FAIRBANKS — The long search is over. After 56 years, the grave of the late Fort Yukon Chief Esias Loola has been located in Washington state and plans are in the making to return his remains to the Yukon River village to be buried next to his wife, Katherine, and his stepson, John Stevens.
Loola was a beloved chief, well known and respected for his generosity, hard work and humanitarianism.
Loola and his wife, Katherine, took in many orphan children during their lifetime when death from flu, measles or tuberculosis, was commonplace.
Chief Loola died, at age 73, in Seattle in 1957, three months after he was hospitalized in the final stages of pulmonary tuberculosis.
“Ever since, the people of Fort Yukon all wanted him back,” said his grandson, Athabascan fiddler, Bill Stevens, “And all these years we couldn’t find him.”
The late Katherine Peter was one of those orphans who wrote a book in 1992 in both Gwich’in Athabascan and English entitled, “Khehkwaii Zheh Gwiich’i — Living in the Chief’s House. She also made two trips to Washington state in attempts to find his resting place.
Peter was taken in by the couple when she was around 8 years old, and she writes about the subsistence lifestyle they lived, camp life and the Loolas’ many fine attributes.
“The Chief and his wife Katherine really raised me well,” she mentions several times over throughout the memoir.
“There was a hospital in Fort Yukon, so they brought patients from all over the vicinity. From the villages, even as far as Old Crow, they brought patients to Fort Yukon because of the hospital. If any of the patients died, the Chief would build a coffin for them and pay for it out of his own pocket,” Peter wrote. “He did many good deeds.”
The Loolas’ large home was the center for potlatches and dances and Stevens remembers as a child sitting tucked in a corner watching the dancers and listening to the fiddle music which influenced him to pick up a fiddle and bow as a young teenager.
Now 79, he also recalls the hospitality always shown by his grandparents whenever visitors came in.
“There was always dry meat and salmon strips and pilot bread and tea,” Stevens said.
A year ago, Stevens asked a friend, Robin Renfroe, a genealogy hobbyist, to join in what by this time everyone considered a futile search.
“Bill said they had been looking and they were told he might be buried in a mass grave, and they sort of lost hope,” Renfroe said.
At first, Renfroe couldn’t find anything. But in February, after four or five unsuccessful attempts, she was again on ancestry.com researching something else, when she decided to try again, and Chief Esias Loola’s name popped up in Washington State death records.
Renfroe learned from the death certificate that Chief Loola died of a coronary occlusion brought on by pulmonary tuberculosis.
The record also shows he was born in 1884, and died June 3, 1957 at 11:10 a.m., at Riverton Hospital in Seattle, and was buried at Abbeyview Memorial Park, Brier, Wash.
“I called the cemetery, and they said, ‘We have him right here and know where he is buried.’”
The immediate response surprised Renfroe who has done similar searches in the past, and has often found it very difficult to locate burial sites.
On a recent trip Outside, Renfroe visited the gravesite which is marked with a small bronze plate, sunken a few inches in the ground, with grass growing all around.
And since the gravesite discovery, the excitement about returning Chief Loola to his home to be honored and reburied with his family members, continues to grow.
Plans are now in the works and to hold two fundraisers to cover legal fees, exhumation and transportation costs, estimated to run between $8,000 to $10,000.
The first Chief Esias Loola fundraiser is being held tonight in Fairbanks.
A dinner, fiddle dance and raffles fundraising event will kick off at the Chief David Salmon Tribal Hall, beginning with a baked barbecue chicken dinner from 6-8 p.m. for a $10 donation, followed by fiddle music dancing and visiting for a $10 donation. A best deal is available for $17 for both.
And of course, the Loolas’ grandson, Bill Stevens will be there playing fiddle music.
“In all these years he’s been gone, there has always been an emptiness inside,” Stevens said. “I have his picture on my wall and see him everyday. When I take Communion I think of him and my grandma and now I am so, so happy.”
On May 20, Bonnie Thomas in Fort Yukon, a great-great-granddaughter of the late chief, will be heading up an on-the-air radio fundraiser on radio station KZPA 900-AM that serves the Yukon Flat Villages.
Thomas also interviewed some Fort Yukon elders who still carry memories of Chief Loola and his sharing ways.
Fred Thomas, 94, said, “Tuberculosis killed half of the people during those years, and Chief Loola did a wonderful job caring for anyone who came to his door for help.”
And the best is yet to come. A huge homecoming, memorial, burial and potlatch is slated for Aug. 31 in Fort Yukon upon bringing Chief Loola home.
Thomas and Renfroe will be traveling south to make the final arrangements. Following exhumation Chief Loola’s remains will go an Episcopal church for a special prayer service in keeping with lifelong deep religious beliefs, before being transported back home.