09 November 2010

Ch 17, Pt 1: "Interview at Chitina"

Legacy of the Chief,
Chapter 17, Pt 1: "Interview at Chitina"

Hotel Chitina

Early view of the Hotel Chitina, Ed S. Orr Stage Lines
office in background, now the Chitina NPS visitor center cabin

--courtesy of the late Bruce Haldeman

It had been a very arduous journey from Fairbanks,
working through an endless series of mosquito-infested mud bogs down the
Richardson and Edgerton Trails to reach dusty Chitina, a railroad town
located 131 miles from Cordova. John DeHaviland, the free-lance writer
finally took his long-awaited bath in the relative luxury of the
Breedman’s Hotel Chitina, followed by what he considered a truly first
class meal in Breedman’s Restaurant. The hotel was empty of guests. It
had dozens of rooms, but few were occupied. The lobby was empty, lacking
even an on-duty clerk. That function was being handled by the waiter in
the restaurant. John decided to see if any night life existed in the
small town of less than 200 people.

All was quiet in the hotel, so this roving writer headed for the one
place that appeared to have some action on this midsummer night. Across
the main business street, which is dusty avenue that has been torn up by
a procession of heavy wagon and car wheels, is a block containing a
saloon and a billiards hall and card room. The street appears to end
just three blocks beyond that at the Commercial Hotel. Nothing else
appeared to be happening elsewhere along the avenue.

ghost town Chitina 1953

The ghost town of Chitina, 1953: The Fairbanks (later
Trimm's) Saloon and the card room are on the right.
McCutcheon Collection, 6-2481-53

The narrow billiards hall has two large plate-glass windows facing south
toward the Chitina Cash Store. The store was dark, but a peek through
the windows revealed an extensive, well-stocked general store of the
type once common everywhere in the old west prior to the turn of the
century. Just behind the store is the railroad depot. The depot faces
Town Lake and Spirit Rock, a rounded basalt dome several hundred feet in
height, which shoots nearly straight up on the other side of Town Lake,
dominating the small town’s south view.

A single billiard table dominated the narrow front area. Along the back
wall is some kind of service bar--though there was no liquor in sight,
and I don’t believe that this place was a licensed liquor establishment.
Just beyond is a door leading into a small a private card room. The
grizzly looking old man who calls himself Smitty told me that the poker
game in the rear was full. A quick look inside the smoky room confirmed
it. The card room was full of older Indian men seriously involved in a
game of poker. One of them wore a tall top hat. All of them looked at me
for a brief moment, then returned to their business at the table.

In front were men in their mid-twenties shooting for money at the
billiards tables. The young Native shot like a professional. He looked
up from a series of moves he appeared to be contemplating, walked over
to me and introduced himself.

“My name is Johnny Gakona. Haven’t seen you here before, but many people
pass through this town, then continue on. Welcome to Chittyna.”

He pronounced it Chit-tee-nah. That must be the original Indian word. I
have heard it only as Chit-nuh from the white men.

“I’m John DeHaviland. I just came down the Edgerton on Orr Stage Lines.
Where’s all the action, tonight?”

“This is a quiet town. You won’t see much here. But, you came to the
right place. Put up your money, and you can play the winner.”

“Pardon me, but you look like a pro. It looks to me like your planning
several shots in advance.”

“I always do that. Learned it from my grandfather. He taught me to plan
my moves ahead. It works. Seldom lose that way. This is my opponent. I
just met him before you showed up. As I said, you might as well join

The other man stepped foreword.

“Buckner, I’m Frank Buckner, originally from Wyoming. Glad to meet you

Please join us. Not much else to do tonight unless you’re a poker
player--or a drinker.”

“I’ll be pleased and honored to join you, even though I suspect I don’t
stand much of a chance against this Indian pro. Any cigars here?”

“You’re in luck,” the grizzly old man answered. “The train brought in a
fresh selection.”

“How about one for myself and one for each of these gentlemen? Three of
your finest,” I said, probably too expansively. “By the way, I’m John

“They call me Smitty,” he said as he held out a box for my perusal. I
saw nothing really fancy there, but I took three of the Dutch Masters.

“That’ll be sixty cents for the three of ‘em.”

It seemed high-priced for what I was getting, but I took them without
saying more, and turned back towards the billiards players. Smitty
disappeared into the card room, leaving me alone with the other two men.

dog teams / Overland Hotel

Bakery, Overland Hotel, Fairbanks Saloon and the card room /
billiards hall, circa 1913
 --courtesy of the late Bruce Haldeman

“What brings you to our remote part of the world?” the Indian asked.

“I’m a free-lance writer. I travel a lot and do special stories of wide
interest for the San Francisco Examiner and other papers. My specialty
is what I call the rise and demise of the American west--you know, gold
rushes, opening new territory, following the politicians, the judges and
others who help shape it into what it is. I came up to Alaska pursuing a
story on President Harding’s visit.”

“Our land is not shaped by politicians and judges. My people have been
here for thousands of years before the white man ever even knew we
existed. White settlers and prospectors and railroad men live among us
now. They’ve been here for the last twenty-five years. We’ve accepted
that, because they’re far more numerous than us. But we want nothing to
do with their politicians, or their judges, or their lawyers.”

Johnny Gakona took a shot. He missed. It looked like a deliberate miss
to me. The other man stepped forward to shoot. Johnny continued.

“The politicians and others of their kind have never brought anything
good to us. They don’t live here. Let them try to live here. We still
live much as we did before the railroad. Those people don’t know us, or
understand us, or care if we even exist.”

He held up the unlit cigar I handed him.

“By the way, thanks for the cigar,” he said as he made another shot.

“None of us, even the whites, want to hear about politicians or judges
or any of those others who think they can do what they want with our


An articulate Indian. Not
many of them to be found. I just found a good story.


“I hope you don’t mind me writing this down. This might be a good

“Write what you want. I can’t stop you.”

“You don’t have to talk, though. Many Indians won’t talk to us reporters
or writers.”

“I like it when the white man listens. Just can’t help myself.”

He made a calculated shot and dropped a ball, and then another. Then he
missed. Frank stepped forward with his cue stick, then looked up at me.

“This is all new to me. I just traveled up from Butte, Montana. I’m
fresh to this territory. I think there’s a word for that.”

“Cheechako. That’s what we call you newcomers.”

“That’s it. When does one become something else?”

“You mean a sourdough? In your case, never.”

Johnny chuckled and took another shot. He landed it.

“What about you Indians?”

Commercial Hotel & horses

Main Street, Chitina, showing the Commercial Hotel   
--AMHA  B71.X.5.37

“Call us what you like, but don’t call us cheechako, or sourdough, or

He paused for a moment.

“I would stay away from siwash as well. That word might prove painful to

He looked straight at me, then turned his attention to the table. He
missed the shot. Frank stepped up to the table.

“When I was a kid growing up in Wyoming, Dad taught me to respect the
people who were here before us. I met a few of them. None spoke as
clearly and readily as Johnny.”

The ball stopped short of the pocket. That gave Johnny the opening he
needed. He landed the eight ball and extended his hand to Frank. They
shook hands and Frank handed the Indian a dollar coin. Johnny signaled
to me.

“You’re up.”

Continue with Part 2 of 

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