Clan Grandmother

Katherine Mae Wickersham Wade, 1940s. Photo courtesy of the CVTC Permanent Collections, Katherine Wade Collection.

“There’s room for everyone in our family and we should all love each other and help each other to be better persons.  The name of the game is respect.”  

– Katherine Wade

One of the most important historical figures among the Ahtna Dene (Athabascans) of Nay’dini’aa Na’ Kayax (Chickaloon Native Village) was Clan Grandmother and matriarch, Katherine (Wickersham) Wade, known by most of her friends and family as Aunt Katie. Katie’s life story reflects the Tribe’s turbulent history with the influences of colonization, rapid assimilation, and acculturation. Through her recorded memories and book, Chickaloon Spirit: The Life & Times of Katherine Wickersham Wade, Katie offered us a view into the past that clearly describes the historical tragedies and traumas experienced by her people, as well as the strength and resilience they shared to overcome these challenges, survive, and thrive. 

Katie was born on December 15, 1922, in Nay’dini’aa Na’ Kayax, and passed on March 22, 2009, in Nuutah (Palmer), Alaska. Her life was interwoven with many others, including much of the colonization history of the Matanuska Valley. Katie lived through the early years of mining extraction in Nay’dini’aa Na’ (Chickaloon), and before her birth her family’s ancestral lands were  overtaken by the boomtown of Chickaloon, the building of the Alaska Railroad and the construction of the Glenn Highway. She also experienced rapid changes in the demographic landscape through the Matanuska Colony Project and as a result of those staking homestead claims in Chickaloon. Her story is unique in that she was a child of two worlds during a period of extreme fast-paced changes in Alaska. 

KKatie went from living a traditional Indigenous way of life, learning the Ahtna language and cultural lifeways from her grandparents Balasculya and Frank Nicolai to a western industrialized society that encouraged the forced assimilation of Alaska Native Peoples. Despite these pressures, she persevered and dedicated her life to the preservation of her Ahtna Athabascan language, cultural lifeways, and traditions.

Katie never lost her amazing sense of humor. She was an eloquent Ahtna storyteller, a true historian, an extraordinary beadwork artist, and a respected Ahtna teacher. Through her efforts, the Tribal citizens of Nay’dini’aa Na’ Kayax maintained a connection to their cultural past allowing them to revitalize and continue to live their indigenous way of life. Furthermore, her vision for the preservation of Ahtna language and culture was instrumental to the creation of the Ya Ne Dah Ah School in 1992, which continues to flourish and educate younger generations. Just as she profoundly influenced the lives of her Tribal family, she served as an inspiration to all who were fortunate to know her. During her lifetime, Katie received the Living Cultural Treasures Award, was acknowledged in Alaska with the Governor’s Award for Native Arts and Languages, was and remains, an honored Elder of Nay’dini’aa Na’ Kayax.  Katie always held fast to her Ahtna Dene sovereign rights, values, and beliefs. She passed these ideals on to her children, grandchildren, and fellow Tribal citizens, who celebrate her memory by carrying on and living her legacy.  

When speaking of how she accomplished so many things, she said, “it’s like walking in snowshoes, take a step and then another step and a trail opens up in front of you.”

  • Wade, Katherine Wickersham. Chickaloon Spirit, Chickaloon Village Traditional Council, Chickaloon, 2002.