Passionate, driven, patient — those were just a few words used to describe longtime anthropology professor Dr. Alan Boraas as the community gathered together Friday night to celebrate his life and mourn his passing.
The celebration of life for Boraas, who died Nov. 4 of last year, packed the auditorium in the Ward Building of Kenai Peninsula College as friends, colleagues and family members spoke of his accomplishments and his legacy both at the college and with the Dena’ina People. Boraas was a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College for over 40 years. During that time he worked to preserve the Dena’ina language with Peter Kalifornsky, the last Native speaker of the Outer Cook Inlet dialect of the Dena’ina language. By doing so, Boraas played a pivotal role in expanding KPC’s Native language programs into what they are today.
Boraas also helped to create the Tsalteshi Trails system, which is used year-round for cross-country skiing and other outdoor activities.
Gary Turner, director of KPC, announced during the celebration of life that the college’s anthropology lab would be renamed the Dr. Alan “Tiquitsex” Boraas Anthropology Lab in honor of the late professor. Tiquitsex was the Dena’ina name given to Boraas when he was made an honorary member of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe. The word translates to “He breaks the trail.”
Turner also pointed out an old yellow office chair that sat empty onstage and explained that it was Boraas’ office chair for his entire career at KPC.
“There’s something about that chair. People feel a connection to Alan,” Turner said. “For me, I can imagine Alan’s spirit sitting there and watching us.”
Boraas’ trailbreaking was a common theme mentioned by the people who spoke during the event. In addition to having the anthropology lab renamed in his honor, University of Alaska Chancellor Cathy Sandeen announced that Boraas had been posthumously awarded the title of Professor Emeritus by UAA. Professor Emeritus is a title given to retired professors with at least 10 years at the university and a long history of accomplishments within the university system. Turner said that awarding a professor with the title of Emeritus is typically a lengthy process that can take several months, but an exception was made for Boraas.
Among those who spoke at the Celebration of Life were Boraas’ children — his sons Peter and Erik Boraas, his daughter Kristin Boraas-Carder, and his stepdaughter Ailis Vann.
“When I think of him I think of his sly smile, when he was making a joke that you didn’t realize was a joke until partway through,” Boraas-Carder said. “Of his seriousness about how to live well. But a lot of what made him who he was were the things he loved, like the magical cold. He had a great enduring love of the northland — its wildness, its wilderness, its beauty, and how you could learn to live with the land instead of against it, like the Native peoples did.
“He never stopped trying to learn more about that Native connection to the land, and as everyone has realized he had a profound sense of place here, and he was always a little judgmental of people who could not see its beauty. Maybe a lot of judgment. He loved skiing, the quiet swish of skis on the snow and the stillness of the trees, the thrill of exactly hitting the wax … my dad loved dogs, toast and vanilla ice cream. He loved the satisfaction of well-stacked firewood, and I think he loved every bit of creating a fire. Chopping it, stacking it, lighting the fire with one match … he loved Norway and books and coffee. He loved to teach, and he loved to learn.”
Peter Boraas shared portions of a video interview he had conducted with his father last summer.
“I’m feeling extremely lucky tonight, partly to see so many friendly faces that I haven’t seen in a long time and mostly because last summer a combination of unforeseen events gave me a full month and a half with my dad, just he and I and the dogs,” Peter Boraas said.
“We explored the new Tsalteshi Trails, went to Salmonfest, we laid slate in his sauna and ate toast, and it was fun to learn that he and I make good roommates. But the best part was towards the end, we were sitting in the yard, watching the sunset, and he said, ‘How about we shoot that video, that interview that we’ve been talking about doing.’ So I grabbed my camera and asked one question: Tell me about your life.”
In one of section of the interview, which was shown in two parts, Boraas spoke of his fight against the construction of the Pebble Mine and his travels to Bristol Bay to speak with Alaska Natives and salmon fishermen who lived in the area and were worried about their livelihood being destroyed.
“As humans, we tend to elevate into the spiritual that which is most important in our lives,” Boraas said in the video. “In this case, the people have elevated the most important thing in their lives: wild foods. In this case, salmon. So you put all that together, that’s the threat to the people. That’s why they are frightened of a very large mine, one of the largest in North America, sitting at the headwaters of their rivers, with the potential to pollute it, either a breach in the dam or groundwater leeching of toxic chemicals, or any one of a number of things that could happen. It’ll destroy the cultures. It’ll be the last time. And people would say ‘It’s not worth the risk. It’s not worth the risk.’”
Earlier in the interview, Boraas spoke of his time working with Kalifornsky to document the Dena’ina language — an experience he considered to be one of the great accomplishments of his life.
“One of the principles of life is that you have to recognize important opportunities when they avail themselves,” Boraas said in the video. “Because that’s how you change the world.”
Peter Boraas created a website to honor his father, alanboraas.com, which features biographical information, historical photos, and links to articles written by Boraas throughout the years. There is also a Facebook page titled “Remembering Dr. Alan Boraas,” where people are encouraged to share their memories of the professor.