Bethel remembers the life of renowned aviator Robert Sundown

Robert Sundown funeral
The community gathered at the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center to celebrate and honor the life of Robert Sundown on May 23, 2023 in Bethel, Alaska. (MaryCait Dolan/KYUK)

A standing-room-only crowd filled Bethel’s Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center on Tuesday as people gathered to remember the life of Robert William “Panigkaq” Sundown. He passed away unexpectedly on April 15 at the age of 53, while on a moose hunt south of Russian Mission.

More than 200 people stood by as members of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Honor Guard came from across the country to perform the ceremonial folding and presentation of the flag. Sundown was with the agency for more than 22 years. Sundown’s family members performed a traditional yuraq dance in his honor.

Sundown was born on March 27, 1970 to Teddy and MaryAnn Sundown of Scammon Bay. He graduated as class valedictorian from Scammon Bay High School in 1988, and in 1994 earned a degree in biology from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Sundown moved to Bethel in the 1990s, where he worked as a subsistence resource specialist and then as a law enforcement officer and pilot for the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. He also worked as a commercial pilot, flight instructor and search and rescue pilot. Sundown was a longtime advocate for improvements to aircraft flight warning systems.

Longtime friend Charles Rodgers spoke at the memorial.

“Everybody that flew with Robert Sundown felt safe. He made sure that you were comfortable, and he made sure that you were gonna have an uneventful flight,” Rodgers said.

Sundown is survived by his wife of 22 years, Nili Sundown, and three children. Nili Sundown was born in Israel, and she and Robert first got to know each other when she was a photographer working for The Delta Discovery in Bethel.

“We did a lot of things not knowing we exist. And one day we met, and that day changed my life,” Nili said.

The pair were married in 2001 at the Catholic Church in Bethel, with both Catholic and Jewish wedding ceremonies.

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