CIRI shareholder Kenneth “Ken” Boire (Iñupiaq) grew up inhabiting two worlds. His father was a French-Canadian gold miner who made his way to Nome, Alaska, after fighting three years in Europe during World War I. His mother’s side of the family “spoke Eskimo, ate traditional foods and lived the Native ways,” Ken recalled. “My brother and I learned the language because that’s the only way my grandmother would speak to her grandchildren.”
As a young child, Ken grew up on the edge of Nome in a one-room cabin without plumbing or electricity. The family dog team served as transportation. “Looking back, what seems a rough existence now was near normal for everybody then,” Ken said. The repurposed, rusty 55-gallon drum that served as the cabin’s heat source “was so common that a store-bought stove would have been a curiosity, just as a metal coat hook instead of reindeer antlers would have been.”
When the Japanese invaded the Aleutian Islands during World War II, many civilians were evacuated from Nome. In the case of 3-year-old Ken, his 5-year-old brother and their mother, they boarded a mail plane bound for Anchorage. (Ken’s father stayed behind as a member of the Alaska Territorial Guard.)
En route to Anchorage, the single-engine plane flew into a snowstorm and crashed miles from an outpost in McGrath. Not badly hurt, dressed in fur garments and traveling with a gunny sack of dried fish and two unbroken jars of seal oil, “the challenge of survival became not much different than what we faced in day-to-day life outside Nome,” Ken said. After the storm settled, an Alaska Native rescue party arrived from McGrath via dog team. The family stayed in McGrath until the weather cleared.
Upon arriving in Anchorage, the family moved into an unheated woodshed and Ken’s mother found work as a housecleaner. “We would wait outside until the family left in the morning, then come inside and warm up while our mom worked,” Ken said. “Our existence was fundamentally pretty basic, but we were used to that lifestyle – scratching along, just getting enough to eat. When my dad found his way to Anchorage at the end of World War II, it’s like our whole world changed.
“He was a hard-working guy with many different skills and could get a job pretty much anywhere,” Ken explained. “He found work as a barber and eventually purchased the barbershop, then the liquor store next door, then a bar. He did very well for a man who wasn’t schooled beyond the fifth grade.”
The family lived in Anchorage until Ken was about 13. “Attending school during that time was a novel experience in itself,” Ken recalled. “Anchorage was really a white man’s town; Alaska Natives weren’t really integrated into the social and economic infrastructure. Teachers weren’t sympathetic to us. It was just a fact of life then.”
Ken and his family relocated in the early 1950s to a multi-ethnic neighborhood in Seattle. “We were the only Alaska Native people, but there were a lot of African-American, Asian and poor white people. I kind of fit in – being different wasn’t ‘different’ there,” he recalled.
Ken put himself through college by working the night shift at the local post office, eventually receiving a bachelor’s degree with honors in economics from the University of Washington. He subsequently earned two master’s degrees. Prior to the passing of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in 1971, Ken traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby for the settlement. He co-founded the Alaska Native Association of Oregon and, as executive director, conducted “Operation Manhunt,” a nationwide media campaign publicizing and assisting the ANCSA enrollment process.
Though he left Alaska 65 years ago and currently resides in Beaverton, Ore., “I still feel connected,” Ken said. “I’m multiracial, but I call myself Alaska Native; that’s never faded into the background. I had a consultancy business, and I did a lot of work in Alaska, sometimes making half a dozen trips a year. I take pride in having had a hand in improving practically every commercial harbor in Alaska, especially in Nome. It’s been years since I’ve been up there (to Alaska), but we’ll see – I might make another trip.”