Celebrating the Life of Richard K. "Nels" Nelson
December 1, 1941-November 4, 2019
Join us on the weekend of April 25-26, 2020 in Sitka, Alaska
Schedule of Events below
On November 4, a raven crossed over the threshold when Alaskan anthropologist, author and soundscape artist Richard K. Nelson passed away from complications from cancer in a hospital in San Francisco. He was 77.
Half wise elder and half wondrous child, Nels had little attraction to money and an infinite fascination with—and deep regard for—the natural world. He slept hundreds (if not thousands) of nights on the ground and greeted each new day as a gift. He was funny, compassionate, scholarly, culturally sensitive, deeply loved and widely admired.
Born and raised in Wisconsin, he first came to Alaska in the early 1960s. He lived the winter of 1964-65 in Wainwright, and apprenticed himself to the Inupiat Eskimos there, learning their language and ways; how to mush dogs and how to hunt caribou and seal. He kept meticulous notes and sent home a steady stream of letters and tape recordings. From those emerged his first book, "Hunters of the Northern Ice," published by the prestigious University of Chicago Press when Nels was only 27.
He earned a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and in the 1970s lived in Huslia, a profound experience that resulted in his brilliant ethnography, "Make Prayers to the Raven," a book filled with wisdom and spiritual gravity that today is something of a revered text among Koyukon Athabascans.
A compelling public speaker, Nels told brilliant stories, and seldom spoke disparingly of anyone. In private, though, he could make exceptions for industrialists and political leaders who wanted to raid Alaska's treasured public lands, from drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to clear-cutting entire mountainsides and valleys in the Tongass National Forest. These are Alaska's sacred places, he said, and should never be put on the auction block. He once commented in a radio interview that while he had no problem with a stump in a forest, he was horrified to find a forest of stumps.
Above all, Nels was a gifted listener. After authoring several important books, he turned to soundscape work, and recorded more than 100 30-minute radio programs, called Encounters, each one thoroughly researched and enthusiastically delivered, often in the field, covering a vast array of subjects from hummingbirds to humpback whales to the life-giving magic of rain.
He died peacefully, surrounded by teary-eyed friends, elevated by love in a hospital room filled with the bird songs he'd recorded over the years—a wild Alaska symphony. And when the artist took flight , even the doctors and nurses cried.
He's a raven now. Perhaps he always was.
(Adapted from Kim Heacox's Alaska Daily News Opinion piece of November 6.)
various venues around town
Date & Time
April 25, 2020, 9 AM through April 26, 2020 - 6:00 PM