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Home  >  Digital Archives  >  People of the North  >  Native Lives and Traditions
Howard Rock and the Tundra Times
By Elizabeth James

 

Howard Rock's name is nearly synonymous with Tundra Times.  As editor of the statewide  newspaper from 1962 until his death in 1976, Rock created a forum for Native perspectives in Alaska and brought their views to the attention of non-Natives.  An Inupiat from Point Hope, Rock was the founding editor of the Tundra Times.  The newspaper's stated purpose -- to keep Natives informed and connected about common issues -- achieved its goal and more.  The Tundra Times became standard reading for anyone and everyone interested in Alaska issues, especially elected officials.  Rock maintained a non-partisan editorial position, but endorsed individual candidates based on Native issues.  He also wrote about Native culture, and the newspaper carefully followed and reported on ANCSA developments until the final act passed in 1971.

Growing up in the whaling community of Point Hope, Alaska, Rock exhibited little interest or skill in hunting.  His father, Weyahok, was a hunter as a young man.  When Episcopalian missionaries came to Point Hope, Weyahok took an interest in their message and became a Christian.  He married Keshorna, and the couple's names were anglicized to Sam and Emma Rock.  Sam Rock subsequently worked for the missionaries as an interpreter.  Born in 1911, Howard Rock was the fourth of eight children in the family.

Rock had no journalistic experience and becoming editor of a newspaper was nothing short of a surprise to himself.  With almost no aptitude for hunting, he did not fit well into his own community.  But he attended the missionary school in Point Hope, and at the age of 15 traveled to the boarding school at White Mountain, near Nome, Alaska,  to further his formal education.  Encouraged by teachers, Rock subsequently studied art at the University of Seattle.  While there, he earned money carving souvenirs for the local tourist trade.  He served in the army during World War II, much of his time spent in North Africa.  After the war, he went back to Seattle, and finally returned to Alaska permanently in 1961. 

Rock's homecoming coincided with a growing controversy over the Atomic Energy Commission's Project Chariot.  The AEC planned to excavate a harbor by detonating thermonuclear bombs on Cape Thompson just thirty miles away from Point Hope.  Thousands of murres nested on the cliffs there, and Inupiat gathered their eggs as part of their regular subsistence.  Caribou and other animals also frequented the area;  at best, the harbor would have severely disrupted Inupiat subsistence patterns.  Few could predict the full extent of damage, although the AEC consistently downplayed the potential destruction.  Initially, Rock observed events developing around Project Chariot while resuming his painting.  During this period, he produced a painting that depicted his brother Allen Rock's whaling crew in the midst of capturing a bowhead.   But Howard Rock was slowly drawn into the Project Chariot debate, partly of his own accord but also because of his facility with English and the Anglo world in general.

Asked to help with correspondence, Rock soon came into contact with the American Association of Indian Affairs (AAIA).  Already involved in another issue regarding Native eider duck hunting rights in Barrow, AAIA executive secretary LaVerne Madigan encouraged a meeting of Inupiat from across northern Alaska to discuss common issues.  In November 1961, the meeting, termed Inupiat Paitot (also sometimes called the Barrow Native Rights Conference), brought leaders together from numerous communities.  Tom Snapp, a reporter for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and known for his sympathy for Native issues, also attended.  Snapp was a transplanted Virginian who later established his own newspaper, the All-Alaska Weekly.

The delegates at Inupiat Paitot discussed several issues, but concluded among other things that Inupiat villages needed a means of regular communication and information exchange.  Madigan suggested Rock as editor for a newsletter.  Although he knew nothing of printing, reporting, or newspapers, Rock agreed.  He immediately hired Tom Snapp as his assistant.  For the remainder of his life, Rock credited Snapp's knowledge and teaching for Rock's own success with Tundra Times.  The little newsletter intended to enhance communication among Inupiat villages quickly transformed into a major source of information for Alaska Natives throughout the state.

During Rock's tenure as editor, the Tundra Times also sponsored the Eskimo-Indian Olympics and helped it grow into a statewide competition.  The newspaper consistently faced financial challenges, but an annual fundraising banquet became a major event every year, attended by Native leaders, governors and senators, and celebrities.  Although primarily remembered for the Tundra Times, Rock also left a legacy in his art.   During his life, Rock was honored as Alaskan of the Year and awarded an honorary degree from the University of Alaska Anchorage.  Today, the Anchorage Sheraton Hotel boasts that its Howard Rock Ballroom is the largest ballroom in Alaska.  In 2009, the Alaska Press Club renamed their First Amendment Award for Rock and Snapp in recognition of their contributions to journalism.

For Further Reading:

Morgan, Lael.  Art and Eskimo Power:  The Life and Times of Howard Rock.  Fairbanks: 

            Epicenter Press, 1988.

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Gallery of Images
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Sod House, Point Hope
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White Mountain, Alaska
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Painting by Howard Rock

 
About the Author: Dr. Elizabeth James is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Her specialty is American Indian history. Dr. James has published several articles on allotment and community responses to federal policy in Nez Perce country in Idaho. She has begun to explore issues in Alaska Native history, in particular twentieth-century political developments. She is currently investigating the historical role of the Native newspaper, Tundra Times, in the state of Alaska.
 

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