Mission of Change in Southwest Alaska: Conversations with Father René Astruc and Paul Dixon on Their Work with Yup'ik People, 1950–1988 by Ann Fienup-Riordan (review)
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Mission of Change in Southwest Alaska: Conversations with Father René Astruc and Paul Dixon on Their Work with Yup'ik People, 1950–1988. By Ann Fienup-Riordan. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2012. 376 pages. Softbound, $34.95.

When René Astruc was growing up in a tiny apartment in Versailles, a Paris suburb where people with families lived, he used to run around the palace gardens in the years before World War II. It was a far cry from Alaska, a place he would come to call home for nearly four decades.

The idea of adventuring in cold northern lands sparked his imagination when he first encountered pictures and articles in a French Jesuit missionary magazine about the Canadian north while he was in boarding school. His goal was to become one of those missionaries, and he repeatedly let his Jesuit superiors know that was the kind of place he wanted to serve. In 1950, at age twenty-six, knowing little English and no Yup'ik or any other Alaska Native languages, Astruc began his Alaskan adventure at Holy Cross Mission on the lower Yukon River. He remained in what would become the forty-ninth US state through a period of critical social, economic, and cultural change; he and other missionaries who had come to change the natives were, in turn, changed by people they came to respect, admire, and serve.

This book tells that story, and as it does so, it reflects three important characteristics of first-rate oral histories. First, author Ann Feinup-Riordan explains her connection to her narrators and documents her research and writing process. Secondly, she provides detailed historical context, critical for readers who might [End Page 416] be unaware of the complex process of creating formal local governments in the 1960s and the changes brought by passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. Finally, she establishes a clear focus for the book, emphasizing the efforts of Astruc and conarrator Paul Dixon to facilitate community decision-making as the Yup'ik people charted their future. It might have been tempting simply to craft a life history of this energetic Jesuit missionary who loved Yup'ik dancing and other customs and who enthusiastically incorporated Yup'ik spiritual traditions into Catholic rituals. But Fienup-Riordan chose instead to put Astruc's and Dixon's lives into historical context, focusing on their roles as change agents at a time of dramatic transformations for the communities they loved.

Fienup-Riordan crafted the book from thirty hours of interviews she conducted with Astruc and Dixon in 1996. Astruc, by then retired, was living in Anchorage and preparing to return to France. He wanted Dixon involved in the interviews, too. Dixon, an aeronautical engineer, had worked for the Alaska territorial—and later state—department of aviation in a job that involved extensive travel in rural Alaskan communities to manage the critical, if primitive, airports. The two men became acquainted in the 1960s and worked with Yup'ik communities as the Catholic church divested itself of its mission properties and turned them over to local people; that divestiture involved creating from scratch the local government structures not previously needed in a region where ownership of land and property was an alien concept. Dixon came to see himself as a "secular missionary" willing, when asked, to help local people figure out options for gaining official recognition of village governments and dealing with land ownership matters (6). Dixon could provide information and explain unfamiliar concepts, but he was adamant that community members made all the decisions.

"It had to come exclusively from the people," Dixon said. "Now, that was opposite to the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] and to the state and federal [governments'] generally accepted processes. They would decide that this is something good, and they would come in and start it, and almost invariably it would fail" (139). In his role as a priest, Astruc, too, came to understand the importance of respecting Yup'ik spiritual traditions. "Instead of using the traditional church incense, we used ayuq [Labrador tea], which people have always used anyway in their homes to purify, to do the same...


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