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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


February 23, 2002 - Issue 55


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A Time to Heal and Rejoice

credits: Orie Williams laughs as friends and supporters give speeches at the George Tribal Hall in Nenana Saturday afternoon during an honorary potlatch for Williams.
Orie Williams laughs as friends and supporters give speeches at the George Tribal Hall in Nenana Saturday afternoon during an honorary potlatch for Williams.NENANA, AK - Saturday's Nenana potlatch to honor incoming Doyon Ltd. president Orie Williams had two extra, unexpected meanings.

One was to help bring healing to the people of Northway, who buried Rosemarie Maher, William's predecessor who died unexpectedly last July.

The potlatch also allowed the people of Nenana to rejoice. The community has had a series of funeral potlatches in the last several years.

"Generally these occasions have been more solemn," said Jack Irwin, first chief of Nenana Native Council. "This is a chance for celebration."

Nenana's reveling was every bit praise for Williams, the local boy who has done well. Williams, who grew up in Nenana, was named Doyon's president in January. He'll report to work in Fairbanks on Feb. 19.

"Not a day too soon," said Mike Irwin, Doyon's chairman of the board. "We have our annual meeting coming in five weeks. He has to jump right in on that."

Williams appeared humbled and overwhelmed by the attention he received at the potlatch. About 350 people attended, many of them from the state's Alaska Native leadership. One after another presented him with chief's necklaces, symbols of honor made with dentalium shells, glass beads and bits of moosehide. Soon they were heaped around his neck. People began to tease him that he looked like Mr. T.

"No, I'm Mr. D," Williams said, the "D" referring to Doyon.

A half a dozen women from the Alaska Highway village of Northway near the Canadian border drove to Nenana on Saturday to present Williams with a chief's coat they made. The coat was made of navy blue cloth and was trimmed in black beaver fur, beads and shells.

"We just have a lot of respect for him," said Lorraine Titus, one of the seamstresses.

Williams said he planned to meet with each department in Doyon, the heads of Doyon's six subsidiaries and business partners.

"I want to learn what is going on," Williams said, adding that he's been reading reports forwarded to him while he was finishing his job as executive vice president of the Bethel-based Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation.

"I want to hear it from the people," he said.

Williams said he planned to find look over Interior Regional Housing Authority. Some people have lodged complaints against the housing authority, accusing them of being unresponsive to inquiries about Indian housing.

"We'll find out," Williams said.

He also wants to strengthen ties between Tanana Chiefs Conference and Doyon.

"He brings a unique experience to the position," said TCC president Steve Ginnis. "I told him, 'Welcome back to Indian country.'" Bethel and surrounding communities are largely populated by Yupik people. The Alaska Natives of the Interior are Athabascan.

Williams will be sorely missed after he moves to Fairbanks, said Katherine Gottlieb, Southcentral Foundation president.

"You guys chose well," Gottlieb said. "He's going to be great."

After empty plates were cleared from the feast of salmon, moose and salads, the Fairbanks Native Association singers and dancers performed.

One of the songs was written by an Athabascan chief in 1917, after a meeting between Athabascan chiefs and a representative from the federal government who wanted to put Alaska Natives on reservations. The Native leaders resisted the idea and the song was meant to encourage them.

The teen-age dancers in Nenana sang in Athabascan, "His words will carry you through." A young man drummed the beat.

Williams stood as they sang.

"To honor them," he said afterward. "They're tomorrow's leaders."

Nenana, AK Map
Nenana, Alaska

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