|Chapter Seven, "The Deal," from "Legacy |
of the Chief"
Skolai Nicolai of Taral
|This is my personal account. We don't |
know what really happened. All we have are the stories. There is the
official history which would make one believe that Nicolai was a fool
who traded access to an unimaginable fortune in high-grade copper for a
cache of food.
The there is our story--the one handed down over
the generations that tells us of the truly desperate situation which
Nicolai saw and the deal he felt he had to make for his people in order
that they could survive.
What transpired in the small and very ancient village of Taral--now a
deserted and forbidden place occupied only by the spirits--could be
considered one of the most notorious trades of all times. For it is true
that the prospector party who made the deal ultimately made a great deal
of money from the Guggenheims. As for the money they made, well, in
today's terms it would be in the billions of dollars.
To this day people do not understand that Nicolai did the best he
could possibly do for his people, and in his own way he succeeded. All
of his demands were ultimately met, although mostly after his death.
Nicolai withdrew from everyone after he made this deal. He literally
disappeared into the mists of time. The events surrounding his death are
mostly a matter of speculation among historians. They are sure he died
in 1900. They are wrong.
Nicolai lived almost as a hermit in Taral until many years
later--choosing to stay completely out of sight because he too feared he
had made the wrong choices. He had not. He had done the only thing he
could do and he had made a lasting peace in the process --a peace which
was unknown among the stateside tribes who mostly were destroyed by the
deadly effects of the inevitable encroachment of the European society.
Yet Nicolai set the tone for a permanent peace between the interior
people and the U.S. military and the people who followed that was
honored by all the interior Athabascans.
In the end, he probably saved his people far more than he ever
So it finally came down to this. The three white men who called themselves
the McClellan Company, headed by a fellow named Edward Gates,
and also including James McCarthy and Art McNeer, appeared at the camp
of Chief Nicolai, Tyone of Taral, with their intentions clearly stated.
Fourteen years before, Lieutenant Henry Allen found Nicolai in his winter camp
on Dan Creek. Nicolai called this land the Tsedi Na. The white men changed that to
Chittyna before finally settling on Chitina--Copper River. It was the
tsedi. They wanted the copper.
But not just any copper. An abundance of copper nuggets--some of them
quite substantial--could be found in the creek bottoms of the glacial
steams in the area. This type of nugget was called float by the white
men. It is just a showing. Had the metal been gold--a mineral of
considerable value--they might have contented themselves with what they
could find in the streams. After all, Stephen Birch and his brother
Howard did well in the gold-placer business on Dan Creek. But this was
copper. The highest copper value was about twenty cents a pound at a
time when gold was about twenty dollars an ounce. Typical white men.
They wanted more. Copper was only potentially valuable in our remote
area as a high-grade metal in massive quantities.
Was there a mother lode in the Wrangell Range?
They wanted the source. They knew there had to be one. Where was it?
What would it take to convince one of you to lead us to the source?
The lieutenant had once asked.
“I see copper everywhere. I see it in the streams. It’s in your
bullet casings and your arrows and spears. Is there anything like this
in the hills?”
The lieutenant held up a piece of rock sitting along the wall inside the
tyone’s lodge. It was obviously chipped out of a larger piece. It
contained hues of bright green and blue. It was not rounded like those
which could be found in the creek beds.
We used these pieces for arrowheads.
The chief turned toward the hills across the Nizina River. He pointed in
the direction of his favorite hunting area toward the north across the
Nicolai’s brother Skilly told us grandchildren this story. Skilly led
the U.S. Army party to Nicolai’s camp. He told us that all of the white
men turned silent upon watching Nicolai make that simple pointing motion
and say those few words. It was as if they had found the location of
something holy. When he finally asked Nicolai to describe the place,
Nicolai waved him off and told him that it was time to feast. Nicolai
sensed that he had just done something he might later regret. He did not
discuss the location with a white man again until 1899.
The lieutenant only wanted to know that such a source existed. He was
not a prospector. He was just the head of a small expedition that came
to assess the attitude of the Natives toward the government, map the
region, and do some preliminary geological investigations. That was the
end of that. Or so the chief hoped.
This early meeting, however, was only the beginning of a series of
government expeditions. Then came the small independent prospecting
activities fueled by considerable speculation as to the value and
location of the copper lodes in the Wrangells.
Over the next fourteen years, the legend of a rich vein of copper which
was now reinforced by this early encounter between Nicolai and Allen,
would grow. Then came the white incursion of 1898-99 by way of the
Now they were once again at Nicolai’s door at what would soon be the
last true remaining Native village in our lower river area from the old
days, Taghaelden--otherwise known as Taral. Nicolai was still the
supreme chief. After that last embarrassing incident at Tonsina, the
people of Nicolai sheepishly began to filter back in, just as Goodlataw
had said they would. Fishing and hunting activities resumed with a
greater enthusiasm than ever. But it was late in the year. There was so
little time and the game remained scarce. The fish stopped running.
Starvation appeared to be inevitable unless the game which had been
absent all summer suddenly appeared in the frigid depths of the winter.
The timing could not have been better for Edward Gates and the other
prospectors. Nicolai headed a group of deathly-appearing people who were
beginning to resemble some of those early prospectors who came into
A white man with a cache of food was in a strong bargaining position. Ed
Gates and his party laid out their proposal simply enough. They had a
full season’s cache of food for their party which they had stashed
earlier along the Bremner River. They would consider splitting it up
with Nicolai’s people in return for access to the lode which was known
only by a handful of Ahtna Natives.
The first indications of the impending starvation had already set in.
The white man diseases were beginning to take their toll as well. The
game was scarce and the supply of salmon was nearly gone. The white men
had entered the area in force. With them had come an unending supply of
alcohol. Even if winter game moved in, little doubt remained as to who
would get most of it. The future of the Ahtnas was in doubt. Too much
had changed too quickly.
Most of those who had crossed the river to live on the west bank, with
the relatively easy access to white men’s goods and especially whiskey,
had changed their outlook. The Ahtnas listened to their tyone only when
it suited them. His word no longer carried the weight it once had. For
many, the old ways of life had become nothing more than a memory.
The future had been laid out for all to see. It was a white man’s
society. Life was about grow easier. The time was coming when it would
no longer necessary that everyone hunt, trap, and fish as before. The
new society had brought in the goods that made life a measure easier as
long as money could be obtained. Trapping for valuable pelts and guiding
for rich trophy-hunters became more important than hunting and
traditional trapping and fishing. Guiding in those early days was
particularly lucrative. Many Indians would be able to benefit from their
intimate knowledge of the Wrangells and the Copper River valley.
In Nicolai’s old society, a strict class structure existed. At the very
top was the tyone , then came his chiefs, their warriors and their lead
hunters. In a class of their own were the solitary sleep-doctors. They
were in a world of their own, and would quietly survive the white system
which would destroy the tyone.
At the bottom were the young men, followed by the women and children. At
least they were valued and protected. They had no voice in the
activities of the clan. Several clans existed in the valley. Nicolai’s
Raven clan was dominant when Lieutenant Allen first ascended the Copper
River. Each clan had its own village or camp and was headed by its own
chief. Room existed for only one tyone. He, above all else, represented
The old class system crumbled rapidly with the coming of the white man.
The women began to see many of their own men as mainly drunk and largely
useless. They began assuming more of the traditional male roles in order
to preserve their families. In the early days only a few of the women
participated in the drinking, but almost all of the men did. In a few
generations the women began taking control of the villages.
The villages became more important than the clans. The old clan ways
began to disappear along with the elders and their system headed by the
Despite the worst fears of the tyone, there is something in the nature
of being an Indian which just would not go away. The old system was
doomed, but the Indians would always be Indians. One day, the pride
which was so badly damaged in these early days of the intrusion of the
white man, would begin to seep back in. One day, the spirit which was
Nicolai would begin to return.
In the winter of 1899 the breakdown of the clan system was apparent
everywhere. Much to the embarrassment of the chief, it was equally
obvious to the white prospectors. On that particularly fateful day in
midwinter, the prospectors simply showed up. They had worked their way
up the river ice from the Bremner area to the south.
Nicolai’s lode. The tyone had never thought of it that way. This was
what those prospectors wanted. They even named the legendary copper
after him. The chief had never been all that impressed with what the
white men had to offer, though he loved the rifles, the blankets and the
rice. He had also developed a taste for the tea. The rice complemented
the moose meat and the fish well. Not long ago all this could be
obtained by trading in the old way, indirectly through the Eyaks, first
with the Tlingits, then the Russians, and finally the early Americans.
No more. The merchants had arrived at his very doorstep.
The offer was something to consider. James McCarthy insisted that it was
a very large cache which they had drug over the pass the entered the
Tasnuna River. Half of it could be his for almost nothing but some