Remembering Our Friend, Native Media Pioneer John Active
Monday, June 4, 2018 6:40 p.m. This story has been updated with more details about John's life since it was first published.
It’s a sad day at KYUK. Our friend, Yup’ik storyteller, culture bearer, translator, and longtime KYUK radio and TV host John "Aqumgaciq” Active died this Monday morning at age 69. John is irreplaceable. His broadcasting career at KYUK began in the early 1970s, and he is celebrated as a pioneer in Native media for his work spreading and preserving the Yup’ik language and culture.
Over the decades, John produced a range of programs to entertain the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and spread his deep knowledge and love of the Yup’ik ways.
John helped produce the television show “Waves of Wisdom,” where he traveled with the late Alexie Isaac around the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta recording the oral histories of elders. John produced “Tales of the Tundra,” a TV show to stand your hair on end with Yup’ik ghost stories and tales of the paranormal. He also hosted a Thursday morning radio Yup’ik language talk show, "Ketvarrlluku," where listeners across the Y-K Delta called in to discuss the topics of the day.
Teachers invited John into their classrooms to tell traditional stories and his own adventures, like this one about going to spring camp with his family as a young boy: “We learned how to snare ptarmigan on the tundra," John said. "We learned about gathering edible plants and which ones were poisonous. We learned which and what kind of birds were around us by their calls. We learned everything about the Yup’ik subsistence lifestyle that we would never have learned in school.”
When John was telling a story, time slowed down and no one could look away. More invitations came from farther away. He traveled as far as Boston and Hawaii, sharing his knowledge and always telling his stories. But he loved being in the Y-K Delta the best. Hawaii, he would say, shaking his head, was “too hot," and in Boston, he’d say, making a face, “they eat bugs," referring to lobsters.
John frequently appeared on PBS and NPR. Anthropologists Ann Fienup-Riordan and Marie Mead turned to him as they documented the Yup’ik culture in their long canon of books on the region. For decades, John’s unique, gentle voice has guided visitors through the Anchorage museum.
John was a master of the Yup’ik language and its various dialects, a skill he attributes to his grandmother, Maggie Lind. He was one of the first people to translate the KYUK English language newscast into Yup'ik. He shared the story of his first day translating with former KYUK News Director Rhonda McBride on her KTVA-TV show Frontiers in 2015.
“I loved to watch people do news, and so I kind of fit in right away and it was really easy for me," John told McBride. "But the first time I was really nervous and just sweating away. But somebody told me, ‘Just imagine your listeners are walking around at home with no clothes.'”
John became an accomplished translator. Holding the English news copy in his hands, he would read the words with his eyes in English while simultaneously translating aloud into Yup'ik. John could also translate live events in real time. It's a skill shared by only about a dozen people in the region, and his quality was matched by few. Many organizations sought John out and hired him for this ability.
John loved to cook and to share what he made. Multiple times a week he’d take over the KYUK kitchen and keep the staff and visitors well-fed with subsistence foods like duck, moose, and salmon. It was common to find fish in the sink, an entire beaver under the table, or a whole goose - feathers, beak, and feet - in the station refrigerator. People shared these foods with John, and he shared them with everyone else. He loved sprinkling his dishes with dried, green parsley and leaving a note above the food, saying it was marijuana. John found humor in many things.
He was always joking, always making us laugh, and laughing at his own jokes with us. For staff hired from outside Alaska he served as our cultural guide, ready to explain Yup’ik concepts and patiently pronouncing the same Yup’ik words again and again to train our ears and throats before we went on air.
In late March, after experiencing a series of strokes, John announced his retirement. He’d made this announcement before and always returned, but we held a potluck anyway. Before we ate, John stood up to address the room, filled with friends and KYUK staff and board members.
“Everything that I do today, try to make people laugh, make them comfortable, is I’m trying to pass on what the elders taught to me by my actions, what I learned from them," John said.
John did so much at KYUK, and we are still working to chronicle his decades of stories, shows, and contributions. You will still hear John’s voice on our airwaves daily, announcing the “Yup’ik Word of the Week.” He started the radio segment. It's another contribution in his long legacy, and we will continue it.
John’s family issued a statement saying, “John Active left to be with our Lord at 12:55 a.m. Monday morning, June 4. Funeral arrangements are pending."
In partnership with Bethel Community Services Foundation, KYUK has put together a Memorial Scholarship in honor of John Active’s legacy, which will be awarded to a college student with “social ties to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta” who is working toward a degree in journalism, indigenous language, multimedia, or communications.