Ben Jacuk. Photo courtesy of Katrina Jacuk.

Without CIRI, Ben Jacuk jokes, “I’d probably be uneducated and single.”

With a new wife and a second master’s degree in the works, Ben credits CIRI with helping him along the path to both higher education and love. “The CIRI Foundation has supported me throughout my schooling – I absolutely would not be at the place I am without their help,” he said. “And working at CIRI Alaska Tourism Corp. (now Alaska Denali Travel), that’s where I met my wife! Being connected through CIRI, to the region of my ancestors, has been wonderful.”

Having grown up in Oklahoma, “in terms of being an Alaska Native person, I did have some feelings of disconnect,” Ben said. “But during the summers we would visit with relatives in Alaska. Those experiences – of fishing, of helping Elders with the net – made my Alaska Native heritage feel like it wasn’t some distant kind of thing. It is, and always has been, something I’ve felt extremely close to.”

Being a member of a devoutly Christian family also fostered a strong faith. Ben is connected to CIRI through his mother, Katrina (Dolchok) Jacuk (Aleut), who serves on the CIRI Board of Directors. His father is of Russian descent. Ben’s maternal grandfather, Mack Dolchok, served as an Assemblies of God missionary in Fort Yukon, Alaska; his maternal great-grandfather, Mike Dolchok, assumed the role of “second priest” in his village’s Russian Orthodox church. “He was called the second priest because he took the place of the priest when he was gone to another village,” Ben said. “He was going to be ordained, but he passed away before that happened. He was the lead singer when the priest was there and took care of the priest’s duties when he was away.”

Ben’s desire to learn and deepen his faith led him to Bioloa University, a private Christian college in Los Angeles, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biblical and theological studies.

After graduating, Ben came to Alaska to work. “I was here for the summer trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave Alaska,” he recalled. “I applied to five different graduate schools; Princeton University was my first choice. I told myself, ‘If I don’t get into Princeton, I’ll stay in Alaska.’ I got in. Then I said, ‘If I don’t get fully funded, I won’t go.’ I got fully funded. I kept throwing out stipulations, and they kept getting pushed aside.”

Ultimately, Ben earned a Master of Divinity degree from Princeton, and he is currently pursuing a Master of Theology degree, which will qualify him to teach at the university level. He is a recipient of an Achievement Annual Scholarship from The CIRI Foundation, a competitive, merit-based scholarship designed to recognize and appreciate academic excellence, community service, civic activities and contribution to the Alaska Native community.

According to Ben, he is the second Native person to ever graduate from the Princeton Theological Seminary. Having been founded in 1812, “it’s a really old seminary,” he said. “What became really difficult for me, aside from not having a Native community here, is when I was doing some research for a term paper, I realized Princeton Theological Seminary was actually responsible for starting the Alaska Native boarding school program. That was tough. Upon learning that, it’s when a lot of my understanding began to shift.”

Princeton Theological Seminary was founded by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. It is the second-oldest seminary in the U.S. and the largest of 10 seminaries associated with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Beginning in the late 1800s, Presbyterians ran schools in Cordova, Barrow and Gambell, Alaska. Led by Presbyterian minister Sheldon Jackson, missionaries also ran a boarding school in Sitka and an early boarding school in Wrangell, where the Bureau of Indian Affairs later operated a school of forced assimilation at which many Alaska Native children suffered abuse, cruelty and neglect.

For Ben, his theological shift happened when he began researching the traditional beliefs of his Alaska Native ancestors. “When you look at Christian and indigenous spiritual practices side by side, the similarities are striking,” he said.

“Some of the Russian Orthodox priests that came over literally said, ‘These people (Alaska Natives) already know God.’

“In religious and even academic circles, I’m used to hearing you’re either a Christian or an Indian,” Ben continued. “But the first act of the Holy Spirit in revealing Himself was through culture. I do believe that’s how God still works.”

Ben has worked with the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and he helped edit the apology the Presbyterian Church made at last year’s Alaska Federation of Natives Annual Convention for its past treatment of Alaska Native people, and especially for abuses in boarding schools. His “ultimate goal” is to become a minister, “but there’s something inside me where I feel like I need to write,” Ben said. “There has to be a theological rebuttal against what happened to Natives in the names of Christ. I want to contribute and be a part of those conversations.”