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Mary Haakanson – an Old Harbor Treasure

by Dr. Alisha Agisaq Drabek, second language Alutiiq speaker and learner

For this week’s article, I’d like to recognize Mary Haakanson for her contributions to Alutiiq language education across Kodiak Island, particularly in Old Harbor village.

Mary Haakanson is the daughter of Sasha (Kelly) Christiansen of Eagle Harbor and Ralph Christiansen originally from Osolo, Norway. She had thirteen siblings she grew up with from among nineteen children born. Mary was the fourth child.

Mary was born in Shearwater about an hour by boat north of Old Harbor in Kiliuda Bay where her mother worked in the cannery during the summer. Mary still marvels at her mother’s strength when she remembers, “She didn’t stop working until I was ready to be born. Then two weeks later she went back to work. They were tough in those days.”

Mary looks back on her childhood as a fun time. She says, “We had lots of things to do. But we had to do our chores at home…I used to make bread every week, fourteen loaves for the kids. We always had chores. You never said no—you had to do it… After we had done with chores we could go play.” She remembers sledding in the winter, games, and playing dolls in the summer at the beach. “We used to play lots of Aleut games.” They would play Quuq and Palucqaq outside, which are both like hide and seek. “Even adults would come play with us.”

“In the summertime, we didn’t have Barbie dolls. We’d go down to the beach and we’d use clam shells and those blue shells and play down there for hours on the beach. We used the Sears catalog to make dolls. We even cut the dresses out that would fit them. You don’t see that anymore. [Kids today] have their own Barbie dolls. That was our Barbie dolls.”

Mary was 22 when she married her husband Sven Haakanson, Sr. They had been married for thirty-four years when he passed away in 2002. They raised their family, fished, and cooked together. “I used to try to get mad at him and he would say, ‘You won’t be mad long, I’ll make you laugh.’ And he did.” Humor was a great part of their life together.

Times were different when Mary was a child and a young woman living in Old Harbor. “I miss the life that we used to live. Too much TV, and phones… People used to visit and go have tea or coffee.” Reflecting back on how life was before, she says, “It was really different…Until the TV came people visited each other, played cards…but you don’t see that anymore. And [with] the phone…Everything changes…Now you have to call before you go visiting. I miss those days when you could just go walk to go visit people…You get lonely sometimes when you don’t have any place to go…I miss the Elders that used to live there where I used to go see them and talk Aleut with them.”

In her home as a child, her mother spoke Alutiiq and her father spoke English, and so their children grew up bilingual. Remembering back to her time in school, Mary recalls how she would get in trouble for speaking her language. “When I was going to school the teacher used to tell me, “Don’t speak Aleut in school.’ But I said, ‘No, you’re not going to stop me from speaking my language.’ So here I am today.”

Thanks to Mary’s commitment, she has supported Alutiiq language instruction in the Old Harbor School and Kodiak High School Alutiiq Language class, as well as teaching several adult apprentices and serving on the New Words Council and Qik’rtarmiut Alutiit Regional Language Committee. She encourages others to speak Alutiiq. Recent language revitalization efforts are important to Mary. She says, “I like to get together with the Elders so I can speak Alutiiq.” An important lesson instilled throughout her childhood was ‘respect your Elders.’ “That’s one thing we had to do. Every Saturday my mom would ask one of us to go check on the Elders. If they needed help, help them. The boys would go help them, and we’d help them in the house. That was something really big in those days.” Her godfathers and godmother played major roles in her upbringing. “When we did something wrong, my mom would send us over there and we’d have to listen and sit there…We never used to argue with (our parents) or anything. We did what they said we should do. If they told us we had to go see our godmother, we’d have to go. No choice. She would talk to us. That’s probably why kids would listen.”

Looking at Kodiak Island communities today, Mary is concerned. “I’ve seen big changes. There is so much going on. Drugs and alcohol are really bad. It’s hard to say, but it’s scary.” As a modest and gentle woman, Mary is cautious to give advice. “You try to talk to them, but some don’t listen to you, so it’s kind of hard to say. Sometimes they tell you, ‘It’s my life, you don’t tell me what to do.’ That’s hard.”

Many Kodiak Alutiiq Elders tell a similar story of how their grandparents told them about how the world would be different one day. Mary is in awe of how they knew so much before it came to pass. “All this stuff that came, they told us would happen. My mom used to wash clothes on a wash board. They used to say someday women would just sit and put their clothes in some kind of thing and wash them. She used to tell that her grandma and grandpa told her that someday we’ll fly up in the air…They knew everything that was coming. They used to talk to us all the time. How did they know? Everything they said, is here today.”

Learn more about the Alutiiq language at:,, or on Facebook at “Alutiiq Language Speakers & Learners.”