In Memory of A. Oscar Kawagley

On Sunday, April 24, 2011, Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley left this Earth to enter the Spirit World after losing a long and painful struggle against cancer.  He was 76.

Few people will leave a more positive and inspiring legacy than Oscar.  A Yupiaq born in Mamterilleq – now Bethel – Alaska, he taught in the Cross-Cultural Studies and Education program at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, for more than 25 years.  He was raised by his grandmother after his parents died when he was two years old.  He went on to join the U.S. Army Medical Service Corps before earning a master’s and educational specialist degree from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks and a doctorate degree in education from the University of British Columbia.  His dissertation examined native ways of knowing, what would eventually be called “Traditional Ecological Knowledge.” His ideas on the topic were later published in the seminal book A Yupiaq Worldview: A Pathway to Ecology and Spirit (1995).  More recently he co-edited, with his close friend and colleague Ray Barnhardt, a collection of readings entitled Alaska Native Education: Views From Within (2010).

Oscar was also known for his fight to improve the quality of education for Alaskan Native children, and especially for his advocacy of tribal languages.  He received many honors during his life, including the National Indian Education Association Lifetime Achievement Award, the American Educational Research Association Outstanding Scholarship Award, the Governor’s Award for Arts and Humanities, the Alaska Secondary School Principal’s Association Distinguished Service Award, and the Association of Village Council Presidents Award for his many years of service to the people of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.  For many people Oscar’s name was synonymous with Alaska Native rural education.

In recent years Oscar turned his attention toward alerting and educating people about the greatest crisis facing civilization today – the effects of global warming.

On a personal note I first met Oscar about five years ago at a climate change meeting held at the Haskell Indian Nations University.  The friendship I formed with Oscar proved to be one of the great honors of my life.  He was one of the kindest, gentlest, and most gracious human beings I have ever met … and one of the most courageous.  He long suffered from cancer and its crippling effects on his leg.  But he never let it slow him down.  I talked to him only days after his leg was removed and he was as upbeat and as cheerful as ever.  He said he was happy the “darn thing” was gone so that he could be fitted with a prosthetic leg and get on with his life, and especially with his teaching and travel.   He felt confident that he would be able to join us at the upcoming American Indian Alaska Native Climate Change Working Group (AIANCCWG) meeting in April, but sadly, that was not to be.  To know Oscar was to love him, and his passing leaves a great void in the hearts of his many friends and students.

The AIANCCWG has announced a student scholarship in Oscar’s honor. Those wishing to donate can contact Dr. Daniel R. Wildcat at

– On April 20, 2009 Oscar visited Northwest Indian College where he gave a talk to my Philosophy of the Natural World class entitled “A Yupiaq WorldView.”

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