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John Sackett

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Sean Ryan
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Creative Commons

Flags were at half-staff in Alaska yesterday in honor of former Alaska legislator and Alaska Native elder John Sackett, who died last Wednesday of complications during a heart surgery.

As KUAC reported last week, Sackett’s life impacted Alaska as an advocate for Native rights, affecting political and educational institutions across the Interior and Southwest. But he was also an uncle who was remembered as being a kind mentor.

Sackett attended University of Alaska Fairbanks in the late 1960s, along with Willie Hensley from Kotzebue. Hensley wrote a research paper on Native land rights, which launched his activism and ended up influencing Sackett. They and others shaped a movement.

?“I got involved, not only in the land claims movement, and formed the Northwest Native Association, but he, got involved with the Tanana Chiefs. Later on, I got involved in the formation of the Alaska Federation of Natives, and Tanana Chiefs was a key part of it.”

Sackett became president of the Tanana Chiefs Conference at age 21 in 1966 while still attending college.

In the fall of that year, he ran as a Republican for the Fairbanks seat in the Alaska House and in 1967, became the youngest person ever sworn into the Alaska Legislature at age 22. Hensley was elected as a Democrat from Kotzebue, and the two worked on issues important to rural Alaska.

"It was great to have Sackett in the Republican party, because we sort were able to double-team our parties."

He returned to the House in 1969, representing Galena. After two terms in the State House, Sackett was elected to the Alaska Senate in 1972, and continued until 1986, representing districts that stretched from the Kuskokwim to the Canadian border. He retired to deal with chronic back problems.

Hensley says Sackett was a powerful legislator, facilitating infrastructure, social programs and the financing of the young state, especially in rural Alaska.

"And he became a real expert on the budget, and took a position on the Finance Committe, and eventually chaired the Finance Committee, so when the oil began to flow, he was in the right guy in the right place at the right time. Almost every major piece of legislation, I think had Johnny's imprint."

Sackett was also involved with Fairbanks Native Association from its formation in the 1960s.

Sackett had said that some of his most important work was on Native land claims. After congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, Sackett became the founding president and chairman of Doyon Ltd., the regional corporation for Alaska’s Interior, and the largest private landholder in the United States.

Sackett was also an advocate for higher education and served as a University of Alaska Regent. There is a dormitory named after him at the Kuskokwim campus in Bethel.

John Sackett was born at a spring camp on the Huslia River in 1944. He died in an Anchorage hospital last Wednesday, March 3.

Apart from his legislative career, John Sackett is remembered by his family as a kind uncle.

His niece, Jenasey Carlo says he was an educator and mentor who helped raise her.

"So I can remember being at my grandparents', and looking on that TV, seeing my Uncle John in Juneau. And then he'd come home in the summers, and he was just regular old Uncle John. He was so caring of his neices and nephews. He was the one to remind us of our 'Ps and Qs." He was very caring but he was very blunt."

Ginger Delima of Ruby remembers him as a good cook and a singer of traditional songs. She says he taught her about subsistence and commercial fishing.

"He would come fish with us, in the summertime, my husband Jay and me.  We'd drift-seine, so we'd be up all night. He would come and cut fish, then we'd let him rest - you know, he had a terrible back, so we did all the physical stuff. He was fun to be with, full of stories, and very kind to my husband and I. We bought his house from him and his commercial fishing license for his fish net."

The family says memorial events for John Sackett are tentatively planned for Huslia, Ruby and Fairbanks.