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Book Review: Legacy of the Chief

ISBN 1-888125-86-1
Author: Ronald N. Simpson
Reviewed by Bill Jones

    Legacy of The Chief is an unusual book by an unusual author. It is a historical novel about south central Alaska beginning in 1868 and extending to near the present time. It is a first edition hard cover book of 799 pages and has hundreds of pictures and illustrations.

    The author documents the largest ever single industry in Alaska, the Kennecott Copper mine and the first standard gauge railroad in Alaska. He does it in such detail and with such human interest that this part could be a stand alone book itself.

    Weaving between the industrial story is the real theme of the book, the Copper River people, led by The Tyone of Taral. He is an actual person. Chief Nicolai was a Chief of Chiefs, a Tyone who other chiefs recognized as their leader.

    Long before the Gold Rush, Nicolai greeted the famous first explorer of the whole of Interior Alaska. This was the assignment given to US Army Lt. Henry Allen in the year 1885. Allen was given the mission to explore and chart all of the rivers in the Alaskan interior, record the indigenous tribes, and assess their numbers. At that time the only white men in Alaska's interior were The Hudson's Bay traders at Fort Yukon and the Russians at Nulato.

    Allen's small group began at the mouth of the Copper River and headed up that rugged valley. As he struggled up the rapids and cliffs about the river he was observed by the Ahtna people. Chief Nicolai, whose village of Taral was far up river near the present town of Chitina, was kept informed of Allen´s progress.

    At first, unaware that Alaska had been taken over by The United States, Nicolai thought that Allen and his party were Russians. They would have been killed had not one of the Natives contacted told Nicolai that they were not Russian and they called themselves American.

    Eventually Nicolai met the bedraggled Allen party. Convinced that the Americans were no threat, Nicolai let them proceed. He bartered with them, giving them food and guided them on up the valley.

    Nicolai had great perception. When Allen revealed his keen interest in the copper found along the valley, this caused a foreboding. Chief Nicolai sent Lt. Allen on to the headwaters of the Tanana River with Native guides. The guides served as their protectors by going ahead to the chiefs of the tribes that they were approaching, thus transferring Chief Nicolai´s protection of Allen on their continuing journey.

    A few years later, Chief Nicolai's foreboding became a reality when surveyors and engineers began to arrive. Then the railroad was built and the Ahtna people's way of life was changed forever. The Kennecott Mine was the largest Alaskan operation of its type from that time until long after World War II ended. With the exception of the Juneau gold district, Kennecott's gross revenues in copper exceeded that of every gold mining operation in Alaska and the Yukon. Yet, as huge as it was, Kennecott is now but a footnote in the history of the Northwest.

    Perhaps this is because Chief Nicolai's predictions were right. He said that the Ahtna´s were the people of the Earth who loved the land and would never leave. The white man had no respect for the earth and would leave when the copper was taken out.

    Throughout the book, Ron Simpson weaves in the spiritual aspect of the Ahtna people. Their much maligned spirituality has been dubbed shamanism. Athabascan spiritualism is shared by scores of tribes throughout the North American continent. Actually it is more a form of monotheism that recognizes a single supreme and benevolent deity.

    Then it happened suddenly in 1938. The once rich veins of copper began to peter out. The executives in New York sent word to close out the Kennecott operations. Nearly a hundred buildings, miles of overhead tramways, the enormous electric generators, and the vast water and steam systems were all shut down.

    The last train was loaded with salvaged machinery. It whistled its way down track, over the million dollar trestle, the train itself and its cargo to be loaded aboard the last Kennecott ship to debark Cordova. Then Cordova, all towns up the track, the huge multiple Kennecott communities, all became ghost towns.

    At Kennecott, the general office was left intact with furniture, filing cabinets, and papers left on the desks. The homes occupied by the staff were left with beds made up waiting fruitlessly for the worker families to return. (Years later in 1952 this reviewer explored the huge Kennecott complex. Except for a layer of dust the place looked ready for the next shift of workers. It was the largest ghost town in North America.)

    Chief Nicolai had it right. The white man was only interested in robbing the bounty of the lands. They had no interest in the land or the people. To them, Alaska was a place to be exploited, not a place to live.

Historical Timed Events Mentioned in the Book
US Purchased Alaska from Russia. The only white people in Alaskaís interior were The Hudsonís Bay fur traders at Fort Yukon and The Russian fur traders at Nulato.
US Army Lt. Henry Allen's expedition to the Alaska interior began.
Gold discovered in The Yukon.
First mining claims staked out in the Copper River area by Edward Gates.
Fairbanks was founded on the banks of the Chena River.
The CRNW standard gauge railroad was completed from Cordova 196 miles to Chitina and Kennecott.
The CRNW railroad had 18 locomotives, 256 freight cars, and 8 passenger coaches operating on its 196 miles of track.
Kennecott mining operations closed. CRNW railroad closed.

    Legacy of The Chief is written with passion and dedication. It is wonderfully illustrated and historically accurate. It is fascinating reading and it carries a deep and enduring message. I believe it will become an Alaskan literary classic.

    Ron Simpson is a direct descendent of Chief Nicolai and of mixed parentage. He lived much of his younger life in the world of the white man and was educated in their world.

    Ron must have heard the spirit of his ancestor Chief Nicolai, who must have told him that he would only find happiness in the lands of his people. He first returned to Kennecott and was spiritually driven to move ever closer to Taral.

    He now lives in Copper Center, Alaska, a few miles from his peoples' old village of Taral. Nicolai's spirit guides him. Ron is dedicated to the well being and progression of his people, the Athabascans of Alaska and the Continent, whose spiritual culture has endured since the Ice Age.

    Copies of the book are available from several dealers in the ABEBooks network.