This is the third of three Door 15 profiles of University of Alaska scholars recognized for their distinguished service to the humanities at the 2010 Governor’s Awards for the Arts & Humanities.
In 1985 Dr. Gordon Pullar toured for the first time the Smithsonian Institution's Kodiak collection housed in the Museum of Natural History. He was astounded by what he saw – carved wooden masks, traditional clothing, model kayaks, and other cultural items that spoke volumes of a rich heritage many had thought was forever lost.
“I had never even seen pictures of these types of items nor did I know anyone in Kodiak that had,” Pullar recalls. “There were many Kodiak Natives that thought that our culture was dead and that we had nothing to show for it.”
Viewing the collection inspired Pullar, a Sugpiaq Native, to help establish the Alutiiq Museum, a renowned institution housing 7,500 years of Alutiiq heritage, artifacts, history, and traditions.
Helping to found the Alutiiq Museum is just one of many accomplishments for Pullar during a career that has spanned four decades. A key activist in the artifact repatriation movement as well as a staunch advocate for perpetuating and celebrating Alaska's Native cultures, Pullar was honored with a 2010 Governor's Award for the Humanities.
Although born and raised in Bellingham, Washington, where his mother had moved from Kodiak to attend college, Pullar harbored an interest in his cultural identity from an early age.
“I hoped to attend college directly after high school but could not muster the finances to do so,” Pullar says. “I first worked cleaning cars in an auto dealership and did other jobs, one of which was the unpleasant task of cleaning chicken coops at a large chicken farm for which I was paid $1.25 an hour. I was very relieved when I was able to land a steady job at the local paper mill.”
Pullar's dreams of attending college and finding a job in a professional field remained with him. He worked nights at the mill, hit the books by day, and obtained a BA in Anthropology from Western Washington University in 1973.
After a labor dispute closed down the paper mill, Pullar landed a job with the Small Tribes Organization of Western Washington which, while paying substantially less than factory work, offered him the opportunity to learn more about Native issues. Pullar never looked back.
In 1981 he was recruited to attend a new graduate program at the University of Washington in Tribal Administration. His mentors were Roberta Wilson, an Oglala Lakota scholar originally from Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and Pullar’s uncle, Karl Armstrong, Jr. “Karl was very involved in the land claims movement in Kodiak and was one of the founders of the Kodiak Area Native Association (KANA),” Pullar explains. “I considered him an important mentor and he taught me a lot about the American political system as well as Alaska Native politics.
After obtaining his Master's degree, Pullar moved to Kodiak and served as president of KANA in 1983. It was during his tenure at KANA that he first visited the Smithsonian Institution. Later he became the chair of the Smithsonian’s Arctic Study Center Steering Committee.
Pullar also played an instrumental role in the success of the Larsen Bay repatriation case – in which the remains of an estimated 1,000 Alutiit excavated in the 1930s were returned to Kodiak in 1991 from the Smithsonian Institution for reburial.
Pullar began teaching political science at the University of Alaska Kodiak campus in 1989 and has been teaching Rural Development since 1993, serving as director of the department from 1996 through 2009. Grateful for the attention received from mentors during his formative years, Pullar says that he relishes most the role of mentor he has played in the lives of his students.
For example, once Pullar was invited to a conference on Inuit studies in Copenhagen. He sent Sven Haakanson, Jr., then a student from Old Harbor, in his stead. The young scholar later obtained a Doctorate in Anthropology from Harvard, is currently the director of the Alutiiq Museum, and was awarded the famed MacArthur Foundation “Genius Award” in 2007.
“I have gained a lot of satisfaction from seeing the successes of many of the Native students I have advised since working at the University,” Pullar relates. “These students have attained high level positions with corporations and organizations that make me tremendously proud. When one of them refers to me as a mentor I nearly burst with pride. They are the ones that accomplished what they set out to do and I am privileged to have had small roles in their journeys to success.”
The 2010 Governor’s Awards for the Arts & Humanities represented a partnership of the Alaska State Council on the Arts, the Alaska Humanities Forum, the Fairbanks Arts Association and the Alaska Arts and Culture Foundation.