Thursday, February 25, 2010

OBT: Traditions Keeper Katherine Peter

Athabascan linguist, tradition bearer Katherine Peter dies
by Mary Beth Smetzer, 02.25.10 - 12:28 am

Katherine Peter, an Athabascan language expert and respected elder, died at 92 in Fairbanks at her home on Wednesday, February 24, 2010. News-Miner file photo. Katherine Peter, an Athabascan language expert and respected elder, died at 92 in Fairbanks at her home on Wednesday, February 24, 2010. News-Miner file photo.
FAIRBANKS — Athabascan tradition bearer Katherine Peter died early Wednesday morning at home in Fairbanks.

Throughout her life Katherine, 92, shared her vast store of traditional knowledge, skills and experience in a myriad of ways, most notably through her work at the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Her knowledge of Athabascan language and culture will continue to be shared with future generations through her many books, translations and publications.

Katherine was born in 1918 and raised by Koyukon Athabascan speaking parents until she was 6 or 7 years old when she was orphaned.

As was the custom at the time, Fort Yukon Chief Ezias Loola and his wife, Katherine, adopted her into their Gwich’in speaking household and Katherine had to learn a different language. Before long she was learning a third language at school, English, and serving as translator for Chief Loola.


Although her formal schooling ended at grade 8, Katherine recognized the importance of education and took advantage of every learning opportunity throughout her life.

“She left us a big legacy by instilling in all of us a hard work ethic and that we needed to get educated,” daughter Kathy Sikorski, a UAF graduate student, said.

Like her mother before her, Sikorski works at the language center, and realizes, as she puts it, what “huge footsteps” her mother left to follow.

“She was so prolific. There is a lot of work to be done yet,” Sikorski said, referring to the many stories Katherine collected from elders during the 1970s and 80s and her mother’s own manuscripts.

Up until the last days of her life, Katherine would remember old Gwich’in words and share them with family.

Katherine’s many booklets included topics from Gwich’in ABCs to tanning animal hides as well as a “Junior Dictionary for Little Readers.”

Her autobiography, “Neets’aii Gwiindaii: Living in the Chandalar Country” won the American Book Award in 1993. Another autobiographical work, “Living in the Chief’s House,” was about her growing up years.

Adopted nephew, Athabascan fiddler Bill Stevens, was close to Katherine and enjoyed visiting with her and sharing stories about old times.

“She was very, very fond of Chief Loola,” Stevens said.

In 1936, Katherine married Stephen Peter and went by dog team to Arctic Village to live.

A decade or more later, Katherine moved back to Fort Yukon to be treated for tuberculosis and later at a sanitorium in Seward. By the time she was 34, she had lost a large part of her lungs to the disease.

Katherine was expert in traditional Native subsistence skills and was a skillful beadworker.

Professor Emeritus Michael E. Krauss, former director of the Alaska Native Language Center, said it was extreme good luck to meet Katherine just when the language center was starting in June 1972.

Katherine knew how to read and write her own language in Tukudh, the old religious style which was developed by Episcopal Archdeacon Robert McDonald in 1862. By 1897 he had even translated the Bible in it.

“Katherine was thoroughly conversant with that,” Krauss said. “It was a very difficult writing system, hard to learn, but she had mastered it,” he said.

By the 1960s, Wycliffe Bible translators had developed an easier to learn, modern system to write Gwich’in.

“She learned it in about two or three days,” Krauss said.

Katherine went on to teach Gwich’in at the university level during her more than decade-long employment.

“She was very talented. She produced a huge corpus of material in the language for the Alaska Native Language Center,” Krauss said. She wrote down hundreds of stories in the language and transcribed the materials from the old (Gwich’in) system journals of Albert Tritt and the founding of Arctic Village from the 1920s.

“She is never to be replaced because she was the last generation to be totally fluent in the language. Her contribution is unmatchable.”

Krauss described Katherine personally as “no-nonsense but warm.”

“She had not had an easy life and she was a real survivor and nobody’s fool, but at the same time there was always a certain warmth and real decency that totally transcended racial issues. She was wonderful with her own people and wonderful with us too.”

John Ritter, director of the Yukon Language Center, consulted with Katherine across the years, often about the Tukudh liturgical tradition.

He said Katherine told him that the reason she and the Rev. Titus Peter knew the Tukudh hymns so well was that as children they would sing them while doing housework or sewing.

“We’ve lost a great teacher and a great mentor,” Ritter said.

Katherine bore 10 children, one who died in infancy, and is survived by nine children, numerous grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren.

“All the grandkids had a tremendous amount of love for her and the grandkids understand that they need to learn the Gwich’in language and pass it on to their kids,” Sikorski said.

As a tribute to Katherine, the family is in the midst of creating a DVD using everyday commands in Gwich’in and utilizing the talents of Katherine’s older grandchildren, one a filmmaker and another a film director, and many of the young great-grandchildren, Sikorski said.

“We want to put it up on You Tube.”

Katherine’s extended family will participate in her funeral service slated for 4 p.m. Saturday at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church. A covered dish dinner will follow at 6 p.m. in the church hall.

On Monday, Katherine will be buried at Arctic Village following a service at Bishop Rowe Chapel.


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