Yup’ifying The Nation - John Active’s Legacy In Public Media
The late Alaska Native journalist, storyteller, and cross-cultural communicator John Active said a number of times to his KYUK co-workers that he was going to "Yup'ify the world."
Back in 1973, along with Alexie Isaac, Lillian Michael, Peter Twitchell, and Charlie Charlie, to name a few, John Active was asked to come in and read Yup’ik and English news by none other than Chief Eddie Hoffman.
“Radio first came on in the early 70s, and there was a need for a translator, a Yup’ik news reporter translator, and that’s how I came to KYUK. We used to do the news for radio, and then later on television came on,” said Active. “And so we did the news for TV too.”
As a kid, Active and his siblings would go to the movie house. The kids would then re-enact scenes with characters from films like "The Ten Commandments." Back at home, Yup’ik was still spoken in his house with his grandmother, Maggie Lind.
“There was always people staying at her house from different villages who would come stay weeks at a time, sometimes, and they would come sit around in the evening,” recalled Active. “No TV, no radio; they’d sit around in the evening and tell stories. And so that’s how I grew up: sitting there on the floor listening to all these people telling stories.”
But like most in Bethel at the time, the only radio Active heard growing up was the occasional broadcast of the American Forces Radio Network from the military bases. On a good day they could pick up the KNOM signal out of Nome; the radio he heard was all in English.
“You know, we weren’t empowered until the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was signed and then KYUK radio kind of just, with people like John, all of a sudden we were having Yup’ik news. And it was because of people like him,” said Beverly Hoffman, Chief Eddie Hoffman’s niece, in an interview Monday. Active was a classmate of Hoffman’s in middle school, and in the late 70s and early 80s, a co-worker of his at KYUK.
“Some of those early radio pieces that he and Peter Twitchell did, or ‘Old Man, Young Man’ with Jim Barker, who was non-native, about, oh ‘The Great Honey Bucket Race,’ and you know, just really humorous stuff, and it fit him,” Hoffman said.
It was this work, in addition to the news that Active did in the early days, that was so well received, especially by the elders, said Hoffman.
“It gave people great pride to hear our language on KYUK. And I grew up a non-speaker, you know, my dad was Yup’ik, half Yup’ik, and my mom not, so we were mostly English speaking in that era. John was blessed in being from families that spoke Yup’ik at home, and he brought that to the rest of the listening audience of the Kuskokwim and beyond,” said Hoffman.
Having Yup’ik on the airwaves was especially important because at the time the language was not spoken or taught in schools. But as communication grew in the Delta, Active and KYUK grew and adapted with it.
When asked by Rhonda McBride, KYUK alumnus and host of the Frontiers television show, back in 2015 if having Yup’ik on the airwaves in the Y-K Delta helped preserve the language of the region, Active said absolutely. He wished more Native languages were spoken on the air across the state of Alaska.
Active himself was able to take his stories and the Yup’ik language not just statewide, but nationally, with his stories airing on National Public Radio in the 90s. In a 2007 interview, Active spoke about his process in telling stories to different audiences.
“When I tell stories on the radio, because it was a story from our area for our local listeners, I could tell a story very easily and they’d understand what I was talking about. Okay, if I’m going to do it statewide, then I’m going to have to explain what the story was about as I’m going along,” Active said. “And then nationally, on NPR I mean, that gets into more detail of why we talk about certain things, why we think the way we think. There was always three ways of telling stories. Like, if you tell stories to kids, you do it simply as possible so they can understand. That’s the way I do it here: simply as possible because they understand what I’m talking about. But then for adults, you get into a little bit more detail.”
But passing on information to all listeners, especially Yup’ik speakers, is important work, said Active.
“All the news would be gathered from the area, and then we’d pass on that information to our listeners, and that was our main job, and it still is today,” said Active.
The Yup’ik value "kin-guv-arciyaraq" of passing things on or passing things down to the next generation went hand-in-hand with this process. In a 2007 interview with elder Iyana Gusty, who has now passed away, Gusty spoke about what Active’s work meant to him.
“He can translate ‘em by English way, he can translate them by Native way. Both ways, that really important because he want everybody learn. And they will learn what they learn, what they see, what we learn, we go through that we pass it on. That’s how I see John. I see him, he goes through that just like me. We go through what we learn; we pass it on to the young people. That’s what John do with a lot of them,” said Gusty.
And Active did that. Over the last five decades working at KYUK, he regularly met with youth touring the station or in school classrooms to talk about what he was doing here, and the importance of being proud to carry on the Yup’ik language and values in a world where many Native people struggle to keep their cultures alive. Active pointed to the “Yup’ik Talkline” radio show:
“Two, three times a week for two hours on the radio where they speak nothing but Yup’ik,” he said.
Active’s uncle Peter Jacob hosted “Yuk to Yuk,” on which John was occasionally a fill-in host. Today the shows “Yuk to Yuk,” hosted by Fritz Charles, and “Ketvarrluku,” started three years ago by Active and now hosted by Peter Atchak, carry on that legacy.
“They talk about contemporary things,” Active said, “intermingled with ancient things and it lets the younger Natives know why we are the way we are. And they’re passing out information too.”
Active’s work was never done. Eleven years ago, he was working with elder Iyana Gusty on the back porch of KYUK after an interview. As the men were sitting, Gusty compared Active’s work to the Yup’ik cultural imperative to pass on knowledge.
“What we learn, we pass it on to the young people. That’s what John do with a lot of them,” said Gusty.
“Quyana,” John said from across the table with a shy smile.
“Ii-i,” Gusty said, before breaking into song.
Chris Ho contributed to the reporting of this story.