by Senator Dan Sullivan
U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK) honored Bethel resident John Active, legendary Yup’ik storyteller and decades long voice of KYUK public media, as part of his “Alaskan of the Week” series on April 12, 2018.
TRIBUTE TO JOHN ACTIVE
Mr. President, every week I come to the floor to talk about my great State and a person in my State who has made a difference in their communities and in the State and sometimes throughout the entire country. I call this person our Alaskan of the Week, and it is actually one of the best things I get to do each week here in the U.S. Senate.
There is a lot to brag about with regard to Alaska. Frankly, while I love my job here, I wish I were home right now. My wife is there. Although the temperatures are still only in the single digits in some places in Alaska, particularly up north, springtime, which we call breakup in Alaska, has hit much of our State.
I will admit, breakup is not always pretty. The State gets a lot of snow–dirty, melting snow. There is sloshing through the slush and big, huge puddles everywhere. But the sun is now high in the sky and staying up longer and longer every day. Birds are migrating back by the tens of thousands, and the excitement of spring is everywhere. You can feel it and sense it.
The changing of the seasons is no more extreme and no more profound than in Alaska, where the weather, hunting, and passing on of traditions and culture are literally a way of life for many.
Today, what I would like to do is take you to Bethel, AK–a town of about 6,000 people about 400 miles west of Anchorage, which is in the full throws of breakup–in order for the Presiding Officer and everyone watching to meet our Alaskan of the Week, Mr. John Active.
John is an extraordinary Alaskan who has spent decades, season after season, on the radio, telling stories and passing on traditions helping to keep the Yup’ik culture of Alaska alive.
John, who is 70 years old, has lived a storied life, which began in a village outside of Bethel. Unfortunately, after he was born his mother passed away, and his father couldn’t care for him, so he was adopted by James and Elsie Active and brought to live in Bethel. His grandmother, Maggie Lind, was a well-known storyteller, and John’s childhood was filled with stories about Yup’ik legends, wisdom, and culture. John’s experiences as he grew up led him to an incredibly important vocation–translating his native language into English.
You might ask: Translating? Well, yes, that is actually very important in Alaska. You see, we have about 20 different indigenous languages still spoken by the Native peoples of my great State, and throughout my great State thousands of Alaskans literally speak these languages.
During John’s senior year of high school, he worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He was able to travel to different villages translating the Yup’ik language and helping applicants fill out paperwork for housing, which was great training for the rest of his life.
He also became passionate about the news and spreading the news. In the 1970s, KYUK–Bethel’s new local public radio and television shows, which are so important to get the word out in these smaller communities–was born, and John was there as one of the very first Yup’ik language broadcasters.
Many people in the area, particularly the elders, still read and speak only in Yup’ik. John was so intent on letting them know what was happening in the world in the early days that he would wait for the cargo plane to arrive from Anchorage to grab the Anchorage Daily News, the daily newspaper, and rush into the radio station to simultaneously translate the news from English into Yup’ik as he read it.
There are very few people in the world who can simultaneously translate English to Yup’ik. Among many other challenges, there simply aren’t Yup’ik words for some English words. Take, for example, the word “computer” and what a computer does. It can take an entire paragraph in Yup’ik to explain that. When a bank was trying to inform Alaskans in the region about home loans, John found that it could take an entire paragraph to translate the phrase “home equity’’ into Yup’ik. So he had a really hard job, but he did it really, really well.
Over the years, John became known for starting his newscast with a short Yup’ik story. These were stories that he had learned from his grandmother, such as, “How the Fox Turned Red” and “How the Crane Got Its Blue Eyes”’–stories that were eventually broadcast around the State. Some of them were even picked up by National Public Radio for the country.
He also became a columnist for the Anchorage Daily News and other papers across Alaska, sharing the stories of his ancestors and his humorous views on the world. It is such a delight to listen to him and to read his stories. He has become a beloved figure throughout Alaska.
But John’s work goes way beyond entertainment. His work goal has been to preserve the Yup’ik language, which goes hand in hand with preserving the Yup’ik culture. It is so vitally important in our State where, as I have mentioned, we have 20 indigenous languages. Not a lot of people know that. In the not-so-distant past, unfortunately, Alaska Natives were discouraged, and sometimes even punished, for speaking in their native languages. Now, however, there are more and more efforts, encouraged by people like John Active and by KYUK, to help keep native languages and the cultures that belong to them alive and thriving. For example, my wife Julie is now taking classes in Koyukon, her family’s native language.
John also wants to spread not just the culture but the values of the Yup’ik community–in his words, to “Yup’ify” Alaska and the world. With the help of KYUK, the amazing station that serves over 22,000 predominantly Yup’ik residents in this region of Alaska, he and his other cohosts have been able to do that.
“There are so many people in this region who can understand what we’re saying,” John said. “I feel it makes them proud to hear their language being spoken over the airwaves. ….. I am helping to keep the language and culture alive.’’
March 30 was John’s last show on KYUK. He is now taking a well-deserved retirement, but his legacy and the radio’s commitment to their Yup’ik culture continues. KYUK will continue to be a pioneer in bringing 1 hour a day of local news in the Yup’ik language and 5 1/2 hours a week of Yup’ik public affairs and talk shows, all in the language of the region.
I want to thank KYUK for being a pioneer in bringing bilingual content to Alaskans and public broadcasting, and, of course, I want to thank John for being one of the major conduits for that pioneering work.
Your work, John, has touched so many, and you have certainly done your part to serve your fellow Alaskans while “Yup’ifying” the State, the country, and even the world. So thanks, and congratulations on being our Alaskan of the Week.