The matriarch of Chickaloon, Alaska, Katherine “Katie” Wade, died March 22, as she would have wanted, peacefully and surrounded by family.
Her passing marks the end of an era and leaves an emptiness for many in the close-knit village.
“There was no one like her; she was strong,” said Chief Gary Harrison.
Officially her title was Clan Grandmother, but unofficially she was simply “Auntie Katie,” the one many turned to in happy times, in sad times and in confusing times.
The woman who went to jail for her beliefs in supporting subsistence and other Alaska Native rights had a soft side. “She was tough, but she was very soft,” said Lisa Wade, eldest granddaughter and health and social services director for the village, explaining that her grandmother gave the best hugs. “It wasn’t just a hug, it was a full-on embrace. That’s the way she felt about her family; she embraced them all and didn’t want anybody falling through the cracks.”
Harrison and Wade both spoke in interviews on May 14, the day friends and family were participating in the ceremony to put a spirit house on Katie Wade’s grave.
“The main thing is, she was the boss, the real matriarch,” Lisa Wade said. “If something was really important, we would go to her.”
In 2002, Wade was named CIRI Shareholder of the Year, honoring her for promoting pride in Alaska Native culture and heritage, commitment to the economic and social well-being of Alaska Natives and working to preserve Native customs, folklore and traditional arts.
Wade earned the honor on all counts. Besides her outspoken political activism, she also took great pride in her beadwork and skin-sewing, her cooking and her village leadership.
“She was a really good person, a good-hearted person who really loved her family and a hard worker. I have memories of when she would take all us young guys hunting for moose and climbed mountains into Boulder. Her drive-in ‘Katie’s Drive-In’ and all the rocks she packed to make her rock garden. I admired her for all the good things she done for people and her hard work,” said Dan Corey, whose family is from Chickaloon and who now lives in Palmer.
Corey’s daughter Lauri Corey, a CIRI employee, had this to say: “My memory of Katie as a child was her drive-in, the jukebox and her good food, she was a great cook and she made the best pies. When she got smoked salmon, she would call the family to come up and enjoy it with her. She would make ‘Siwash bread’ to go with hot tea and smoked salmon.”
Katie Wade was born Dec. 15, 1922, in Chickaloon. She was the mother of four children. She and her late husband “Tiny” bought 40 acres of land near Moose Creek where they raised their family. She opened and ran the Moose Creek Drive-In from 1956 to 1976. She was a cook at various restaurants in the Palmer area. Her cooking was so well known throughout the Matanuska-Susitna Valley and in Anchorage that pilots and flight attendants visiting Anchorage would make the drive north just for the food at the Moose Creek Drive-In.
Her influence and leadership flowed through all aspects of the Chickaloon Village. In June of 1992, as matriarch of the village, Katie founded a Saturday Ya Ne Dah Ah School. The school eventually evolved into a full-time school teaching kindergarten through fifth grades. On June 18, 2002, the Ya Ne Dah Ah School received Harvard University’s Highest Honor Award for Governance in Native America.
Wade spoke the Chickaloon dialect of the Ahtna Athabascan language fluently and clearly understood her responsibility to teach it to students and tribal members. She also published a book about her life history, Chickaloon Spirit, published in 2003. The process of writing the book was a testament to her determination, because she was a self-taught writer. She never attended traditional public school, but learned on her own how to read and write.
In 2007, she was awarded the Governor’s Award for Native Arts and Languages.
“I’ll share one of my memories of Mom when I was probably 8 or 9 years old,” said daughter Patricia Wade. “We were getting ready for a church service, and we were poor and didn’t have fancy clothes to wear. She told us God didn’t care what we wore to church, He wasn’t looking at that. He was only interested in what was in our hearts. So the best way to honor and remember her is for us to be kind to one another, appreciate each other, and respect each individual’s way of honoring her.”
“Happy Trails to you, Mom, you were an amazing woman.”
Katie Wade was 86. She is survived by her children, Lawrence, Patricia, Larraine and Douglas; grandchildren Lisa, Gregory, Tony, Angie, Ryan and Alex Wade, Justice McPherson, Dimitrios and Alexander Macheras, and Daniel Fry; and great grandchildren Kaylan Wade, and Tara and Ayla Agnew. She leaves her brothers Albert and Harold Harrison and Norman Oleson, and sisters Shirley Sorenson and Mabel Harrison, as well as the entire Chickaloon Village Tribe. She was preceded in death by her brothers Raymond and William and sisters Helen, Jesse and Angeline.