By Clark Fair
Dr. Alan Boraas, professor of anth- ropology at Kenai Peninsula College, is the school’s most senior faculty member. But 36 years ago, the first time he asked for a job at the college, he was politely turned away.
Boraas had gone to Clayton Brockel, then the resident director of Kenai Peninsula Community College, a school in the process of building its first official structure, the McLane Building.
“He didn’t say, ‘Don’t ever come back,’” Boraas remembers. “He said, ‘We don’t have anything.’ He wasn’t overly encouraging. At the same time, he didn’t say ‘no.’”
Boraas, who grew up on a 1,000-acre wheat farm in Minnesota, had fallen in love with Alaska while beginning his master’s degree at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He had come to the peninsula in 1972 hoping to teach anthropology. Instead, he found himself living briefly in a camper in Soldotna’s Centennial Campground, working in a cannery, and then taking a job as a carpenter on the Damon Memorial Museum off Poppy Lane.
He was working on the museum roof early in the fall when Brockel pulled up in his 1963 blue Chevy Biscayne, affectionately known as “Ol’ Blue.” Brockel had an offer: “Would you like to teach ABE?” And Boraas replied, “Sure. What is it?”
“It” was Adult Basic Education, and the school had received a special grant to fund it. Brockel needed someone who could prepare adults to pass their General Educational Development (GED) tests.
“There was no promise of a future,” Brockel says now. “He went on a gamble. And he hung on there until we could get some money to hold on to him. He was thrown a bone, and he took it.”
Boraas soon parlayed this “bone” into his first anthropology class and also began teaching ABE classes to Kenai Native Association students at Wildwood through the Indian Action Program.
In the early days of his work in Wildwood, Jimmy Segura, the director of the Indian Action Program, said to him, “Our guys don’t have a lot of education.” Over the years, it was gratifying for Boraas to watch many of those “guys” — both women and men — earn an education and go on to become tribal, civic and community leaders.
Along the way, Boraas learned how gratifying teaching could be, and the importance of making a difference in people’s lives.
One thing led to another — it was “not career planning,” he said — and, as the college grew up around him, Boraas’ career also grew. He took on more anthropology courses and began making important local archaeological digs, including one in the mid-1970s at abandoned Kalifornsky Village. It was through this project that he met Peter Kalifornsky, who had been born in the village in 1911. Along with his sisters, Kalifornsky was among the last remaining speakers of the Outer Inlet dialect of the Dena’ina language on the Kenai Peninsula. He would come to influence the course of Boraas’ life and career long after Kalifornsky’s own death.
After a sabbatical at Oregon State University in 1979 to begin his doctoral work, Boraas continued to teach at the college and to further his investigation of Dena’ina prehistory, culture and linguistics. He also began writing articles about area history and culture for a local newspaper.
In 1983, he finished his doctorate, a study of the evolution of brain via specialization relating to the use of tools. He completed the degree over four years, focusing on it during summers and whenever possible while teaching, even traveling back to Oregon when it was necessary.
He laughed as he remembered that, after he had already presented and defended his doctoral thesis, he received a phone call from OSU.
“Got a call from the dean of the graduate school. ‘There’s a problem with your thesis.’ It’s the middle of summer. I’m out in the yard or something. The dean calls me. ‘It’s not on 20 percent rag bond paper. We can’t accept it.’
“In Soldotna in 1983, there was no 20 percent rag bond paper to be had.”
Finally, he located some 15 percent paper. Instead of retyping the entire thesis, he inserted the new paper into a photocopier, carefully copied his original work, and mailed it off to Oregon. No one was the wiser.
Sometime later, he received another notice from OSU.
“Since I didn’t go to my graduation (because of the expense and inconvenience), I didn’t get my diploma. And they sent me a card saying that, ‘If you want your diploma, we can send it to you if you send us $3.25 postage.’”
“I just spent thousands of dollars (in the OSU program), and they’re not going to send me my diploma unless I send them $3.25. So I never did get my diploma.”
It was the principle of the thing, he said.
In the mid-1980s, he had a life-changing encounter: Peter Kalifornsky, after the death of his younger sister, asked Boraas to help publish his collected writings. For years, Kalifornsky had, in his native language, been writing down stories of Dena’ina history, culture and mythology. He wished to compile his writings into a large volume that would feature all these stories both in Kalifornsky’s original language and in English.
“I was honored,” Boraas said of the opportunity. “When a man who is one of the last speakers of a dialect asks you to help him, you don’t ask questions. I daresay you don’t blink.”
He is reflective of that opportunity today: “The path one takes is often directed by the opportunities that present themselves. If you have the skills — background — to make a difference in whatever that opportunity is, you take advantage.”
With the help of James Kari of the Alaska Native Language Center, Boraas and Kalifornsky collaborated to complete Kalifornsky’s opus: the 527-page “A Dena’ina Legacy – K’tl’egh’I Sukdu: The Collected Writings of Peter Kalifornsky.”
In the early 1990s, Boraas was instrumental in the creation of Tsalteshi Trails at Skyview High School, and helped coach at the school. Skiing, Boraas said, is a means by which people of northern climates connect with their environment and embrace the range of seasons that the North has to offer.
Today, Boraas, 61, continues his Dena’ina connection. Although he is still at the college’s Kenai River Campus, he is not teaching this year. Instead, he is working to improve the Dena’ina language Web site to facilitate the reading and writing of the language, and is helping the Kenaitze tribe to finish analyzing an earlier archaeological project.
Despite all these accomplishments, however — and a lengthy entry on Wikipedia.org — Boraas, with a wry grin, refers to himself as “among the world’s most obscure archaeologists.”
Brockel, on the other hand, refers to him “as a real pioneer of the college.”