A person exiting the Alaska Airlines cargo building at the Kodiak Benny Benson State Airport couldn’t have said it any better: “That was really beautiful. Margaret would have loved it.”
For roughly 30 minutes on Wednesday afternoon, the Alutiiq Dancers poured their heart and soul into an emotional performance honoring Margaret Roberts — an Alutiiq legend who died Monday in Kodiak. Roberts was born in 1948.
Roberts was one of the five original members of the Alutiiq Dancers that debuted in the late 1980s. The current group of dancers were dressed in traditional Alutiiq parkas and beaded headdresses. Several of the performers banged on drums while the rest moved their bodies to the beat and sang.
Roberts’ body, which was being flown to Anchorage, was in a casket with a single pink flower placed nearby in a water bottle.
The scene was the perfect sendoff for a lady who dedicated her life to Alutiiq culture and advocating for Natives. More than 30 friends and family gathered for the sudden sendoff, many sharing hugs and tears and others documenting the touching tribute on their cell phones.
“It was important because Margaret was an incredible leader in our community,” said Alyssa Madrid, the coordinator for the Alutiiq Dancers. “She showered not only the dancers but Kodiak and every place she went with kindness, joy and love. She was a true pillar in our community and an amazing dancer — she knew how to get down.”
Madrid said Roberts had not performed with the dancers for a few years but showed up to performances and practices when she could. Just two weeks ago, Roberts represented the Alutiiq Dancers at a culture ceremony for Anastasia Ashouwak, an Alutiiq girl whose remains returned to the island after leaving over 100 years ago. At the ceremony, Roberts sang Quyanna Tailuci. On Wednesday, the dancers performed that song along with another dance about kayaking.
“It is a song to thank you — giving gratitude,” Madrid said. “It was one of Margaret’s favorite songs as well as kayaking. “We wanted to thank Margaret for her leadership, kindness and her involvement in revitalizing our language and our dance.”
Robert’s Alutiiq name was Agnguarta, which means “one who dances.”
“Margaret felt like it was such a beautiful thing to bring back to the community, and it was one of the first visible ways that we showed our culture to the broader community. She was always a huge proponent of Alutiiq dance,” said April Laktonen Counceller, the executive director of the Alutiiq Museum. “I just know how important it was to her, and I will never forget the way she looked in her beautiful regalia.”
The Alutiiq Dancers was just a portion of Roberts’ life. Born in 1948 to Ronald Fadaoff of Woody Island and Martha Patarochin of Kodiak, Robert’s spent her life on the island and engulfed herself in everything Alutiiq. She was involved in many tribal councils, ANCSA corporations and nonprofit organizations. Through her involvement, Roberts — a 1967 graduate of Kodiak High School — promoted cultural preservation, wellness and tribal sovereignty.
“It’s hard to describe Margaret’s leadership because it was so wide-ranging and was on multiple levels,” said Counceller. “She used to joke often that she has gotten really good at wearing many hats.”
Roberts was part of the Kodiak Area Native Association’s culture committee that first envisioned the Alutiiq Museum, and she helped to shape the organization as it developed. In addition, she served as chair of the Alutiiq Heritage Foundation Board of Directors, along with also serving on boards for KANA, Natives of Kodiak and Rural. Cap.
She was also one of the founding members of the Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak.
“Her compassion and dedication to the Sugpiaq people of our region will never be forgotten,” Sun’aq said in a statement. “She set a shining example for future generations that will be her forever legacy.”
Roberts was the Alutiiq rockstar to Kodiak and the state. In 2018, the Alaska Federation of Natives honored Roberts with its Woman of Courage Award.
“She really tried to be there when important community things were happening,” Counceller said. “I can’t remember a public event in recent years that Margaret wasn’t at. … She had a gentle way of bringing up important issues and getting them talked about by the broader community. She made a lot of impact that way.”
Her legacy rippled through social media after news spread of her passing. Many of the posts mentioned how gracious and happy Roberts was.
“She is indeed legendary,” one person commented. “Her commitment to preserving and sharing Alutiiq culture will long endure.”
In 2016, Counceller and Roberts traveled to France for the opening of an Alaska Native art exhibit at Musée Boulogne-sur-Mer. That is a trip Counceller will never forget.
“I always thought we would make that trip again together, but I will always remember that time that we spent traveling in Europe and sitting in cafes in France talking about going to the big Alutiiq exhibit at the museum,” Counceller said.