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Web Extra: John Active, a pioneering Alaska Native broadcaster

By KTVA Alaska 11:22 AM August 16, 2015

I first met John Active around the year 1990, when I was news director at KYUK, the public radio and television station in Bethel, Alaska – an off-the-road system community about 400 miles west of Anchorage.

At that time, KYUK featured bilingual news on both radio and TV. John and other Yup’ik journalists would translate English copy into Yup’ik on the fly, just like United Nations translators. It was a fascinating process to watch – especially if there was no equivalent word in the Yup’ik language for an English word.

Take the word “computer.” In the early 1990s, many Yup’ik elders were unfamiliar with such new technology.

The late Alexie Isaac, one of KYUK’s early Yup’ik broadcasters, said if the word “computer” popped up in a story, it would take a few sentences to explain that a computer is a “box that looks like a TV set, but it does a whole lot more.”

It was important to Alexie and other Yup’ik newscasters to reach the Yup’ik elders, who did not understand English at all.

John was especially passionate serving elder listeners, perhaps because of the influence of his late grandmother, Maggie Lind.

Maggie was a well-known storyteller — and when John was a small boy, she imparted to him a vast oral library of Yup’ik stories and wisdom.

John, who had an owlish habit of peering at you across his glasses, once fixed his eyes on me and declared his mission was to “Yup’ify” the world. In other words, to spread the values of Yup’ik culture to others. For me, it was one of those defining cross-cultural moments.

The Yup’ik news staffers at KYUK have truly been pioneers in Native language broadcasting.

When I first heard KYUK’s “Yuk to Yuk,” or “Person to Person” talk show, I listened in awe.

“Yuk” means person in Yup’ik, hence KYUK literally means a “person’s” or “people’s” station.

The process went like this: a guest would speak a few sentences and pause for the translator to synopsize what was said in either Yup’ik or English. I was amazed at how easy it was to follow the conversation.

There are really very few people, maybe 20, but certainly less than 50 — who can translate Yup’ik to English (and vice versa) at the level of what’s heard on KYUK. So, it’s worth mentioning some of the KYUK broadcasters who have mastered this skill – Lillian Michael, Adolph Lewis, Sophie Evan and Trim Nick. They’ve all contributed to making Yup’ik one of the most robust indigenous languages in America.

Today, KYUK’s Yup’ik language broadcasts are available on the station’s website for the whole world to hear — one big step in “Yup’ifying” the world.

But back in 1971, when the station went on the air at 640 AM on the radio dial, John Active was one of the very first Yup’ik language broadcasters.

In this Web Extra, John tells the story of how Yup’ik news came to be.

On this Aug. 16 edition of Frontiers, John Active shares stories he learned from his grandmother, including one about how the fox got its red color and how the crane got its blue eyes.

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