Our state recently said goodbye to a beloved pioneer and luminary, Mary Jane Fate. She was an Athabascan elder, Alaskan trailblazer, and mother to our own Covenant House Alaska board member, Julie Fate Sullivan. She passed away peacefully with her husband of 65 years, Bud, by her side on April 10th. She was 86.
Mary Jane was born in Rampart, a small village on the Yukon River, about 100 miles northwest of Fairbanks, in 1933. According to her cousin, Georgiana Lincoln, “she babysat, I think, about half of the village of Rampart”, which may have been an early indication of the mother figure she would become to countless kids and young people throughout her life.
Born on Sept. 4, 1933, Mary Jane grew up living a subsistence life on the Yukon River where comforts were rare and survival was paramount. During the winter trapping season, in order to follow the animals, they sheltered in tents. During the summer, they fished and preserved as much as possible. Her childhood came with adversity that taught her the importance of being surrounded by a strong community, and throughout her life, she maintained a deep connection to the land, her Athabascan culture, and Alaska Native people – a love she showed through action.
Mary Jane graduated from Mt. Edgecumbe Boarding High School in 1952 and went on to attend college at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, one of the first Alaska Native women to do so. She married Hugh “Bud” Fate, a Korean War veteran who later became a dentist, in 1954 after he proposed to her on a moose hunt. Theirs became a love that stood the test of time, and a partnership rooted in their shared drive to take care of people and to make the world better.
Julie remembers, “Whenever there was a young person who needed help or a safe place to stay, mom and dad opened our home, wrapped them in love, and helped raised them up.” More than just shelter and love, Mary Jane knew it was important to believe in young people, and in moments when they might feel lost, to give them a place to start. “She’d bring them in, set them on their feet and say, ‘Ok, this is what you’re going to do.’”
Even while raising a family and other kids who needed a home, Mary Jane’s life was an extensive timeline of impressive achievements, though none was simply for the sake of accolades. Rather, Mary Jane saw ways in which her community, especially young people, were struggling and she spent her life laying the groundwork for change.
She was one
of the few women who successfully lobbied Congress for the 1971 Alaska Native
Claims Settlement Act, she was the first president of her ANCSA village
corporation and served every role on that board over 40 years, she helped found
the Tundra Times newspaper and, with
Bud, the Fairbanks Native Association. She was the first woman co-chair of the
Alaska Federation of Natives; the first Alaska Native women to serve on the
Alaska Judicial Council; the first Native person appointed by the President to
U.S. Arctic Research Commission, and; she co-founded the Breast Cancer
Detection Center for which she received a Presidential award for bringing
mammograms to rural Alaska.
“She was an activist during those days, though she would never have referred to herself that way. During the 70s and the Civil Rights Movement, she was right there, giving a voice to other people.” In just one example of this steady determination to create change, Mary Jane co-founded and served as the third President of the North American Indian Women’s Association (NAIWA), which was made up of women representing 43 different tribes from 23 states. Beginning in 1977, she spent more than a year heading a federal program to produce the Special Needs of Handicapped Indian Children and Indian Women’s Problems report that was presented to the U.S. Department of the Interior. The report was a 294-page document compiling interviews and data acquired by 28 members of NAIWA who agreed to be trained as researchers for purposes of the project. They and Mary Jane spent months traveling the country to meet and interview Indian people and develop an understanding of the scope of issues impacting women and children with disabilities. Based on what they found, the report made recommendations to the federal government on programs and policies to help. That’s the kind of dedication she had to making change possible. “She shined a spotlight on domestic violence, conditions on reservations and in villages, abuse and neglect, before people were talking about those things,” Julie says. “She spoke to the issues happening to women, and really, all the same things kids at Covey are survivors of.”
“I still am contacted by people who she encouraged and helped to believe in themselves,” Julie continues. “She was so passionate about youth, and about education. She mentored countless young people before ‘mentorship’ was really a thing.”
Mary Jane was known far and wide for her laughter, intelligence, and her loving spirit, which shined through her until her very last moment. She is survived by her husband and three daughters, and countless others who became her family because she was there for them when it most mattered.
Here at Covey we believe, as Mary Jane did, that to help young people accomplish everything they dream of doing, we must first be that consistent, caring presence that says, “I believe in you, even when you’re not perfect, even if you need time, we will get there together.” Mary Jane was carrying out our mission before it was ever even put on paper. Her years of work and advocacy on behalf of young people has made everything we do possible, and she gave the world to Julie, who has been a quiet but powerful force for Covey for many years. We are so glad she was here on this earth for so many young people to learn from and lean on and we will do our best to be carriers of her legacy of service for as long as there are young people who need love.