Longtime KYUK colleague Lillian Atmak Michael passed away earlier this month at the age of 64, on the Russian Orthodox holiday of Pascha, also known as Easter.
Atmak was a practicing Orthodox Christian, many of whom believe the gates of heaven are open to those who die on this highest of the holy days for the church.
While alive, Atmak shared her boundless energy with others as a teacher, translator, journalist and storyteller.
If you were in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in the 1980s and tuned your television to channel 4, you might have seen Atmak delivering the Yup’ik news. You would see her long straight black hair parted in the middle, with glasses covering almost half of her face. What you wouldn’t see is the complex linguistic surgery she was carrying out in her mind.
Former KYUK news director Rhonda McBride said Atmak will not only translate English news into Yup’ik in real time, but also completely restructure the news for a Yup’ik audience.
“Because English didn’t necessarily lend itself to the Yup’ik process of telling a story, which as I understood from Lil had to start with the background and then get to the point of the story.” , McBride said.
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Atmak would do it on the fly, with only the English script in front of her.
âIt was really at the level of a United Nations translator,â McBride said.
Former KYUK Yup’ik reporter Trim Nick said Atmak read with an explosive, but steady cadence that exuded confidence and never faltered. But what he remembers the most is the joy and humor she brought to the screen.
âShe was a very happy woman, who had a very optimistic and happy outlook on life and everything. And that was reflected in his news presentation, especially in Yup’ik, âNick said.
Another former KYUK news director Angela Denning said Atmak would vibrate with energy as she fashioned stories in Yup’ik.
âIt was exciting to watch her work. It was almost like watching an art form happen, âDenning said.
Her work spanned four decades: she joined KYUK in 1981 as a translator and producer, becoming Yup’ik’s news director within a year. She was prolific, appearing on many KYUK TV and radio programs. In her later years, even when living in her hometown of Kwethluk, she traveled to Bethel to translate special events on the air.
Perhaps his favorite was the Kuskokwim 300 sled dog race. Atmak became one of his main voices.
âI’m so excited to see who the next person will be,â Atmak announced during one of his last live radio appearances, covering the 2021 Akiak Dash. âThey were playing cat and mouse between Jackie, Matt Scott and Greg Larson. And sometimes the 17 year old young man from Kwethluk, Raymond Alexie, who is named after my first cousin Raymond Egoak.
Atmak often mentioned the family connection to the mushers in race updates.
She was also incredibly funny. Her friends and family said she was a loving teaser. Julia Jimmie, translator and Yugtun producer at KYUK, remembers a year ago that Atmak and the late John Active, another longtime KYUK translator and storyteller, announced the arrival of the K300 in Yup’ik. On live radio, Jimmie said, the two friends joked that someone was bringing them a can of coffee so they could use the bathroom.
“And they’ll say, ‘Oh no, we don’t have handkerchiefs,’ Jimmie recalled with a chuckle.” And our bosses here don’t understand what they’re saying, so they’ve escaped a lot. amused. “
Atmak and Active were two of KYUK’s longest-serving employees. Both were experts in Yugtun, English, storytelling and humor. Together, they have helped shape the identity and bilingual culture of the station.
âLillian Michael is, I would say, one of the key people in KYUK’s history,â said Shane Iverson, current Managing Director of KYUK. “She is the voice and the face that so many people know as KYUK.”
Although Atmak is gone, she lives in the people she inspired. For Jimmie, Atmak helped her learn to trust who she was.
âSeeing Yup’ik speak Yup’ik, being Yup’ik on TV and radio, I think it normalized speaking Yup’ik, made it accepted,â Jimmie said.
Jimmie eventually moved to Bethel from her hometown of Tuntutuliak and became a KYUK translator, following in Atmak’s footsteps.
Before going on TV, Atmak made sure that Yup’ik language and culture had a place in the classroom as a bilingual teacher in his hometown of Kwethluk. Her niece, Veronica Atan Winkelman, said Atmak sometimes helps translate between English-speaking teachers and Yugoslav-speaking students.
âShe played a big role in making sure we were understood and that we were comfortable,â Winkelman said.
Winkelman is now working at the Lower Kuskokwim School District to improve the Yugtun curriculum that Yup’ik teachers like his aunt have worked to create.
Helen Larson said she wanted to be like her older sister Atmak when they were younger. Her older sister was good at whatever job she did, she said, and had a way of making people smile even when they were sad.
âShe had a heart of gold,â Larson said. “She was kind and loving to everyone she met, no matter who they were or what they were like.”
Lillian Atmak Michael’s body was buried in his hometown of Kwethluk. There will never be another woman like her.