Trefon Angasan, who died of COVID-19, remembered as 'irreplaceable' Alaska Native leader

Jan 25, 2021

 

Trefon Angasan, Jr.
Credit Alaska Peninsula Corporation

Alaska Native leader Trefon Angasan, Jr., died in November from complications due to COVID-19. He was 73 years old. He had a lasting influence on the Bristol Bay region – and the state.

Trefon Angasan, Jr., was a formidable leader in Alaska. He was renowned for his deep knowledge of policy and law, and his involvement in multiple organizations and on many levels of government. 

Trefon Angasan, Jr., as a child with his parents and siblings.
Credit Courtesy of Mary Jane Nielsen

“He could cite policy and references just with the snap of his fingers,” said his son, Brad Angasan.

Brad worked with him for the past 15 years at the Alaska Peninsula Corporation, of which Angasan was chairman. 

“Really, probably, the smartest man I’ve ever met in my life,” Brad said. “Just an incredible resource with regards to Alaska Native policy history, the history of our region, and was also an incredible businessman. He had amazing business intuition and business sense. That’s going to be a pretty big void to fill.”

Angasan grew up between the villages of Savonoski, Naknek and South Naknek, the third of 10 siblings. He spoke about his childhood there with historian Katie Ringsmuth in 2018, for the University of Alaska Fairbank’s oral history program

Angasan’s parents worked in the canneries, and at the end of each season, fishermen were supposed to return their canned goods to the processor. Instead, they brought the food to his family in secret.

“All of the fishermen would put all of their canned goods and their food from their boat into gunny sacks and at night they would carry them up to my mom’s house," he told Ringsmuth. "You know, to this day, I prefer canned fruit over fresh fruit — that’s a given. I prefer sardines over smoked salmon, would you believe.” 

 

Trefon Angasan, Jr. as a young man.
Credit Courtesy of Mary Jane Nielsen

When Angasan was 10, his family writes in his obituary, he started commercial fishing at his own set-net site, and ran his first power boat when he was 15. He continued commercial fishing for years with his own family. 

“For roughly the 20 years that I fished with my dad, those were the best times of our lives,” Brad said. “Because we got away from work, we got to escape the work world and sort of get back to the basics. Commercial fishing is not just an economic effort in my family, it’s part of our culture.”

Angasan was Alutiiq, and he became one of the leading figures on Alaska Native policy, working to protect rural subsistence rights throughout his career. 

His deep personal involvement is particularly clear in one landmark case. Angasan’s great aunt, Pelagia Melgenak, had land at Kittivik, at the mouth of the Brooks River in what is now Katmai National Park and Preserve. Melgenak had fled the volcanic eruption Novarupta at Mount Katmai in June of 1912.

His family subsisted at Brooks River, putting up fish for the winter. Brooks Camp also drew sports fishermen and tourists from around the world. 

Melgenak applied for a Native allotment there in 1971 under the Native Allotment Act of 1906. She was 93 years old, and she died shortly after. 

The application was not fully processed for more than a decade, when the Interior Department U.S. Interior Board of Land Appeals denied it. 

The government argued that the family’s use of the area hadn’t begun before 1931, the year required by law; the Angasans had to prove that they had lived on and used that land before then. They took the case to the federal district court and sued the government. 

Sam Fortier is a lawyer who worked with the family for years and was a close friend of Angasan’s. 

“Trefon is part of that heritage of not quitting,” Fortier said. “He was a remarkable person. He was unique. He was — and I’m getting emotional — he was … irreplaceable.”

In the end, the family retained a portion of the original allotment. Angasan’s son, Brad, said it was a success.

Trefon Angasan with the other Alaska Peninsula Corporation board members. Aug. 22, 2019.
Credit Alaska Peninsula Corporation

“My dad took on the federal government. My uncle Ralph [Angasan] took on the federal government, and the rest of their siblings. And they won,” he said. “That was a huge accomplishment. I think that really helps to sort of set the precedent that Alaska Natives in particular are a foundation of Alaska.” 

Angasan worked for the Bristol Bay Native Corporation for three decades retiring as the vice president of shareholder relations. He also served on the Alaska Board of Fish and the Alaska Federation of Natives and the Alaska Native Justice Center. He was widely seen as an expert on two of the state’s foundational laws: the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. 

More recently, Angasan consulted the Pebble Limited Partnership on issues around those laws ANCSA and ANILCA. The company proposed a large copper and gold mine at the headwaters of Bristol Bay, and the project stoked more than a decade of controversy in the region. Though he didn’t fully endorse the project, his son, Brad, said he believed it would help the region’s economy, and that he advocated for “due process” regarding the mine proposal. 

Trefon Angasan, Jr.
Credit Courtesy of Gwennith Angasan

“Pebble has been just a hard thing to deal with in our region because it’s so divisive on both sides of the scale. Trefon had a knack for making balance though, and he never deviated from that,” Brad said. “Trefon had a desire to determine for himself whether or not Pebble should or could be developed responsibly without significant harm to the environment.”

Beyond Angasan’s professional legacy in Alaska, he was known for his extreme generosity.

For Angasan’s son and all those who knew him, his death leaves a deep absence. 

“Everyday I’d send a text to my dad as soon as I got up. And I finally felt just at a loss there,” he said. “He’s not there. I miss my dad. I really… I can’t express how much my family’s been impacted by this, and how big the loss is for us. Not just for us, but for the Alaska Native people of Bristol Bay in general.”  

Angasan died in November 2020 from complications due to COVID-19. He was 73 years old. The family plans to hold a celebration of life this spring. 

 

Trefon Angasan, Jr., at an Alaska Peninsula Corporation event. April 13, 2019.
Credit Alaska Peninsula Corporation

 

Contact the author at isabelle@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.