History of Kiana
As told by Tommie Sheldon, Jr., January 25, 2001.
I welcome each and every one of you here today. I was asked to speak about Kiana history as I saw or heard it
Our local Inupiat lived in the Old Village for many years. The town of Kiana was established in the current location in the early 1900's when one of the prospectors struck gold at Klery Creek. There was a post office, hotel, saloon, jail, and restaurant in those early days. George Stanley was the judge and Clarence Hawkins was the marshal. I believe that the hotel, saloon, jail and restaurant closed before I was born.
The Inupiat were not permitted to live in the town or attend the school when it was first established in Kiana. Many of the Kiana children went to Noorvik to attend school. After a while though, everyone could attend the Kiana school. The teacher came in the fall and left on the supply boat each spring. I was asked if I knew any English when I first went to school in 1931. Like the other children, I spoke only Inupiat. The school rule was to speak only English on the school grounds and for every Inupiat word we spoke, we would get one mark. If we got ten marks, we were not invited to the Friday night party. None of us wanted to miss the Friday night party; we were given one glass of juice and two cookies at the party. So that is how we learned to speak English.
The first school building was a log cabin situated near the Old School. When I was sixteen years old, I was hired as the janitor for the school. Billy Hasway was the previous janitor. My younger brother, Elwood, who was fourteen at the time, and I would go to the school to make fire and light the gas lamps. Elwood and I would leave our home early in the morning without eating; it was cold and dark outside. I worked one winter and my pay was 100 pound flour and 100 pound sugar. I was let go after the first winter because I was too young.
The old school building, which is still standing today, was built in the late 1920's. Many of the Kiana students went to the school there. Mr. Hall was one of the teachers whose name still comes up today.
As the Klery Creek gold mining slowed down and the miners were getting old, our people started moving to the town. Some of the names of the sourdoughs were Andy Garbin from Yugoslavia, Jack Casanoff and Joe Kozak from Russia, Tom Baldwin from Ireland (he stated he was from Boston, Mass.), Alec the Greek, and Teddy Westlake from Poland. Others were Albert Wise, Manual Lapendarous and Joe Quillan. Joe Quillan drove a team of horses. The horses were used to haul freight to the gold miners at Klery Creek. Part of his trail can still be seen today; he cut willows and laid them on the ground to prevent the wagon wheels from sinking into the ground. Some of the miners married Inupiat women and the descendents are living here today.
One of the decisions that had to be made when moving to the town was the location of the Kiana Friends Church. Everyone was a member of the church, being dedicated to the Church as a baby. There were a number of people that wanted the church in town and some that didn't. There were more and more people moving so the decision was made to move it.
George Melton was the pastor at the time. The present church is the third church building at that location. The first church was built with the help of Lorenz Schuerch and Loren Black; they used chainsaws. It was replaced with a larger building and then again approximately in 1980. In my younger years, I attended church with Richard Atoruk who was deaf and also couldn't speak. After the service, I would use sign language to relay the message from the pastor to Richard.
All of our people survived by living off the land. In those days, every one hunted and fished for their livelihood. During muskrat hunting season, people would leave by dog team each spring taking their boats with them (although not all the families had boats and outboard motors). They would gather enough skins for their own use and to sell to the local stores. During the winter, the families would charge groceries and the store keepers would travel by boat to the camps to pick up muskrat skins as payment. They would also sell more grocery items. The main items they bought were shells, coffee, tea, salt, four and sugar. The other items such as crackers were too expensive and would not last too long. I remember my mother making a pot of rice and biscuits as a treat for us. We enjoyed eating the rice with sugar and milk. Another memory of my mother is when she would take us out to get firewood. Our father would be out hunting for caribou in the Noatak area so in order to survive, our mother would take us out to get firewood. We used a handsaw to cut a tree down. It would take all day to bring home one log using one dog and toboggan to haul it home. Our house was not very well insulated and there were cracks in the wall.
After the muskrat hunting, people would return to the village. That was also time to celebrate and they held games on the 4th of July. Afterwards, they went back to their summer camp for fishing. Some summers, we would have rainy weather while trying to dry fish. We had no choice but to eat the fish that was not dried properly. All the campers would stay until school started.
Some of the men would go work at the mine at Klery Creek. I first went to work there when I was eighteen years old and I earned 76 cents an hour as a laborer. My first job was at Candle. Charlie Mulluk (who is Bob Mulluk's and Clara Jackson's father) used to fish here at Kiana and travel to Klery Creek by way of the slough at Squirrel River to sell them to the gold miners. He would do this once or twice a week and this allowed him to have enough money to buy coffee, tea, and sugar. Two brothers, Jimmy and Billy Hasway, would cut logs from Squirrel River and build a raft to float down. They would pack the logs up the hill to sell to John Millen's store. John Millen established the first store in Kiana and it was in operation until about 1940. The most they got for the cord of wood was $8.00 a cord and it measured 4 ft. wide, 4 ft. high and 8 ft. long. Jimmy and Billy were tough; they would do this all through the fall months. The other storekeepers in early years were Tom Baldwin, Bill Leavey and Louie Rotman. Some of the local people also worked in reindeer herding. People formed companies in Shishmaref and Deering with the help of the federal government and the workers earned reindeer for the time they worked.
That is the kind of life I grew up in. We didn't worry about lots of things such as gasoline, outboard motors, and snow machines. When the snow machines first came out, I bought a Ski-Doo for $900. I started to rely on the snow machine because it was different than using dogs for transportation. We always had to be concerned about feeding dogs. If you didn't, then you don't have heat or a way to go out hunting. The village population in those days was about 100 to150 people. Those were happy days. Waiting for the moonlight times, and sunshine times. Lots of fun.