Mary April Keller was born April 1, 1954 in a little cabin in Nome, Alaska with the able assistance of midwife Mary Dimmick. Les and Martha Keller and their sons Larry,3, and Lester, 2, welcomed her into their family. Mary was baptized with several other toddlers at the Lutheran Chapel quonset hut by pastor/pilot Rev. Norval Hegland on November 21, 1954. She celebrated the rite of confirmation on April 13, 1975 at University Congregation-Pacific Lutheran University.
Church was the center of life in the 1950s and 1960s. Sunday school, children’s choir, Luther League youth group, outdoor worship at fish camp, vacation bible school, picnics and special gatherings such as Mother’s Day receptions were organized by parish worker Miss Marlene Anderson.
School, too, brought stability and learning from excellent teachers who took their work as a calling and gave their very best effort to teach their students. Their interest in their pupils’ progress sparked a life long desire in Mary to learn and she excelled academically, graduating as class valedictorian in 1972. Her first two years of college were completed on a full academic scholarship at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut. She transferred to and graduated from Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Washington on May 23, 1976 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics.
Five years later she enrolled in a two-year graduate program at the University of Oregon-Eugene School of Community Service and Public Affairs, with all tuition, fees, books, and living expenses paid by the U.S. Department of Education Indian Fellowship Program. She graduated with honors in May, 1983 with a Master of Science degree in Public Administration.
Andrew Miller and Mary Keller were married in Nome, Alaska on January 21, 1977. They raised son Jared Lee, adopted Joan Marie, and also raised Joan’s daughter Alexa Brooke. Jared and spouse Kacey are parents to Maggie Mae, Kellie Alivia and Jack Lee.
Mary’s three main jobs were Accounting Supervisor (Norton Sound Health Corporation 1977-81), Tribal Affairs Director (Kawerak, Inc. 1983-1997) and Ministry Coordinator (Lutheran Association of Missionaries and Pilots 1999-2005).
She was hired at Kawerak with a six-month operating budget of $34,000 and told if she wanted to keep working, she would have to find her own sources of funding, all of which at the time were competitive. Mary had a strong determination that drove her to meet challenges against all odds. Every grant proposal she subsequently wrote was awarded funding and she built up a strong program, providing technical support for the region’s 20 tribal governments in asserting their legal, personal, subject matter and territorial jurisdiction over a wide range of areas.
She and her staff also set in place Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) programs in the villages, complete with adoption ordinances, tribal court ordinances, children’s codes and foster care licensing ordinances. Member villages also enacted tribal policy to close the loopholes of ICWA that allowed tribal children to be placed outside the Act’s placement preferences. Memoranda of agreements between Kawerak, Norton Sound Health Corporation, Alaska Native Medical Center and Division of Family and Youth Service were executed to implement their responsibilities under ICWA in a collaborative manner. Tribal court activity increased dramatically during these years with legal assistance from the Native American Rights Fund in Anchorage.
What the villages lacked in funding levels, they made up in their will and resolve to enforce their sovereign governmental authority, including protecting their member children’s birthright to be reared within the tribal community. Mary and her staff went on to provide training across Alaska on implementing the provisions of ICWA and asserting tribal authority within a hostile political state environment. These accomplishments established working relationships of honor and integrity, demonstrating the courage to take action on behalf of tribal members who could not speak for themselves.
The main responsibility of Mary’s position with LAMP was to lead community sessions on unresolved personal, family and community grief. Her public speaking engagements expanded into other areas such as promoting understanding between cultures, historical trauma and acculturation. She was invited to speak on these and other varied topics throughout Alaska and Northwest Washington. Mary developed excellent writing skills, which were incorporated into her work life and spiritual life. In addition, she helped many individuals and groups with writing projects.
The Lord gifted Mary with a love of singing that she shared at worship services, conferences, weddings and funeral services. Carl and Eloise Ahwinona nurtured her singing ability for which she was very grateful. She was also a good listener and helped people who called or came to her door seeking comfort or counsel. She had a heart for the marginalized, often quoting Mother Teresa’s words that the poorest of the poor were “Christ in His distressing disguise.”
While thankful it was Lutheran missionaries who came to her mother’s home community of Shishmaref, Mary was comfortable worshiping at any other Christian church. She was humbly thankful for having Christ in her life. She was also grateful for being around and working with elders who enriched her life and taught her many important lessons on how to live. She had a thankful attitude, having lived through hardship but coming through it victoriously by God’s hand. She was friendly, caring, and generous and enjoyed visiting with friends.
Of her immediate family, she is preceded in death by her parents Lester and Martha Keller, Andrew and Hannah Miller and eight of their children, (Jimmy, Gladys, Ed, Frankie, Ken, Harvey, Sharon, and Snowball) and Gary Cantrell (father of granddaughter Alexa).
Mary is survived by her husband Andrew Miller, son Jared Miller (and his spouse Kacey and children Maggie, Kellie and Jack), daughter Joan Miller and her daughter Alexa; brothers Larry (Nancy), Lester and Bill; sisters Louise Bauman, Wanda Asta Keller (Tom Panamaroff), Grace Minix (Michael) and their beloved families. Her in-laws are Roy and Carol Piscoya and family, Richard and Angela Miller and family, Barbara Miller and family, Marlin Miller, Nina Miller, Lilly Miller and their families.
Extended family include John and Mary Avessuk descendants (families of Glenna, Dora, Roy, Fred, Coolidge, Harriet, Frieda, Cassie and Martha); Iyatunguks, Nayokpuks, Weyiouannas, Kuzuguks, Asianggataq and her descendants; relatives of Edgar and Augusta Miller and a-Gu-tai-yuk. Joan Miller’s biological mother Annette Spivey and sisters Lavonne, Audrey and Lisa; Triggs and Martins, grandmother Laura Martin, and numerous aunts and uncles. Alexa Miller’s paternal grandmother Brenda Ahnangnatogak Evak, aunts Mary Nancy, Brenda, Sarah and Jamey and uncles Nathan and Johnny; the Mendenhall family, and the Norma Cantrell family of Bremerton, WA. Kacey Miller’s parents Russ and Julie Rolf of Dillingham and sister Keri and brother Kyle. Lester Keller, Sr.’s surviving siblings most of whom reside in Pennsylvania (Paul, Harold, Ernest, Harriet, Claire, JoAnne, Laura and their families). Becka and Chugie, Tony’s lovely daughters and his grandchildren.
Mary’s family gives special thanks to the kind and loving nursing staff (and Mel) at Providence Hospital Infusion Center in Anchorage. Thank you for attending to our needs with such dignity. To Dr. Joanie Hope, Melissa, Fran and your colleagues, our deepest gratitude for all that you did to help Mary. To Cynthia Watters now at Alaska Regional Hospital, your patient Mary became your friend. To the wonderful folks at ANMC Infusion Center, all patients are fortunate to be cared for by you. Thank you to the medical providers and staff at NSRH for being available the many times we came seeking help.
To family, friends, and relatives we say a heart felt thank you for the encouragement, kind words, and prayers which helped guide Mary on to her journey’s earthly end where Jesus took her hand and escorted her into eternal life on January 19, 2018.
God’s blessings to you all and peace to her memory.