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Yup'ik Language Storyteller John Active Dies At 69

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A man known for keeping alive the language and culture of the indigenous people of Alaska's rural southwest died on Monday.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

His name was John Active. He promoted Yup'ik heritage on public radio and TV station KYUK in Bethel. And for a while in the 1990s, he was a commentator on this program. He brought a bit of rural Alaska to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED listeners. One time he resorted to song to explain why collecting berries on the tundra was such a hard job.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JOHN ACTIVE: First let's have a little music, please, to get us in the mood. Let's see; what would be good? How about "Fiddler On The Roof"? (Singing in Yup'ik). Translation - (singing) if I were a rich man, I'd have someone pick berries for me.

SHAPIRO: John Active considered himself a storyteller, but he also read the news on the air. Yup'ik is not a written language. He would glance at news stories in English and interpret them into Yup'ik on the fly. Schoolteacher Ayaprun Jones has lived in Bethel for 45 years. Today she teaches at a Yup'ik immersion school. She got to know John Active from listening to him on the radio.

AYAPRUN JONES: The fact that the media was promoting my Yup'ik language tied in with what I'm doing now. As a person who promotes the Yup'ik language, I was extra proud of another person who had so much respect, especially towards elders, that he sought to have the news broadcast in our Yup'ik language.

KELLY: After a stroke this spring, John Active retired from broadcasting. KYUK held a party for him, and he had a few words to say about his career and his life.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ACTIVE: Everything that I do today and on the radio, try to make people laugh, make them comfortable, is I'm trying to pass on what the elders taught to me by my actions, what I learned from them. Quyana.

SHAPIRO: Quyana means, as you might guess, thank you. Bethel, Alaska, will say Quyana to John Active tomorrow at his funeral service. He died Monday at the age of 69.

KELLY: We've also learned today about the death of another member of our public radio family. John McChesney served NPR as both editor and reporter. He came to NPR in 1979 to establish our national desk. Later he expanded NPR's international coverage as one of our first foreign desk editors.

SHAPIRO: In the 1990s, he moved to San Francisco to become NPR's first digital technology reporter. Later in 2005, John McChesney produced a major investigative piece on the only death to occur in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. He died last night at the age of 78 with his family around him. He had been suffering from leukemia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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