Alaska Pacific University (APU) student John Yakanak was one of eight students, nation-wide, chosen this year to receive the highly competitive Adolph Van Pelt scholarship from the American Association on Indian Affairs (AAIA). Focused on issues and problems related to the health, education, welfare and preservation of Native American communities and their cultures, AAIA is the oldest Indian advocacy organization in the United States. The fact that the former fisherman from Kodiak managed to win this scholarship a few short years after Central Pontine Myelinolysis or CPM, a rare neurological disorder, left him unable to walk or talk makes this honor doubly impressive. Says John:
Through the years of fishing I acquired an excellent work ethic, which I believe helped carry me through the countless hours of physical, occupational and speech therapies. Having no knowledge of the degree of recovery I would achieve, I was determined to walk and talk again. After more than a year of recovery along with therapies, I … have regained several of the abilities that I had before and took for granted. I still have residual effects from the damage done from the CPM, but have learned to live with most and have been able to live a productive life with my disability.
Instead of being flattened by CPM, the experience inspired and motivated John to take a new direction in his life:
After having to do the amount of learning I had already accomplished in the hospital and out-patient therapies, learning to walk and talk enough to be released … I decided to continue my quest of learning and apply to college. I felt in my heart that this was the best path to follow.
Seeking a smaller school and a more intimate learning environment, John applied and was accepted to APU, where he is majoring in Counseling Psychology, focusing on substance abuse healing and recovery. Having regained his physical mobility, he now stays active as a member of APU’s “Hundred Mile Club,” logging over a thousand miles so far, either walking, hiking, bike riding or taking various strength and balance classes.
In addition to his degree in Counseling Psychology, this dedicated family man and Dean’s list student with a 4.0 GPA is also pursuing a minor in Alaska Native Studies, concentrating on learning his Native language, Alutiiq, which was never spoken in the home where he grew up. But what began for John as a desire to become more fluent in his Native language became something “much larger,” he says. It allowed him to be part of the cultural and language revitalization efforts of Kodiak Island Sugpiaq Natives and helped him to find his own identity as an Alaska Native.
According to Dr. Beth Sullivan, Chair of APU’s Liberal Studies Department:
With entrepreneurial determination, John drew from resources across the State to organize an Alutiiq language study group on APU’s campus. While his main objective was to establish a base knowledge of the Sugpiaq-Alutiiq language by hosting a weekly study group, the outcomes have far surpassed the modest goal of weekly meetings. His efforts have involved intense organization, bringing together Elders and novices to collaborate; he has successfully worked through academic protocols to ensure ethical approaches and appropriate methodologies in relation to his own research related to this initiative; and he has passionately advocated for traditions and ways of knowing specific to the Sugpiaq-Alutiiq people.
Congratulations, John Yakanak! You are an inspiration to your family, to the Alaska Native Community and to all of us at APU.