Juneau residents owe a lot to Cecelia Kunz, a fearless full-blooded Tlingit woman who despite having only a ninth-grade education spent her life fighting for justice and human rights.
Kunz, who would have turned 94 in August, died about 10 a.m. Wednesday in the house where she was born and lived throughout her life. She had suffered a stroke two months ago and broke her pelvis.
Kunz battled racial discrimination with Elizabeth Peratrovich, whose powerful testimony moved the state Legislature to pass the country's first anti-discrimination law in 1945. She also helped organize the American Association of Retired Persons in Juneau and the radio station KTOO.
"Whenever she had a concern, my grandma would take me on one side and my younger sister on the other side and march to the governor's mansion and they would let her speak her piece," said Micalyne Kunz, Cecelia Kunz's oldest granddaughter, recalling her childhood. "When she walked into the Legislature, they were all shaken."
Kunz's death is a big loss not only to her family but also to the Tlingit community.
"We relied on her so much to know our culture and language," said Marie Olson, president of Alaska Native Sisterhood. "She was one of the few speakers of the old Tlingit. Because we are named after places or events, people went to her house to ask her what their names meant and where they came from."
Kunz was the first teacher of the Tlingit language at Juneau schools, and she founded the first Native dancing group in Juneau, her family and friends said.
Kunz was born into a well-respected Tlingit family. Her father, Jake, was known as Yaakwaan. He was chief of Kaagwaantaan, the wolf clan. Her grandfather was Yeesganaalx, chief of the Leeneidi of the Yaxt Hit, the Dipper House. Her Tlingit name was Kintoow, which means "birds flying."
Her first husband was Dan Kunz. When he died and left her with a son and a daughter, Dan's younger brother Ed proposed to Cecelia.
"My father wanted to make sure that his brother's children were taken care of," said Kunz's son, Ed Kunz Jr. He said when tribal members visited Juneau, they would stop by the couple's house first to pay their respects.
Every evening, Cecelia Kunz sat in front of her house, near the entrance to the part of town known as Indian Village, to make sure the cars slowed down to 5 mph for the children playing on the street.
A life member of ANS Camp 2, she served on every committee and held every office at the camp from sergeant-at-arms to the most prestigious, president emeritus.
"She never missed a meeting except when she was sick or out of town," said Doloresa Cadiente, former president of ANS Camp 2. "It was not just a matter of attending meetings. She was ready to roll up her sleeves and work."
During the 1950s, Kunz was instrumental in putting Native women on the city's election board. She testified before the Juneau Assembly and suggested the election board seek Tlingit speakers to help Native people who might have questions. Women from ANS Camp 2 were subsequently hired to staff precincts and count ballots.
She also pushed the Assembly to name streets after prominent Tlingit leaders and adopt Tlingit place names. One example is the Kaxdegoowu Heen Dei trail by Brotherhood Bridge. The word "Kaxdegoowu" means "clear water creek trail" in Tlingit.
"She was a matriarch in our community," Olson said. "It is a loss that cannot be replaced."
I-Chun Che can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.