Indian Country Today
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Dr. Gordon L. Pullar Sr, a longtime Alutiiq educator and author in Alaska, died April 18 after a long illness. He was 78.
Pullar was a professor and mentor to scores of students, a researcher and author who contributed to the renaissance of Alutiiq culture, and a leader in local tribal, regional Native nonprofit and for-profit corporate worlds.
He was also credited with helping bring home more than 1,000 Alutiiq remains that had been taken from Larsen Bay in the 1930s and were being stored at the Smithsonian Institute – a move credited with helping enact the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
“He was revered not only for his academic brilliance that shone through in a long list of scholarly publications, but also for his willingness to help all students no matter what the question was, and most of all for his overall kindness to everyone he encountered,” wrote Jenny Bell Jones on behalf of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Department Alaska Native Studies and Rural Development, which he directed for 17 years.
A celebration of life will be held at 3 p.m. on May 5 at the First Presbyterian Church of Anchorage.
A new direction
Pullar grew up in Bellingham, Washington, and earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology in 1973 from Western Washington University and a master’s in public administration from the University of Washington.
Then he changed directions in the 1980s, his family said.
“After many years working as a machine operator at the Georgia-Pacific paper mill, Pullar embarked on a life-changing journey to connect with his Sugpiaq Alaska Native identity,” his family said.
He earned a doctoral degree in organizational anthropology through the Union Institute in 1997.
Pullar served on the Tangirnaq Native Village Tribal Council and the Alutiiq Museum board. He is past president and CEO of the Kodiak Area Native Association and past chairman of the Koniag Education Foundation.
The Koniag Native corporation’s 2017 annual report honored Pullar with an “Elder in the Spotlight '' article. The report said his career helping his people began in Washington state when “he produced a monthly newspaper for a tribal organization that helped Native-owned small businesses develop business plans.” He also served on the Washington governor's Minority and Women’s Business Development Advisory Council.
His family was from the village of Tangirnaq, on Woody Island near Kodiak, in south-central Alaska. His maternal uncle encouraged him to move to Kodiak, where he took over his uncle’s weekly newspaper, The Kadiak Times. He was asked to become the president and CEO of the Kodiak Area Native Association (KANA).
There, one of his "greatest accomplishments" was the return of more than 1,000 Larsen Bay remains for proper burial in 1991, the report said.
Pullar also served on the board of the statewide advocacy organization, the Alaska Federation of Natives. As a member of its legislative committee, he was one of the Alaska Native leaders who successfully lobbied Congress for 1991 amendments to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The amendments blocked the sale of stocks in Alaska Native corporations, which had been allowed in the original act.
Pullar mentored future Alaska Native leaders
In 1993, Pullar began teaching at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he worked for 21 years, including his time as director of the Alaska Native Studies and Rural Development department. He taught courses at both the graduate and undergraduate level, and planned and developed new courses. He advised students and served on graduate student committees at both the master’s and doctoral levels.
“Gordon is a remarkable, humble man and his words say it best,” his daughter-in-law, Diana Pullar,said in a recent letter to the university. “In a 2011 interview Gordon shared, ‘When one of [my students] refers to me as a mentor I nearly burst with pride. They are the ones that accomplished what they set out to do.’”
Jim LaBelle, Inupiaq, who is now first vice president for the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, said Pullar got him into and through a master’s degree program.
LaBelle said he knew Pullar from his work with Native organizations, and ran into him at the airport. Pullar said, in passing, “Hey, LaBelle, we’re putting together a master's program in rural development. I'd like you to check us out and enroll.”
LaBelle responded, “Okay,” in a “flippant manner,” and didn’t think about it again until that fall when he got a phone call.
“‘Hey, LaBelle,’” Pullar told him. “‘Remember when you said you were gonna take that master’s?’”
Pullar held him to his word.
“It was kind of like my honor was on the line,” LaBelle said. “And so I signed up for all the classes in the master's degree program in rural development at UAF (University of Alaska Fairbanks).”
He said his master’s thesis was on historical trauma surrounding the boarding school experience, using his own years at a boarding school in Wrangell, in southeast Alaska, as an example.
“It was kind of like a cathartic experience.” LaBelle said, “but Gordon always kept propping me up and saying, ‘You can do it, you can do it.’”
LaBelle finished his paper and has been a spokesperson and advocate for boarding school survivors ever since.
Research, cultural preservation
KANA said on Facebook that Pullar founded the first culture committee dedicated to the development of a tribal museum and cultural center, which would later become the Alutiiq Museum.
With his work as a board member of the Alutiiq Museum and to repatriate human remains and sacred objects, LaBelle said Pullar became a role model for other nonprofits.
In addition to his work as an educator, Pullar was a researcher and author. His writings helped bring about a renaissance in Alutiiq cultural activities, language, and historic preservation in the Kodiak area.
Among other topics, Pullar researched the ethno-history of Kodiak Island and his own family history, which includes ancestry from Indigenous people of the Kodiak area as well as Russians who worked in the fur trade in Russian America in the 1700s and 1800s.
Among his recent publications is the 2013 Duke University Ethnohistory article, “The legacy of the Russian-American Company and the Implementation of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in the Kodiak Area of Alaska,” which traces two centuries of Alutiiq cultural transformation and continuity.
Earlier he was an editor with Aron L. Crowell and Amy F. Steffian of a 2001 book, “Looking Both Ways: Heritage and Identity of the Alutiiq People.” The essays in the book outline the connection of ancestors, kin, place and a natural environment as the basis for continuity of Alutiiq identity. It also discusses collaborative engagement in Indigenous heritage projects as a complex but indispensable commitment for contemporary anthropology.
Pullar lectured across the United States, in Arctic countries, and Europe. He was widely published in both academic and mainstream publications.
He retired in 2014, the same year he married Flossie, whom he described as his “beautiful bride.”
The family said the couple’s time together was special to Pullar. He loved to travel and was able to enjoy a final international trip to Iceland, France and Italy in 2019 with Flossie, and with Jim and Susan LaBelle.
He enjoyed spending time with his three adult children, and was overjoyed in 2017 when his grandson, Gordy III, was born. He became a doting Aapa (grandfather), the family said.
He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in about 2016, and the disease had worsened in recent years.
He is survived by his wife Flossie; son Greg (Janice) of Bellingham, Washington; daughter Tracy (Craig) of Vallejo, California; son Gordon Jr. (Diana) of Anchorage; grandson Gordon III of Anchorage; stepdaughter Chris (Jody), and step-grandchildren Jesse and Sarah of Anchorage and Skylar and Teryn of Colorado Springs; and his brother Robert LaPlante of Arlington, Washington.
Indian Country Today, a nonprofit and multimedia news enterprise, is a spacious channel that serves Indigenous communities with news, entertainment, and opinion. Support Indian Country Today for as little as $10.