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  6.  | 2021 Governor’s Arts and Humanities Awards Recognize Nine Alaskans

2021 Governor’s Arts and Humanities Awards Recognize Nine Alaskans

Jan 11, 2022 | Government, Media & Arts, News, Nonprofits

North Star Ballet

North Star Ballet’s annual production of “The Nutcracker” performed at Hering Auditorium in Fairbanks.


“As Alaskans work together to emerge from the pandemic, it is inspiring and reassuring to be able to honor individuals and arts organizations whose talents, energy, and vision enrich Alaskans’ lives every day,” says Benjamin Brown, chairman of the Alaska State Council on the Arts (ASCA)

Inspired to Inspire

Nine individuals and organizations are receiving the 2021 Governor’s Arts & Humanities Awards at a presentation on January 11 in Anchorage. 

The presentation recognizes the advocates, artists, educators, and historians who have used their craft and passion to support and inspire others; to unite people within and across communities, and to lift up and bring others’ stories to life.

As Brown explains, “The Governor’s Arts & Humanities Awards recognize and honor people and groups whose actions and contributions make Alaska better, stronger, and a healthier place to live.”

The annual awards are the result of a partnership that includes ASCA, the Office of the Governor, the Alaska Humanities Forum, and the Alaska Arts and Culture Foundation. Nominations are submitted by the public each year across distinct categories, and the partner organizations make recommendations to the governor, who then makes the final selection of awardees.

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Among the 2021 winners are North Star Ballet in Fairbanks, selected as Outstanding Arts Organization. The Alaska Arts Education Consortium wins the Arts Education award for significant impact on arts education statewide. The award for Individual Artist this year goes to Asia Freeman, a mixed-media painter in Homer, and the Alaska Native Artist award goes to Juneau playwright Vera Starbard. Reyne Athanas of Bethel wins for Arts Advocacy.

The Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository in Kodiak is recognized for Distinguished Service to the Humanities in Community. The Alutiiq Museum’s work spans the globe, but the organization has a deep commitment to the Kodiak Archipelago—the museum’s home and the geographic center of the Alutiiq world. The staff works diligently to involve people of all heritages in educational programming and original research through archaeological studies, language documentation, and collections investigations. By engaging everyone in the celebration of Alutiiq heritage, the museum reduces cultural isolation, reawakens cultural traditions, builds intergenerational ties that broaden cultural understanding, and creates a welcoming environment for discovery.

Distinguished Winners

Molly Odell maps pit-style petroglyphs

Molly Odell maps pit-style petroglyphs near Cape Hepburn, Kodiak Island, as part of a 2021 research project.


The Distinguished Service to the Humanities in Education award goes to two winners this year. One of them is Jesse Hensel, a teacher in Fairbanks. Over the course of a school year at Pearl Creek Elementary School, Hensel created a foundation for his students’ lifelong appreciation for Alaska Native culture, their own local and global community, and the natural place they call home. Hensel has worked for years to connect his classes with an Elder group at Fairbanks Native Association, meeting with Elders almost monthly.

Also recognized for Distinguished Service to the Humanities in Education is Roy Agloinga. He grew up in the Northwest Alaska village of White Mountain (also known as Natchirsvik) as one of the last kids to spend time around native speakers of Iġałuik. The dialect is an offshoot of Qawairaq Inupiaq. Agloinga never left his language behind. In recent years, he has worked with team members on the Qawiaraq Language Preservation Project to preserve the language’s dialects and make it accessible to current and future generations. Agloinga is the co-author of the Qawiaraq Iġałuik Inupiat Dictionary.

A posthumous award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts goes to Richard Beneville, the late former mayor of Nome. Beneville performed on Broadway and, after moving to Alaska in 1982, started Nome Discovery Tours. He also served on the boards of the Nome Arts Council.

“The passion and commitment evident in this year’s awardees bring a heightened and exemplary expression of the humanities in the areas of education, leadership, and community,” says Judy Owens Manley, chair of the Alaska Humanities Forum. “The awardees’ unique contributions are strengthening Alaska.”

The awards being presented are designed this year by Anchorage artist Sonya Kelliher-Combs, originally from Nome. Through her mixed media painting and sculpture, Kelliher-Combs offers a chronicle of the ongoing struggle for self-definition and identity in the Alaskan context.

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