The community of Bethel lost one of its most beloved teachers of Yup’ik language and culture when Sophie Alexie passed away on Aug. 6. Community members gathered for a potluck in Bethel on Aug. 19 to celebrate her life.
Alexie’s friends, family and former students filled Bethel’s cultural center. During the meal, they took turns telling their favorite stories and singing songs in her memory. Former student Pauline Boratko took the microphone.
“Waqaa. Quyana tailuci tamarpeci,” Boratko said. “I’m able to speak and introduce myself properly because of Sophie.”
Boratko said that what she remembered most about Sophie was her openness. Alexie used her own family members as characters when she taught, and she shared mundane matters like chores she had to do at home. Boratko says that created an atmosphere in the classroom that helped her learn.
“Eventually she became like a part of my family,” Boratko said.
But others remember something else about Alexie.
“What I remember most is her laugh,” said another student, Crystal Garrison.
“It would almost burst out and startle you at times,” Gerry Domnick said. Domnick worked with Alexie at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Kuskokwim Campus’ Yup’ik Language Center. There, she helped create the Mumigcistet Kalikait, a Yugtun-English dictionary for legal and medical terms.
Alexie and others had noticed that it was often outsiders providing legal and medical services for locals, many of whom only spoke Yugtun. The language barriers could lead to serious consequences.
“It was passion and love for the people,” Domnick said. “And wanting them to not have to suffer or to get bad results.”
Alexie was one the pioneering teachers of the new written system for Yugtun that was developed in the 1960s to fit English keyboards. UAF Professor of Alaska Native Languages Walkie Charles said that many Yup’ik speakers struggled with the change.
“Many of our own people said, ‘well this doesn’t make sense,’” Charles said. “Well, Sophie made sense of this for people who otherwise couldn’t.”
Alexie also helped create the four-year Bachelor’s degree in Yup’ik language and culture at the Kuskokwim campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the only university in the world that offers that degree.
When people talk about Sophie Alexie and what she accomplished, rarely is her name mentioned by itself. It’s always Sophie and Oscar. They met as teachers back when KuC was a community college. After that, they were inseparable.
“One other thing that Sophie’s mom used to tell us both is, ‘Yuapailicirpiiqnatek.’ Quit working yourselves to where you’re going to really miss each other. ‘Avvusngaqaaqlutek pilartek.’ Be separate for a while,” Oscar Alexie remembered. “When it came down to maybe giving that a good try, I’d think that I’m probably going to be sorry that we had been separate for one whole day.”
When Sophie’s cancer was diagnosed, the tumor in her pancreas had developed too far. Sophie asked Oscar for two things. One, don’t let people cry over my body.
“And two, I want to look pretty in my coffin,” Oscar said, laughing. “And she did it too. And that’s the way she wants, still finding humor in everything. I think that’s it for now.”