Richard Nelson and the curious polar bear are seen near Kaktovik, Alaska, in October 2005. Photo by Steve Kozlowski.
Read Caption Hide Caption

For Immediate Release
May 15, 2019
Contact: Lisa Demer, 907-334-0529

Anchorage, AK – Rasmuson Foundation has named Richard Nelson of Sitka as its 2019 Distinguished Artist. The award recognizes one Alaska artist annually for a lifetime of creative excellence and outstanding contribution to the state’s arts and culture. The honor is accompanied by a $40,000 award.

Our full slate of recipients for 2019 Individual Artist Awards will be announced on Friday, May 17.

[Watch a short film and learn more about Nelson’s life here.]

Richard Nelson — “Nels” to his friends — is a writer, narrator, radio producer and soundscape artist. He was born in 1941 in Wisconsin and received a doctorate in cultural anthropology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He came to Alaska in 1964 on a grant from the U.S. Air Force to learn Iñupiaq survival strategies practiced in the Arctic. He spent years living with and apprenticing himself to Iñupiaq, Gwich’in and Koyukon Athabascan people, and published a series of ethnographic works about these communities. “Make Prayers to the Raven,” his book about Koyukon lifeways, was adapted for a five-part television series. His best-known work, “The Island Within,” won the John Burroughs Medal for outstanding writing about natural history.

Nels is seen chasing sounds at Johns Hopkins Inlet in Glacier Bay National Park in June 2013. Photo by Debbie Miller.

In recent years, Nelson wrote and narrated “Encounters: Experiences in the North,” a radio program recorded in the wild. For some of Alaska’s national parks, he creates soundscapes. He currently collaborates on short films about Alaska and the natural world.

“Richard is a brilliant storyteller who has devoted his life to sharing the wild places of Alaska and the lifeways of indigenous people who have always called this home,” said Diane Kaplan, Rasmuson Foundation president and CEO. “He’s a scholar, poetic writer and mentor to many. Richard is fearless and adventuresome, as his radio listeners know well. We see Alaska more vividly because of him.”

Nelson’s friend and fellow Sitka author John Straley describes Nelson’s work as “well-crafted love letters” to Alaska. “In all of his writing, the images he creates are lit from within by the most genuine passion and respect for the wild. Nels expresses himself through boundless enthusiasm, through his work in writings, recordings, and his joyful personality,” Straley wrote about his friend.

Nelson credits his Alaska Native teachers for the knowledge contained within his work. “I’ve been privileged to listen to Native elders who understand Alaska in a way no one else does,” he says. In the preface to “Make Prayers to the Raven,” he wrote that its most important purpose was to serve the Koyukon people by educating others about the substance and value of their lifeways and by giving them a new means of conveying knowledge to their children.

Steven, Alvin and Catherine Attla are making birchbark baskets at fish camp on the Huslia River tributary of Koyukuk River in Interior Alaska in June 1976. Photo by Kathleen Mautner.

Nelson lived with his principal Koyukon teachers, Catherine and Steven Attla, in the village of Huslia in the 1970s. Their daughter, Justine Attla, explains that some people in the community hesitated to trust outsiders, but Nelson impressed them with his respect for their way of life and his ability to get along with almost everyone. “He didn’t just write any old way,” she said. “He wanted to make sure he got our stories right.” Angela Gonzalez, author of the Athabascan Woman blog, is the granddaughter of Lydia and Edwin Simon, who were also among Nelson’s teachers. “Up and down the river, ‘Make Prayers to the Raven’ is like the Bible now,” says Gonzalez. “It’s our path to the past.”

Reflecting on his work, Nelson says, “Alaska gives you these gifts of knowledge, experience and beauty.” He emphasizes that these gifts come with an obligation to preserve them. “This is essential to the motivation behind my work.” He keeps his focus on what is “fundamental to Alaska — its cultural traditions and its extraordinary environment.”

Nelson served as Alaska’s Writer Laureate from 1999 to 2002. Other honors include the Lannan Literary Award for Creative Nonfiction, the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award for “Heart and Blood: Living with Deer in America,” and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Alaska Conservation Foundation.

Watch a short film about Nelson and learn more about his work here. Additional photos are available upon request.

About the Foundation
Rasmuson Foundation was created in May 1955 by Jenny Rasmuson to honor her late husband, E.A. Rasmuson. Through grantmaking and initiatives, the Foundation aims to promote a better life for all Alaskans.


A moon is setting in September 2010, as seen from Richard Nelson’s front window in Sitka. Photo by Richard Nelson.