Longtime Native rights advocate dies

Posted: Tuesday, June 05, 2001

Robert Willard, a longtime Native rights activist and Southeast resident, died late last week in Juneau.

Born and raised in Angoon, the 64-year-old Alaska Native was a member of the Raven-Beaver clan; his Tlingit name was Kitch Nauthx.

"Alaskans will remember Bob Willard as one of the boldest and most tireless advocates for Native rights in the last 50 years," said Carlton Smith, CEO of Kootznoowoo Inc., Angoon's village Native corporation. "He was comfortable working in the trenches."

A lifetime proponent of subsistence rights, Willard was Alaska's first Native state trooper. He held numerous offices, including executive director of the Commission for Human Rights under then-Gov. Bill Egan, director of the Tlingit-Haida Housing Authority in Juneau, president of the Southeast Native Subsistence Committee, legislative analyst for the Alaska Native Brotherhood and several positions with Juneau's Tlingit-Haida Community Council.

"Just about everything that impacted Native life here in Southeast, Bob was involved in," said Ethel Lund, former president of the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium. "He was just kind of a 'can-do' person, a problem solver."

Lund met Willard through their work at SEARHC, where he served as interim executive director for several months.

"He traveled to Anchorage and negotiated with Indian Health Service for our first contract," she said. "He was competing with well-established health organizations. It was a highly competitive field and he came home with the bacon."

Native lands claims activist John Borbridge, a former president of Sealaska, Southeast's regional Native corporation, said he had an informal working relationship with Willard for more than 30 years. Together, they followed the Legislature, alerting one another when their testimony might be needed.

"I always felt that he worked very hard to establish the factual setting," Borbridge said. "He believed the same as I did - that you can't just talk in general terms, you've got to specifically address legislation, background, intent. I found him to have a very professional attitude in that regard."

Willard also worked on behalf of the landless communities struggling to receive recognition under an amendment to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. His leadership was primarily directed toward working with the Alaska congressional delegation, Borbridge said.

However, personal recognition wasn't Willard's goal.

"He was never the type who wanted to be in the limelight," said Angela Willard Johnson, Willard's sister. "He didn't do it for show."

"He was never trying to pad his nest or work his way up the ladder," added Terry Pegues, a consultant for Native organizations. "He just cared about his people."

Willard's wife, Desa Jacobson, described him as "a really kind human being.

"That was his greatest quality, his kindness to others," she said. "We were intimate friends. ... He was my pal. It was unique, it was wonderful."

They met in the early 1990s, when Jacobson was incarcerated on subsistence charges. During her lonely jail time, she prayed for an intelligent person with a clean lifestyle who would understand her activist work. Shortly after, she got a call from Willard.

"He asked me, 'How are you?' and I said, 'Fine.' And he said, 'No, how are you?' And the way he said (it) really did something to me. His tone of voice - here was someone for the first time who cared about me as a human being."

After Jacobson was released, she stopped in Juneau to thank Willard for his help.

"They picked me up at the airport and brought me to the Viking where he was waiting," Jacobson said. "When I walked in and we were introduced, I knew instantly that this was the man I'd said my prayer about."

They were married two months later.

"He was extremely knowledgeable in culture and traditions," Jacobson added. "The whole subsistence issue - that was his life's work."

A memorial will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Tlingit-Haida Community Center near Salmon Creek.

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