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Elizabeth “Betty” Parent

Photo of Elizabeth “Betty” Parent
1941
Biography

Elizabeth (Betty) Parent began her life in the small Alaskan village of Crooked Creek on the Kuskokwim River. In an area known for the blending of Athabascan and Yupik cultures, her family lived a traditional subsistence lifestyle steeped the culture of Deg Xinag (or Deg Hit’an) Athabascan people.

Early life was challenging for her. She and her two sisters suffered the loss of their parents through death and tragedy before school age. Betty subsequently lost her two sisters to childhood disease. She moved from family to family but always excelled in school and grew to love learning. She was guided in her life by her aunt Alice Harris who taught her to maintain a positive attitude and to work hard. Along the way, Betty acquired a great sense of humor which allows her to laugh at the ups and downs of life.

Parent spoke the Yup’ik language exclusively until she was five years old. Yet when she began primary school in the single room schoolhouse, the school only taught in English so she lost her bilingualism.

At the age of 18, she moved to Fairbanks to attend the University of Alaska. Right away she became involved in college and community life in the Interior. The 1960’s were historic times of change for Alaska Native people and Parent was in on the ground floor of many important movements. She helped organize cultural and social supports for Alaska Native students on campus through the Alaska Native Club; she worked in a leadership position in Head Start, moving seamlessly between parent advocacy and administrative roles. She organized Head Start parents to fight for culturally relevant education for young children in the Fairbanks School District.

Parent became involved in the early advocacy for the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act. Important to that work was the publishing of the Tundra Times, a weekly newspaper that gave a political and cultural voice to Alaska Native people. Parent served on Tundra Times Board, supporting editor Howard Rock during many years as the paper operated on a shoestring but produced important political advocacy.

While at the University of Alaska she met a brilliant UAF professor Gene Wescott. They married in 1961 and had three children Brian, Siobhan and Liam.

In 1964 Parent earned a B.A. in Anthropology, with minors in English and Education, as well as the dubious distinction of being only the thirty-second Native to graduate from the university.

Given the lack of support for Native students in the UA system at the time, she did not feel encouraged to continue graduate study in her home state. In later years, the University of Alaska Fairbanks honored her for her contributions.

After graduation she took advantage of Native student support opportunities at Harvard University, where she earned an M.A. in Education Administration, was awarded a Certificate of Advanced Studies, and was the first Native American to serve on the Editorial Board of the Harvard Educational Review – all while balancing the responsibilities of being a single mother of three small children.

She was awarded another fellowship to pursue her doctorate at Stanford University. Her dissertation, “The Educational Experiences of the Residents of Bethel, Alaska: A Historical Case Study,” focused on educational challenges faced by Alaska Natives students enrolled in Christian missionary schools, the predecessor to Bureau of Indian Affairs schools. Dr. Parent then held a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, Los Angeles, during which time she also hosted a bi-monthly radio show on Pasadena Community College’s KPCC and became known as the ‘Treaty Lady’ because of her attention to issues of Native American treaty rights.

Parent worked hard to bring the Native American perspective to the forefront in academic life. During her time as a doctoral candidate at Stanford she was a lecturer in Native American Studies at Berkeley—traveling several hours around the Bay area by bus each week to fulfill her teaching and research responsibilities.

When she obtained her doctorate, she accepting a tenure-track appointment as an assistant professor of American Indian Studies in the nation’s only College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University. She took on the responsibilities of chairing the program, guiding American Indian Studies to department status, developing the minor emphasis, and became the department’s first full professor. After establishing a precedent of excellence in teaching, research, and community service that many American Indians academics and programs seek to emulate, Dr. Parent retired and earned Professor Emerita status in 2000.

She worked hard to integrate Native American Studies into the general education requirements so that students could choose these courses to satisfy their core requirements. This innovation made Indian studies accessible to a broad audience in the student body of SFSU.

Her academic career was marked by so many firsts—first Alaska Native woman to earn a PhD, one of a very few Alaska Native students to successfully gain degrees from both Harvard and Stanford University and the first Alaska Native woman to obtain tenure as a full professor. Upon her retirement, San Francisco State established the Elizabeth Parent Achievement Award in her honor. The award is bestowed annually to deserving students who exhibit academic success and leadership in American Indian communities.

Beyond the formal recognitions, most meaningful are the hundreds of young people who were mentored by Parent in their academic, social and cultural development. She was known on the Stanford campus for hosting student gatherings in her tiny on-campus apartment—always with a good home cooked meal.

When she learned of a new student who might need support, she would call them up- sometimes several times- until she made contact to let them know she was there if they needed help. She attended student presentation for moral support, she cooked thousands of meals for student potlucks and she was a strong supporter of Native American cultural centers wherever she lived. Sometimes the smallest gesture meant a huge amount to students who were struggling far from home.

Dorothy Pender, an Alaska Native student who completed her PhD, wrote, “Betty took me under her wing when I was an electrical engineering grad student at Stanford University. She proudly supported me as I defended my doctoral thesis, and both Stanford professors and students assumed she was my mother!

Likewise Karen Perdue, a young Stanford undergraduate from Fairbanks came to rely on the Parent household as a second family –for parental advice, food and the ability to decompress including hosting sleepovers in the Stanford dorm for Betty’s daughter Siobhan.

Pender also remembers how Parent encouraged her to become involved in assisting others. Parent is a Sequoyah member of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), which is a lifelong membership- “Betty encouraged me to become an AISES Sequoyah member, and a board member.”

In her 75th year, Parent remains an active participant in Native American education and journalism circles, as well as broader Bay Area Native community organizations and events, such as her role on the Board of Directors for the Native American Cultural Center in San Francisco. She continues to be honored and recognized by her peers for her contributions.

Over her lifetime, Dr Betty Parent has progressed from a one room school house in a remote Alaskan village to the academic halls of America’s most prestigious Universities. She has never forgotten her roots. All through her career she has focused on the needs of young people by teaching and mentoring on a daily basis. She has committed herself to social and educational justice for Native American people.

Induction ceremony acceptance speech https://youtu.be/4Onu1K8PWVk

Notes

Elizabeth “Betty” Parent is an educational leader and a trailblazer. She is the first Alaska Native woman to earn a PhD, and the first Alaska Native woman to become a full professor. Along the way she has mentored many and fought for justice for Alaska Native people.

Parent was born in Western Alaska into a blend of Athabascan and Yupik culture. She experienced hardship early in life with the death of her father and two siblings before she reached school age. She took strength from school and developed a deep love of learning. She was encouraged by her beloved aunt, Alice Harris.

She excelled at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks where she was a successful student, an early childhood/Head Start advocate, and the busy mother of three young children.

During the late 60s she also became involved in community activism for Alaska Native people. She helped found the Alaska Native Club on the UAF campus. She was involved in the early days of the Alaska Native Land Claims and was a founding member of the Tundra Times Board of Directors.

She decided to apply to Harvard University for her master’s degree and was awarded a fellowship. Upon graduation, she pursued her doctorate at Stanford University. Her seminal dissertation on the educational experience of Native people in Moravian missions in Western Alaska is a definitive work on cultural assimilation.  She accepted a professorship at San Francisco State University, where she retired as a tenured professor emerita in 2000 after 20 years.

Throughout these busy years Parent raised three successful children- Brian, Siobhan and Liam Wescott. She also always mentored students throughout Indian Country. The Betty Parent Achievement Award is presented annually to promising Native American students at San Francisco State University.

Induction ceremony acceptance speech https://youtu.be/4Onu1K8PWVk