01 November 2010

Ch 6, Pt 1: "Nicolai's Anger," from "Legacy of the Chief"

Chapter 6, Pt 1: "Nicolai's Anger" 
from "Legacy of the Chief"

Nicolai v2

The Great Tyone, Skolai Nicolai  --AMHA

The tyone was slow to anger. He had
been building up to this for some time. Nicolai was visibly angry and
made no attempt to hide his emotions. Never had he seen such a
disappointing salmon run. The women and children kept their distance
from him. His temper was legendary. It seemed best to leave Nicolai
alone when he was in this sullen mood which could quickly flash into a
fearsome display of rage.

The extensive fish-trapping operations in the Copper River delta area on
the far side of the Chugach Range, encouraged by the presence of
large-scale cannery operations at Orca Inlet, were taking their toll.
Nicolai was aware of the canneries, but did not realize until much later
that the fish traps would have a drastic effect on the Copper River
salmon runs.

Salmon was always dependable when game was scare. This year the game
seemed to have vanished. A huge number of whites coming down the
Klaw’tee na had overwhelmed the small number of Ahtnas in Chief
Stickwan’s territory. The white prospectors had taken their rifles into
the wilderness along both banks of the Copper River and decimated the

netting salmon
The extensive
fish-trapping operations in the Copper River delta area on the
south side of the Chugach Range, encouraged by the presence of
large-scale cannery operations at Orca Inlet, were taking their
toll.  Nicolai was aware of the canneries, but did not
realize until much later that the fish traps would have a
drastic effect on the Copper River salmon runs.
A Native girl
using a spruce root net to dip net on the Copper River --AMHA,
Richard M. Jones, B82.51.36

The first indications that things were changing were the incessant
smoke-filled skies caused by a series of forest fires. The smoke
emanated from area centering on the lake at the base of Klutina Glacier.
The word had spread quickly that large numbers of trees had been cut by
an ongoing invasion of prospectors in the upper western reaches of the
valley. Forest fires were becoming commonplace, causing the first
disruptions to the local game. Nicolai was always wary of smoke-filled
skies. He knew all too well the prophetic raven story which warned of
times which would be marked by events such as this.

It had not taken long before some of these prospectors began extending
beyond Stickwan’s area into the lower valley which was controlled by
Nicolai. These men seemed to be searching for everything, but gold was
on the top of the list. Persistent rumors that gold had been found up
the Nizina valley near the traditional home of Nicolai brought the first
wave of these men into the Chitina River area. The newcomers were
welcomed for the items they offered to trade for salmon, furs and even
game meat, but it soon Nicolai’s people were overwhelmed by the huge
numbers of whites.

White men’s clothing, guns, tobacco, tea, and cooking implements became
common. But so did other things, such as smallpox, tuberculosis, and

Nicolai watched all this activity from the relative safety and isolation
of Taral. He had warned his people at every opportunity to stay away
from the whiskey. Perhaps the diseases could not be avoided, but the
effects of the whiskey could.


The white men are well practiced in the art of trading. They know how to make us look like fools. They have no regrets for what they do 
and they treat us as if we were children. 

It would be best not to trade with them at all. If you must have whiskey, you should only trade for the fish or the game which you and your family can spare. But it is far better that you share with your less fortunate neighbor than trade for whiskey with the whites. If 
 they ask you to show them gold or copper for whiskey, better that you flee than make a deal with the white devil spirits. They care nothing for us or for our ways. They claim to be our friends, but they do not know what that means

Summer had moved into fall. Winter was on the way. Not enough salmon had
been caught for the tyone to sustain his people over the coming winter.
He began dispatching his hunting parties into the distant mountains in a
futile search for more game. The hunting parties came back with very
little except the news that prospecting camps had sprung up everywhere
in the Nizina valley. The tyone watched his hunting area diminish
drastically as the whites moved in.

Nicolai would have gone out to head the hunting parties himself, except
that the early beginnings of the influx of whites into his area was
becoming a matter of great concern to him. He felt that he should not
leave his women and children alone at a time when so many prospectors
were pouring into the country.

The hunting parties were not successful. Lately they had not even been
returning to Taral or Tonslahti. The chief came to believe that some
other force he could not quite see was at work. Perhaps is was the
c’uniis which had entered with the whites, or even Yaabel himself. The
men who returned remained silent. They avoided work. Instead they seemed
anxious to head upriver into the white man’s new settlement areas,
especially the trading post at the Lower Tonsina.

Doc Billum home
Doc Billum's
home at Lower Tonsina
.  --Candy Waugaman Collection


The moment the boat entered the Tonsina River channel the men could hear the drum beats. 
Nicolai stepped off the boat first. Billum followed him. The younger ones
stayed with the craft. In the advancing shadows of the northern Chugach
Range, Nicolai spotted several new log cabins he had never before seen.
The noise of drum beating grew louder as the two men walked up the path.
Soon they could hear the loud singing of several drunken people. With
the sun dipping below the tall Chugach ridge just beyond Billum’s
landing, it had become chilly, but a brightly burning fire was just
ahead. A large number of men and several women, both white and Native,
were dancing and singing to songs which Nicolai had never heard.
Nicolai was obviously not the chief there. The white devil spirit's whiskey 
was the only chief.

Taral Creek had created a small promontory as it flowed into the Copper
River which allowed a commanding view of the river in both directions.
It was low-lying, sandy and grassy. The brush along the main shore was
thick enough to offer some protection from the winds which swept up the
valley, but Nicolai sat beyond the protection of the brush on a drift
log beached at the edge of the promontory. He had built a fire earlier
to keep the chill off. It had finally turned to hot coals, which he idly
stirred. He reached over to grab another log to throw on the fire. The
constant light breeze helped keep the fire alive. Even though the breeze
was uncomfortable, the fire helped alleviate the sting of the cold winds
which blew glacier dust and sand in his face.

He peered in the direction of Woods Canyon, observing Eskilida’s fish
camp on the west bank. Eskilida’s grandsons had cleared the area off,
leaving a good view of two caches on poles and three small cabins by a
large fire pit. He had seen no activity either there or at the camp
farther down the river in days. Nicolai could hear nothing except the
constant sound of the Copper River. He detected no shouting, no drum
beats, nothing.

Taral view
down river toward Woods Canyon, Copper River, CRNW Railway
surveyed right-of-way on the right, Taral on the left (east
--Julie Sweeney Collection, 97-139-667, UAF Archives

The most distant camp could only be seen late at night when the fire
burned in the pit. He had seen no fires in that direction since early in
the season. Because most of the Indians who once lived on the east side
had now moved to the west bank, having became attracted to whatever the
white man had to offer, these camps were usually busy with activity. Not
now. All the people seemed to have vanished along with the game Nicolai

Nicolai turned from the river to look up the bank toward the small row
of cabins which was his domain. He was the only adult male at Taral. The
rest were women and children, including those of his son Goodlataw, who
was also absent. Some of men were off in a hunt up the Hanagita River,
but most had crossed the Copper River in the last few months and had not
returned. Nicolai reluctantly concluded that it was time he saw for
himself what was happening in the much larger world which existed
somewhere beyond his limited range of vision across the Copper River.

Nicolai had no boats left at Taral, but his old ally Doc Billum would be
coming by soon with one of his boats on Billum’s routine run to check on
the many fish camps. Nicolai sat out on the wind-swept promontory so he
could spot the boat early and signal it in case the Doc failed to head
in his direction.

Doc Billum was tall and imposing, towering well above Nicolai. Most men
deeply respected and even feared the Doc, but Billum had long since
recognized that Nicolai, who was a shorter and somewhat younger man, was
more formidable, even though not ordinarily threatening by nature. The
two had developed a respect and liking for each other that would last a
lifetime, though they rarely had an opportunity to visit each other
until the later years when most everyone would move to the more
convenient location of Chittyna village.

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