Raven’s Witness: The Alaska Life of Richard K. Nelson

Raven’s Witness: The Alaska Life of Richard K. Nelson
By Hank Lentfer; Foreword by Barry Lopez


2020 Banff Mountain Book Award Winner – Grand Prize

2020 Banff Mountain Book Award Winner – Mountain Literature


Writing a biography about a personal friend, as Hank Lentfer has done for Richard Nelson, has special challenges. After listening to Richard Nelson’s stories over a number of years, Lentfer pressed him to write them down before they disappeared with him. “I’ll never do it. I’m done writing,” Nelson replied, to which Lentfer responded “I’m not, let me do it.” These simple, and likely spontaneous words led to years of research, interviews, writing, reviews and editing. The result was well worth it: Raven’s Witness not only introduces Richard Nelson to those of us who had not heard of him, but more importantly it lays bare the philosophies that he embraced, that will likely be important for the future of humanity.


Born in Wisconsin in 1941, Richard developed an early interest in nature, spending his free time outdoors studying every manner of life that he could find in the ponds and ditches around his home. His parents encouraged his obsession, allowing him to fill his room with crates, boxes and tanks, which eventually expanded to fill the garage and forced his parents to park in the driveway. His academic achievements in English, math and speech, however, amounted to a string of D’s by the seventh grade. As he neared the end of his high school years, his written English had deteriorated even further to become his worst grades, with three D’s and an F in a writing course. This, from an individual who would go on to become a PhD Anthropologist and a best-selling author and media commentator. Unaware of his private interests and journaling, Richard’s high school career counselor recommended that he enlist in the army in order to “create structure in his life.”


Instead, Richard enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, where he was initially under academic probation and the threat of expulsion. Yet, he was still unable to muster the required interest in English, math and philosophy. That is, until he was allowed to enrol in a senior natural history course, in which he scored the highest grade in the class. At last, under the influence of teachers and mentors who could see his potential, he applied himself with an essay titled ‘The Forgotten Prairie.” Not only did this earn him his first A in English since elementary school, but the essay found its way to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior who saw its potential to support the creation of a Prairie National Park.


In 1964, right after receiving his Bachelor of Science degree, Richard Nelson was offered, and took an assignment in a remote village on the northwest coast of Alaska, a State where he would spend much of his life working in what he called ‘participatory anthropology.’ He learned early on to become a good listener to the various Alaskan indigenous people that he found himself among, and several times he expressed the thought that they should be sending teachers into the outside world, not vice versa. Unlike many of his academic peers, he felt that it was necessary not just to watch, record and compare, but to participate. Only by actually doing a task could it be properly understood in context. When invited to create a TV series on the Koyukon Indians of North Central Alaska, he insisted that the people themselves create and control almost every aspect of the production. The eventual series of five half-hour films, narrated by Barry Lopez, were produced in 1987 and are freely available on YouTube under the umbrella title ‘Make Prayers to the Raven.’


After a number of successful books, Richard Nelson turned to radio, where he hosted a half-hour show for ten years called ‘Encounters.’ In each episode he got close to some aspect of the Alaskan Wild, where he related his experiences in an intense stream-of-consciousness narrative, as fluent as the best sports reporter but with much more to say. Some of these episodes are still available as podcasts, with ITunes releasing one each week nearly two years after Nelson’s death. You can find some of these podcasts and other material on the Encounters North website at: https://www.encountersnorth.org/.


The book began a little slowly for me, but as I progressed it became increasingly engaging, leading to an appreciation of why it had won the Grand Prize at the 2020 Banff Mountain Book Festival. I especially appreciated being introduced to the many written, audio and visual works that are Richard Nelson’s legacy. The world can only benefit from his learnings and teachings, and on that account I recommend this book.




‘Raven’s Witness: The Alaska Life of Richard K. Nelson’ by Hank Lentfer; Foreword by Barry Lopez; Mountaineers Books, 2020; 256 pages; Hardcover; Retail $24.95 U.S.; ISBN: 978-1-68051-307-3



Publisher Information:



Raven’s Witness: The Alaska Life of Richard K. Nelson

256 pages

Publisher: Mountaineers Books

ISBN: 978-1-68051-307-3

Published: Jul 7, 2020


$24.95 U.S.









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