Athabascan tradition-bearer Peter dies

Posted: Friday, February 26, 2010

FAIRBANKS - Athabascan linguist and tradition-bearer Katherine Peter has died at age 92.

Peter, who died early Wednesday at her Fairbanks home, left "huge footsteps" to follow, her daughter, Kathy Sikorski, told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

Peter was an expert in Athabascan language and culture and the author of a number of books, translations and publications. She taught at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and was instrumental in developing the university's Alaska Native Language Center. Her autobiography won the American Book Award in 1993.

She also was expert in traditional Alaska Native subsistence skills and a talented bead worker..

Although her formal schooling ended at grade eight, Peter recognized the importance of education, said her daughter, who works at the language center.

"She left us a big legacy by instilling in all of us a hard work ethic and that we needed to get educated," Sikorski said.

Peter, the mother of 10 children, wrote on topics ranging from the Gwich'in alphabet to tanning animal hides.

Professor Emeritus Michael E. Krauss, former director of the language center, said Peter proved invaluable after the center opened in 1972, producing a huge amount of material.

"She is never to be replaced because she was the last generation to be totally fluent in the language. Her contribution is unmatchable," he said.

Peter was born in 1918 and raised by her Koyukon Athabascan-speaking parents until she was 6 or 7, when she was orphaned. Fort Yukon Chief Ezias Loola and his wife, Katherine, adopted her into their Gwich'in speaking household. She learned that language and English, serving as a translator for Chief Loola.

In 1936, Katherine married Stephen Peter and went by dog team to live in Arctic Village, about 235 miles north of Fairbanks. She contracted tuberculosis and eventually moved back to Fort Yukon. By age 34, she had lost a large part of her lungs to the disease.

"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," Krauss said. "She was wonderful with her own people and wonderful with us, too."

A funeral service is to be held Saturday at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Fairbanks. She is to be buried Monday at Arctic Village.

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