2019 Distinguished Artist Award
In “The Island Within,” Richard Nelson of Sitka wrote, “I suppose loving a place is like loving a person: it only develops through a long process of intimacy, commitment, and devotion.” Nelson’s relationship with Alaska was like the best of long marriages: After nearly 60 years together, he still described his beloved with the admiration and adoration of a newlywed.
Nelson died Nov. 4, 2019, after a long fight with cancer and its complications.
He spent his professional life illustrating Alaska with research, storytelling and soundscapes. He was born in Wisconsin in 1941. He began studying biology as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, then switched to anthropology as a better path to the knowledge he sought: how to cultivate a deep and spiritual relationship with the natural world. After receiving a doctorate in cultural anthropology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, Nelson began a long study of Alaska by living with and apprenticing himself to its indigenous people.
Nelson published four ethnographic works that detail the knowledge shared by his Iñupiaq, Gwich’in and Koyukon Athabascan teachers: “Hunters of the Northern Ice” (1969), “Hunters of the Northern Forest” (1973), “Shadow of the Hunter” (1980) and “Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest” (1983), which was adapted for an award-winning television series. Angela Gonzalez, author of the Athabascan Woman blog and granddaughter of two of Nelson’s Koyukon teachers, says that “Make Prayers to the Raven” is “like the Bible” for Koyukon people of her generation. She credits it with sparking interest in new ways of sustaining traditional Athabascan knowledge.
Some call his best-known book, “The Island Within” (1989), Alaska’s “Walden.” That does not do justice to Nelson’s lyricism — this work is more a romantic meditation on the nature, significance and beauty of a particular place on Earth, an unnamed island near Sitka.
In 2004, Nelson began recording “Encounters,” a radio series about “observations, experiences and reflections on the world around us.” He created about one hundred 29-minute episodes, recorded in the field, exploring wild Alaska through different forms of knowledge. His most recent project before his death was collaborating on films that explore similar themes as well as SalmonWorld, which shows the significance of salmon in Alaska through stories and videos, photographs and sounds, art and antics. He was capturing natural sounds, including a library of soundscapes recorded in Alaska’s national parks.
Nelson was Alaska’s tenth Writer Laureate. Other honors included the Lannan Literary Award for Creative Nonfiction; the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award for “Heart and Blood: Living with Deer in America,” his last book; and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Alaska Conservation Foundation.
It is impossible to experience Nelson’s work without being infected by his exuberant joy in wild Alaska. In one of his favorite episodes of “Encounters,” titled “Moose,” Nelson narrated an especially close encounter with two of Alaska’s most charismatic animals: “Oh my god, that moose is running right toward me, it’s gotten wind of the grizzly bear, holy mackerel, life is exciting!” he exclaimed. After moving out of the way, he reflected, “It’s that kind of excitement that makes you feel like the luckiest person in the world to be here in Alaska.”