Kawagley, Oscar, Influential Alaska teacher Walks On

By Reba Lean
Fairbanks, Alaska (AP) May 2011

Oscar Kawagley, a long-time University of Alaska Fairbanks faculty member who forged the new field of indigenous knowledge, passed away after a long battle with renal cancer. He was 76.

Ray Barnhardt, with the cross-cultural studies department at the university, worked with Kawagley. Barnhardt was his faculty supervisor and first met Kawagley in 1969.

“He had a very profound impact on students,” Barnhardt told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. “He was an original thinker and he brought that into his teaching.”

Barnhardt posted a statement on the main page of the Alaska Native Knowledge Network’s website informing people of his death. He said he’s received several emails from Kawagley’s former students. Many of them have said he had more impact on them than any of their other teachers.

Kawagley was born Nov. 8, 1934, in Mamterilleq, which is now Bethel. He was raised by his grandmother, Matilda Oscar, after his parents died when he was just 2 years old.

He is a Yup’ik Eskimo, but referred to his heritage as Yupiaq in all his writings and references.

He was the first Yupiaq to graduate high school in Bethel, encouraged by his grandmother along the way to learn both a Western education and a traditional one. He became a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Medical Services Corps after high school, and then went to college.

He received four degrees, including a master’s degree in education and a doctorate from the University of British Columbia. His dissertation examined native ways of knowing, something he became well known for.

“One of his passions was dancing,” Barnhardt said. “He was a good dancer. But professionally, his focus was on developing and implementing native ways of knowing. He claimed that phrase.”

Barnhardt said when Kawagley first developed the idea in the late 1980s, it was not something one heard or saw often. Now the university offers courses with that title, and Kawagley wrote a book on the subject.

The idea implemented indigenous story-telling methods and ecological knowledge.

“From my perspective, that was kind of his signature contribution,” Barnhardt said.

Beth Leonard, an assistant professor with the School of Education at UAF, met Kawagley in the mid-1990s when she was a graduate student and working for the Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative.

“He really had a big impact of my graduate studies,” she said. “He had a really different way of looking at research and a different way of looking at cross-cultural studies. Fortunately for many of us, Oscar Kawagley paved the way ... to do research in many of our communities.”

Kawagley starting working at UAF more than 25 years ago. He became an associate professor of education. Throughout his life, he received many prestigious awards, including the National Indian Education Association Lifetime Achievement Award, the American Educational Research Association Outstanding Scholarship Award, the Governor’s Award for the Arts and Humanities, the Alaska Secondary School Principal’s Association Distinguished Service Award and the Association of Village Council President’s Award for years of services to the people of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

He is survived by his wife Anna Northway, four children and other family members. His ashes will be spread on the tundra in Southwestern Alaska.