KTVA Feature on Knik
By Andrea Gusty, CBS 11 News Reporter
We've heard the saying many times: the more things change, the more they stay the same. That may be true for some things, but not when it comes to cultural traditions. We meet one man who is fighting to keep his people's traditions alive.
Our Native population and history is one of the things that makes our state so special. But as modern life encroaches on Alaska Native culture, a way of life is being lost.
Meet Chief Paul Theodore. His biggest fear is that when he's gone, the memory of his people and their way of life will be gone with him.
"I come up here to pray- because it is so beautiful and it
is the only place in all the land where you could see all our people's land from one place," said Chief Paul Theodore, leader of the Knik Tribes.
Chief Theodore is one of the last traditional chiefs in Alaska. He comes from a long line of Athabaskan leaders in Knik.
"I'm the grandson of two chiefs: Chief Wasilla and my dad Bailey Theodore and my mother was Chief Stephan's daughter of Knik. Chief Stephan owned all this land here long before everybody came. From mountain range to mountain range, that's where we owned," said Theodore.
... from mountain range to mountain range-- it is land that has belonged to Chief Theodore's people for generations, land that still bears his family's names.
"Eklutna- that's my grandfather's brother; they named that place after him. Wasilla is named after my grandfather. His other brother was Talkeetna," said Theodore.
But the names, and the memories are all that's left of them and Chief Theodore is left to navigate the quickly changing world alone.
"It's changed in such a short time: they went from going to canoes, to big boats, sail boats to motor boats-- even seeing people land on the moon--and everything
Chief Paul Theodore
in such a short time," said Theodore.
And with every elder that leaves the earth, more and more of the Knik people's history fades away.
"One person alone is like a library. When one old person dies, that knowledge goes with them. It's like history is dying and going away with everything," said Theodore.
Mosquitoes, leaves and insect eggs are suspended in time in an amber arrow head that the chief keeps to remind himself of why he has devoted his life to the people of Knik.
"I prayed and I said, 'I want a sign from my people that we were here long before.' And that's what came to me and I've always carried it ever since. And I know it came from my people and my grandfather's people," said Theodore.
Chief Theodore has worked so hard and with such devotion, that his cause eventually drove away those he loves most--all except Wolfie, his companion. He is a little Pomeranian that always seems to be by his side.
Chief Theodore has spent his entire life trying to keep his culture alive--a life that he now thinks may have been wasted.
"I gave up my life, my happiness, my joy, to save my people. I gave up marriages, my kids--everything to keep the culture. And now they are all gone," said Theodore.
To contact Andrea, call 907-273-3186
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Fighting to preserve his culture
By Andrea Gusty, CBS 11 News Reporter
Chief Paul Theodore
As our state continues to grow, more and more sacred Native sites are threatened, and pieces of Alaskan history lost.
On Thursday, CBS 11 News introduced you to Chief Paul Theodore, one of the last traditional chiefs in Alaska. He has spent his life fighting to preserve his Athabaskan culture. In this segment of the story, we show you what he is trying to protect.
"There's lots of them around here...a whole city, " said Chief Theodore.
... a whole city of Athabaskan graves--in the middle of a developing land.
"There's probably 50,000 because our people- there was that many people there- they used to say they could hear the ground moving with our people," said Theodore.
There was a village there before Westerners came to Alaska. But now, all that's left are the graves, which Knik chief, Theodore and his family have taken great pains to keep intact.
"We cleared all the trees out and then we rebuilt them. My dad rebuilt it once, all of them. And then a few years ago, I rebuilt them because they were all getting old again," said Theodore.
Most of the graves are ornately decorated in the traditional fashion, with Russian Orthodox crosses, fences and spirit houses.
"Some of them are really old. There were some craftsmen back then and I don't know how they made it. But, it took me a long time to copy each one that I found. And I copied each one the same way to rebuild them," said Theodore.
Paintings on the grave's spirit houses tell the story of a person's life--just another way for tribal members to remember their loved ones after they have left this earth.
At the gravesite is where Chief Theodore's grandfather was laid to rest. Chief Wasilla is the
namesake of the Mat-Su city. The paintings there are a reminder of his life's accomplishments.
“He lived in Anchorage, that's what that means...he was a fisherman, he worked on the railroad- a lot of years, he built the railroad," said Theodore.
Ironically, it is all the new building projects--the recent boom of development in the Mat-Su Valley that is destroying some of these sacred places.
Many of the burial sites were never marked. Their locations were passed from generation to generation through the oral tradition. But now the chief finds himself having to break those traditional ways, by possibly revealing the location of his ancestor's graves, if they are to be saved.
“They keep digging up graves and bring them back. And I have to bury them here. That one house- they got that one from Settler's Bay. They brought her back and told me to bury her there," said Theodore.
"They are destroying our history and taking our resources and making us poor in our own lands--and destroying everything that we have lived for, for thousands of years," said Theodore.
To contact Andrea, call 907-273-3186.