Wasilla residents raise funds to honor town's namesake

Posted: Monday, May 15, 2000

An AP Member Exchange

PALMER (AP) -- A group of local residents hopes to honor Wasilla's historical and indigenous roots with a memorial to the Athabaskan leader for whom their town is believed to have been named.

They want to place a life-size statue on the shores of Wasilla Lake.

Borough and city officials have signed resolutions in support and private fund raising has begun.

''We use his name everywhere,'' said former Mayor Harold Newcomb, who is leading the effort. ''We need to do something to honor him.''

But the group may have to resolve a delicate question: Which Wasilla should they honor?

There were at least two well-known Dena'ina men named Wasilla -- thought to be a derivation of the Russian ''Vasilly'' -- who could lay claim to the town name. The Dena'ina are the Athabaskan people of Southcentral around Cook Inlet.

Dena'ina elders, including Shem Pete, Johnny Shaginoff and Katherine Nicolie, believe the town is named after a Chief Wasilla born in the 1840s who was known as Bentehen, or boss of the Benteh, which means 'among the lakes,' according to Jim Fall, an anthropologist who interviewed the elders.

The chief had a settlement along Cottonwood Creek near Wasilla Lake and was well enough known that when he committed suicide in 1907, reportedly shooting himself after his 4-year-old son died of tuberculosis, the Seward Weekly Gateway newspaper ran a detailed account of his passing.

How the town came to be named after him is not clear. But the explanation could be as simple as people referring to the area as Wasilla's place because of the location of his home, Mat-Su Borough archaeologist Fran Seager-Boss said. The name later might have been shortened to Wasilla, she said. As early as 1911, a U.S. Geological Survey map lists the name ''Wassilla'' near where his home was.

But Paul Theodore, who heads the Knik Tribal Council and is working with Newcomb, said the town is named after another man -- his grandfather, Wasilla Theodore. ''He was a good man,'' Theodore said, but he wouldn't say any more about him.

According to Fall and other people, Wasilla Theodore was a shaman who came from Eklutna and moved to what's now Wasilla to work on the Alaska Railroad. He was buried on his own property, not church property, because he was a medicine man, according to a written account by Alberta Stephan, a historian for the village of Eklutna.

Theodore said he knows his grandfather is the one after whom the town is named because ''it was passed down through words and lineages.''

Fall, who did his dissertation on the upper Cook Inlet Dena'ina, says he can't say for sure what officials had in mind when they named the then-bustling railroad stop Wasilla in 1916. Seager-Boss, however, noted that Wasilla Theodore, who died in the early 1950s, would still have been a young man at the time, possibly in his late 30s or early 40s.

Newcomb, who hadn't heard of the dispute, said there's no question in his mind whose likeness will be on the statute.

''I only know of one Chief Wasilla,'' he said, the one who died in 1907.

Newcomb said he envisions a bronze replica of the Native leader gazing out across the lake toward the mountains. The statue would include plaques with historical information. He estimated the cost at about $100,000, which he hopes to raise through private donations.

The statue's likeness would be drawn from a photograph taken in 1906 in which the chief is pictured standing with one of his three wives and a young boy who may be the son who died.

Not much is known about Chief Wasilla's early life, but he's thought to have been born in the 1840s.

In the newspaper account of his death, Wasilla was described as being respected for his ''unusual strength of mind and character.''

Fall said area elders had not met Chief Wasilla but recounted that he was one of about a dozen upper Cook Inlet Dena'ina leaders and remembered him being described as a good man known for fairness, memorable potlatches, and hunting prowess.

Wasilla also, as many leaders of the time did, took in orphans and other young children whom he raised and who later worked for him.

''That was a very strong tradition that rich men like him would raise the young boys,'' he said.

A home believed to be his on Cottonwood Creek was excavated in the mid-1990s. Seager-Boss said items found there reflect his prestige: remnants of wallpaper and other luxury items, including lanterns.

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