The following interview with the late Ahtna Elder Lucille Brenwick (07-05-1911 to 11-04-2002) was conducted by her great-niece, Ahtna shareholder Ruth Ann Shinn, Bill Schneider and Dave Krupa in Copper Center on February 1, 2001, for Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve’s Project Jukebox. This portion of the interview recording (University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History 2001-02-01) was transcribed by Ahtna with permission from UAF. The full interview recording is available at: jukebox.uaf.edu/site7/interviews/674.
I remember the 1918 flu. We were still living across the river then. We had no doctors or nurses, so there were government nurses and doctors sent up here. People were dying right and left. We lived in a big log house. I remember that both of my brothers and mother were sick. These government nurses had to come across the Copper River walking on snowshoes, you know, to get there because you couldn’t drive over there. There was no road or cars running. So they came, but I wasn’t sick. They kept trying to see if they could examine me and I was very scared of them. You didn’t see many people in those days. So I hid behind the stove. We had a big heating stove and I stayed right behind there. They kept saying, “Come on little girl, come on out and let us examine you,” you know. But no way, uh uh. I stayed right behind that stove. They couldn’t even get me out for anything.
So anyway, eventually they got well. Old John McCurry, he’s the man that started this experimental farm down here. They had come from Missouri I believe, the McCurry family. And he set up a farm down here and he had horses. Each night he had said to my brother, as long as you are well, come out to the point. We were right across the river from each other. And he would sing…[Lucille begins to sing]. And he said if you’re okay, answer. And of course the sound would carry. And my brother John would go out and answer John McCurry and tell him that everybody was alright at our place. Because a lot of the people were dying. Half of Wood Camp was dying off, you know.
So after the 1918 flu, there was a big potlatch given at Wood Camp. And that was the first one I remember, and the potlatch was held outside because there were no halls like there are now, you know. So, it was in the summertime. I remember Jim McKinley, the first time I ever saw him. He was a young man by then, but a grown man and he was dancing with feathers. And I remember his stomping feet and the dust flying under his feet. And I remember the song they danced to. It was..[begins to sing]. It’s a dance where you kind of jump back and forth and he had feathers in his hand.
Jim McKinley lived until just several years ago. He must have been quite old by the time he died. He was the son of a Chief. His father was the Chief. His father was McKinley George. And the way they got their name was that in the early days when they came up here and they found that he was a leader. He said, well then you must be the head of your people like a President, like President McKinley. So, your name must be McKinley George. And later on they turned it around and made it George McKinley. That’s how the McKinley name came.
I remember the potlatch there, I remember the people coming down the Copper River in rafts. And they would come into the bay there. There was a big slough there. They would come into there. And as they did, the other Indians fired big guns off as they arrived. And those were the days when after the potlatch was over, and they ate on the ground, and they broke all the dishes, and they danced on them and stomped on them, and broke ‘em. And they were beautiful dishes. But all I remember is that I was there. I don’t know how long we were there, or how long it lasted. It’s one of those where your memory is spotted. I remember attending that potlatch, after the 1918 flu.
There were quite a few people because they came from up the river you know and everywhere. But I’ve thought ever since, if they came down the river in boats and rafts, how did they get back home again? They must have walked home. Because there weren’t many cars in those days. At all. Nobody owned a car until later on. I remember that Chief Andrew bought a Chevrolet and he kept it in the barn at Copper Center. And he would have to have a designated driver every time he went anywhere, because he didn’t know how to drive, you know. But he owned that car.
About Lucille Brenwick
Lucille Brenwick grew up in Copper Center, Alaska and went to the BIA Chemawa boarding school in Oregon. She met her first husband in Seattle, Washington when he was in the Navy, and then lived with him in different places around the Lower 48 as his job moved him around the country. She became homesick and returned to the Copper River Basin area without her husband. Once she came back to Alaska, she married Leonard Brenwick, and ran the trading post in Tazlina for a while.