Life is a Gift An interview with John Active

John Active of Bethel is a familiar voice on KYUK's Radio Station. He has been on the radio for over 40 years. Photo courtesy of Vanessa Hunter/ONC

by Vanessa Lynn Hunter

John was born in Cuukvagtuliq, Alaska to George and Sophie Jacob. John shares his story of being adopted twice after birth and during his early childhood years. How Mamterilleq was formed and why people moved to Bethel including an angry shaman cursing the village of Bethel. Growing up in Bethel back then and now including climate changes and losing a close friend to suicide. Starting his first job and later working for KYUK.

Today John is 69 years old still a resident of Bethel working for Bethel’s local radio station as a talk show host. Here is his story.

After I was born my biological mother passed away. My father could not care for me because I was a newborn so he placed me in the care of my uncle Luke Jacob and his wife. But they had kids of their own and could not take care of me. So my father contacted James and Elsie Active of Bethel to adopt me. Right away Elsie flew to Cuukvagtuliq to take me as her own.

I spent a lot of time with my adoptive grandparents Maggie and Adolph Lind. I remember when I was about 6 years old a man came in to notify my grandmother that my uncle had a heart attack and fell out of a boat and died. My grandma and grandpa began weeping so I ran to my parents’ house which was right next door to tell them.

After my uncle’s burial my grandparents became very lonely losing their only son. My mother felt heartbroken for my grandparent’s so she let them adopt me. I grew up staying one week with my parents and another with my grandparents. I became a blessing to my adoptive grandparents, we sat together reading western cowboy magazines. They used to dress me as a cowboy and I believed was going to be a cowboy when I grew up.

My grandma told me stories of how Mamterilleq started. Long ago during the times of starvation there was a couple from the Yukon who traveled to the Kuskokwim around Bethel. The couple walked and canoed on their long journey. They drifted with the current down past Kalskag and stopped to rest.

The couple set a fish trap. They caught a lot of fish and decided to stay. They built their mud house, fish rack, and smokehouse. Other Natives saw that this area was a great place to catch fish so they moved there too.

People who saw this camp named it Mamterilleq meaning “A place of many smokehouses”.

Later Moravian missionaries moved to this camp site to start a church. The missionaries were very kind, they read Bible verses and sang gospel songs to the folks at camp.

Back then there were big floods. It flooded so high the whole camp was under water, everyone canoed to higher grounds. After the water levels went down the missionaries decided to move.

There was a shaman who became angry with the missionaries because he did not want them to leave, so he cursed the land wherever they moved.

The missionaries found a verse in the bible which quoted “Go down unto Bethel and establish my church there,’’ Genesis 35:1. The missionaries traveled to this area, built their church and named this place Bethel.

Around 1959 or 1960 when I was about 10 years old, I remember my dad taking me to school by boat because the town’s roads were covered in water. Especially during the spring time and during the fall we had big floods. Our school was a log cabin, it was built high off the ground to keep our school from being flooded inside.

For fun me and my friends used to play along the riverside. We pretended we were climbing mountains on the mud. Not long later the river started caving in and the land started sliding. The old graveyard site was located at Mission Road near the river and the coffins started sliding off into the river. My dad James helped people in our community pull up the graves, even removing human remains from the coffins that opened up and placed them in small boxes.

One creepy thing that I haven’t forgotten was my dad said in one grave it looked like the person buried came back to life and tried to scratch their way out of the wooden coffin. They moved the gravesite which is the graveyard across from the Tundra Center.

Even if John was the only child he was never alone. In the early 1950s – mid 1960s Bethel did not have a prematernal home. I grew up with pregnant women staying at my grandparents’ home. They were from all over the YK Delta including Mekoryuk. The women helped take care of me while my grandmother went ice fishing or took breaks to visit her relatives in other villages.

John says “It was a blessing to have pregnant women stay with us because some of them brought their children my age, and after labor the mothers brought back their newborn babies before heading back to their villages.

I got to play with the kids from Nunivak Island and they taught me to speak “Cupigtun” the Nunivak Island dialect. I grew up speaking only English but quickly picked up speaking “Cupigtun”.

My adoptive grandparents were raised in the Children’s Home orphanage, they were bilingual with English and Yup’ik. But they raised me to speak only English. After picking up Cupigtun I began to learn my Yup’ik language also.

Bethel’s population was small. John recalls Bethel having 1 restaurant, 1 bank First National, a small barber shop across from the old jail, 2 churches, 1 public school, the local AC store and a few family owned stores. Now the town has grown more outsiders are moving here for employment and starting their own businesses too. John said Bethel has many schools and churches now. In fact, there are too many churches I can’t attend them all. He giggled and said “We are the CHOSEN FROZEN” the lost tribe of Abraham.

John enjoyed going to the movie theatre in high school. Bethel had 2 theatres – one was the Edwards Show Hall and the other was AC Show Hall. High school was a lot of fun we had good teachers who were kind and we used to play lap game outside during recess.

John paused very sadly… I had a girlfriend in high school during my senior year. There was no romance we were best friends. I remember I had asked her to go to the prom with me but someone else already asked her. I ended up losing her to suicide and I didn’t get to see her on prom night either. That’s when my life shattered to pieces! John said I’ve never gotten close to another lady again. Somedays I really miss her and wished she was still alive.

The last minor flooding Bethel experience was May 2012. This did not affect anyone from Bethel but some folks from Napaskiak were evacuated to Bethel. The climate sure has changed over the years, as a kid I remember homes being buried after snow storms. There were so much snow kids built snowmen and tunnels. Now we don’t have a lot of snow, its mostly ice during the winter from freezing rain.

This winter we noticed many car accidents here in Bethel. Last winter was the worst, there was so much car accidents. The climate has changed a lot! The seasons are different. Ice breakup comes earlier every year. I’ve noticed spring comes earlier, summers seem shorter, fall seems like forever because it rained in October, November and December last year.

John finished grade school and attended Bethel public school. During Johns senior year he worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) as a secretary. I got to travel to different villages translating in Yup’ik and helping applicants fill out paperwork for housing and renovation. In the late 1970s I started working with KYUK, the local radio station as a Yup’ik Translator for News. Back then we used to wait for the cargo plane to arrive from Anchorage just to grab the Anchorage Daily Newspaper and share some of the news on the radio.

John says he’s been working for the radio station for almost 40 years.

John’s advice for the youth is: Learn your Yup’ik language while you can, our elders get frustrated when they cannot communicate with the younger generation. Suicide isn’t the answer either! No one should leave earth this way. To the young couples – never take your own life, feelings are temporary whatever you’re going through, it shall pass. Never ever take your own life. Please talk to a friend when you are hurting emotionally. Life is a gift! Search deeply within your hearts of what makes you happy, find out what you want to do after high school, find a job you will love or better yet further your education. Seek our Creator and pray for guidance. John 3:16 says “For God so loved the world he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

The Bethel river front: Photo from the University of Alaska Digital Achieves timeframe 1959-1960.

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The suicide of John’s girlfriend has affected him greatly to this day, which has caused him to avoid seeking companionship with another. His life shattered to pieces as he said, but managed to pick them up piece by piece and living day by day, leaving the precious memories of his dear friend held close to his heart.

According to an online site Alaska has the highest rate of suicide per capita in the United States. There is also a crisis text line for suicide. The number is 741741 if you are feeling depressed or suicidal you can text with a crisis counselor. John continues to work with Bethel’s local radio station.

Vanessa Lynn Hunter is the Environmental Technician for the Orutsararmiut Native Council.

2 Comments

  1. Nice- I love to hear John’s stories – wish we heard him more in Dillingham. My boys grew up listening to John’s CD of stories over and over. Honored to have met him once in Bethel.

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