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Athabascan matriarch Hannah Solomon remembered

Mary Beth Smetzer
JOHN WAGNER / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner archive 2010

FAIRBANKS -- A red rose atop a pink and blue crocheted pillow marked an empty pew seat at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church that was occupied for many years by Athabascan matriarch Hannah Solomon.

The longtime parishioner and respected Native leader died peacefully at her Fairbanks home late Friday afternoon with family members by her side. "It's time," she said, in her Native Gwich'in language, before taking her last breath, daughter Daisy Stevens said.

Hannah, 102, was just a few weeks shy of celebrating her 103rd birthday on Oct. 10, an occasion her large family always marke with a big party.

Instead, the Solomon family is in the midst of planning Hannah's funeral. The dates and times of church services and potlatches, to be held both in Fairbanks and Fort Yukon, will be announced soon.

As word of Hannah's death spread Friday, food began appearing on dining room table tops in Hannah's home as relatives and friends stopped by to express condolences.

The Native tradition of "having tea" involves sitting and sharing food, and giving comfort and support to the family of the deceased. It continues until the day of the funeral. In addition to gifts of food and flowers, lots of hugs and handshakes are passed around by young and old newcomers as they circle the guest-filled rooms.

Saturday afternoon, people began showing up from the highway communities to pay their respects.

"People come and go and we get our quiet moments now and then," said Regina Varner, another of Hannah's four daughters on hand greeting guests with her sisters -- Hannah's namesake Hannah, Belva and Daisy.

Koyukon Athabascan elder Poldine Carlo reflected on the special friendship she and Hannah shared for six decades. Although unrelated, they adopted each other.

"We always called each other sister," Carlo said. "We never had a bad word against each other. When my (son) Stewart died, she went down with us to Nulato, and when Bill (husband) died, she went too. Not many people would do that at that age."

unique life

Born on Oct. 10, 1908, in Old Rampart, a remote community on the Porcupine River near the Canada border, and raised in Fort Yukon, Hannah's life experience is unmatched by few living today.

She grew up living a traditional subsistence lifestyle, which meant moving around to seasonal trapping and fish camps.

"She was the last person alive who remembered the sound of Archdeacon Hudson Stuck's voice," said the Rev. Scott Fisher, St. Matthew's rector.

Stuck was a pioneer Episcopal missionary and author, who co-led the first successful ascent of the South Peak of Mount McKinley. He died on Hannah's 12th birthday in 1920.

Fisher said Hannah would talk about singing favorite Gwich'in hymns in the choir and how Stuck always carried sugared almonds in his pocket.

Married to Paul Solomon Sr., Hannah raised 14 children -- four girls and 10 boys -- in Fort Yukon, with no running water or electricity for many years. She carried water daily, year-round from the Yukon River to see to the needs of her family. "When we were growing up, we were never poor," Varner said. "We were always sheltered. We always had food, and we were warm."

Long renowned for her artistic beadwork that is in the collections of museums around the world, Hannah taught and shared her sewing skills with family members and others.

When Hannah's eyes were no longer sharp enough to do her precision beading and skin sewing, she turned her hands to crochet, making scarves and afghans for everyone in her huge extended family.

Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, she made all of her sons and grandsons in the service scarves in red, white and blue, Stevens said.

Fort Yukon mayor

In Fort Yukon, Hannah and her late husband, were instrumental with the incorporation of the city. She was active in city government, becoming the first female mayor of Fort Yukon, and she was a strong advocate for children and education, even though she was only able to attend school for a few years.

"You could not stop her," Varner said. "If she wanted something done, she got it done."

Hannah continued her social activism in Fairbanks following her move here in the early 1960s. She worked as a social worker in developing services for those in need of support and was involved in forming the Fairbanks Native Association, Denakkanaaga, and she supported and participated in Doyon Limited, Tanana Chiefs Conference and the Alaska Federation of Natives meetings and initiatives.

Most recently, she attended and spoke at Doyon Limited's annual meeting in March, said her son Franklin, who has been his mother's longtime caretaker.

Hannah enjoyed travel Outside in the last decades of her life and took cross-country trips by plane, train and bus with daughter Daisy Stevens to powwows in the West.

A memorable trip included an excursion to Disneyland, where her grandsons pushed her everywhere in a wheelchair, much to her delight.

Franklin took his mother on her last river trip to Old Crow, a 600-mile round trip by boat, to visit relatives, some years ago.

Hannah loved dancing, especially jigging, and during her 100th birthday party in 2008, she gamely joined the men's dance in her wheelchair.

Varner said her mother wanted to have dancing at her funeral, but after the loss of her youngest son, Peter Solomon, in February, she changed her mind.

special coffin

Even after her death, Hannah's signature will be seen at her funeral.

"We do our own coffins," Varner explained. The men build them and the women pad and line the interior, usually with a satiny fabric.

"She requested flowers in her coffin," said Varner, whose daughter Michelle Peter was already busy auditioning colorful floral fabric for the job.

Although a lifetime Episcopalian who loved St. Matthew's, Varner said, her mother asked that her Fairbanks funeral be held at the Catholic Cathedral so that there will be space for all the mourners.

Another of Hannah's requests that will be fulfilled is that the Fairbanks pallbearers be her granddaughters, and that the Fort Yukon service pallbearers be the first-born grandsons of each of her children's families.

Recently, during one of her daily visits to see her mother, Varner said Hannah told her of a dream that foretold her death. "I was sitting on a stump on the bank of the Yukon River. It was so beautiful all around, and then I saw people walking by with their heads down and I wondered why they were so sad. And then I saw a coffin and I wondered why they were so sad, because I was so happy."

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner