Alaskans remember Oliver Leavitt as an influential leader and whaling captain

Oliver Aveogan Leavitt speaks at the 2007 Alaska Federation of Natives convention. (Courtesy ASRC)

Alaskans are mourning the loss of a North Slope leader who grew up running sled dog teams to collect firewood along the Arctic coast and came of age in the time of snowmachines, borough governments and Native corporations.

Oliver Aveogan Leavitt died Sunday at the age of 79.

Oliver Leavitt was a whaling captain and a cultural beacon for his people, fluent in Inupiaq and known for his ability to make skin whaling boats, or umiaks, without a blueprint.

Richard Glenn, an executive vice president at the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., called Leavitt his mentor. The two men served together on the board and in management roles.

“Without a piece of paper in your hand, to go from dimensional woods, hard woods, to end up with a whaling boat is a skill,” he said.

Glenn said he admired Leavitt for his ability to fight for his region — and to move comfortably from the boardroom to both the whaling camp and the halls of Washington, D.C.

In a break from the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. boardroom, Oliver Leavitt plays cards and laughs. (Courtesy ASRC)

“He was adept at it. He made it effortless,” Glenn said. “He has a diplomat’s skill, but he also has a hard-won, nuts-and-bolts kind of education.”

Leavitt used that education to help turn ASRC into Alaska’s largest private company.

Former Democratic state Sen. Willie Hensley, a leader in Alaska Natives’ land claims fight, met Leavitt when he got out of the Army.

“I’ve known him for 50 years,” Hensley said.

After Leavitt’s military service, Hensley said, he dedicated himself to a life of public service — working to form a new borough, teaming up with other leaders to turn ASRC into a company that earns billions in revenues every year.

“He was persistent,” Hensley said. “And in order to do the things he had to do, he had to work hard and practically camped in Washington, D.C.”

Oliver Leavitt at an early Alaska Federation of Natives caucus. (Courtesy ASRC)

Hensley said one of Leavitt’s biggest accomplishments was his battle to help the North Slope Borough gain access to a gas field controlled by the U.S. Navy. That access enabled the borough to bring heat and power to homes in the region.

Although Hensley was from Kotzebue, a community on the northwest coast of Alaska, he said the two men bonded over their upbringing — growing up in a time when there were no modern amenities, just lots of hard work.

“The reason we are good friends:  I understand exactly what he was saying,” Hensley said.

Hensley said Leavitt was passionate about improving life in the Arctic. Although they didn’t always agree about how to do this, their friendship endured. Hensley was at Leavitt’s side to offer comfort when he died in his home village of Utqiaġvik, surrounded by loved ones.

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