Remembering Father Michael Oleksa: Alaska's Great Communicator
The Anchorage Daily News dubbed Father Michael Oleksa as one of Alaska’s great communicators, but the Russian Orthodox priest’s voice went silent last month after he died of a stroke on Nov. 29. He was 76.
Archpriest Oleksa was laid to rest on Tuesday, after two days of services at St. Innocent’s Cathedral in Anchorage, where Alaskans from across the state came to say their goodbyes, including me.
It was his last church service. He was carried in his coffin up the steep steps, amid singing and the swirling of incense — the final journey for a man who was probably one of the most widely-traveled clergy in Alaska.
Father Oleksa was a man who was many things to many people — a priest, scholar, teacher, historian, author, philanthropist and much more. And the common thread through it all was his ability to weave a great story — a talent that took him all over the state to lecture widely on what he called “communicating across cultures.”
Alaska turned out to be a mother lode of great stories for Oleksa, a Pennsylvania transplant, and I suspect the Kuskokwim River village of Kwethluk is where he first struck gold.
He was studying for the priesthood when he met his wife Xenia, at a fish camp near Kwethluk. At 4 feet, 11 inches tall, Xenia may seem small in stature but is a tower of strength – and not to be trifled with.
Xenia told me he kept winking at her when they first met.
“I thought he was very brazen myself,” she said, with that matter-of-fact touch of dry, Yup’ik humor. But she must have gotten over her initial annoyance, because they soon married. Next year, they would have celebrated their 50th anniversary.
In Kwethluk, Father Oleksa found himself in the bosom of Yup’ik life, the wellspring of many of his wonderful stories.
Those who know Father Oleksa probably have their favorites. Mine was about a muskrat hunt he was invited to join not long after he arrived in Kwethluk.
“We came home one afternoon with about a dozen muskrats,” he told me in a 2016 interview.
Oleksa said the muskrats were delivered to his Yup’ik teacher, Annabelle Olick.
“She was delighted. She skinned and gutted these muskrats. Then she set the table with washcloths as well as spoons,” he said. “I knew we were having soup, but the washcloths mystified me. I was soon to find out those were for pukug-ing, a word I had not yet learned.”
Pukug in Yugtun, or the Yup’ik language, is to eat small bits of meat that cling to the bone — which you patiently pick away at with your fingers.
Annabelle came to check on him and asked if he was done. When he said yes, she didn’t look happy, which made him look around the table and realize that everyone else was still pukug-ing their muskrats.
“And with a lot of extra effort and noise,” said Father Oleksa, as he made loud sucking and slurping sounds to demonstrate. “That’s the Yup’ik word, pukug-ing — removing the meat from every little bone.”
The priest said this was his first lesson in Yup’ik etiquette.
“Waste nothing,” he said. “These animals died, sacrificed themselves to feed you. You consume everything as a sign of gratitude and respect, even for the animals, who have died to keep you alive.”
Father Oleksa loved stories about the spirituality of living off the land, lessons he learned from elders and shared for the benefit of Natives and non-Natives alike.
When he got his first assignment as a priest in Old Harbor on Kodiak Island, young people in his congregation heard for the word “Sugpiaq” for the first time. Elders knew that it was the name people on Kodiak Island once called themselves. But they stopped using it, because everyone had begun to think of themselves as Aleut.
“He wanted to make sure people understood our history, which was something that wasn’t taught or wasn’t spoken about,” Sven Haakanson said. “Aleut is a name that the Russians just called everybody from the Aleutians, all the way up to the Prince William Sound.”
Haakanson grew up in Old Harbor and has known Father Oleksa since he was a small boy.
For many in his congregation, Oleksa’s use of the word, Sugpiaq, was healing. Haakanson says the priest’s lessons in history made him curious about his own culture, which started him on his journey to become one of the first Alaska Native anthropologists.
Haakanson flew to Oleksa’s services all the way from Seattle, where he is chairman of the anthropology department at the University of Washington.
Haakanson’s sister, Phyllis Clough, works at the school in Old Harbor, where the priest also taught — but whether in church or in the classroom, all his lessons were served up with stories that people were hungry to hear.
“He would explain everything, where everyone could understand, because there was a lot of broken English back then,” Clough said. “He had a way. His eyes lit up when people would come to church, and he would be so happy.”
Father Oleksa, however, wasn’t happy with the way Alaska’s educational system treated Native children. He was passionate about helping educators understand and appreciate Native culture, so they could be more effective in the classroom.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Father Oleksa became known for his groundbreaking work as a cultural ambassador — telling stories in which he was usually the butt of every joke, a safe way to talk about difficult subjects.
One of his books, “Conflicting Landscapes,” which he co-wrote with Clifton Bates, a longtime teacher in the Kuskokwim River community of Aniak, was a guide for newly arrived teachers. It laid out a history of the schooling of Native children, including case studies of mistakes teachers had made that not only disrespected Native children but kept them from reaching their potential.
When a middle school teacher recently bailed out of a commitment to teach in Nanwalek, a tiny Russian Orthodox community on the Kenai Peninsula, Father Oleksa came out of retirement and returned to his true love: the classroom.
I thought, how lucky those kids were to have a steady supply of Father Oleksa’s engaging and colorful stories.
As people sang at his service in those beautiful Slavonic, multi-part harmonies, I wondered what connection they had to Father Oleksa. Just like me, each had their own story to share about his many random acts of kindness.
As I was about to leave, Jasmin Gil stopped me on the church steps to tell me her story.
“He was a miracle for me,” said Gil, who told me how she was just short of having enough money to get into a nurse practitioner program. “I didn’t have a way to afford that, so I reached out to Father Oleksa.”
The priest said yes right away and dug into his own pocket to help her secure a spot in the program.
She broke down in tears, after saying she had hoped he would anoint her next spring at her graduation from the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing in Baltimore.
Jasmin’s mother, Tina, spoke at length about how Father Oleksa and his wife, Xenia, would often house and feed people who found themselves homeless, even help pay for their travel back to their home village.
One of Father Oleksa’s last legacies was his work to canonize the Russian Orthodox church’s first female saint in North America — Matushka Olga, or Mother Olga Michael, the wife of a Kwethluk priest known for her healing love, especially for abused women — a cause also close to Father Oleksa’s heart. Matushka Olga is also the church's first Native American saint.
It is impossible to know all the facets of Father Oleksa, who scattered stories in Alaska like loaves of bread and fishes. But as they say in the Russian Orthodox faith, he will live in “memory eternal.”