04 February 2011

Legacy of the Chief, Chapter 27: "Boxing Match at Kennecott-1924"

We have been given the role of guardians of this land, for
we are the Children of the Earth.  We must never forget this nor give up
our role, for it was given us by the Great Creator--He who is even over
the raven and the wolf, the bear and the fox--and who is over every one
of us.  This land belongs only to the Great Creator.  It was he who has
given us life within it and it is he who has placed on us the duty to
protect this land and all the creatures who dwell here.
--Chief Nicolai speaking to his grandsons at the Spirit Camp
of Taral in 1910

staff row

View of the Kennicott Glacier from Staff Row: Many of the
engineers lived in the 3-story staff house shown here.   
--Anchorage Museum of History & Art
 Kennecott had a class structure resembling that of the military where
the enlisted men and officers do not mix socially.   In the case of
Kennecott, the engineers and managers who ran the camp remained separate
from the miners and other wage earners.   The foremen, who generally
came up from the ranks of their individual specialties--be it in as a
carpenter, electrician, millwright or miner--could be compared to the
non-commissioned officers of military service.  It was these men and
their families who lived in the thirty cottages as they became
available. The lower class of workers did not keep families on the
property.   Few of them stayed with Kennecott more than one season.  The
employee turn-over averaged in excess of 200 percent.
The engineers in particular seldom spoke with the workers.  They were kept
insulated from them in some ways almost as fully as were the children
who grew up there.  Because of this separation of the engineers from the
others, Johnny found it very difficult to communicate with Frank
Buckner. There were things which concerned him which he would like to
have discussed with the young engineer.  Foremost on his mind was the
condition of his father Emil, who was showing a steady decline in health
as fall began to move into winter. 
The carpenters, electricians and machinists completed the  new and improved
power plant on schedule, though at considerable cost.   As the
carpenters finished their work, the painting crews moved in behind them,
ready to tackle the job of finishing the massive exterior walls before
late fall arrived.  Johnny and Cap very quickly made names for
themselves due to their willingness to work long hard hours.  Under the
watchful eye of Emil the painting was of the highest quality.   The two
became well known for their lack of fear working in high places.  Their
work extended to the industrial black coating the two applied to the
four eighty-foot smokestacks, which began on a roof line thirty-five
feet above the ground.
          In time
their presence at Kennecott was grudgingly accepted.   The two  became
fixtures in the yard, paint and carpenter crews.  They were always there
when a train needed to be loaded or unloaded. They performed their work
without delay or complaint.  Occasionally someone would come along who
wanted to put them through a test, but the Indians were able to
successfully convince all challengers but one to take them on either on
the billiards table or at the small basketball court in the recreation
hall or on the softball field just south of the barracks.  Camp life
worked out well for the two Natives who came to Kennecott just to prove
they could do it.
The single challenger who refused to take on the two at one of the games,
insisted on boxing with Cap.  Somehow rumors of Cap’s boxing skills
followed him from Chitina. 
Henry Jackson was in the billiards room when he heard the brash young Aaron
challenge Cap.
“I’ll fight you in the ring, siwash, and put an end to the rumors of your
invincibility once and for all.”
Henry was up instantly to deflect the blow he knew was coming, while Johnny
restrained Cap from striking back. Cap shoved Johnny out of the way and
moved forward toward the taller and heavier man who had tried to strike
"Any time, white man.  You name the place.  We’ll see who gets to call the
other names.”
Henry placed himself between the two men.
“Stop ! Not here ! Cap, you really want to do this?”
Cap nodded an unmistakable affirmation.
“Aaron, are you sure?”
Aaron tried to get past Henry to strike at Cap.
“Okay, then.  Here’s what we’ll do.  Management will never allow this, so you
men have to keep quiet about it.  I’ll set up a boxing match right now
in the rec hall.  Whoever loses, leaves camp for good.  And I don’t want
to ever hear anything more about it, or I’ll personally come after
either one of you.  Are we agreed?”
That was it.  The fight was on.  The men were ready.  Henry and the other
foremen who lived at the barrack would have to pull this off right under
the noses of the engineers, or risk having everyone fired, including
“Give us an hour.  Those of you who work with Aaron,  keep him away from Cap. 
Cap, you stay with Johnny until I get back to you.  Whatever you do,
don’t go near Aaron until I have the boxing ring set up.  It just
happens that I have boxing gloves.  It’s my sport.  I’m taking some men
with me to set up for the fight.”
“Cap, are you crazy?  Now you have to win, or we’ll both have to leave. 
They’ll never let any of us back in after that.”
“Not crazy. He’s bigger. Maybe stronger.  I’m better.  White man will fall  hard. 
No more siwash.  Tired of hearing it.”
Emil came into the room.

“I heard what’s going on, boys.  The whole camp knows by now.  Even some of the 
engineers probably know. My bet is they’re going to let this one pass.  It’s been 
coming to this for some time now.   Henry’s on your side, you know.  I’m going out 
and taking bets.  Hope you’re as good as your reputation, Cap.”
          Cap growled.
good to me.  I’ll be back to escort you boys to the ring.  Wait for me
here in the room. Better limber yourself up, Cap.  That’s a big, tough
boy down there.”
          It was almost an hour later when Emil and several of his cronies arrived to
escort the two Indians. 
“Most of them are putting their money on Aaron.  We’ll clean up, Cap.”
“No more talk. Time to box.”

recreation hall

The recreation hall was on the west side of the tracks, down
hill from the five-plex apartments in South Kennecott.  
--McCarthy-Kennicott Museum
Cap and Johnny approached the recreation hall, surrounded by a group of
men who were clearly gambling on the Indian, they found the place
completely packed. Aaron was already inside with his shirt off and his
gloves ready, anxious for a chance to pummel Cap.  He had the build of a
“This doesn’t look good, Cap.”
“No worry, Sla’cheen.  This is what I know best.  Believe in me.  Cap
no fool. Big man fall hard.”
When Cap pulled off his shirt, he revealed a wiry, muscular body, though
easily thirty pounds lighter than his opponent.  He was thick through
the shoulders, arms and chest.  When the men looked into Cap’s eyes, it
appeared that Aaron was about to encounter the soul of a wolverine.  The
ferocity in his face even gave Aaron a moment of doubt.  It was all that
Cap needed.
“Where did Henry come up with this rope and gloves in such short order,” Johnny
asked his father.
“Son, Henry’s been waiting for an opportunity like this since he got here. 
He’s probably only disappointed that he’s not the one in the ring.  He
loves to box.  That’s what he did in the states.”
Johnny felt someone squeeze his shoulder.  He turned an went white.  There was
Frank smiling.  Frank was tall enough to tower over Johnny, who was
himself six-foot-two. All the men saw the young engineer at the same
time. The room went silent.  Frank motioned them to continue. 

The Kennecott junior mining engineer Frank Buckey (real name) in 1924
“It’s all right, Johnny.  We know. We don’t approve of this sort of thing, but
we’re going to let this one happen.  I’m here to make sure no one thinks
they’re going to run over you guys.  If the men mobbed you, we’d risk
problems we don’t want.  Besides, I believe in Cap.  I wagered with my
friend Russell.  Russell bet on Aaron.”
Henry rang the bell.  Aaron immediately struck out.  He had a longer reach and
considerable power.  Cap fell.  There were several cheers, then
silence.  Cap pulled back and sprung up, then motioned Aaron foreword. 
Aarron bounded foreword and found himself on the floor.  He pulled
himself up and found himself on the floor again. Aaron put everything he
had into his final attempt to strike Cap.  Cap met him with a perfect
counter-punch, knocking the man cold.  It was over.
“No more siwash !” Cap yelled, as he held up his gloved hands. 
“No more fight !”
They were back in 205.  Aaron moved to the east barrack for the night.  He
would be leaving on the train the next day. 
“He barely touched you when he knocked you down that one time.  Look at
you.  There’s not a mark on you.  Why did you let him knock you down.”
“Out of practice.”
“I think you let him do it.”
“No matter now.  Problem over.”
The next day the men went about their work as if nothing had happened. 
Aaron left as he had agreed.  There was never a word of any kind from
management.  Work went smoothly.  Cap found that he was receiving
considerably more signs of respect than had been the case before.  The
power plant was nearly completed.  Frank called the two men into the
“I’ve been watching you two on the job.  So has our head engineer Mr.
Richelson.  We’ve been talking about you up here and we’re all pleased
with you. Unfortunately, work will be slowing here with the end of the
power plant job. You will probably be among those who are laid off for
the season.  However, if that is the case, I would still like to see you
be available early next season because we have another big painting job
coming up.  And by the way, thanks to you, Cap, I’m one paycheck richer.
I knew you could
do it.”

Alvin Williams
 Native-American boxer Alvin Williams

          Cap gave Frank one of his rare smiles.
“We were just getting into the rhythm of the work here.  We’re both sorry to
go so soon.  Right, Cap?  We’re wondering if there’s anything else
coming up.  If not, we always have winter trapping.
“Before you send us on our way, I’ve been wanting to ask you about Dad.   This
is the first time we’ve been together long enough to talk.”
“You must be referring to the bad decline in his health, Johnny?”
“Yes, he’s not going to be able to work much longer. Now that Cap and I are 
leaving soon, maybe I can convince him to leave with us.   I need to get
him somewhere that we can take care of him.”
“We’ve discussed it. We figured we’d take advantage of this big layoff now that
the new plant is almost completed and things are nearly back to normal
to go ahead and end his job as well.  I could have probably keep you
here longer, but I already know how concerned you are about him. So I
guess we can look at this as an opportunity.”
Frank was sounding too much like he represented the company to suit Johnny. 
It appeared that Kennecott simply wanted to get rid of his dad while it
was convenient to do so, which would probably have to happen soon
anyway. He expected to hear something more personal coming from Frank.  
Frank sensed Johnny’s irritation.
“Look, I really have been happy with having you two here.  I don’t want this to
sound like the bum’s rush.  It is not.  You’ve made it easy for me to
have you rehired next year. I’ll have you requested back if you send a
letter to the superintendent asking for employment again early next
year.  The super’s truly pleased with both of you.   I am sorry I could
not visit with you during the time you’ve been here.  Believe me. But
it’s just not done.  You know how it works around here. Let me know if
there is anything I can do for you. I’ll sure try to help.
Now, let me finish what I was about to say.
“Next year the superintendent wants the top of the mill repainted.”
“We already figured that out.”
“You did?”
“First thing we noticed on arriving here is how badly the mill needs a new
paint job.  You can tell it gets hit hard by the winds.”
“You’re right. It’s overdue. It’s a very large job. Most men don’t want to work
up that high.   We also have plans to nearly double the size of the
hospital.   This should have been done long ago. We need more living
space in that  building for the doctors family as well as apartments for
the nurses.
“I’ve seen that your carpentry skills have developed as you worked with under
Chris Jensen, so I’m sure you can get on the hospital  job as well. 
Anyway, we’re going ahead with the expansion, so there will be plenty of
work here for you if you want it. ”
“Speaking for myself,  I’ve been happy here. The pay is good.  But I
need to get back to being Indian for a while. That’s hard to do around
here.  So I’ll be more than happy to leave soon.   But if my brother
here wants to come back next year, and you still want me, I’ll be here
with him. We work very well together.  Long ago made a pact about that.”
Frank nodded at him. “Actually, Cap, your presence has provided us an
unexpected bonus.  We have a practice here of placing our nationalities
together and working them as teams.  It just works out better.  But
you’ve also shamed the others into doing better work than usual. They
just can’t let an Indian show them up.  You have, anyway, in my
“We noticed the same thing happen at Green Butte.  Even Mr. Barrett
commented on it. Cap and I seem to keep the others motivated somehow. 
Speaking of that, we still haven’t been asked to work up in the mines.
We have the experience for that now, you know.  We both have learned
something about being  muckers and power men.  And we’ve also worked
drill stoping machines.”
“I expect to be reassigned back to the mines myself.  If there’s any way at
all that I can get you up there, believe me, I will.  As you know, I’ve
been on this power plant project since before you got here.  I may not
even be down here if you come next year, as most of us engineers are
needed up on the hill, especially at Mother Lode.  I’m primarily a
geologist.  And a good one.  That’s what I came here for anyway. ”
“I know that you can’t socialize with us here at camp, but I would love to
challenge you to a game of pool or two at the Mecca in McCarthy if you
can get down that way while I’m down there with Rose.”.
“Johnny, thanks for the offer.  I can’t promise anything, but  I
probably should get out of here for a while anyway.  One of the things
I’d really like to do, though, is go sheep hunting.  If one of you could
take me, I’d sure like to give it a try. ”
The two Indians looked at each other.  Johnny was left to speak first. 
“We both do guiding for some very rich white men.   I sometimes do that in
the fall when the railroad lays off its summer crews.  The money is much
better, and I know my way around this country better than most--except
for Cap.  He’s the one I’d recommend.  He’s spent more time out here
than most anyone except some of the elders, and I don’t know if any of
them are available anyway.   Have you hunted sheep before?”
“I grew up on a ranch in mountainous Wyoming. I’ve been in the Rockies many
times, but this is country I’ve never tried. I’d sure like to.  The
season is here already, so if either or both of you are available, I’ll
try to get a release out of here from Douglass.  He already suggested I
should try getting away for a while.”
“Cap and I will discuss that and get back to you before we leave.  Are you
laying off dad soon?”
“I’m not the one who does that, but if you’re willing to take him back to
Chitina with you, let’s just say, we’ll find a way to make it easy for
you.  Has he ever said anything to you about wanting to leave?”
“He’s been talking about Mom a lot lately.  If she’s in Chitina, I know she’d
take care of him.   If she isn’t, I’ll find her.  I just hope she isn’t
drinking too much.  That’s been a real problem for her ever since I was
a kid.   But I guess you’re asking if he wants to leave.  I think he’s
ready.  Cap and I will get him out of here.  I suppose I should be
indebted to you for helping us do that.”

          “No, not at all.  None of this is easy.  Emil has been here a long time. 
He’s a part of this place, and we’ll all miss him.   No one wants to see
him leave, especially if he doesn’t want to go, but we don’t want him to
die here either.   The superintendent will go down there and talk to
him.  See you guys later.”
The two left the back room of the office and walked around the payroll clerk’s
window to the front door.
“Cap, it looks like once we clean up around the power plant, our work here is
finished.  I yearn to visit Rose, but I’m torn at the same time.  I feel
like I’m being shoved out.
“We’ve been out here too long, Sla’cheen.  It’s time to go home
with your father, like Frank said.”
The two turned west, heading in the direction of the Kennicott Glacier. The sun
was just setting beyond the western ridge.  The cool shadows of the
early evening had overtaken the lowers parts of the narrow valley,
including all of Kennecott.  They crossed over a coupling of the empty
train which sat silent, blocking their way.  Then they turned south
toward the west barrack.
“Let’s walk out to the moraine.  I want to take a closer look at the glacier.”
The Indians took a narrow path north of the old sawmill and carpenter shop.
To their right was a wide, steep gully where the end of the National
Creek flume spewed a mad rush of water into a pond held in place by a
high crib dam.  Just beyond it, a series of icy, rock-covered mounds
rose to a height hundreds of feet above the track grade. They stopped at
the Laundromat, which stood at the precipice where another flume at the
top of the crib dam directed the water into a final deep fall to the
dark, hidden and even mysterious base of the glacier over a hundred feet

carpenter shop

The sawmill-carpenter shop-paintshop, the company
store-warehouse, and the west barrack. In front of the company
store, on the edge of the drop-off, was the laundromat.  
Below it was the crib dam.  Photo was taken from a high
point on the Kennicott Glacier.   --UAF Archives
          The small building was closed for the day.  The men walked past the
structure to the steep edge of the moraine.  Here they had a good view
of most of the camp and its mountainous surroundings.
They stood in the path of the breezes which constantly flowed from the steep,
massive ice falls at the heads of Kennicott and Root glaciers.  Cap
lifted his eyes to view the outline of Fireweed Mountain.
“Just beyond the ridge is home.  It’s not that far.  So why does it seem like
home’s an entire world away?”
A sudden gust of wind off the glacier hit him, enveloping him in an
unexpectedly sharp coldness which brought tears to his face. Cap turned
away from the stinging iciness coming from the north, turning in the
direction of the craggy ridge to the northeast. There he could see the
mine sites thousands of feet above bathed in the rapidly diminishing
rays of the sun.  Castle Rock and Bonanza Peak stood out starkly, a
thousand feet above Bonanza and Jumbo mines. The sharp blue sky to the
east now featured a line of blackening clouds forming in a high wall
behind Bonanza Ridge. The ominous cloud formation emphasized the rugged
outline of the Chitistone formation which was still painted in sunlight.
His eyes returned to the north in the cold direction of the Root Glacier
Icef all, Donohoe Peak, and the Erie Mine.
It was there that Cap spotted four large ravens circling high overhead, riding
atop a heavy, invisible layer of cold glacial air. 
Engii, engii ! Sla’cheen, look!  The Saghanni ggaay are here.” 

Continue with

war paint

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