There’s an old saying attributed to the Native people of Alaska’s panhandle: “A tall tree has fallen.” It’s a metaphor commenting on the passing of a prominent figure in the community, and every so often it sees re-use when an elder or a state leader passes. Such an occurrence took place earlier this month with the death of Native leader Don Wright, who was a prominent figure both in state politics and Native affairs for more than half of his 84 years living in the Interior. He was a tall tree indeed.
Mr. Wright began his activism on behalf of the Native community in the 1960s, when he worked to organize the Alaska Federation of Natives. It’s hard to imagine the state now without the organization, which speaks louder than any other in addressing Native issues in Alaska. Mr. Wright was president of AFN in 1971, when he helped draft the landmark Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act signed into law by President Richard Nixon. ANCSA granted 44 million acres of land and $962.5 million to Alaska’s Native people in compensation for their land claims in the state — the act was also responsible for the establishing of the Native corporations that now play large roles in communities around the state.
It’s been a difficult year for leaders in the Native community, as many who played foundational advocacy roles are now of an age that their numbers are dwindling. Mr. Wright joined education leader Bernice Joseph, who died in January after blazing a trail in the field of higher education. At the time of her death, Ms. Joseph was the vice chancellor for rural and community education at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, but — as a speaker at her memorial joked — to the Native people, she was the president of the University of Alaska. And only a few days ago, elder Dorothy Perdue died here in Fairbanks — the wife of Frank Perdue, an Athabascan tribal advocate and founder of the Fairbanks Native Association, she saw many changes for her people over the course of her lifetime.
To have so many leaders still living who played a role in formative times in Alaska’s history is a virtue of being a young state. Admitted to the union in 1959, Alaska is joined by only Hawaii as a state whose founders — some of them, at least — are still around to give input on present issues. A handful of delegates to the Alaska Constitutional Convention are still around, and perhaps not surprisingly, some are still active in politics. Though Jack Coghill and Vic Fischer, two of those figures, may not see eye to eye on too many political issues, it’s hard to dispute that both are a tremendous asset as a sort of conscience for the state and representatives of one of Alaska’s greatest political triumphs.
As the years pass, we will have fewer and fewer of these tall trees around to grace us with their wealth of experience, and before long we will find ourselves as the first generation of Alaskans who have to chart our own course without the founders of the state and its greatest institutions to guide us. If we take the time to listen and absorb the lessons that these elders can teach us, we’ll be ready to shoulder that tremendous responsibility when it comes.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,