Alan Boraas, Ph.D., a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College, died early Monday morning from a stroke at Providence Hospital in Anchorage, according to a post from his family on his Facebook page. He was 72.
“He passed peacefully with family by his side,” the post read. “We will remember his rich life and tireless work to make our world a better place. Thank you, Alan, we love you so much.”
According to “Keeping the Fire Burning: A 50-year history of Kenai Peninsula College,” Boraas, who grew up on a Minnesota wheat farm, fell in love with Alaska while working on his master’s degree at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and came to the Kenai Peninsula in 1972.
He went on to carve out a wide legacy as a college professor, an honorary member of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe and the driving force behind the creation, maintenance and expansion of the Tsalteshi Ski Trails.
“Extreme depression,” said Gary Turner, director/CEO of Kenai Peninsula College since 2002, when asked about the mood at the college Monday. “There’s been a lot of tears and a lot of storytelling. We had a number of faculty, staff and Native elders come in for a few hours, sit down in a circle and talk about him.
“They told stories, and laughed and cried. We’re all trying to work through the grieving process.”
Mary Ann Mills, a Tribal Council member with the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, said she had known Boraas since about 1975. According to “Keeping the Fire Burning,” Boraas became an honorary member of the tribe in 2000.
“One of the things Alan did was to encourage and assist in the preservation of the Dena’ina language,” Mills said. “That’s really sacred to us as language is embedded in our DNA.
“He was a strong advocate for Athabascan people even when it wasn’t popular. He stood his ground not only for us but for humanity. His due diligence on Pebble Mine was just one example. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.”
Just as he played a pivotal role in preserving the Dena’ina language, Boraas also was a major part of making Tsalteshi Trails happen.
According to a 2012 article by Clark Fair in the Redoubt Reporter, the popularity of cross-country skiing was flagging in the late 1980s due to the lack of a good trail system. Then Boraas took a bike ride from his home in Kasilof to Soldotna, saw land being bulldozed for what is today Skyview Middle School, and got the idea for a trails system radiating out from the school.
Today, the system has 18.5 miles of ski trails and 6 miles of singletrack biking trails. It has hosted the Arctic Winter Games, state cross-country running meets and Junior Olympics qualifiers for skiing. Skiing, mountain biking and running also keep the trails busy year-round with community races.
“I think it’s a tremendous loss; it’s sinking in to me how big of a loss it is,” said Bill Holt, development management director at Tsalteshi, who was recruited to groom trails by Boraas in 1995. “I think we’re going to miss Alan, but he left an amazing legacy and we’re all going to experience Alan for a lot of years to come thanks to what he’s created for us.”
According to “Keeping the Fire Burning,” Boraas came to the peninsula in 1972 hoping to teach anthropology, but instead lived for a short time in a camper and worked in a cannery. In the spring of 1972, Clayton Brockel, director at the college, offered him a job teaching Adult Basic Education.
As they say, the rest is history.
“With a guy like Alan … there’s no one else like him … 46 years at KPC,” Turner said. “I just don’t know where to start. He’s been a full professor of anthropology since 1997.”
With all the education attained, classes taught, interviews recorded, and columns and papers written, Boraas’ resume stretches to 24 pages of mostly small type. Turner said Boraas taught 36 different courses for the college.
“He was loved by so many,” Turner said. “For those of us who took classes from him … you never forget. He could tell stories, and you learned.
“This is a loss not just for this college and UAA, but for the whole University of Alaska system, for our borough, our state and across the world. He did research that touched other countries as far as indigenous peoples and Native languages. His outreach is unfathomable.”
Turner said that with all the valuable papers and artifacts, Boraas’ office is a veritable Treasure Island that will take family members and experts some time to dig through.
Turner added there will be a memorial service sometime in January at the college, but the date has not yet been chosen to give the family space to grieve.
One of Boraas’ most significant achievements at the college came in the mid-1980s. According to “Keeping the Fire Burning,” Peter Kalifornsky, who at his death in 1993 was the last speaker of the Outer Inlet dialect of Dena’ina, wanted to publish his collected writings and asked Boraas to help.
“I was honored,” Boraas said in “Keeping the Fire Burning.” “When a man who is one of the last speakers of a dialect asks you to help him, you don’t ask questions. I daresay you don’t blink.”
In 1991, “A Dena’ina Legacy: K’tl’egh’I Sukdu” was published by Kalifornsky, with much of the work on the collection of stories, songs and culture taking place at Boraas’ lab at KPC.
James Kari, linguist and Professor Emeritus with the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, co-edited the book with Boraas. Kari said he has been the best of friends with Boraas since 1972, when Kari pulled up to a Soldotna campground on the Kenai River on his first trip to Alaska and happened to run into Boraas.
Kari said Boraas was not only an incredibly versatile academic, but also an engaging lecturer and the creator of a broader sense of community, place and scholarship about Cook Inlet and the Kenai Peninsula.
“He’s been such an advocate of Dena’ina anthropology and language and I hope that continues,” Kari said. “He’s so hard to replace, but the passion is there among his students and colleagues.”
Kari also provided a statement written by Steve Langdon, Professor Emeritus in the UAA anthropology department.
“His voice was so important to understanding what we are experiencing now and his research made enormous contributions to our understanding of what preceded us,” Langdon wrote. “Alan will always be with us — and in the world around us.”
As Kari and Langdon noted, Boraas was interested not in just history, but using the lessons of history to enrich the present. Enter Tsalteshi Trails and his work coaching cross-country skiing in the area, including in the 1990s at Skyview High School.
Allan Miller, with help from Boraas, started the program in 1990, the year Skyview opened. Tsalteshi’s first loops were also ready for skiing that first winter of 1990.
Kent Peterson arrived in 1994 and coached with Boraas coach for about three years.
“His big thing was creating a Nordic life, a love of winter, a love of the North,” Peterson said. “Him being involved in all those trails is a huge legacy for all of us. We have a way to embrace Northern culture, get outside and be active year-round instead of being holed up indoors.”
According to Tsalteshi’s Facebook page, Boraas was heavily involved in the trail system even a few weeks ago, when he debated with Holt about a redesign of the sprint course.
When Holt talks about Boraas’ legacy at Tsalteshi, he could just as easily be talking about his legacy with students, professors and members of the Kenaitze tribe.
“I don’t know if it’s possible to sum up his legacy because it’s still ongoing,” Holt said. “He got everything started with his vision and that’s still ongoing. I think daily about the contributions he’s made.”
Reach Jeff Helminiak at firstname.lastname@example.org.