RECLAIMING THE LAND: Priscilla Billum Mahle, Ahtna

Published April 2018

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Judy Ferguson, Voice of Alaska Press

Long before the 1960s movement for indigenous land claims, Priscilla Billum Mahle’s grandfather filed for his land, a necessary precedent for Ahtna’s later territorial claims. I first met Priscilla at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer in 2005. As we talked, she said she’d like to tell her family’s story. Before I left Anchorage, I visited Priscilla in her home where she shared her story.

I am the great-granddaughter of the famous Ahtna Athabascan sleep doctor, Doc Billum. I was born in 1939 in the village of Chitina to John Jr. and Molly Billum. With relatives from Southeast to the Tanana Valley, I am Ahtna, Salchaket Athabascan, as well as Tlingit from Yakutat.

The Copper River Ahtna used to trade copper nuggets with Yakutat. They walked there on an old trail following the Bremner River. It was said that when they bought Yakutat for $300 in copper, they also brought back the woman who became my grandmother.

In 1867 when the Russians were leaving Alaska, some of them told my family, “We won’t be returning; a different people will be managing Alaska now.
When they arrive—to protect your land—draw them a map to show them your indigenous borders.”

My great-grandpa, Doc Billum, became a six-foot-two shaman, but when he was young, he and his family walked—the only way—all the way from the Salcha to Copper Center, a long way then.

Priscilla, standing, with her sister Shirley in Chitina, circa 1954. (Courtesy of Priscilla Billum Mahle).

1796: Tarkanov winters at Taral on Copper River.
1867: In Treaty of Cession, Russia sells Alaska to U.S.
1885: Lt. Allen, first American up Copper River; meets Chief Nicolai.
1898: Klondike gold rush.
1900: Chitina Mining and Exploration Co. Richest known concentration of copper in the world.
1903: Guggenheim and J.P. Morgan’s Kennecott Copper Corporation.
1938: Copper River and Northwest Railroad hauls ore.
1951: John Billum Sr., Doc Billum’s son, files first Ahtna land claim.
1962: Oscar Craig and Markle Ewan at first Tanana Chiefs meeting..

A group of Ahtna lived around Copper Center but due to the starvation time of 1898, they had to split up. One band went to Willow Creek Lake. Doc took his people southeast toward Chitina, and the third group went northeast, to Copper Center, looking for food.

Doc was known to sleep and dream and then to awake with a vision. Once he dreamed he met a strange people coming up the Copper River. He heard them speak in a foreign language with each other on a tributary of the Copper River. When he woke, he spoke in that language, English, which he had never heard before. Then speaking in Ahtna, he said, “A people are coming, and they will sound like this.” In 1885 when Lt. Allen’s party, the first American officials to explore up the Copper River, the English-speaking lieutenant met with Chief Nicolai. Like my great-grandpa had dreamed, they talked on a tributary of the Copper River.

Priscilla Billum Mahle in 2005. (Photo by Judy Ferguson).

In this photo taken in Lower Tonsina in about 1910, the shaman “sleep doctor” Doc Billum, Priscilla’s great-grandfather, is wearing his trademark top hat. Next to him in the beaver hat is Priscilla’s grandfather John Billum Sr. (Courtesy of Priscilla Billum Mahle).

Later, in 1898, as prospectors arrived with the Gold Rush, killing game, catching fish, and bringing disease and alcohol, that became our time of starvation. Once when Chief Nicolai of Taral was desperately hungry, he led the whites to a vein of copper, the Nicolai Prospect, in exchange for food. Speculators for the Kennecott Copper Corporation soon began developing the Kennecott Mine. Over a period of twenty-seven years, they extracted $200 million in copper, a lot of money in those days. Chitina was established along the Copper River. In 1911, the railroad began operation, connecting Strelna, McCarthy, and Kennicott by rail.

At Lower Tonsina on the Copper River, my great grandpa, Doc Billum, ran his ferry along with his son Ts’inaeen, John Sr. Not too many people had boats, but he did. Their usual customers were miners, prospectors, and their horses. He would ferry Chief Nicholai from Taral to Chitina, which was abandoned when the chief died. Doc was recognizable by his top hat. He helped both Native and non-Native, and he was nicknamed after a famous white physician of that era, Dr. Billum. In 1927, when Doc was working at the Copper Center Lodge, he caught the flu. He died, and he was buried near Lower Tonsina.

You can read the full interview with Priscilla Billum Mahle in Judy’s book: Windows to the Land, An Alaska Native Story Vol. One: Alaska Native Land Claims Trailblazers: