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Oliver Leavitt remembered as an Arctic diplomat

2023.01.16 Oliver Leavitt Service-177.jpg
Hundreds filled the Barrow High School gym in Utiqiagvik to pay their respects to Oliver Leavitt and his family on Monday, January 16th. Photo courtesy of ASRC.

Sounds of Inupiat gospel music filled the Barrow High School Gym in Utqiagvik on Monday.

Hundreds gathered to honor Oliver Leavitt, hailed as one of the state’s most influential Alaska Native leaders, who played a key role in developing the North Slope Borough and the Arctic Slope Regional Native Corporation, a company that was formed 50 years ago after the passage of the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act.

Today, ASRC is Alaska's largest private company with billions in annual revenues. Leavitt was also a whaling captain, with expert knowledge on Arctic survival.

Crawford Patkotak, in his role as chairman of the ASRC board, led the memorial service. He told the gathering that all you need to do is look at a map of the Arctic Slope to understand Leavitt’s widespread impact.

“He was a staunch fighter for rights to resources,” said Patkotak, who called Leavitt’s leadership bold, fearless and strategic.

Patkotak said Leavitt could be tough to deal with at times, because he was always challenging and testing you.

“He often said, ‘When you are serving, never worry about who gets the credit,’” Patkotak said, “’Just do what’s right.’”

Willie Hensley, a longtime friend of Leavitt’s, gave the eulogy, partly in Inupiat. Hensley occasionally struggled to find words. “My Inupiat is very rusty, but I don’t mind trying,” he said.

It was perhaps Hensley’s way to call attention to Leavitt’s mastery of his language and powerful connection to the land and his culture – coupled with the ability to apply his knowledge in a national arena. He called Leavitt an “Arctic diplomat.”

“Our nation’s capital became his hunting ground. And he was good at it,” Hensley said. “This was the kind of job most Inupiat wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. But he did his duty for all of us, and he understood who had the power.”

Hensley says the two worked together to implement the land claims settlement and said he opened many doors for Alaska Natives in Washington D.C.

Richard Glenn and Tara Sweeney, who have both held high level positions at ASRC, took to the stage together.

“We are a product of the school of Oliver Leavitt,” Glenn said. “He trained us in life. He trained us in work. He trained us in the knowledge of the Arctic environment.”

“I learned rivers from him, Glenn said. Then Sweeney chimed in, “I learned politics.”

Sweeney served as assistant secretary for Native American affairs in the Trump administration.

Glenn called Leavitt a great teacher but a better friend, who doled out “one-sentence lessons” by the handful.

“He took me to the place where his mother was born and showed me the place where his dad was born,” Glenn said about a boat trip he had taken with Leavitt, who told him, “You can learn a lot about the land if you walk it, rather than fly over it, or drive by fast.”

“You have to push a boat to a shallow channel rather than staying in the deep channel, then you’re going learn it that much better,” another saying Leavitt imparted on that trip. “It’s lessons like that that helped make us better people,” Glenn said.

Senator Lisa Murkowski was among the many statewide leaders who attended Leavitt’s service. Murkowski said, she too was a student in the “School of Oliver Leavitt,” learning lessons on how to fight more effectively for Alaska causes.

“It’s important for you to understand how Oliver touched the world,” Murkowski said. “Leaders across the country have been influenced by what Oliver did, and how he helped bring about a level of empowerment for all Alaska Native peoples.”

Murkowski says a flag was flown atop the U.S. Capitol in Leavitt’s honor, and when it’s taken down, will be given to his family.

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Rhonda McBride has a long history of working in both television and radio in Alaska, going back to 1988, when she was news director at KYUK, the public radio and TV stations in Bethel, which broadcast in both the English and Yup’ik languages.