Courageous Klukwan elder passes into history

Heather Lende

HAINES -- I learned of Mary King's death at the coffee hour after church when my friend, judge and attorney Linn Asper, asked if I was writing her obituary. I didn't know who Mary King was and he couldn't believe it. But that is how the history of Alaska small towns works sometimes, we don't pay as much attention to our past as we should.

Mary King, it turns out, died almost 33 years to the day that she made sure valuable artifacts from the Frog House in Klukwan that had been sold to a Canadian art dealer were returned. White-haired Linn was a young lawyer then, and worked with Mary on the case.

(The artifacts are in the Alaska State Museum in Juneau now.)

I hadn't known Mary King because I hadn't been in Haines back then, and because she'd been in a nursing home nearly a decade. She died at 89 of Alzheimer's disease.

Another reason was what Linn noted were her "very quiet, simple, old fashioned ways." Mary King was one of the last of the local elders to be born into a Tlingit-speaking family, for whom English was barely a second language. Luckily, the museum staff did a few interviews with her 18 years ago.

Linn gave the third eulogy at Mary's second memorial service, which was held right after her first one in the Haines Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall. It turns out there was a lot to say about a woman of few words.

Mary's first service -- from the gaveled "Call to Order" to the final hymn, "Onward Christian Soldiers" -- was conducted by her sisters from Klukwan's Alaska Native Sisterhood Camp No. 8. The women from the influential civil rights organization wore their blue and white caps and sashes, officially called "coogaynahs" (also spelled "koogeinaa") and ran the service like a meeting. They called the roll saying Mary's name three times before adding it to their "Book of Remembrance." Then the crowd was asked to join the ANS or Alaska Native Brotherhood to honor Mary's "courageous" legacy. Eighteen people did.

Mary King was an unlikely heroine. She was poor and uneducated, and told a museum interviewer that the only time she was ever in a school was after a fire and she was hired to clean up. "I can't talk good English, but I try my best," she said.

She spent her whole life between Klukwan and Juneau and was born in a Tlingit fish camp between the two towns. Her mother and grandmother taught her to weave and smoke fish. Master totem pole carver Wayne Price gave the second of her three eulogies, choking up when he spoke of how she had taught him to do everything he does, from carving wood to canning salmon strips, "with all the love you can give."

When it was Linn's turn to speak, he too was emotional. He said that something in Mary King changed when those artifacts left their village home prompting her to step from the background to the foreground -- briefly.

"Mary believed that it was wrong for some of the people to sell what was in the Frog House," He told the crowd at the ANB Hall, and her testimony was "the rock that I built the case on."

I asked Mary's daughter Sally, who still lives in Klukwan, why her mother's words were was so effective and she said her strength came from her cultural literacy.

"She knew how to speak Tlingit, knew the history of all of it, that's why they listened. And she chose to fight to get the artifacts back."

Linn Asper was also frank in his recollection of that time. He spoke of the anger and the hurt the case stirred up and how it was ultimately settled out of court just as the trial was about to begin. "I had my eye on Mary. If she didn't agree, it wasn't going to work," he said, giving her all the credit, although he added she didn't ask for it. "She was one who needed no lifting up. She was one of the most centered persons I've ever met."

It is hazardous to equate your neighbors with biblical martyrs, but that is what the ANS Camp Chaplain did when she compared Mary to Abraham, Moses, and Noah, saying, "We have our own example in the life of Mary King. Her kind and gentle spirit personified the Christ she followed."

An obituary writer has to be careful about making saints out of ordinary people. Everyone who dies, it seems, never said a bad word about anybody and will give you the shirt off their back. And I had never met Mary.

But I kept that observation in the story for our local paper, because I do know Linn, and Wayne and the ANS women, and because a few days after Mary died, I spent an afternoon flipping through an interview she gave about what happened after the case was settled. The judge asked Mary if she hated the people who had sold the contents of her tribal house, and she told him, "No. It's all my family. How should I hate them? They don't know what they are doing. I love them."

Heather Lende lives and writes in Haines.