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Kathryn Dyakanoff Seller

Photo of Kathryn Dyakanoff Seller
18841980
Categories: 2017 Alumnae, Aleut Communities, Education

Biography

Kathryn Dyakanoff Seller was a pioneer for the Aleut (Unangan) people who blazed the way in education, public speaking, and community activism. She was an outstanding Alaska Native educator who worked for decades in rural Alaska villages and towns.

She was the first teacher in Atka, the surviving village in the central Aleutians, where she taught for four years. She was the first of her people to be a certified teacher and went on to teach in her hometown of Unalaska on the Aleutian chain, in Akhiok (Alitak) on Kodiak Island, in Tyonek, and Eklutna.

Her teaching spanned almost 40 years, all in territorial days. She became an outspoken advocate and strong activist for the rights and culture of her people and was dedicated to helping them. In her career, she influenced thousands of children and adults across Alaska.

As a Native woman in the early years of the 20th century, Kathryn set an example of the value of education that has rarely been equaled. Through her own education and her subsequent work as a teacher, she had a deep impact on those who knew her. In 1922 Kathryn was asked to write three articles about the Aleut people. These were published in 1923 by The Pathfinder of Alaska and are of great importance to any study of the Aleut people.

Her outstanding work among the Native people of Alaska spanned the disciplines of education, midwifery, church, and social work. She was remembered in the Aleut Corporation Newsletter for her “lifelong, tireless efforts to enhance the capabilities of her people to cope with their changing way of life.” She was recognized by the Department of Interior in 1950 when she received a special award for commendable service. That same year Congress awarded her a medal for ‘outstanding service to her people.’ After she retired, she continued to lecture about Alaska and the Aleut people. She was decades ahead of her time in speaking about the terrible suffering of Aleuts who were taken from the islands during World War II and placed in substandard camps in Southeast Alaska.

Early Life:

Kathryn Pelagia Dyakanoff was born to an important Aleut (Unangan) family in Unalaska on December 7th, 1884[1]. She began her schooling when she lived at the Jesse Lee Home in 1894. She was an outstanding student who was encouraged by missionaries at Jesse Lee to continue her education. When she was twelve years old Sheldon Jackson, the first Alaska Commissioner of Education, recommended her to go to Pennsylvania to attend the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. She earned her high school diploma from Carlisle in 1906. After she finished at Carlisle, she went to West Chester Normal School in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where she graduated with her teaching degree in January 1909. Before she returned to Alaska, she spent a semester doing post-graduate work at Dickson College in Carlisle. Throughout all of this time, Dr. Sheldon Jackson encouraged her.

For her first year as a teacher in 1909, the Bureau of Indian Affairs assigned her to Sitka. The 1910 U.S. Census lists Kathryn Dyakanoff (21) with Cassia Patton (48) as the U.S. Government teachers. After the school year ended, she traveled to Seattle. There on June 1, 1910, she married Harry G. Seller, who was born in England and had immigrated to the U.S. a decade earlier. He had worked as a newspaper writer and photographer and was also a teacher.

Kathryn was at the forefront of changes in Aleut identity occasioned by economic and social forces at the beginning of the twentieth century. She was a bridge between traditional 19th century Aleuts and those who would forge new directions in the coming decades. 

A Dedicated Teacher:

The Sellers were commissioned by the B.I.A. to go to Atka, first to build a schoolhouse and then to serve as the teachers there. Kathryn was the principal teacher while her husband provided manual training. He eventually managed the Atka Island Native Store, a cooperative he started for the Bureau of Education. The local villagers were hired in the construction of the new school. Two excerpts on the Alaska history website show Kathryn’s dedication and exceptional gifts (alaskahistory.org):

The B.I.A. gave Kathryn and Harry one hundred seventy dollars worth of construction materials and three special items the government had conceded to Kathryn: an organ, a cow and a bull. It is interesting to note that they refunded fifty of the original one hundred seventy dollars to the government. The schoolhouse, which was also their home, was completed and ready for use in 1909. Their first daughter, Renee Lois Seller, was born in Atka in 1911; the family recorded that the villagers celebrated the birth, not of Renee, but of a calf parented by the cow and bull that Kathryn had insisted accompany them to the island. Atka was a very remote outpost; the Sellers received mail only once a year.

Adventurer and newsreel photographer Will Hudson wrote a narrative of his 1913-1914 trip to Alaska and Siberia in a book entitled, Icy Hell. He stopped at Atka, he wrote of meeting Kathryn: “The little Native school was under the direction of an Aleut girl who received her education in the States. If ever there was a saint living on earth, I am sure it was this faithful, cultured Aleut maiden, who was slaving herself half to death in an effort to help her charges in faraway, lonely Atka.” Will Hudson wrote that Kathryn shared their meager food supplies with the villagers.

Kathryn’s knowledge of the Aleut language enabled her to jump-start the education of children who had never been in school before. Being the teachers in Atka were much more than just building the school and teaching the children; the school became the heart of community activity. Harry and Kathryn’s report to the government for 1912-13, describes the whole community being involved in clearing various locations and planting many kinds of vegetables and potatoes. They built a separate building as an industrial shop for the school and men and boys learned to use tools. They offered medical care. Cooking and weaving classes were offered. Kathryn was sent a sewing machine, two other machines arrived and older girls and women learned to sew. She included in her report, “Now all of the older girls and women of the village know how to use the machines. Sewing classes were held on Wednesday and Friday afternoons, and the use of the machine was free to anyone on Saturdays” (1914, p. 45).

By 1916, the Sellers were living in the village of Akhiok on Alitak Bay on the south end of Kodiak Island. The Department of Interior 1916-1917 report lists Mrs. Kathryn D. Seller as the teacher with 43 children enrolled and a very good average daily attendance record. The 1920 Census lists Kathryn and Harry still living in Akhiok with their oldest four children. Kathryn and Harry were both teaching as the U. S. Government teachers. They experienced tragedy the next year when their seven-year old son Alfred drowned in Alitak Bay.

In 1920, Kathryn became the superintendent at Tyonek and taught there. By then their children were growing so in the 1920s, they moved to Anchorage so their older children could attend high school. They were early residents of Anchorage. Harry worked for the railroad and Kathryn took time away from teaching to manage the household and help raise her five remaining children as well as volunteer in the community. Their oldest daughter Renee graduated from Anchorage High School in 1929, Marjorie in 1932, son Harry in 1934. Kathryn’s husband Harry Seller died in the summer of 1936, leaving Kathryn a widow with two children, John and Betty, still at home.

After her husband’s death, Kathryn moved back to Akhiok village and returned to teaching. Her youngest two children stayed in Anchorage to finish high school (John graduated in 1941 and Betty in 1942). Son Harry moved to Akhiok with her. Kathryn and Harry Jr. are both listed in the 1940 U.S. Census, where she was the teacher in the school, and in fact, also the census taker. That time must have been precious to her, as Harry joined the military and died at Unalaska a few days after the Japanese attack in June 1942.

In the early 1940s, Kathryn was on the staff at the Eklutna Vocational School, where she taught. Kathryn retired from teaching in 1948 and moved to California to be near her children and grandchildren. She continued to make presentations along the west coast and in the east, sharing slides and pictures and her stories at schools, churches, and other groups to promote better understanding of Alaska and her people. She died on June 17, 1980 at age 96 in San Francisco and is buried in the Valley Cemetery in Sonoma.

Impact of Kathryn’s Life:

The villages where Kathryn taught listed in various sources include: Sitka, Atka, Unalaska, Akhiok (Alitak), Wacker (Ward Cove), Tyonek, and Eklutna. Though she had earned her teaching degree, because she was Alaska Native she was granted only a temporary certificate to teach in Alaska. Visitors were sometimes incredulous that a Native woman could be the government teacher and consequently described her as her husband’s assistant. Through her outstanding teaching and persistence she was finally granted her permanent certificate in 1925. In the days when there were few if any Alaska Native certified teachers in towns and villages of Alaska, Kathryn was a path breaker, a mentor and inspiration to many. To think she was born only seventeen years after Alaska’s purchase from Russia and taught for decades, all in territory days, is amazing and inspiring.

As a Native woman in the early years of the 20th century, Kathryn Seller faced bigotry and prejudice with intelligence and resolve. She had the highest standards and a fearless energy. As Anthony J. Diamond wrote, “I have known Mrs. Seller for twenty years or more. Her character is of the highest. She is intelligent, honorable, and reliable. I know that she will speak the truth.”

Ray Hudson wrote, “When I was a young teacher at Unalaska (in the 1960s and 1970s), I had several discussions with Edna Pelagia McCurdy. She was an Aleut who retired from teaching in California and returned home to teach in the public school and to assist forming the local corporation. Several times she spoke about how Kathryn Seller was a great influence on her life. Today a scholarship exists in McCurdy’s name, given annually by the Ounalashka Corporation.” Edna McCurdy said of her aunt Kathryn, “She was always so proud of her Aleut heritage and always used Dyakanoff as her middle name.” Ray also reported, “Anfesia Shapsnikoff, the great basket weaver and champion of Aleut culture, although a generation younger than Seller (having been born in 1900) was a friend of Kathryn and frequently referred to her work as being exemplary.”

It is fitting that Kathryn was recognized nationally for her teaching and service and that we honor her achievements and long dedication as an Alaska Native woman.

Induction ceremony acceptance speech https://youtu.be/Net9Tb7W_dQ

References:

Alaska History Website: http://www.alaskahistory.org/detail.aspx?ID=176.

Aleut Corporation. (~1980). Spotlight on Shareholders: Kathryn Dyakanoff Seller. Newsletter for shareholders.

Bagoy, J. (2001). Legends and legacies: Anchorage 1910-1935. Anchorage: Publications Consultants, 2001, p. 187-189.

Bagoy, J. (Various dates). Research files, correspondence, and writings in the archives at the Anchorage Historical & Fine Arts Museum.

Blalock, Betty Seller. (2017). Personal conversations and letters (Daughter of Kathryn).

Carlisle (n.d.). Student card for Kathryn Dyakanoff on entry 10-25-98. Card G-412.

Correspondence between Dr. Sheldon Jackson and Kathryn Dyakanoff, 1907 – 1908.

[1] Official records of Kathryn’s birth year vary from 1884-1888, but her death records & grave give 1884.