French priest who served western Alaska dies at age 77

Posted: Sunday, June 30, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A French priest who spent much of his life in western Alaska serving Native villages has died.

Rene ''Nucang'in'' Astruc, who had worked in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta since 1950, died Friday night in Anchorage after a long struggle with kidney cancer. He was 77.

Astruc will most likely be remembered for extending church approbation to Yup'ik customs, including traditional dance and potlatch ceremonies.

He was born in Versailles, France, on Sept. 17, 1924. After the war, he joined the Jesuits.

''I requested a mission where it was cold,'' he recalled in a 1996 interview. The Jesuits sent him to Holy Cross on the Yukon River. He was ordained in 1954 and assigned permanently to Alaska in 1956.

For most of the rest of his life, he worked in small Yup'ik Eskimo villages spread from the Lower Yukon River to Nelson Island.

When he first arrived, Mountain Village parishioner Winifred Beans recalled, he seemed strict and unapproachable, and his accent made him hard to understand.

But as he traveled with Yup'ik people, shared their food and their lives, he became more accepting of Native ways and increasingly accepted by Natives.

In 1964, when he was the headmaster of the mission school in St. Marys, he became aware of tension between that village and neighboring Pilot Station. Years earlier, the Pilot Station people had held a potlatch -- a traditional celebration where young people are presented as full-fledged members of the community -- for St. Marys. But an earlier priest prohibited Catholics from participating or reciprocating, casting a pall on the custom throughout the area.

''I looked into it and didn't see anything reprehensible,'' Astruc said. ''So I told them, as far as this priest is concerned, it's OK.''

Reciprocal potlatches between the two villages have taken place since then, and the custom has revived in other area villages as well. In 1996, Astruc was presented at the St. Marys potlatch, standing on a seal skin, clad head to toe in new handmade clothing.

Astruc strongly encouraged Yup'ik dancing, a custom suppressed by some of his Jesuit predecessors.

In 1996 he retired and returned to France. But less than a year later, he came back to Alaska.

In spring 2001, he was diagnosed with cancer.

He asked to be buried in St. Marys ''with my old friends.''

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