Athabascan elder Howard Luke remembered as a mentor and cultural ambassador

Athabascan elder Howard Luke at his camp on the Tanana River. Luke died in Fairbanks on Sept. 21, 2019, at age 95. (Photo courtesy Sarah McConnell)

A funeral service and potlatch for Athabascan elder Howard Luke was held Wednesday in Fairbanks. Luke, who died at the age of 95 last weekend, is being remembered and celebrated at many gatherings this week by a wide web of family and friends who were touched by his kindness and wisdom. 

“I met Howard when I was very young and he just said, ‘I have no children, I’ll take care of you’,” said Mo MacCracken, Luke’s adopted daughter.

She said Luke’s caring extended to everyone her dad met. And she said Luke’s friendships stretched far beyond Interior Alaska where he grew up living a subsistence lifestyle, to places around the world where he was invited to share his culture and learn about others.

“I got him his first passport. They gave him [a] provisional [one] because we couldn’t find a birth certificate, “ she remembered. “They asked for a letter from someone who was present at his birth. So I wrote the letter, and they accepted it, first went to New Zealand and then he’s been to Russia and he’s traveled all over the place.”

Despite his globe trotting cultural ambassador role, Howard Luke was most comfortable at his camp across the Tanana River from Fairbanks. That was true even late in life, said Julien Thibideau, one of the many young people Luke mentored.  

“I guess the last time he went out to his own camp it took Denali Center four days of oxygen treatment because of the campfire smoke and even with that he still wanted to go to camp,” he said.

Rachel Maillard, Howard Luke’s great-great-great-niece said she’d cut firewood, break trails and do other tough work out at camp, but it was also kind of fun.

“Cause he was always cracking jokes to kind of make me feel silly when I would want to give up to have me keep on trying,” she said.

Howard Luke’s work ethic and endurance were legendary. Rachel’s dad Howard Maillard recounted a day beaver trapping out on the Tanana Flats.

“I was lagging behind, these beaver every mile are getting heavier and heavier,” he said. “And he’s up there, not out of breath, or nothin’ and he says, ‘You want me to pull you and the beaver too?’”

Howard Luke competed in the Open North American Championship sled dog race against some of the sport’s legends. He never won but was always in the running, and maintained a love for dogs throughout his life, attending the race to watch every spring. 

Athabascan elder Howard Luke at his camp on the Tanana River. Luke died in Fairbanks on Sept. 21, 2019, at age 95. (Photo courtesy Sarah McConnell)

He also built dog sleds, as well as fish wheels. He always shared those skills with an underlying message, according to grandson Sonny Luke.

 “Knowing about the spirit world that has ramifications of right and wrong,” he said. “So how to treat people, how to treat animals, how to treat mother earth, and our relationship with the creator, it’s all intertwined and connected.”

Sonny Luke emphasized that his grandfather was always open to other perspectives.

“Learning both sides, the western way of learning and the native way of learning and to be respectful and mindful of those things,” he said.

Howard Luke’s daughter Mo said her dad’s legacy of sharing and learning will carry on at his Gaalee-ya Spirit Camp, which will continue to operate.       

“[We] want people to remember him for his spirit of always going forward, always trying to be strong and always trying to understand people of all cultures,” she said.

Howard Luke’s knowledge and teaching efforts were officially recognized over the years. A Fairbanks alternative high school was named after him, and awarded him an honorary diploma, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks awarded Luke with an honorary doctoral degree.