Chapter 7, part 2: "The Deal," from "Legacy of the Chief"
But Nicolai understood that far more was at stake. Here he was, in the
position of those east-coast Indians of so long ago who had been asked
to trade a piece of land for a few trinkets. Nicolai did not want to be
known forever as the Indian who traded away his land for a few trinkets.
He did not understand the white concept of ownership, but he suspected
that land was the real issue. There was no way for Nicolai to understand
the true value of the copper, but there was no doubt that the white men
wanted it badly. He knew that if the white men wanted it that much,
there must be something to it, though he did not understand what it was.
But it all came down to the land. It was not a good sign. He was no
longer in a position to worry about whether some was engii. He had to
Nicolai had prepared himself for this moment ever since the Tonsina
incident. Now he would use his finest bargaining skills. Doc Billum was
known to be a natural trader. Nicolai would have to do better than the
Doc. He had known that someday they would come to him, expecting him to
simply grant what they asked for very little in return.
“I know that you are here to stay and that you will not go away. Nor
will we go away. We have always been here and we will always be here.
One day, you may leave, but we will not. This is the only home we have
known. Our ancestors are buried here. This land is our life. It has
always provided for us.”
“It has failed you.”
“Only because you white people have driven out the game and trapped
the fish at the mouth of the great river, leaving little for us.”
“How would you know that?”
“I am a sleep-doctor. No one told me, but I know.
“You want the tsedi. We have interest in your cache.
“So we have much to discuss. Sit around the fire in the lodge with
me, and we will talk. Hanagita, Skilly and Eskilida are inside, as is my
Ed Gates spoke for the group.
“We know that your people need food. We have brought our own which we
will leave with you as a gift. James spotted the moose downriver, which
Art shot. Out dogs dragged the carcass in on the sled.”
Nicolai and his band welcomed the fresh moose meat, which had become a
rare treat under these tough circumstances. Better yet, Ed Gates had
packed rice and tea. Tonight all would enjoy a truly great feast--the
first one like it in months.
“My women still live by my word. They have not yet begun to talk back
to the men and tell us to fix our own meals. After my son cuts up the
meat, my women will prepare the feast while we talk. We accept your
gift, but we would have been prepared to share what food we have with
you because you have shown up at my camp.”
Ed Gates appreciated the genuine hospitality and complete lack of
hostility of his host, the tyone.
“You have taught us all that we must work together if we are to
survive. We thank you for welcoming us into your lodge on so cold a
He signaled to a younger member of his party, who pulled something out
of one of packs which had accompanied the McClellan party.
It had been a rough trek from the mouth of the Bremner River to Taral.
The river ice had helped, but there were several open areas on the river
as well as some very treacherous overflows. The chief’s lodge was a
welcome sight indeed. It was warm and comfortable, and the hosts were
Udzisyu brought the men tea. She smiled at all of the men as she poured.
The woman was pleased to have so much meat, rice, and tea to prepare.
She wanted to honor these men who had taken considerable effort and risk
to arrive here in midwinter.
“While the meal is being prepared, I have also brought some tobacco
which is our gift to you.”
It was appropriate. The chief had a pipe. It was time to pass the pipe.
These men had come to discuss monumental business. The discussions went
on through the night. Although the chief soon realized that the men had
only the cache at Bremner to offer, he would make the most of the
situation. Nothing quite like this would probably ever happen again.
Nicolai picked up his tea, as did his brothers and son, who had returned
from his job of carving up the moose meat. All of them raised their cups
in a salute to the tyone.
“Your people have brought us diseases and whiskey, which is like a
disease. We did not have these afflictions before you came. Someday you
will build your own town nearby across the great river. We will need
your help. We want your word that the white man will build a place to
save us from those diseases. Our medicine is not for the white man
diseases. I am sick in my heart for all the people we have already lost.
“If you fail, we will come to remind you. We will stay at edge of
your camps and your town until you agree to help. We will not threaten
you. But we will not leave you alone. You will not be able to ignore us.
In the end, you will agree just to get rid of us. It is better to agree
now. Then follow your words.”
Gates was not expecting this. He did not represent any government agency
and could not speak for them. But it was clear that the chief had long
considered this. It was understandable, when he gave it some thought.
“I am not a government agent. I can not commit them to anything. But
I will do my best to convince them to build an Indian clinic. We will
even volunteer our help to build it. It will be up to the government to
provide the doctor or the nurse.”
Nicolai had Gate’s word. There was nothing more to be said about that
matter. All he wanted was the word of the white men. He nodded his head
in approval and went on.
“We will show you our location if you show us yours. We want the
Once again Gates was taken by surprise. The simplicity and obvious
equality of this proposal had a certain appeal. But it left him and his
party without any assured food for the remainder of the winter. He tried
to talk the chief into a split of the cache, but on this matter the
chief would not budge.
In the end, the appeal of all that copper, possibly an entire mountain
of it, won out. Gates would find his own food or take the chance of
starvation in return for access to this legendary source of
copper--Nicolai lode, soon to be the Nicolai Prospect.
Ed Gates drew a map on the sandy floor of the lodge which showed the
location of the cache. Not only was the cache located exactly as Gates
had drawn, but it contained a generous measure of tea, coffee, salt,
sugar and tobacco as well as other useful supplies, including two rifles
with ammunition and several cooking utensils. Nicolai and his small
group at Taral would have enough to survive the winter.
In return, the chief sent the Gates party off to headwaters of Nicolai
Creek. His oldest brother Hanagita was the man who would take the honor.
This was truly Hanagita’s country. Hanagita preferred to live the life
of a solitary Native trapper. He spent almost all his time following the
trails of the upper Chitina and Nizina Rivers. This would be the last
time anyone ever heard of Hanagita. He had served his purpose and
drifted off to an unknown fate. No white man ever set eyes on Hanagita
Ed Gates staked the Nicolai Lode, Siwash Jack Lode, Wonder Lode,
Surprise Lode, Side Partner Lode, Red Rover Lode and the Last Lode,
under the company name of the Chittyna Exploration Company. This is the
entity which holds these claims to this very day. The claims were
patented in 1904, but that was it.
The prospect remained just that. It never became a productive mine. The
Gates party had taken a gamble and they lost. But in the process Nicolai
and Gates set into motion events which could not be stopped. Like
Hanagita, this prospect drifted off into oblivion. It became a place of
dashed hopes. As an isolated old camp high in the remote hills at the
end of a long goat trail, it became one of the first of many deserted
white man failed prospects.
Nicolai had made his best deal under the most difficult of
circumstances. He and everyone else would have to live with it. In the
end, after considerable pestering, the whites built the clinic for the
Indians at the new town of Chitina, though the chief never lived to see
it. The Native clinic that was finally built in 1932 was the last
unfulfilled part of the process that culminated in the greatest
high-grade copper mine of all time.
Nicolai had chosen the path for his people. He extracted a small but
significant commitment from the whites. Over the years, the Nicolai
Prospect would become confused with the great Bonanza outcropping. Some
people have come to believe that Nicolai gave away the Bonanza lode. He
did not. It no longer matters. The name of Nicolai, tyone of Taral,
would live on long after the names of the other chiefs were long
forgotten because his name was forever linked with the tsedi. The spirit
of Nicolai would never fade away, for he truly was the last great tyone
of the Ahtnas.
"Sezel at Taral"