Remembering The One And Only Lillian Atmak Michael
Longtime KYUK colleague Lillian Atmak Michael died earlier this month at the age of 64. She passed away on the Russian Orthodox holiday Pascha, also known as Easter. Atmak was a practicing Orthodox Christian, many of whom believe that the gates of heaven are open to those who die on this highest of holy days for the church. While living, Michael shared her boundless energy with others as a teacher, a translator, a reporter, and a storyteller.
If you were in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in the 1980s and you tuned your television to channel four, you might have seen Lillian Atmak Michael announcing the Yup’ik news. You would see her long, straight black hair parted in the middle, and her big glasses that covered nearly half of her face. What you wouldn’t see was the complex linguistic surgery she was conducting in her mind. Former KYUK news director Rhonda McBride said that Atmak would not only translate the English news into Yup’ik, but she would also completely restructure the information for a Yup’ik audience.
“Because English didn't necessarily lend itself to the Yup’ik process of telling a story, which, as I understood it from Lil, was to begin with the background, and then get to the point of the story,” McBride said.
Atmak would do this on the fly, with only the English script in front of her.
“It was really to the level of a United Nations translator,” McBride said.
Former KYUK Yup’ik news reporter Trim Nick said that Atmak read with an explosive, yet steady cadence that exuded confidence and never faltered. But what he remembers most is the joy and humor that she brought to the screen.
“She was a very happy woman, had a very optimistic, happy outlook about life and everything. And that exuded in her news presentation, especially in Yup’ik,” Nick said.
Another former KYUK news director, Angela Denning, said that Atmak would pulse with energy as she shaped stories in Yup’ik.
“It was kind of just thrilling to watch her work. It was almost like watching an art form happening,” Denning said.
Her work spanned four decades. She joined KYUK in 1981 as a translator and producer, and within a year she became the Yup’ik news director. She was prolific, appearing on KYUK’s many TV and radio programs. In her later years, even while living in her home village of Kwethluk, she would travel to Bethel to translate special events on air.
Her favorite may have been the Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race. Atmak became one of its premier voices.
“I’m so excited to see who the next person will be,” Atmak announced for one of the last times on live radio, covering the 2021 Akiak Dash while overflowing with enthusiasm as always. “They were playing cat and mouse between Jackie, Matt Scott, and Greg Larson. And sometimes the 17-year-old young man from Kwethluk, Raymond Alexie, who’s named after my first cousin Raymond Egoak.”
Atmak would often mention her family connection to mushers in race updates. She was also fearlessly funny. Her friends and family said that she was an affectionate teaser. Julia Jimmie, Yugtun translator and producer at KYUK, remembers one year that Atmak and the late John Active, another longtime KYUK translator and storyteller, were announcing the K300 finish in Yup’ik. On live radio, Jimmie said that the two friends joked about needing someone to bring them a coffee can so they could go to the bathroom.
“And they will say, 'oh no we don’t have tissue,'” Jimmie remembered with a chuckle. “And our bosses here don't understand what they’re saying, so they got away with a lot. They had fun.”
Atmak and Active were two of KYUK’s longest serving employees. Both were experts in Yugtun, English, storytelling, and humor. Together, they helped shape the station’s identity and bilingual culture.
“Lillian Michael is, I would say, one of the key employees of KYUK history,” said current KYUK general manager Shane Iverson. “She's the voice and face that so many people know as KYUK.”
Though Atmak is gone, she lives on in the people she inspired. For Jimmie, Atmak helped teach her to be confident in who she was.
“Seeing Yup’ik people speaking Yup’ik, being Yup’ik on TV and on the radio, I think it normalized speaking Yup’ik, made it accepted,” Jimmie said.
Jimmie eventually moved to Bethel from her home village of Tuntutuliak and became a KYUK translator, following in Atmak’s footsteps.
Before she was on TV, Atmak was making sure Yup’ik language and culture had space in the classroom as a bilingual teacher in her home village of Kwethluk. Her niece, Veronica Atan Winkelman, said that Atmak would sometimes help translate between the English-speaking teachers and Yugtun-speaking students.
“She played a big role in making sure that we were understood and that we were comfortable,” Winkelman said.
Winkelman now works at the Lower Kuskokwim School District to improve the Yugtun curriculum that Yup’ik teachers like her aunt worked to create.
Helen Larson said that she wanted to be like her older sister Atmak when they were younger. She said her older sister was good at any job she did, and had a way of making people smile even when they were sad.
“She had a golden heart,” Larson said. “She was kind and loving to everyone she met, no matter who they were or how they were.”
Lillian Atmak Michael’s body was laid to rest in her home village of Kwethluk. There will never be another woman like her.