‘Warrior of Peace’: Activist and volunteer, June Degnan faces her biggest fight

Diagnosed with brain cancer, she undergoes surgery in Seattle

Activist June Degnan has always been a fighter. Since the 1960s, she’s fought for Alaska Native rights, for women’s rights, for equal opportunity and social justice.

 

Now, she’s in a fight for her life.

On Thursday, Degnan went under the knife at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle after a doctor found two brain tumors. Doctors don’t know what the surgery will find, but Degnan told the Empire she was preparing for the worst.

“I’m facing a huge challenge,” she said on Tuesday, shortly after arriving in Seattle.

Her daughter, Janet, said Thursday that the surgery was expected to last more than four hours, and Degnan would be in the hospital’s intensive-care unit for three days afterward, even with the best outcome.

If things don’t turn out well, “just tell everybody to do their best. They’re good people,” Degnan said.

Degnan may be best-known by many Juneau residents for her work as the first president (now president emeritus) of Haven House, the transition home for women leaving prison, but her work is much deeper than just that.

“She is an amazing, amazing woman,” said Kara Nelson, director of Haven House. “She just has this vast experience of so many different things.”

Born in 1937 and raised in Unalakleet, Degnan is the daughter of Ada and Frank Degnan, who in 1950 became the first Yup’ik Eskimo elected to the Alaska Territorial Legislature. Degnan was a major figure behind the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, and June recalled by phone that before its 1971 passage, he told her that if Native claims were ever successful, there would need to be educated and capable Native leaders to follow up.

“Life is about choices,” June Degnan recalled. “Education or ignorance: Pick well, and start from there.”

Degnan chose well: She traveled outside Alaska and obtained two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s degree. She spent much of her time in Florida, where she attended school, and became known for her work there as well as her work in Alaska. She helped run a successful construction business and stayed active in social causes. In 1998, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel recognized her for founding “one of the first abortion counseling and referral services in South Florida.”

She became known for her poetry, which was good enough that she was invited to speak at a UNESCO-sponsored forum in Paris and once at a conference of the world’s indigenous peoples. Her advocacy for peaceful protest and resistance was so strident that she earned the nickname “warrior of peace,” a title she still claims.

Despite her success outside the state, Alaska called her back. She was of two minds about that, she recalled.

“If I live in Juneau, I’ll never see Paris again,” she said, recalling a conversation at the time.

Nevertheless, she returned and sought a career as a teacher in Anchorage. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, she stirred the Anchorage School Board by lambasting what she saw as hiring practices that discriminated against black, Asian, Hispanic and Native teachers.

“I refer to Alaska as my South Africa,” she told the Anchorage Daily News in 1991. “In other parts of the world, people recognize me for the talents I have. Here I’m just a stupid Native.”

That year, her campaign garnered success when she was hired as a teacher in the district, which also boosted its proportion of nonwhite teachers.

Her advocacy didn’t stop there: She continued to insist that Native children be given proper role models in the school system and in society at large.

“The way things are now,” she told the ADN in 1994, “what do we have to offer them? A space in the jail?”

Not long after that interview, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which she successfully fought.

Never content to sit still, Degnan went back to Florida and worked for a time with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. She returned to Alaska in 2000 when the remains of her grandmother (and 131 other Natives) were discovered in two sealed World War II bunkers in Sitka. After overseeing the remains’ reburial, Degnan worked for the Sitka tribe and pursued a master’s degree in library sciences with the goal of becoming an archivist preserving Alaska Native history.

She started work at Sheldon Jackson College just before that institution closed, and remains disappointed that she never had a chance to pursue preservation work with the state.

She went on to work with the National Park Service instead, in a role that allowed her enough time to continue volunteer work with her church and organizations across Southeast. In recognition of that work, she was named one of AWARE’s Women of Distinction this year and this month was named a Volunteer of the Year by first lady Donna Walker.

“She is someone who should really be elevated as an Alaska leader and elder,” Nelson said.

Despite the uncertain outcome of her surgery, Degnan kept her sense of humor.

“I’ll be back,” she said. “If I come through this, I’m changing my name to Juneau instead of just June.”

“If I pass on, I expect the City and Borough to have a statue made of me.”

***

My love|hate relationship with Anchorage

By June Degnan, 1991

Anchorage is: the beauty

Majestic in glorious surroundings

Windswept mountains rising through cloud laden skies

Denali towering to the right

Volcano spurting Redoubt flanking left

Sporadic rainstorms obscuring the horizon intermittently

an evening walk along the coastal trail as the sun reappears

over Sleeping Lady

noisy geese and mallards feeding on the mudflats

of Bootleggers Cove

A Billion Dollar view from my perch on L Street

Anchorage is: the beast

Haven for the homeless

victims of neglect, racism and oppression

displaced warriors searching for lost dreams

in a morally depraved and earthquake prone

city celebrating its seventy-fifth anniversary

an employment bonanza for the outsiders

a suicide ride for the resident

hope for the intruder, desperation for the local

Anchorage is the largest native village

Anchorage is: A paradox


• Contact reporter James Brooks at jbrooks@juneauempire.com or 523-2258.


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