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New book documents famed Alaska artist’s life on King Island

By Eric Morrison
Juneau, Alaska (AP) 12-07

Shortly after his father’s death in 2005, Juan MuÒoz Jr. found a treasure nestled inside a dusty, old suitcase: hundreds of slides documenting his parents’ adventure as schoolteachers on remote King Island in the Bering Sea.

About 140 of the best photographs have been published along with letters in the new book “The King Island Journal: The 1951-52 Journal of Juan and Rie MuÒoz, Teachers on a Bering Sea Island,” which hit bookstores recently.

King Island was a tiny island community tucked into a rocky hill about 100 miles northwest of Nome.

Juan MuÒoz Jr. was keenly aware of the village through his mother’s art, influenced by the nine-month posting in the Inupiat village Ukivok. The book does not include Rie MuÒoz’s paintings, drawings and tapestries, which have made her one of the most well-known artists in the state.

Her son also had seen some of the photos and an article about the experience published in the January 1954 edition of National Geographic. But it was not until he came across that old, dusty suitcase that he saw how amazing it truly was.

“I didn’t really realize it until I discovered this suitcase full of negatives, just how neat it was and what an adventure it was,” he said.

Only in Alaska for about a year, Rie MuÒoz said her husband, being a geologist, wanted to earn enough money to begin prospecting. They figured the best way would be to get jobs in a place where it would be difficult to spend their earnings and amass a grubstake, so they contacted the Bureau of Indian Affairs for possible teaching positions.

“They had teachers in all these itty-bitty little villages and there’s no way you could spend your money in those tiny little places,” she said.

The bureau gave them three choices, including King Island, which was an ideal fit because of its remoteness, Rie MuÒoz said.

“There was no way to get off the island once you were there,” she said.

After being approached with the suitcase of negatives, Rie MuÒoz told her son about the letters from King Island they had written to their parents.

“Then it started becoming pretty obvious that we should publish this,” he said.

The insightful letters and high-quality photographs detail a community on the brink of change. Just a couple of years after the pair completed their teaching jobs, the federal government shut down the King Island school, which led to an exodus from the island so the children could meet modern educational requirements.

King Island remains uninhabited to this day.

“We thought it would be a fun book to publish,” Juan MuÒoz added. “There’s so little written on King Island. There’s just like nothing, so we thought it would be a neat contribution to the community.”

The majority of the published letters – detailing daily life, from hunting to teaching school – were not sent until their eventual return to Nome because there was no way to mail them, Rie MuÒoz said.

She doesn’t recall any specific reaction from her parents upon receiving the letters, other than relief.

“They were just so relieved that we were alive,” she said.

She said her parents were less than thrilled about the remote teaching job.

“They thought it was a big mistake to go there, and they didn’t like it one bit,” she said.

However, the posting would have a profound influence on the work of one of Alaska’s most celebrated artists. MuÒoz said she was captivated by King Island and its culture, which spurred her to further explore the Last Frontier.

“I’ve been to a lot of villages now, and they are all totally different, one place from another, but they are all so fascinating to me and wonderful material for paintings,” she said.

Juan MuÒoz Jr. said “The King Island Journal” is not your typical Rie MuÒoz book because it is virtually barren of her signature-style art. They decided not to include her art because it didn’t fit with the theme of the book and took away from the feel of it, he said.

That is the same reason why they decided to publish all the photographs in black and white, he said.

“We felt that it was just more appropriate to keep it in black and white to keep that time period,” he said. “Having color would have brought the reader too much into present time.”

The King Island letters and photographs have brought back many wonderful memories from a bygone era, Rie MuÒoz said. Among them are fond memories of the many dogs that once roamed free on the island.

“Once in a while a group of them would get into a fight, maybe 50 or 20 dogs – just this hill of dogs fighting,” she said. “And they broke them up by an Eskimo man (who) would run and jump right in the middle of them and flail his hands in the air screaming and they’d break up. Imagine just jumping in with a bunch of fighting dogs. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Another memory was the 13-hour return trip to Nome in an in an oomiak, a boat made of walrus skin and wood.

“I was scared, to tell you the truth,” she said.

But it wasn’t the treacherous water of the Bering Sea or riding in a boat made of walrus skin that scared her most.

“I was just worried about having to go to the bathroom,” she said laughing. The second-to-last letter on the book details that particular adventure.

“I actually dehydrated myself – which was probably not good for my system – for several days before,” she said. “I survived though. Here I am.”

Juan MuÒoz said he hopes the book brings to light the story of the King Island people.

“What a great, tough bunch of people they are,” he said. “Really tough to live out there and live off the land.”

“It was just wonderful for them,” Rie MuÒoz said. “They enjoyed every bit of it. They didn’t consider it tough at all.”