After 89 years, lively local history lesson is laid to rest

April 22, 2009 

HAINES -- Before one of her last medevacs, my friend Isabell Katzeek was lying on the gurney as volunteers loaded her into the ambulance for the ride to the airport. She appeared frail and ill. She had suffered a heart attack. But then she suddenly sat up, looked around and said, "Now wait a damn minute, where the hell do you think we're going?"

Isabell's family said she cussed right up to the end, which came last Wednesday at her home here. She was almost 89. I was planning to visit later that morning. It's funny, how in this age of e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and cell phones we know so much more about each other but spend less time together. Keeping tabs on someone is not the same as sitting across the kitchen table from them.

Isabell was buried Saturday in the family plot in the nearby Tlingit village of Klukwan, down among the tall cottonwoods by the Chilkat River. A loader scooped out the snow and the dug the grave, and we stepped gingerly around the muddy ruts. There was a private service earlier in the Tall Fin Killer Whale House, or Keet Gooshi Hit, and a larger public one in the new Klukwan gym. People came from all over Southeast and the Yukon to pay respects.

Isabell wasn't famous, and she wasn't a cultural or clan leader. She was a funny, active, outspoken woman who was known to many as Tom Katzeek's widow and the mother of six active sons. Tom coached the local city league basketball teams for years. Isabell's "boys," all men now, except for the oldest who died, still live in the Chilkat Valley with their families. She had a baker's dozen of grandchildren and 12 great-granddaughters.

Her life story is a local history lesson. Isabell was born in Haines in 1920. Her father, John Leslie, was a Scotsman and her mother was Susie George, a Yukon Tlingit. (Most Native families have relatives on both sides of the border, since they settled here centuries before it existed.) Leslie was in his 50s when they married. Isabell was their only child and he doted on her.

There were four students in Isabell's Haines High graduating class, and two of them were brothers.

She worked at the Haines Packing Co. cannery at Letnikof Cove. In those days everyone went everywhere on foot, and she no doubt walked the five miles to and from town with the other cannery workers, a route local athletes consider to be a long run these days.

I don't think Isabell would ever call herself sporty, but she did like to dance. She learned at the Army dances before the Chilkoot Barracks were decommissioned. She said she met "all" her husbands on the dance floor. There were two. She divorced the first one and was married to Tom for more than 50 years. Tom's mother had planned a traditional Tlingit arranged marriage for him, but his father recognized true love when he saw it, and loaned them $25 for the license.

Isabell learned to drive after she had children; she never mastered it. At the time, an automobile was still a luxury and a woman who drove one a novelty -- especially in Klukwan where much of the family lived. So the village ladies loved to ride with Isabell. On a trip back from the Yukon with a full car, Isabell took the turn onto the Klukwan Road at Haines Highway speed. Her husband's grandmother was pitched onto the floor, but Isabell keep on going, right through the village at about three times the speed limit.

Isabell was half-Scottish, and she had Scotch ways, especially when it came to her purse, which she kept with her at all times. If she invited you out for dinner, or for coffee and a cigarette at the Bamboo Room, you would end up paying the check. (She didn't quit smoking until the doctor suggested it when she was about 85; she died of heart disease.) She loved bingo, though, and rarely missed a game.

Once her family was grown, Isabell traveled the world, mostly in the company of an ex-daughter-in-law. They went to the Lower 48, New Zealand, Australia and all over Europe when Isabell was in her 70s. Isabell was unimpressed by the Swiss Alps. She had a better mountain view from her kitchen. She saw the British comedian Benny Hill for the first time on a hotel TV set and laughed so hard the people next door complained.

At the service in the Klukwan gym, her coffin was draped with a priceless antique Chilkat blanket and a museum-quality carved hat, which were fittingly formal. Isabell always did like to dress up and kept her nails polished and hair styled.

I didn't know Isabell when she was young and ruled that busy male-dominated household. I met her after she'd had a mild stroke. But she was good company. We laughed together watching the "Colbert Report" during the election season. To the end, when she heard Glen Miller's orchestra, her eyes would brighten, she'd tap her feet, wave her hands and do a kind of dance in her recliner.


Heather Lende lives and writes in Haines.

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