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Native activist Jacobsson, known for attention-grabbing protests, dies

September 29th | Michelle Theriault Boots Print this article   Email this article  

Desa Jacobsson, a one-time candidate for governor who was unafraid to go on hunger strikes and spend time in jail for her causes, died in Anchorage, her family said.

She had been ill with cancer for about six months, her daughter Teresa Jacobsson said Sunday.

"After a lifetime of this type of work, she was able to pass with peace," she said.

Jacobsson's confrontational style included weekslong public hunger strikes and acts of protest that got her arrested on more than one occasion. It was aimed to "bring attention to those who didn't have a voice," her daughter said.

Jacobsson was once told that she'd lose friends because of some of the positions she took on issues.

"Her response was, 'When it comes to the rights of my children and grandchildren I have no friends,' " Teresa Jacobsson said. "She took a position even if it was uncomfortable."

Jacobsson was born in Hooper Bay, the daughter of a schoolteacher. She was Yup'ik and Gwich'in.

Her activism started decades ago: In 1986, after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Russia, she and friends planned a "berrylift" to send subsistence food to the indigenous Sami people of Scandinavia. Bureaucratic red tape kept the lift from happening but landed her on the cover of USA Today for the effort, her daughter said.

Jacobsson made headlines in the 1990s and 2000s by going on hunger strikes and getting arrested for illegally setnetting on the Kenai Peninsula to draw attention to subsistence issues.

She described breaking a three-week fast with bread, and then applesauce and honey.

"It can be pretty spooky coming down off one of those things if you are not careful," she told the Anchorage Daily News at the time.

When Jacobsson ran for governor on the Green Party ticket in 1998, her speeches and vivid one-liners brought support at campaign stops, the Anchorage Daily News wrote at the time. But she won only about 3 percent of the vote.

In the early 2000s, she attended every day of the trial of Joshua Wade for the slaying of Della Brown. After he was acquitted, she went on a three-week hunger strike to protest what she said was indifference to Alaska Native women.

In more recent years, she worked as a trainer for organizations that assist victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

She had slowed down recently, said Teresa Jacobsson.

"She had been trying to bring this stuff to the forefront for so long, it just wore on her," her daughter said.

Still, at the time of her cancer diagnosis, she was planning another protest, this one against budget cuts to programs protecting victims of sexual assault, wrote her friend Lisa Haggblom, a staff member at the Bristol Bay shelter SAFE.

Some people called her mother a radical, Teresa Jacobsson said.

"She didn't see fighting for basic human rights as radical."

Her daughter plans to start a nonprofit organization, the Jacobsson Foundation, that will offer scholarships in her mother's name.

This story first appeared in the Alaska Dispatch News and is reprinted here with permission.

 

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