Project Jukebox

Digital Branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program

Rex Ahvakana's Biography

Rexport.gifRex Aveoganna Ahvakana was born on July 18, 1912 in Barrow, Alaska to Floyd and Laura Ahvakana. Job Kunullaq was his step-grandfather. He was the oldest brother of Irene Itta, Della Ahvakana, Lloyd Ahvakana, Winfred Ahvakana, Molly Pederson, Nelson Ahvakana, and Lizzy Ahvakana.

Since his father was a reindeer herder, Rex spent his early years inland with the herds. He only started attending school at the age of eleven and recalls how he had to sit with the little kids because he was at their beginner level: "I went to school with the small kids. It was embarrassing. I came out the third grade in that year. I had to catch up. I didn't wait." Rex still remembers some of the verses and songs he recited as a child during school and church Christmas programs.

When Rex was about 17, his father became ill. While still trying to go to school, he took over his father's trapline to help support the family. Eventually, only having completed the fifth grade, he dropped out of school all together. However, he proudly states that he also was certified in shortwave radio communication through correspondence school and had a job waiting for him aboard a ship. "I never got a job with it because my dad got sick. Should've taken care of him by working and giving him the money. But I didn't know then. I hunted for my family instead. I thought it was the way to care for them. Mom still had a lot of kids to take care of. Maybe it would've been better if I'd left?" Rex became the primary hunter, trapper and wage-earner for his family.

Rex fondly recalls staying with the missionaries Dr. Henry and Molly Greist when they lived in Barrow from 1920 to 1936. This is where he learned to speak English. Rex assisted the doctor and also worked as a janitor part-time at the hospital. Rex vividly recalls helping when Will Rogers and Wiley Post's bodies were brought in after their plane crash in 1935: "All night long I stood there and helped move the bodies while Dr. Greist worked. I didn't know who they were. They were just bodies."

Rex applied his talents in a variety of ways during his youth in Barrow. He used his carpentry and electrical skills to help build the "new school" in the late 1920s, the hospital in the late 1930s, and the National Weather Service buildings in the 1940s. He used his love and talent for the piano and organ by playing at church and community events.

Rex talks about when he was a young man participating in whaling, walrus hunting, seal hunting out on the ice, caribou hunting, fox trapping, reindeer herding, and collecting bird specimens for Charles Brower. In fact, he specifically explains how he was out caribou hunting with his father the day Charles and Anna Lindbergh stopped in Barrow in 1931 on their historic flight to the Orient, so he missed seeing them.

Rex married Deva Atqaqsaak Ahnupkana in 1933 and together they raised a large family. Their children are Marshall Ahvakana, Esther Akpik Toovak, Dorcas Rock, Forrest Ahvakana, Tommy Ahvakana, and Stevie Ahvakana. Deva passed away in 1970.

In 1943, Rex moved his family to Fairbanks, where he worked for Wein Airlines loading and fueling airplanes. Rex explains that steady work was hard to find in Barrow at that time and he needed a job to support his family. But in 1948, he returned to Barrow and loaded and fueled airplanes for Arctic Contractors at the Navy's oil exploration base camp (what later became the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory or NARL). He moved back to Fairbanks in 1953 and returned to permanent work with Wein Airlines. While he started out fueling airplanes, Rex eventually became an expert airplane mechanic. He calls himself "the first Eskimo airplane mechanic." Except for a short break in the mid-1960s, when he was the Barrow Airport Manager, Rex worked for Wein in Fairbanks until he retired in 1971.

In the mid-1970s, Rex moved back to Barrow to live full-time. In the mid-1990s, at age 84 and of limited mobility due to the spinal problem that forced him to retire, Rex moved into the Barrow Senior Center's Assisted Living section. Rex Ahvakana passed away on July 6, 2000 at the age of 87.