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Thomas Richards, Jr.
August 7, 2003

Looking back at the 50 year Anniversary of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act last year, the Tundra Times newspaper came up time and again as a major vehicle for keeping Alaska Natives informed and connected. Howard Rock, Inupiaq, was its founder and Tommy Richards, Jr, also Inupiaq, was an editor and reporter for the paper. Rock became the editor for the Tundra Times in 1962, and served as editor and publisher until his death on April 20, 1976, 46 years ago. Both Rock and Richards are deceased now.

The following is from a 2003 speech by Tommy Richards on the occasion of Howard Rock’s birthday. He gave a copy of his presentation to his friend Irene Rowan, Tlingit, who provided it to Indian Country Today.

Howard Rock, Sam Kito, and Willie Hensley at the Tundra Times Banquet. (Photo courtesy of the Tundra Times, 1973)

August 10 is Howard Rock's birthday. He was born on August 10, 1911 in Point Hope, an ancient Inupiat Eskimo village along the Chukchi Sea of Northwest Alaska. This year (2003), Howard would've been 91 years old, were he still alive. Howard was my first real boss. He was real in that Inupiat means “real person” and because he was the first boss who required me to think about my work, rather than merely to fill space and mark work hours to fill out a timecard.

My grandparents knew him from the dawn of the last century, as Howard and his family stayed with them in Kotzebue while en route to the States and elsewhere. My parents knew him, beginning in the 1930s. Mom knew him when he stayed at her family's home, waiting for the arrival of the USS Bear, the Revenue Cutter that was to take him to boarding school at White Mountain, just a little bit east of Nome. Dad knew him a little later, when Howard was an able bodied seaman on the Bear, and befriended Dad as a young student on his travels to boarding schools at Eklutna and Wrangell.

I knew Howard, as a family friend, for as long as I can remember. I really got to know him when he hired me as a reporter for the Tundra Times in 1968. We were coworkers and close friends, right up until his death on April 20 of 1976. I thought Howard was an old man when he hired me, because he was 56 years old at the time. Now, I marvel at how young he really was in those days, as we collaborated on news stories and the challenge of meeting weekly deadlines.

I liked Howard and enjoyed working with him. He was excellent company and a truly fascinating individual. Yet I don't believe that I really appreciated Howard until a few years after his death, in September, 1983, when I journeyed to Point Hope to visit his grave and to check in with his spirit. Now, nearly 20 years later, I treasure him even more, as I reflect upon his impact on my life and begin to understand the profound meaning of his prophetic words of advice.

My visit with him at his grave, on September 28, 1983, changed my life and revealed to me something of the spiritual qualities of human existence. Although I have always been a religious person, and held dear to my belief in God, I was feeling kind of jaded about life and becoming something akin to a doubting Thomas. I remember that day vividly for two reasons. For one, my Dad was piloting the airplane from Kotzebue to Point Hope.

After his retirement as a jet captain for Wien Alaska Airlines, he was working as general manager for Marge Baker at Kotzebue’s Baker Aviation. A few good friends traveled with us that day. Dorothy Aloysius and Alexander “Boff” Nicholai, Yup’ik Eskimo social workers from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and Bea Mills, social services director for the Maniilaq Association were traveling with me on a social services, familiarization and orientation tour on Northwest Alaska Arctic villages. There are no witnesses to verify what happened between Howard and me that day. Dad, Dorothy Bea and Boff have all since died.

The other reason I remember that date is because it was the day after my birthday. I spent my birthday in Kotzebue, celebrating it the prior evening. There were bars and liquor stores in Kotzebue those days. What else can I say, except that I was young then. I barely remember leaving Kotzebue the morning of the 28th, although I certainly remember, and quite vividly, the events in Point Hope that afternoon.

Dorothy, Boff and Bea went into the village and the Bethel-area social workers observed how Bea ministered family wellness services for Maniilaq Social Services in the community. Dad took off to visit old friends that he knew from his days as a Bush pilot in the region. I set off by myself to pay my respects to Howard at the old village cemetery, an ancient burial ground girded by massive whale jaw bones harvested over centuries by Native whalers.

When we buried Howard, in the spring of 1976, the village environs were blanketed by tall snow banks and dense white cover crusted hard as concrete. In the fall of 1983, it was still warm and the burial grounds looked as soft (as) heathery humus amid tawny tundra ground. I trudged across the tundra for an hour, until my shoes were soaked and my socks were sopping wet, and I still couldn't find Howard's grave. I glanced over toward the village runway, a couple of miles away, and noticed that Dad and the ladies were back at the airplane, standing under the Cessna’s wings, seeking protection from the seasonal Arctic fall drizzle.

I nearly gave up looking for Howard and finally said aloud, “I'm sorry, Howard. I came to visit, but I can't find you. My Dad is waiting and I have to go.” 

Suddenly high above my head, I heard a raucous raven’s harsh squawk, its repeated call seemingly directed at me. It was a big old black bird, and it began to circle, casting dark, shiny eyes at me, and glided to earth and alit on a mound of tundra about a hundred yards away. Curious behavior from this critter, so I thought I had better check it out. I walked to where it stood. The Raven shifted its gaze back and forth jutting its beaked pointed jaw toward me then to the Tundra below.

Less than 20 feet separated the Raven from me, and then it squawked loudly and flew straight up into the air. I looked at where the bird had been standing. There was Howard's grave mounded with sandy sediment and with a whale jawbone at the head. When I raised my eyes, a few seconds later, the raven was gone. There was not a creature in the sky for as far as I could see. At that place, seemingly the end of the earth, one can see clearly for 30 miles, to high cliffs and rocky mountain rises both north and south of the village.

(READ MORE: 50th Anniversary of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act)

Howard and I had a nice visit. I told him how things were with me and our mutual friends and his newspaper. Then I walked to the airstrip. Dad, Dorothy, Bea and Boff had been patiently waiting, yet were anxious to leave, as the Kotzebue airport was becoming enveloped by thick, cold damp fall-time fog and drizzle. From Point Hope we flew to Noatak then to Kiana. By afternoon of the following day, scattered snow flurries mingled with blustery winds, fog and rain. It was kind of marginal flying weather for most pilots yet Dad had no problem getting us home to Kotzebue.

My visit with Howard that day changed my view of the world a whole lot. From then on, I knew, for sure, what I had always hoped. I was no longer a doubting Thomas, occasionally bedeviled by brooding uncertainty. I realized that our human nature has a spiritual element and that, as children of God, we endure and the soul survives to transcend our mortal, our brief mortal existence.

When I relate this experience, from time to time, to some people, I am often told that these events must constitute proof that Howard is a shaman. I don't think so. I do think the ancient raven was a spirit of sorts, who helped connect me with a place, like a portal, to somewhere that Howard soul dwells beyond the boundaries of our temporal physical being.

The more I think about it, Howard was, and is, a complete human entity. His spiritual existence or soul, I believe kind of like God's holy trinity is the leg of a trireme of the whole, of our human character. A whole person has a spiritual element, a soul, so to speak as well as the physical constituent, a body for us to sense life's pleasures and pains, and an intellect, the component that glues all the parts together and allows us to reason and function as sentient beings, Whatever it is, I learned on that date, that death is not the end of us. We will all die some yet. We are never done.

It has been a human generation, some 20 years, since that remarkable graveside visit with Howard. I appreciate him more each year, and think that his sage advice is something we need to heed, and to assure that it has passed along to the next generation. His succinct speeches, like his tersely penned editorials, assume the characteristics of prophecy, in my mind's eye. Having known him, in my lifetime, his instructive words seem nearly as real to me as the biblical teachings of John, Luke, Matthew, Mark, or of any of the apostles or saints.

Maybe it is because the world today seems a more chaotic, frightening, and complicated place than it was 20 years ago, or 26 years ago, when Howard died. Much of what he said and wrote seems more meaningful than ever. I especially remember the words. He spoke to a gathering of young people in 1975, at a time when he was gravely ill, and not long before he died. What follows is not a direct quote, however, I use quotation marks to distinguish them from my observations.

He said, “When troublesome obstacles overcome you, think of the achievements of your ancestors. They experienced the harshest environment ever known to mankind. They overcame these challenges and survived. They survived the most formidable conditions ever known to humans, and survived very well indeed, and were able to create cultural wealth and had room for ample shares of lightheartedness.”

Howard was an artist, composed of equal shares of spirituality, soul, physical astuteness and sensitivity, intellect, and boundless capacity for reason and creativity. Also, he was a pretty decent fellow, a really nice guy and had a tremendous sense of humor. Happy birthday, good friend.

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