Legacy of the Chief, Chapter 17, Pt 2:"Interview at
The view from near the Fairbanks Saloon, including
the Hotel Chitina to the north. --Cordova Museum
I grabbed a cue stick and stepped forward.
“Why don’t we enjoy these cigars first? I’m in no hurry to get
slaughtered like Frank was.”
“Sure, the game can wait. I’ll have your dollar soon enough. No one else
is waiting to get in on our action,” the Indian replied.
We sat back in the wood and leather chairs and lit up. I must say that
when one is in the middle of nowhere--and Chitina certainly
qualifies--that even a second-rate cigar tends to taste first-class when
there are no other choices.
I turned to the Indian.
“Can you tell me something about yourself?”
“Not much to tell. My father is a first generation Polish immigrant. He
met my mother at Copper Center during the rush of 1898. He was one of a
few hardy survivors who made it over the Valdez and Klutina Glaciers. I
was born in the village of Klaw-tee-kaw, near the Copper Center trading
post. Dad stayed in that area to trap. He was looking for gold, thinking
like all the other white men that he’d make it big time. He must have
panned every little stream in all directions from the Tazlina to the
Bremner. He made money off his trapping, but nothing much from his
“My grandfather was the renowned Chief Nicolai, the tyone of Taral.”
“I’m afraid I’ll have to reveal my ignorance. I never heard of the tyone
“I’ll tell you the short version of the real Ahtna Indian story. He was
a young man when the U.S. Government sent Henry Allen on an expedition
up the Copper River back in 1885. Allen expected to find Nicolai at
Taral, but Grandfather was up in the sheep country doing what he loved
the most, which was stalking Dall sheep. A prospector at Taral named
Bremner told the lieutenant that nothing good could happen without the
blessing of the chief.”
“Where is Taral?”
“Taral no longer exists, except as a spirit camp. It was across the
Copper River a few miles downstream from here. No one has lived there
since the railroad came.”
“Nicolai’s brother Skilly was at Taral. He agreed to lead Allen’s party
to C’ena’ tsedi, the chief’s winter home. Henry Allen must have been
really surprised to find that the great chief was a small man who was
Birds-eye view of downtown Chitina as it would have looked
in 1923: The billiards hall and card room is in the center.
“I know it’s hard to imagine now, but an eighteen-year-old really was
the tyone, which means supreme chief. All the other chiefs had learned
the hard way that Nicolai would stop at nothing to get his way. He
wasn’t a violent man, but he feared nothing--man nor beast.
“He was just plain powerful and forceful. He always backed his words
with action. No one else did that. Not like Nicolai. His words always
carried the greatest weight of any all his life.”
Johnny took a puff from the Dutch Master and leaned against the back of
the wooden bench.
“Besides, he controlled Taral at head of Woods Canyon, which is on the
way to Alaganik where our people traded with the Eyaks. No one could
pass Taral without stopping there and paying homage. Nicolai always made
sure of that. He had British guns from Hudson’s Bay Company. He was
known to fire upon our own people to warn them not to pass without
coming to shore first to pay the price of passing. One chief from
Mentasta tried to sneak by. He changed his mind in a hurry when Nicolai
fired those gunshots. Around here, everyone respects the Mentasta people
as the most warlike and dangerous. But Nicolai feared no one.”
I noticed that it was not getting very dark outside, even though the
hours were moving along. But the two-story buildings lining the street
were mostly dark and shadowy. Only the lobby of the Hotel Chitina was
lit. No one was out there. No trains sat at the depot, either. The town
was beginning to appear very eerie in the shadows of the evening, taking
on a sinister quality.
“Because Nicolai was of a slight build, he could never let any man think
there was any possibility of taking advantage of him. Several tried. No
one succeeded. He was physically powerful, but more than that, he had
nearly complete self-discipline and the self-assurance which comes with
“Our people up river always feared the Russians who they were certain
would return some day to take revenge for what the Mentasta and Slana
people did to the Russian expeditions. But they rested easier knowing
that Nicolai was guarding the river at Taral. Everyone knew he would die
before letting a Russian pass.”
Frank leaned forward, completely absorbed and fascinated by Johnny’s
“ I grew up in Chittyna, the Indian village up the hill. I visited
Grandfather Nicolai whenever I could. He was remarkable. He always
seemed to know everything going on around him. He treated me and my
brothers and sisters with kindness, even though some of us are
“He never said it in so many words, but he seemed to expect more out of
me than the others, except maybe for my brother Cap. He told me that
many of our people were not ready for the great changes, so it was up to
those of us who could to educate ourselves in the white man way. He
wanted our people to adapt to the new way without losing ourselves in
the white man’s world. He told me that I was given a great gift, and
that I owed it to the Creator to do the right thing for our people since
we now had to share our land with white people who do not understand
Johnny looked straight at Frank and me. He paused and re-lit his cigar.
“We’ve been forced into a world we never chose. We’re no different from
anyone else except that we know where we’re from. We’re tied to our
land. The white man is lost. He has not roots and no feel for the land.
He would rather rape it than try to live with it. We can live with the
white man, but not his foolishness. It’s been a hard-fought battle for
us, but we think we’re finally making some of you understand why you
can’t change us. You would not want to. We’re all that stands between
the white man and a world that would destroy him if he continues as he
The sound of a fiddle playing started coming through the wall from the
adjacent saloon. Along with it was the distant hum of people talking.
“You hear that? It’s a white man’s bar. They’re all white man bars. None
of us go in them. They won’t let us. Maybe it’s just as well.”
He paused long enough to listen to the tune through the walls.
“Our potlatch music sounds better. Where was I? Oh, yes.
“Grandfather said to me that I could not believe the leaders. Their
words, especially the ones written on paper, were usually no good. The
tough part was separating the good men from the bad. Some men are
sincere and want to understand us. Others are here only to take
advantage of us and destroy the land. Our people are humble and
trusting. They can be easily fooled.”
Summer & Winter views of early Chitina in 1910
--Van Cleve collection
He paused to look out the window. The buildings across the street had
become dark, forbidding outlines of something which appeared to stare
back at us with malice. The small town had taken on a distinctly
evil character with nightfall.
“Grandfather said it would do no good to hate the white man.
“Look at your father, he would say. Not all white men are bad. They were
born into their world as we were born in ours--a choice none of us made.
“He had a sense of how the world works that would put most white men to
shame. He knew how to make his knowledge and understanding count by his
own actions. He used to tell me if you say a word, you must follow it.
“We have been lied to by so many white men that it is easy to think we
are justified to defy him at every turn. That’s not what grandfather
taught us. He said that our word is everything, and our actions must
follow our words. Don’t let the lies of others become an excuse for you
to lie. And then he would say to me get your education, Sa’gaw’nee. We
are all watching you and waiting.
“So here I am. I had to fight a lot as a kid. Sometimes I still have to
fight. The white men on the railroad can show incredible stupidity
dealing with us Indians.”
“You work for the railroad?” I asked.
“I sure do. I always liked the railroad. It has not always done right by
us, but I like the iron machines. We call them the ket’chee ten’eh. They
are far more than just metal. Each one has its own spirit. I know every
one of them by the distinctive sounds of their whistles.”
The card room door opened. Two of the older men entered the room.
“I have to go, Sa’gaw’nee. The old woman wants my help on the fish wheel
“I have to find my son, Michael. I need his help. Have you seen him?”
“No, Sez’ae, I was expecting to see him tonight.”
The two walked stepped outside and turned right, heading toward the
Indian village west of Chitina, I assumed.
“The man looking for his son is Chief Goodlataw, my mother’s brother. I
grew up in his household. We call his son Cap.”
“The one you called your brother?”
“Cousin and brother mean the same to us. Cap and I work together on the
railroad. That other man is Doc Billum. You may have heard of him. He
was a friend of Nicolai’s.”
Hotel Chitina in 1911 --Van Cleve
Billum was a much older man with a poker-face. He was the one wearing
the tall top-hat. Doc Billum was completely expressionless, except that
his eyes revealed a rare depth of feeling. The younger man might have
been in this forties. He was intensely good-looking and a broad smile.
Both men had a strong charismatic aspect to themselves.
“Grandfather died because of the Spanish flu of 1918. Many of us have
fallen to the white man diseases, mostly tuberculosis, measles and
smallpox. Those of us who survived are stronger for it, but not
necessarily happier. Grandfather said that it must happen like this. He
told me that pestilence hits all peoples. It is one of the great trials
of life. Suffering and adversity allow the Creator to see who is worthy
Johnny paused for a long time. No one said anything until I finally
“You have obviously given much thought to your situation. What do you
plan to do next, Johnny?”
“I want to work at Kennecott, where my father Emil works. Frank has told
me that he will try to get me on there. Kennecott is not like the
railroad. It is not known to Natives, but Frank says that he has the ear
of the superintendent. I hope you do, Frank. I want to go there.
“I have spoken long enough. Talk to Frank now, so I can enjoy this
Johnny got up from the bench and walked into the card room in back.
“What a fascinating young man. How about yourself, Frank?”
“I’m a mining engineer. Kennecott has been going through some very
interesting times lately. Superintendent Bill Douglass contacted me at
Butte Montana, where I was working for Anaconda Copper. He asked me to
join his team here in Alaska. He worked at Butte some years back and
somehow found out about me from one of the engineers he knew from those
“I don’t know him personally, but he was well known around the Anaconda
Copper Mine at Butte. My superior, head engineer Bob MacIntire, told me
that this was the kind of opportunity that a young geologist like myself
should not miss. He said that Bill Douglass is first class, not just as
an engineer, but as a person. Bill was well liked and respected at
Butte. Douglass offered MacIntire the job, but he turned it down and
recommended me instead. Bill Douglass took MacIntire’s word, which was a
surprise to me, and offered me a position on the Kennecott engineering
“Kennecott is pulling out more ore than ever. You’ll probably see a full
ore train through here tomorrow heading toward Cordova. Douglass wrote
me that they’re running full trainloads six days a week, which is full
“So are you married, or do you have a family somewhere?” I asked.
“My parents are both gone now. I’m the only son, and I have no sisters.
I’m not married and I have no close relatives. Going on a remote
assignment like this is appealing to me since I have no ties, anyway.”
“What about your engineering background?”
“As I said, I’m a geologist. I was searching for new ore prospects at
Butte. We were always looking for new ore formations. I came straight
from the Colorado School of Mines. While I’m hardly the greatest
engineer, I did fine in mining school. I really enjoy being out in the
field. I grew up around gold mines. They fascinate me. I’m also a war
veteran. I’m one of the lucky ones to have lived through it. I learned a
lot about leading men as a young lieutenant over there.”
“How long do you intend to stay?”
“I love this country. So far, it’s what I expected and much more. This
is the most exciting place I’ve ever been. It’s like Wyoming, but more
intense. More raw, more, well, more everything. What can I say? You just
came from a trip which brought you right through the Alaska Range. You
saw part of it for yourself.
“Would I ever want to go anywhere else? I don’t know. But I know that
right now, this is the place that suits me.
“Even being here in this little obscure place called Chitina has been
exciting for me. I must tell you that this Native fellow Johnny Gakona
is remarkable. If I can help him up there at Kennecott, I certainly
will. He’s right, you know. He didn’t actually say it in so many words,
but we took this land from him and his people. We’ve tried to take their
language and their old ways from them by punishing their children in our
schools. Maybe we should be prepared to show more respect to these
Natives. I hate to imagine what some of them must really be thinking
each time a fresh new white guy like me comes into this territory doing
things to the land which they never imagined would happen.
“Dad taught me to respect them. After all, they had survived the land
long before any of us ever arrived. We really did those Indians in the
States considerable harm. The common thing among us whites is to ignore
these people like they don’t even exist. How arrogant can we be? I don’t
want any part of that attitude.”
Johnny walked back in through the card room door.
“I’ll bet you guys never thought an Indian could get this stuff!”
He had a full bottle of whiskey. Johnny reached behind the counter and
pulled out three glasses.
“I know what you’re thinking. We’re not going to pass the bottle around
Indian-style. After all, this is downtown Chittyna. It’s a classy place
here. Can’t you tell? And I’m not your average cigar store Indian.”
With that tongue-in-cheek remark, Johnny handed each of us a glass and
poured. Lifting his glass, he said:
“Cheers to you visitors. May you find what you seek here. Who has the
table? Time to get serious and put up your dollar!”