Celebrating The Life & Wisdom Of Walter Charley

The Years Following The Alaska Gold Rush Into Modern Times, As Told By Walter Charley

  Northcountry Communications. All Rights Reserved. 


Walter Charley was an Ahtna Athabascan. He was a handsome, articulate spokesman and hard worker who had toiled as a section hand on the Copper River and Northwestern Railway in the 1920's and 1930's. Later, he worked with the Alaska Road Commission, surveying the Glenn Highway -- starting in 1941. Then, Walter Charley had gone on to work for the Road Commission's new form, the Department of Highways, until retiring in the 1970's. He was 84 years old at his death. 

His life spanned the entire post-contact time of turmoil and change after the arrival of outsiders in the Copper Valley.

Walter Charley had been born at Wood Camp, in 1908. Wood Camp was a Native village near Copper Center, where Natives brought wood to fuel the steamboats that traveled the Copper River for a short time.  Struck by the all-too common tragedies of  the great world-wide epidemic of 1918, his family died from the flu. Young Walter was brought up by an aunt and uncle.  

An "Indian" brand motorcycle. (Wikipedia)

Capable in every way, Walter Charley moved easily between the white and Native worlds. As a young man, he had bought and ridden a flashy "Indian" brand motorcycle up and down the Copper Valley's dirt roads -- a high energy, self-defining statement about himself, his place in the modern world... and his Athabascan cultural heritage. 

A proponent of Native culture and rights, Walter Charley was one of the first Ahtna to join the Alaska Native Brotherhood, and served on numerous boards. He was named the Alaska Federation of Natives Citizen of the Year in 1988.

Like many Ahtna elders, in his later years he was a natural-born speaker and historian. This grew out of a heritage of oral traditions, and an expectation that a person -- any person -- who grew up in the Copper Valley would be required and expected to show leadership skills, as a matter of course. Like so many Ahtna of his time (and. before that, like the great U.S. President, Abraham Lincoln) Walter Charley was a self-educated man; yet a man who truly valued knowledge, insight and respect for oneself and for others.

Walter Charley gave a speech at the Captain Cook commemorative lecture in 1978, where he discussed what it was like growing up in the days right after the Gold Rush,  when the Ahtna were still dealing with the problems of the Kennicott Copper Mine and its impact on their copper resources.
"Then came the influx of people about the turn of the century -- the miners and prospectors came into the country. Before then, they say... there was caribou and moose; plenty of it. But the turn of the century, when the influx of people came, the caribou and moose is no longer there.

"By the time I was a boy, I didn't know what moose or caribou looked like. Not until 1930, the moose came in Copper River. And there was a caribou that moved back in Copper River in 1925," he wryly joked. 
"So this is one of the problems that we have in the hunting and fur trapping.

"There there is the Kennicott (Mine.) Back in the teens, the Kennicott people came up and took the mines away from them Indians. And they made quite a hole in Kennicott, and took several million dollars out of there. And the Copper River people didn't even get one copper cent out of the whole millions of dollars that came out of there...

"If we had to go back to our ways of life, today, we  would have nothing to go back to... the old gentleman's agreement was the way of the Indian life...."

Well-known throughout Alaska, Walter Charley was popular enough to pose good-naturedly for a statewide restaurant ad, in 1991. He was working with the Alaska Federation of Natives on "subsistence" issues. Normally beardless, in the ad he was shown sporting the ragged and unkempt "Sourdough" type beard he had just grown.

Walter Charley was shown,  sitting at a table, wearing suspenders, with "Alaska" written on them -- and holding up a knife and fork, preparing to chow down.

When You Can't Eat It Where You've Killed It...
You'll Enjoy the Downtown Deli and Cafe,"
the ad said.

The grizzled trapper look was effective, but seeing himself in the ad startled the normally elegant and clean-shaven Walter Charley. He shaved his beard off the day after the ad appeared in the newspaper. "it was bothering me, "he explained to the Copper River Country Journal.

Walter Charley died in 1992.

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