters. Moses was part of the bilingual movement of the 1970s and wrote a number of booklets and primers. He worked with Michael Krauss of the Alaska Native Language Center with what was then the Alaska State Operated School System and later with various school districts. He produced a Junior Dictionary in 1978 and an Atkan Aleut School Grammar in 1981. He collaborated for years with Bergsland on the monumental (700-plus pages) Aleut Dictionary of 1994 working with the oldest speakers of Aleut, now all deceased.

Perhaps his most important work is Aleut Tales and Narratives, a 700-plus page bilingual edition co-edited by Knut Bergsland and Moses Dirks, published by ANLC in 1990. This book features Aleut transcriptions and English translations of the Aleut texts collected on wax cylinders by Waldemar Jochelson in 1909-1910.

The introduction to this book is a story in itself, full of 19th century adventure, 20th century detective work and cold war espionage. Jochelson was a young revolutionary exiled to Siberia where he became a linguist. Later, he did fieldwork in the Aleutians. After the Russian revolution he emigrated to New York, bringing several of his notebooks with him. The wax cylinders remained in Leningrad, where they almost by miracle survived the Russian Communist revolution and the Nazi siege and bombings of WWII. In 1952 many of the New York manuscripts were stolen from Jochelson's niece, presumably by the KGB. Michael Krauss located the remaining notebooks in New York, the cylinders in Leningrad and negotiated an international trade: copies of each for both sides of the cold war.

The cylinders survived, but who could understand and decipher them? They were old, damaged, faint, muffled, scratchy and in a language few people could still understand. The answer was Moses Dirks, who carefully listened to copies of the old cylinders from 1910 that recorded the voices of some of the best Elders and tradition bearers of the era. He wrote the stories down in Aleut and translated them into English. The resulting volume is the largest collection of traditional material in Aleut and a monument of Aleut literature. Without the talent and dedication of Moses Dirks, this heritage would have been lost to the Aleut people and the world at large.


Elsie Mather

Elsie P. Mather's work and interests in Yup'ik language and traditions are extremely broad-ranging and span three decades. She began publishing in Yup'ik in the 1970s when the contemporary orthography was just under development. Her children's book Qessangquq Avelngaq (The Lazy Mouse) quickly gained widespread popularity, and was translated into other Inuit languages. Mather worked in the late 70s to develop an accurate orthography and promote literacy in the Yup'ik region. Together with linguist Osahito Miyaoka, she co-authored the standardized Yup'ik Eskimo Orthography (Yup'ik Language Center, 1978). She has continued to collaborate with Miyaoka on a full description of Yup'ik grammar into the present. She has also collaborated with a several other linguists and anthropologists. Beginning in the 1970s, Mather began to transcribe and translate Yup'ik oral narratives, individually and in collaboration with Phyllis Morrow. Her translations appear in numerous journals and books, including Coming To Light: Contemporary Translations of Native American Literature (Random House), When Our Words Return: Writing, Hearing, and Remembering Oral Traditions of Alaska and the Yukon (Utah State University Press) and Native American Oral Traditions: Collaboration and Interpretation (Utah State University Press), to name a few. She has been a featured speaker at many conferences, such as the Sitka Writer's Workshop, the Alaska Anthropological Association, the American Folklore Society and the Oral History Association.

In the early 80s, Elsie Mather began research to document Yup'ik ceremonial traditions. Her work culminated with the publication of the first full-length original book in the Yup'ik language, Cauyarnariuq ("it is time for drumming", Lower Kuskokwim School District 1985), which is based on extensive interviews with contemporary Elders and translations into Yup'ik of first-hand non-Native accounts of ceremonies. This work remains a classic, read not only by its originally intended audience-Yup'ik high school students-but also widely cited in the anthropological literature. She continues her original research, working most recently on a compendium of Yup'ik names and the context of their cultural transmission.

Elsie Mather's devotion to biblical translation also spans several decades. She is the continuing editor for the Old Testament Translation Project of the Moravian Church and the American Bible Society. To this work, she brings her characteristic intellectual and scholarly energy, grappling with the cultural, historical, orthographic and linguistic divides that make such work especially challenging.

Erma Lawrence

Erma Lawrence is selected for her lifetime work as Haida oral tradition bearer, storyteller, educator and translator. She is one of only about eight Alaska Haida remaining who speak the language and one of only two or three who can also read and write Haida. In the late 1970s and 80s she was instrumental in transcribing and translating Haida stories-the primary body of Alaska Haida writing we now have available to us. In 1977, the Haida Dictionary was published, compiled primarily by Erma Lawrence with assistance from other Haida language consultants including Christine Edenso, Nora and Robert Cogo and linguists Michael Krauss and Jeff Leer at Alaska Native Language Center. To date, the work she and other Haida tradition bearers of that time created has never been matched. Erma lives in Ketchikan and is nearing her 90th birthday.

Frances Degnan

For Under the Arctic Sun: The Life and Times of Frank and Ada Degnan
Publication date: 1998
Publisher: Cottonwood Bark

Frances Ann Degnan is an Unalit/Kawerak woman.  She was born in Unalakleet, Alaska, on May 26, 1943 to Frank and Ada Degnan.  She became interested in the life and changing times of her people at the age of twelve.  Along with her father, she served in the Alaska Federation of Natives organization in 1970 and through the passage of the public law settling the Alaska Native Land Claims on December 18, 1971. Frances continues to serve on several boards that affect the village and region.

Frances was educated at the Unalakleet Day School, Mt. Edgecumbe High School, and the University of Alaska in Fairbanks where she received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and Sociology in 1964.  She then returned home and is currently self-employed.  Her favorite activities include smoking fish and other subsistence activities, knitting musk ox wool, being out in the country, and writing.  Under the Arctic Sun:  The Life and Times of Frank and Ada Degnan is Frances's first book.

Micheal Lekanoff

Mike Lekanoff is Aleut from St. George Island. He follows in the tradition of Bishop Alexei Panteleyev, who was stormbound one winter in the 1930s on St. George Island. He tutored many talented singers in the community and encouraged liturgical singing and composition in Aleut and other Alaska Native languages. In the 1950s, Mike was a student of Fr. Michael Ossorgin at Mt. Edgecumbe High School and performed with the well known and fondly remembered Ossorgin Chorale. In the 1980s he was active in re-establishing the Ossorgin Chorale and inviting Fr. Ossorgin to return to Alaska summers for reunion, rehearsal and performances. The group was organized as the Alaska Heritage Choir. For many years, until his recent retirement, Mike was the choir director at St. Innocent Cathedral in Anchorage. Because of worsening arthritis, he finds directing and transcribing increasingly painful which has forced him to cut back on these activities in recent years.

Michael Lekanoff's unique gift is in transcribing and arranging Russian Orthodox choral pieces in Aleut and Slavonic that were previously sung from memory and transmitted through oral tradition. None of his work has been published, but it is performed regularly in liturgical settings and in concerts. He currently lives in Anchorage with his sister Pavla Lekanoff.

Posthumous Awards

Howard Rock

Longtime publisher of The Tundra Times.

Peter Kalifornsky

For his outstanding work in Dena'ina Athabascan and in English (most recently published under his A Dena'ina Legacy, K'tl'egh't Sukdu: The Collected Writings of Peter Kalifornsky). Most especially his commitment and dedication to writing both in his own language and in English, his teaching activities and his belief in the importance of working so the children and future generations know something of their place, their heritage and their language.

Mary TallMountain

Mary TallMountain (Koyukon Athabascan) is recognized for her collected poetry, essays and short stories-most recently collected poems and short works found in The Light on the Tent Wall, published posthumously and her noteworthy essay: "I Tell You Now-You Can Go home Again"

TallMountain was nominated because although she was adopted out at a young age (five or six) and raised primarily away from her Koyukon birthplace, her writing on Alaska Native themes in English is significant and should be recognized. (She lived in Unalaska for a time, in the Lower 48 including Oregon and died while living in San Francisco, although she returned to Nulato at 50 to try and find her mother's grave.)

Her writing is important because TallMountain represents the situation many of our young people face: English as the predominate (sometimes only) language spoken, educated in Western educational institutions and cut off from important aspects of tradition and culture.

During her life, TallMountain faced many difficult personal issues including abuse and alcoholism. Through her writing and learning more about her heritage, she found a way to reconnect with her past and gain strength and hope. Eventually TallMountain used what she learned to help other people and to guide them gently towards using writing as a way to heal through nurturing both self and others.

The writings she left behind after her death stand as a testament to the power of understanding one's place in the universe and reaching out for understanding of our cultural heritages-no matter the circumstances or where we end up living.

Go to University of AlaskaThe University of Alaska Fairbanks is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and educational institution and is a part of the University of Alaska system.


Alaska Native Knowledge Network
University of Alaska Fairbanks
PO Box 756730
Fairbanks  AK 99775-6730
Phone (907) 474.1902
Fax (907) 474.1957
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Last modified August 14, 2006