Local Dena’ina linguist named DEED deputy commissioner

Joel Isaak teaches Dena’ina at Kenai Peninsula College and works as a linguist for the Kenaitze Indian Tribe

A local linguist was named deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development on Friday.

Joel Isaak, who teaches Dena’ina at Kenai Peninsula College and also works as a linguist for the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, assumed the role effective immediately. He previously served as DEED’s director of tribal affairs, through which he created and helped implement the department’s State-Tribal Education Compacting program.

That program broadly includes agreements between the State of Alaska and Alaska Native tribal entities that formally recognize a tribe’s authority to operate and oversee K-12 schools. A draft version of the State Tribal Education Compact Schools Demonstration Legislative Report says the compact arose out of Alaska’s Education Challenge and was formalized through Senate Bill 34, which Gov. Mike Dunleavy signed last year.

The bill authorized the Alaska State Board of Education, which heads DEED, to negotiate a demonstration state-tribal education compact with five tribal groups. Negotiation work on the report concluded in December 2023.

In a DEED press release announcing Isaak’s appointment to the deputy commissioner position, DEED Commissioner Deena Bishop described him as a “smart, innovative Alaska leader who will add value to our state in improving student outcomes and transforming education in Alaska.”

Locally, Isaak is perhaps better known for his artwork. He’s the artist behind the bronze sculpture of a Dena’ina fisherman, another of a family drying salmon and a circular enclosure of tanned moose hides — all of which are located at the Dena’ina Wellness Center in Kenai. In 2019, his installation “Unforgotten” was hosted by the Kenai Fine Art Center and drew attention to the legacy of federal boarding schools in Alaska.

Isaak holds a bachelor’s degree in sculpture from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, a master’s degree in sculpture from Alfred University and is actively pursuing a Ph.D. in Indigenous studies from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.