Kenaitze elder Emil Dolchok, a man known for his tireless efforts in the fight for Alaska Native and subsistence rights, died early Wednesday at Central Peninsula General Hospital after a heart attack. He was 77.
Dolchok, of Kenai, had just finished fishing for early-run king salmon around midnight at Birch Island near the Warren Ames Memorial Bridge, a traditional fishing spot for the Kenaitze, when he suffered the attack.
"We left, and he walked too fast to the car and he just went," said Susie Wells, who considered Dolchok a father figure and an uncle.
A fierce windstorm blew through Kenai Tuesday, but Dolchok predicted it would clear up later in the day, Wells said.
"The wind died down and I built a fire to keep him warm. There were seals in the river, an eagle perching above us, sandhill cranes landing on the flats and a beautiful sunset," she said. "He didn't want to go.
"He died on the river he was born on, the river he loved and fought to protect," she added. "He died doing what he loved to do -- fishing, especially for early-run kings."
Dolchok had a history of heart trouble, but a recent checkup looked good, Wells said.
"He was looking forward to personal-use fishing this year," Wells said. "And he was looking forward to the fight to get some of our beaches back that have been taken away."
"It's a loss for everyone," said Rosalie Tepp, chairperson of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe. "We feel a great loss."
She described Dolchok as strong member of the tribe, who fought for subsistence rights up until the very end.
"Just yesterday morning he was filing an opposition to the new hooligan (fishing) regulations," Tepp said. "He was always one of our subsistence advocates who traveled with us to the Federal Subsistence Board to testify. He lived a subsistence lifestyle and was a strong supporter of the Kenaitze and Dena'ina traditions and customs."
Wells said the recent Alaska Board of Fisheries decision outlawing use of the traditional gillnet for hooligan fishing upset Dolchok.
"He said 'that's one more thing we're losing, just one more thing they're taking way from us,'" Wells said.
Kenai Mayor John Williams also remembered Dolchok as a fervent supporter of the subsistence way of life.
"He was always an outspoken person, not only for human rights, but community issues as well," Williams said.
"I will always remember him as one who tried to maintain the old-time traditions, but still recognized the new and modern times. I'm very sorry to hear of Emil's passing."
Kenai Peninsula College Professor Alan Boraas interviewed Dolchok and others who were involved in commercial fishing in the 1940s and '50s for a project still under way.
"Like a lot of commercial fishermen, he was a very practical individual. He was passionate about fishing, but he was a man of work. His poetry was in his physical action," he said.
"He became a very thoughtful and articulate spokesman for the Kenaitze Tribe and the subsistence issue. His letters were very persuasive arguments why subsistence was important to the Kenaitze and the individual. The letters are a treasure in that regard. He was a master of the language ... and used letter writing in an impressive way.
"He was no game player. He was a very straightforward, honest individual."
Dolchok was one of the architects of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and was named Cook Inlet Region Inc. shareholder of the year in 1999 for his efforts to foster appreciation of Athabaskan cultural heritage and for passing his skills on to younger generations. That same year, he shared Elder of the Year honors at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention.
Like many elders, Dolchok was a teacher. Tepp said he told traditional stories and taught other tribe members about fishing, food preservation and tool making.
"He reminded me of my parents. If we weren't sure about certain things, he would show us how it was done," Tepp said. "He lived a subsistence lifestyle and believed in it. It was part of his culture and tradition and part of his spirit.
"He gave back to the earth and did not desecrate species. He made sure things were left for the future."
"He was a mentor to many of us. He had so much wisdom and knowledge," she said. "But one feels like we may not have gotten enough training from him to carry on his ideals.
"It's so hard to lose someone who was so much of a fighter for our people."
Dolchok is survived by his wife of 46 years, Margaret; daughters and sons-in-law Evelyn L. and Rusty Huf and Emily R. and Carl Marrs; sister, Marie Decker; brother, Mack Dolchok; and grandchildren Samantha and Christa Huf, Emil Marrs and Crystal Harrison.
A vigil service will be held at 7 p.m. Friday at the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church in Kenai. A funeral service will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday at the church.
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