Celebrating The Great Chief Goodlataw In Native Heritage Month

Chief Goodlataw Of Taral  In every single random black-and-white photo taken of him during the first decades of the 20th century, Chief Good...

Chief Goodlataw Of Taral 

In every single random black-and-white photo taken of him during the first decades of the 20th century, Chief Goodlataw's piercing eyes, strong chin, and steady gaze reach across time. 

"Chief Good-la-tah" (as he was known back then) was wildly photogenic. He was so handsome and compelling-looking that in 2002, when Ron Simpson of Copper Center wrote his thick book, “Legacy of the Chief," Ron put the chief's photo on the cover. This guy’s picture could sell books; Chief Goodlataw was as handsome as a 1960s California surfer. 

In contrast, the photo of Chief Nicolai, who was a major subject of Simpson’s book, shows Nicolai as worn-out and worried. 

Though able and significant (and well worth writing about) Nicolai  – who had been Chief Goodlataw's uncle – wore his heavy concerns on his face. Nicolai was a troubled and weary man. And no wonder. Chief Nicolai had the unenviable task of being the first Ahtna chief to have to seriously deal with the newcomers from America, back in 1885 when U.S. soldiers thrashed their way upstream into Ahtna Country, up the raging Copper River, to arrive half-starved at Nicolai's camp in Taral, near what is now Chitina. 

Chief Goodlataw died young. But in his brief tenure on earth he made an enormous mark. And his rock star good looks, combined with his north star unflinching integrity, made him the complete package. Even back then, the young Ahtna leader was worth reading about, no matter where you lived. 

So this led to numerous references to Chief Goodlataw in many American newspapers all over the country, where people were fascinated by Alaska after being swept away by the exciting tales of Jack London and the poems of Robert Service.  

Only 13 years after Lt. Allen came through, the floodgates opened to the Copper Valley. For hundreds of years, the Ahtna people had carefully guarded their mountain passes from intruders. But in 1898, the first of at least 4,000 would-be gold miners trudged up and over the Valdez and Klutina Glaciers and staggered down into the Copper Valley, hauling thousands of pounds of gear, looking for gold. 

They didn't find gold. But they did find copper. And mining investors found the copper, too, swiftly taking over the deposits and renaming them "Kennecott". 

Things moved fast back then. Everybody had been living in villages. Then the soldiers arrived, and then the miners arrived, and then life changed rapidly and profoundly for the Ahtna people. It was asking a lot, to adapt to all this while keeping your values. 

In 1910, Chief Good-la-tah of Taral – motivated by a strong belief in the rights of his people – became the first Ahtna Athabascan to launch a formal western-style lawsuit. 

It was against the Copper River & Northwestern Railway, which had busted its new railroad track between Chitina and Cordova right across Chitina’s Ahtna burial grounds. 

The rail tracks had wended over a narrow ledge on the west bank of the Copper River at Mile 128 of the railroad line. In the process, railroad workers had hauled out Native people’s bodies from their resting places and left them scattered on the ground. The cemetery was at a place now known as "O'Brien Creek." 

This was a very big problem for Chief Good-la-tah. But what could he do about it? It had become obvious, early on, that the newcomers had brought with them a powerful new tool: American law. And that those laws were already affecting Native life. 
You had to fight fire with fire. This problem at the graveyard was a serious one. The Ahtna quickly had to learn to play the game to survive and Chief Good-la-tah was the one to do it. 

So he stepped up on behalf of his family and people – on behalf of his community. 

This foreshadowed the efforts years later (this time in the northern Ahtna territory) when another great leader with equally charismatic qualities – Katie John – took to the law for Native fishing rights. 

Chief Good-la-tah’s lawsuit pointed out that the copper mining company’s track covered “eight Indian graves, seven of which were south of Bryan Creek.” The area in question was so torn up, said the lawsuit, that “the exact location” of Chief Good-la-tah’s grandfather’s grave was “now impossible to determine.” 

The suit alleged that construction workers on the track dug up bodies “recklessly and without care, and barbarously left the skeleton of the body of said deceased grandfather of plaintiff lying upon the surface of the ground near the site of the former grave,” and that “a part of said skeleton was found about a year later lying upon the surface of the ground.” 

The chief had been doubly concerned because “none of his people were present at the moving” of the graves, and a traditional religious potlatch could not be made. The suit asked for $10,000 in damages. Which is $250,000 today.

The Chief's lawsuit didn't go as well as he planned. He apparently didn't fully win it. But it showed he was not just a leader, but a leader dedicated to a life of steadfastness  and a desire for righting wrongs. 

As time went by, Chief Goodlataw became known throughout Alaska for his personal integrity. News stories in various Alaskan papers reported in 1916: 

"He gained considerable reputation during the building of the Copper River & Northwestern railway by bringing to court offenders who sold liquor to members of his tribe." 

The stories about the chief spilled out around the entire country, picked up by newspapers everywhere. 

The Alaska Daily Empire, after Chief Goodlataw died in 1918, at the age of around 40, wrote of his high standards and how he had stood up for Native rights. 

The Empire wrote:

"Good-la-taw in the interests of his tribe waged a relentless warfare against white booze peddlers when Barleycorn was king in Alaska. Time and time again he was jobbed by picked juries of white men in league against the Natives, but he never ceased to endeavor to keep liquor away from his people."

[Note – "jobbed" is slang for being set up to lose a fight, and is a term that came from professional wrestling.]

After Chief Goodlataw's early death, perhaps due to the influenza epidemic, another story made the rounds in the papers, recalling how he helped beat back Indian reservations in Alaska. Said the Empire:

"Probably his story does not record a more determined fight anywhere for a principle (than) when the suggestion was made to gather all of the Natives on a reservation on the coast. Good-la-taw opposed the movement, claiming that it would make mere government wards and serfs of the Natives." 

Like many effective political leaders, Chief Goodlataw had a sense of humor and a knack for making a good story. He could fight when you needed to fight, but he could have fun, too. And he could pinpoint the basic humor of cultural differences with great insight. 

This playful aspect of Chief Goodlataw's personality made good copy for papers all over the nation. One story about him centered around limburger cheese. 

By 1917, the Amazon warehouses of the time were catalogue houses such as Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. They'd deliver anything. Even as far away as Chitina, Alaska, you could order something outrageous by mail, including cans of actual green turtle soup, deviled crabs, or even Russian caviar. 

If you could stomach it, you could even have limburger cheese sent to you by post. 

For those who don't know limburger cheese, the Wisconsin Cheese board today introduces the cheese like this on its website, and this says it all: 

Limburger: embrace the stink! 

The "stink" of limburger cheese, which originated in Belgium, is made by curing the cheese in saltwater, and keeping it moist so it's "hospitable to bacteria they smear on the surface" according to those who love it. Wisconsin's cheese experts brag that limburger has a smell "that packs a real punch."

When Chief Goodlataw came across limburger cheese, he did not embrace the stink. 

But he did know something that would. 

It was the spring of 1917, and America was entering World War I against Germany. It was a terrible time. People needed something light to think about. As far away as the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, as war was breaking out, a wonderful story was printed that eased the burden of fear of the future, and that gave a look into Alaska, adaptation, Native culture – and life. It all centered around Chief Goodlataw:

Uses Limburger Cheese As Bait For Alaska Lynx

CORDOVA, Alaska. March 27th. 
...Recently an epicure at Chitina ordered some limburger cheese from a mail order house and shortly after its arrival the chief happened in for flour and bacon. The town wit gave the chief a taste.

Chief Goodlataw's face was a study. He munched the cheese smeared cracker. His nostrils quivered as do a rabbit's while eating, and when he was through he produced his "poke" abstracting a silver dollar, and tendering it to the wit.

...Alaskans never order by retail and he was able to purchase a pound from the epicure's supply. He departed in silence. Two weeks later he came to town with 20 lynx skins which he traded at local stores for phonograph records, groceries, candy and some blankets. 

The chief told people that limburger cheese made great lynx bait for his traps. 

This is a story by the Copper River Country Journal celebrating Native Heritage Month, 2021. It's for everyone in the Copper Valley, but especially for the many young Goodlataws who live here today. 

About Names: Back in the early 1900s, many people everywhere had variable name spellings. For example, immigrants coming from Europe frequently spelled their names one way back home – and then simplified the spelling once they arrived in America. It was the same in Alaska. In this story, Chief Goodlataw's name has three different spellings. This was common. 

In fact, the way that Americans wrote down names on various documents was often unique, changing all the time. The Valdez Museum Historical Archive, for instance, gives three more spellings of the chief's name: "Goodlata", "Goodlatah" and "Good-la-ta." 

In other examples involving Chitina families, the 1930 Chitina Census listed Oscar Craig as being 21 years old. But all the Craigs on that census listing – Oscar, Rena and Arthur – were listed as having the last name of "Crag." Also in the 1930 Census, all the Chitina Eskilidas were shown as being called "Escaleta." By 1930, the Goodlataw family name had settled into its current form, without hyphenations. By 1939, the Craig family name had also shifted to its current spelling in BIA census lists. And by World War II, the earlier Escaleta format had turned into "Eskilida" when Joe Eskilida turned up on a U.S. Government draft registration form. 

One of the more memorable (and local) examples of how the name of a person can capriciously change for no real reason happens right in the Copper Valley. A young scientist, Robert Kennicott, who died tragically, was chosen to be remembered by giving the name "Kennicott" to the copper country of the region. But the distant mining company, on its official documents, misspelled his name as "Kennecott" – with an "e." 

To this day, that typo leaves the National Park Service in a never-ending struggle to try to explain the logic of it all to the traveling public. 


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