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History and Culture

Home  >  History and Culture  >  Life in Alaska
Native Rights Started in a Freezer
By Roy Huhndorf as told to Alexandra J. McClanahan

Roy Huhndorf was born in Nulata and grew up living a subsistence life with his family in Interior Alaska. An important Native leader, Roy Huhndorf served for many years as President and Chief Executive Officer of CIRI. He is currently serving as co-chairman of the Alaska Federation of Natives. He has received many honors for his business success. The following narrative was developed through interviews with CIRI Historian Alexandra J. McClanahan.

* * *

Roy Huhndorf
I was born at Nulato, Alaska, on May 5, 1940, to Max and Rita Huhndorf. My father was an Army man. That's how he originally came to Alaska in the early 1900s. He was a Canadian-born, second-generation German. His parents had come from Germany, settled in the Lake of the Woods area in Canada. And as a young man, he wanted to become an American citizen. And they told him at the time that the way he needed to do that was to join the U.S. Army. I guess it was a policy of the country at the time to let the immigrating foreigners earn their way into the nation. And, of course, most of them in the last century were sent back west to fight the Indians. So this was in 1909 or so when he became a U.S. citizen, joined the Army. He then was sent to Alaska with the U.S. Signal Corps. At the time they were converting from the telegraph to what they called the "wireless." The wireless, of course, being the long-wave radio.

My father was sent to set up radio stations in Alaska. So he came with a few other Army men. He landed at Valdez. He was off loaded there with some mules and horses, and they made their way up the pass there to his first station at Gulkana. He helped put that place on the radio map. And then the Army moved him around, mostly up and down the Yukon River. He was stationed in Fairbanks for awhile, and in a place called Birches, which is near Ruby. It no longer exists as a town. Then the Army sent him down river to St. Michaels, to the mouth of the Yukon River; then to Holy Cross, where he met my mother. And this was in the late 1920's or early ‘30's.

My mother's maiden name was Diementieff. She was descended from Evan and Elizabeth Diementieff. She was born in Holy Cross. She was of Russian, Jewish and Eskimo descent. Her mother was, as near as I can remember her telling me, of Jewish and Inupiaq Eskimo descent, born in St. Michaels. And her father was Diementieff, of Russian and Yup'ik Eskimo descent, born in the Upper Kuskokwim.

My mother met my father after she had been married, her first husband having been killed in an accident. She was raising four children, living with her parents, working and raising the kids when my father met her. They married and had five more of us. My mother had nine children in total.

Shortly after they married, my parents moved to Nulato where my two sisters and my brother and I were born.

My mother worked hard, making the household work. She planted a very large garden, about an acre and a half. We dug it up by hand with spades. Didn't have rototillers in those days. And she did all the planting. We helped harvest. She did a lot of the preserving of the foods by jarring them in Mason jars, and she could put away vegetables from the garden. Carrots, beets, chard and all of those things went into jars and were stored in the root cellar. The potatoes, of course, all went down there in the root cellar, as did the cabbages. My father was a German, so he insisted that she make sauerkraut out of the cabbage each year, so we all grew up with a taste for sauerkraut because she made very good sauerkraut.

My mother and dad were both Catholic. My dad was a convert. And, I have to say, those years -- my boyhood was a very happy boyhood. I worked hard. We all worked hard. My mother worked very, very hard. And my dad was always doing something, working mostly at his office work. The Post Office was right there in an extended part of the house. His little office was there, and he would sometimes even hold court there. So everybody worked and stayed busy. But I enjoyed the outdoor life that I could lead there. I could hunt. I loved roaming in the woods, looking at different natural things. I loved to fish. There was a clear river full of grayling not far from Nulato about a mile away, the Nulato River. And I loved to trap with my older brothers and go to "wood camp" with them. That's what we called the fall 10-day stay upriver to get the dry wood for the winter. It was a very happy boyhood. Kind parents that loved you, took care of you, made my childhood a very happy one.

The river had a variety of fish in it. It had whitefish, sheefish, grayling and ling cod in the wintertime. The people put their nets under the ice. Most people had all the fish they needed. Most everybody would get a moose. So they had meat. And there was a village store there run by a fellow by the name of John Summers. You could buy the things there that you needed to have. Most families earned cash by trapping through the sale of fur. They would make enough cash to buy the salt and flour and pepper and coffee and tea and crackers from the store that they needed. In the summer time, many had gardens like my mom's and there was plenty of salmon in the river.

Virtually everybody had a dog team. That's how you got around. There were no snow machines. That was another one of my jobs as a boy – to cook for the dogs. We'd save the house scraps, and I'd chop up some of the dried fish and throw it in a pot and add some water and make a hot meal for them a couple three times a week. In the in between days, you'd just throw them a dried fish or a half a dried fish for the day and some water and they'd be fine. When they worked you gave them a whole salmon, though. And then you tried to cook for them a little more often.

In any case, when I was 15 years old and my father was 70, we moved to Anchorage. Seventy was the mandatory retirement age from all government work. So the government retired him from the postmaster and commissionership that he had. At that time, my mother had two sisters living in Anchorage and thought that it would be a good place to go for a number of reasons. For one, Dad no longer had a job. And she was getting older, too. Subsistence living is pretty hard work. A lot of people think it's easy, but it's not. It's like farm work. Eighteen-hour days. My brother and I were the two youngest. He was 12, and I was 15. My parents were planning to send me to Mt. Edgecumbe to high school. And I wouldn't have to leave home if we came to Anchorage.

When I moved to Anchorage, there were very few Native kids out of the 1,700, mostly military, kids in high school. There was a handful only. Racism was subtle, but it was there. Sometimes not so subtle. The boys would make fun of Natives in derogatory terms. Like calling Native people "Klootches," and "salmon crunchers" and things like that. They never really did it to my face, though. My brother and I were pretty well muscled. We'd worked hard, chopped lots of wood. Later, in my high school years I commercial fished with my brother in Kenai. We were pulling those nets off mud flats and developed pretty good physiques. So nobody really wanted to do much to me and my brother Don. My brother especially was very strong. He was stronger than he looked. He demonstrated it a few times on a few guys and pretty soon you get a reputation for being pretty quick, and nobody bothers you.

But it was there. I don't think things have changed much. I think racism always has been there. It's here today with us. It's a funny thing. I grew up with racism. My mother was of Eskimo descent, so she was a "downriver woman" in an Athabascan village. My father was a white man, so he was a "gussak." And so when some of the Athabascan kids at Nulato would get angry with me or my brothers, they would either call us "gussuk's son" or "downriver woman's son." It was derogatory, but it never bothered me much then.

In 1964, I married Charlene Turner. We were married February 15, about a month before the Great Alaska Earthquake in March. We had two daughters. My first daughter Sherry was born in 1965, June, and my second daughter Charlsie was born in June of 1967. In 1968, I left Pacific Air Freight to work at a place called Grocers Wholesale. It was a grocery wholesale house and it sold groceries to all of the grocery stores in town. I stayed there for two years until I left Pacific Air Freight in May of '68, and I left Grocers Wholesale in May of '70. I joined the Alaska Federation of Natives at that time as a staff member, working in a Department of Labor program that AFN was running called the OJT -- On the Job Training Program. Miles Brandon was heading it up at the time, and a guy by the name of Fred Bigjim was the other field coordinator as we were called.

Before I left Grocers Wholesale something important happened. At the time I'd been busy just being a normal guy, raising a family, working hard, trying to get ahead. And at Grocers Wholesale, I was assigned to the freezer. They had a huge freezer, and they had a special electric forklift I worked in there. You pulled the frozen stuff down from the storage racks with it and assembled orders. It was always about 30 below, 40 below in there. You dressed for it, and it was fine. Another guy was in there with me – and he was also an Alaska Native -- a guy by the name of Don Watson. In the freezer, we worked hard, but the bosses rarely went there to watch you because it was cold. We would have a chance to talk once in awhile in between the rush of putting up orders. I always give Don credit for recruiting me.

He said, "Roy, you should get involved in the Cook Inlet Native Association. There's a big drive on now to get a land settlement for Alaska Natives. And you should become involved in the Cook Inlet Native Association. My wife Dorothy (a non-Native) and I are involved. We're on the board. I'd like you to consider running for the board." He says, "You're a good guy. You're a smart guy. You could help us out. Why don't you do that?"

So I went with him to a couple of meetings and began liking what I was hearing. You know, it was interesting. And Charlene and I would help them at their bingo and other events. And so I became a member of the Cook Inlet Native Association in 1969. Later in 1970, I became President. At the time, of course, there was no staff. It was just an association of Native people, and we ran a bingo. The proceeds were used to fund Christmas baskets for the needy in the community. It was a self-help thing.

Photo courtesy of CIRI

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