Susan Wilhite Fair

Posted: Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Former Juneau resident, Susan Wilhite Fair, 54, died June 1, 2003, at her home in Tucson, Ariz.

She was born in Washington, D.C., to Robert J. Fair and Emily Cottrell Fair. She moved to Indiana with her parents when she was a child. As a young adult, she moved to Colorado and later to the Navajo and Hopi reservations in New Mexico and Arizona.

In the early 1970s, she moved to Alaska and began working at the Alaska Native Arts and Crafts Co-op in Anchorage. In 1985, she earned her bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Alaska Anchorage, where she published a book, "Eskimo Dolls," as an undergraduate. At the University of Pennsylvania, she earned a master's degree in 1988 and a Ph.D. in 1994 in folklore and folk life. At the time of her death, she was completing revisions on a book now in press, "Alaska Native Art: Tradition, Innovation, and Continuity."

A prominent American folklorist who studied and documented the culture of the Alaska Natives, Navajo and Hopi, she held a joint appointment with the English Department and Southwest Center of the University of Arizona, where she taught folklore and conducted research.

From 1991 to 1999, she was adjunct professor of Anthropology and Art History at the University of Alaska Anchorage, Eagle River, Homer, Juneau and Elmendorf campuses.

While living in Alaska, she served as the principal investigator with Shishmaref Native Corporation and was awarded a National Science Foundation grant to research toponyms, oral histories and linguistic affiliation of the northwest Alaska region. She was awarded a National Park Service Cooperative Agreement with the Shishmaref IRA Village Council for similar work. She worked with the Pratt Museum in Homer on a folk culture grant on local marine harvesting. Through the Alaska Humanities Forum, she worked with Aleutians East Borough on an Aleut oral history project.

She also owned and administered a consulting business emphasizing anthropology, folklore, Native art and permanent public exhibitions. Some of the collections she curated include the Yupik art and ethnographic photographs for the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Center in Bethel, Percent for Art installations at the Elmendorf AFB Hospital in Anchorage and the Maniilaq Health Center in Kotzebue. She was also the guest curator of the prominent Percent for Art exhibition of Native Art at the Ted Stevens International Airport. Prior to leaving Alaska in 2000, she was the publications and media director at Sealaska Heritage Foundation in Juneau.

Friends said that aside from her love for the Native culture and people her other passions included canoeing, quilting, bird watching and hot springs. Her love of caches resulted in a book that is currently in review with the University of Washington Press titled "Story, Storage, and Symbol: Caches, Narratives, and Roadside Attractions in Alaska and the Yukon."

"She saw beauty in everything in nature and was a dedicated friend who treasured her friendships and lived her life with style and pizzazz," said a friend.

Her students said she was an enthusiastic teacher who loved sharing her experiences and wisdom. "Her stories came alive in the classroom," one student said.

Just as she never missed a chance to visit a hot spring, she never missed a chance to attend the Talkeetna Bluegrass Festival or the opportunity to visit friends and extended family at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention.

She is survived by her son, Michael Louis Kaputak Fair; an uncle, Walter Cottrell of Maryland; several cousins in Maryland, Virginia and Indiana; and many friends and colleagues.

A memorial gathering was held on July 14 at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art. In lieu of flowers, friends request that donations be made to an art or cultural organization of choice.

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