Yakutat Leader Olaf Abraham Dies

(X’ agatkeen, Yaan Yaan Eesh)

By William Diebels

A chapter in the Native history of Yakutat closed in quiet dignity when Olaf Abraham passed away at Mt. Edgecumbe hospital on April 25. The venerable Tlingit leader of Eagle tribe had lent honor to his tribal nobility for more than 100 years.

As his Raven brothers prepared the Chief’s final resting place on the Ankau River, the skies cleared to reveal the majesty of Mt. St. Elias. No one was surprised. Tradition has it that the great mountain smiles as it welcomes a regal son to final peace.

“Yaan Yaan Eesh” was born on Khantaak Island, three miles from the present village of Yakutat about 1870, the son of Yakooda Kad, the last chief of the Yakutat area. The Russians had been driven out more than half a century earlier and the young nobleman would be 19 before white men again visited the Yakutat Indians.

A land plentiful in resources permitted a rich cultural development. To honor his noble birth, a slave of similar age was appointed for him. Growing up, they became like brothers. During their teens, the master free-ed his slave in the dramatic ritual required for such an unusual event.

The Spartan training by his maternal uncle changed the boy to a man of pride, strength and wisdom. Naked, daily plunges into the icy waters of Yakutat Bay followed by beatings with willow branches to restore circulation developed the stamina required to paddle open war canoes to Sitka to the south and Cordova to the north.

As the years unfolded and the white man’s influence became more prevalent, Olaf selected elements which he valued of the new culture while never abandoning the traditions of his heritage. As an active and charter member of the Alaska Native Brotherhood, his influence in the goals of that organization were felt. He did not betray his beliefs and thus maintained the charisma of his high-caste position. Even in his final years, a hush fell upon the hall as Olaf rose to speak.

His handprint and footprint is in every phase of history of the Yakutat area, from the time the village was in Khantaak to the Old Village, to the present site of Yakutat. He had a hand in building the first cannery; he helped build the railroad-holding the first spike that was driven, as well as in the building of the hospital and the school. His hand has held a tool on every road and trail leading to and from Yakutat.

During the days of the great Alaska Gold Rush, he worked as a packer, and carried 100 pounds with no trouble up mountains.

Olaf Abraham is now a memory. But his life sustains a reality that lives in the hearts and values of the people of Yakutat and of the others who were able to know him. The two eagles that soared above as the funeral procession made its way from Yakutat to the cemetery may have been coincidence´┐Ż I like to think not.and future generations to follow.