Chapter 13, Pt 2:
Birch and Johnny Gakona" - 1916
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The young man watched the elite party walk from the depot platform,
completely enthralled by the odd scene of so many well-dressed people on
the dusty streets of Chitina. He already knew that the Stephen Birch was
expected, but Johnny had never laid eyes on him. Something about the
sense of power which surrounded the Great Man fascinated him.The older
Indian looked upon the spectacle while revealing nothing in his
expressionless face. When they were both satisfied that they had seen
enough, they nodded at each other and stepped back inside the billiards
The no-name billiards hall was a common meeting ground used mainly by
the local Indians. Many other places in Chitina remained off-limits to
Indians and half-breeds. For this reason alone the older Indian seldom
entered town. He chose not to be a part of a system he considered unjust
and highly offensive.
But the no-name billiards hall had an unusually strong appeal because of
its function as a familiar gathering place for all the Indians,
attracting the elders, such as Nicolai, Eskilida and Doc Billum, who
would spend many hours gambling small sums in the card room in the rear
of the building. The billiards hall in front primarily served as a
meeting-place for the younger Natives. Smitty was a very accommodating
proprietor. A considerable amount of trade occurred at his place of
business, providing the old man and his much-younger wife Rita a
comfortable living for many years.
“It is Birch himself, Tsuuye He has brought his new bride to visit his
copper mines near our sheep-hunting country.”
The older man held a grudging admiration for Stephen Birch. He had met
Birch in the early days when the Great Man had just acquired the Bonanza
claims, and was in the process of attempting to prove the value of the
prospect as a lode mine worthy of the serious investment of a railroad
from Valdez to Bonanza. Only later was the port location changed to
Katalla and then, finally, Cordova.
Birch homesteaded the Chitina town site long before the railroad arrived
because he recognized its value as a key transshipment point. He made a
point of visiting the chief at Taral, just as Lt. Henry Allen had done
years before because he knew that no real peace was possible without the
assenting nod of the chief. Birch took great care to show respect for
the Nicolai. Whatever might have been the ultimate motivations of Birch,
he understood the extreme importance of granting the chief proper
recognition of his status.
Nicolai looked upon the railroad in the same way he viewed Birch. Birch
could be either a friendly or an evil power. His supremacy over the area
was subtle, but his far-reaching power was of a magnitude which could
easily threaten what remained of the way of life of Nicolai’s people.
The railroad was the most prominent symbol of the Great Man’s power.
The changes caused by the enormously rich copper mine and its railroad
forced the chief to re-examine the core of his traditional spiritual
beliefs. He could no longer look at his Creator in the same comfortable
way, for the chief’s very basic assumptions had been severely challenged
by these changes brought on by Birch and his railroad. Nicolai was
forced to seek answers deep within himself. Before the coming of the
white man, the elders had a traditional approach to every situation.
Hotel Chitina, 1910-1920 version --Lisa
Hotel Chitina , 1920-1940 version after additions
Those days were over. No one was prepared to deal with the world of the
white man. The tyone found himself standing almost alone in trying to
find a way to fit his people into the new world which had arrived with
the alarming speed of less than two decades. Some had adapted well to
the change. Men like Tom Bell or Doc Billum had learned to prosper with
the new opportunities while maintaining their Native ways. Regrettably,
most the others failed to adjust. These were the greatest victims of the
scourge of alcoholism, the disease which came from despair and a sense
It was typical of Nicolai to continually look for opportunities in the
midst of change. When the right moment came, he had two conditions ready
for Birch when the Great Man finally came to him for help to bring to an
end a potentially disastrous situation for the railroad in its relations
with the Indians. The first was that all the Indians living along the
railway should be able to ride the train within their traditional
hunting and fishing grounds without charge. The rails paralleled two
traditional routes which had once taken days to traverse. With the use
of the train, any of those same places could be reached in hours at
More important, Nicolai wanted the railroad to hire his people for the
seasonal maintenance work near Chitina. The railroad brought with it a
cash economy. Railroad employment allowed the Indian men to work for
cash for a few months every year. The arrangement worked out well for
both parties. Few Native men were inclined to work year-around, but many
desired seasonal employment as long as it did not interfere with their
hunting, trapping, fishing and other traditional activities. The spring
maintenance and rebuilding schedule required considerable manpower which
could readily be found within the ranks of the Native population. The
Native men of Chitina were hard-working and reliable, if only for those
few months of the year. That was all which was required.
Nicolai laid the matter very plainly and forcefully before the Great
Man. If he wanted to be assured the continued ability to operate in
peace in the Copper and Chitina River valleys, especially in light of
the clumsy manner in which the railroad had handled Indian relations by
allowing the desecration of the grave sites at Eskilida camp, he had
better concede to Nicolai’s requests. Birch weighed the alternatives and
quietly acceded to the demands. The chief got his way. The CRNW and the
Indians had become life-long partners.
Only a very few were aware that these things were made possible because
Nicolai and Birch worked together on the arrangements. The traditional
chief, much like Birch, preferred to remain in the background rather
than allow people to comprehend the true power which the chief silently
and expertly commanded.
Nicolai had long given up his role as formal leader of our people. Never
again would another Ahtna tyone emerge. Chief Goodlataw took over the
duties of Nicolai at Chittyna so effortlessly that Nicolai felt it was
safe for him to quietly vanish into the background. Yet Stephen Birch
found that only Nicolai had the power to help him when those early
problems between the railroad company and the Natives surfaced.
Doc Billum took the role of chief at Tonsina. Billum was an Indian
capitalist of the first magnitude who made a small fortune due to his
Copper River ferrying service and his ability to trade goods and
services the white man wanted in return for anything from cash to
whiskey to favors. Like Nicolai, Doc Billum realized very early that
with the coming of the white man, new opportunities abounded for the
clever Native bargainer. It was the rare man, Native or white, who was
able to gain the upper hand on Doc Billum, who soon became the most
practiced of any Indian in the art of trade.
Billum’s most notorious deal became known as the Billum lode fiasco. He
sold rights he never had to a prospect that amounted to nothing--much
like the Nicolai Prospect--for a sizable amount of tobacco, rifles,
whiskey and cash.
Recognizing the lure of old Indian legends made up mainly by white men,
Billum created his own version of the more famous Nicolai Prospect, by
inventing another “old Indian legend” about an exposed copper vein which
was said to be “richer than the Nicolai lode,” and which could be found
well up the Kotsina River in a place known only to Doc Billum.
He sold the entire bill of goods to a group of prospectors who thought
they were tricking Billum into giving away a fortune in copper mining
claims. A copper showing did indeed exist, but it was nothing more than
copper stain on the rocks, typical of many of the outcroppings in the
area. Billum had no true claim to that worthless piece of ground at all.
He had trapped the area in his youth when he stumbled upon it. Doc’s
knowledge paid off. The greedy prospectors were too embarrassed to admit
that they had been fooled by a “siwash” Indian whom they thought they
themselves had swindled. They never admitted that the claim was
worthless and never demanded their money and goods back from Doc Billum.
Johnny took a shot on the billiards table.
“Will I be able to meet him?”
“He will be here. Be patient. He will come alone.”
The younger man beat his grandfather handily at the game. Nicolai
decided it was time to return to the card game in the back room where he
almost always won. About that time Tom Bell entered. He was finally off
for the day now that the train arrived which included the diner car
where Tom worked. Tonight he would be home, for his wife lived in
Tom was ready. The billiards game was on.
“Ready to shoot a good player, Johnny?”
“Ready to lose, Tom? One dollar and you’re on.”
Tom threw a silver coin on the table.
“You’re on, foolish one.”
“We’ll see who’s the fool. How was Cordova, Tom?”
“Miserable, as usual. Too misty and cool even in the best Cordova
Tom took a shot to break the rack of balls. None fell into the pockets.
“It’s open, Johnny.”
“So I see, Tom. What’s it like, serving those elite big-whigs?”
Johnny looked over the table of scattered balls carefully until he
determined a path of attack. He began placing a series of shots until he
missed on the fifth ball. He had been careful to leave Tom no openings.
“Good run, Johnny. The elites? They’re just like anyone else, except
they have more money and think they own the world. Birch even gave a
toast to his success in conquering this land. What nonsense. He has a
tough lesson coming.
“But that’s white man’s foolishness. I just give them what they ask,
stay out of their way, and say nothing. Even played cards with Mrs.
Birch. She’s good at poker, but she’s mean and underhanded. It shows in
her card-playing. I beat her anyway.”
Tom realized that Johnny had blocked his path at all points. He tried a
desperate maneuver on the table, but missed, failing to drop even one
ball. In the process, he gave Johnny the opening the young man had
“So that was her with the Great Man?”
` “Mr. Birch you mean? That’s his wedding party out there. Did you see
the big new train? Special for him. Special car, new engine.”
“I heard the different whistle and saw it pull in. Quite a sight.
Johnny took one shot and then another. He began to clean the balls off
the table. Tom could see he was going to lose his dollar. This kid was
an expert at his chosen game. That was clear.
Chitina Depot -- F.C. Mears, 84-80-54N, UAF AK & Polar