"Harry, do not speak that language in this school. Your language is English." The teacher's voice was cold.
Harry thought, "I have one language and it is Ahtna. This teacher is not Ahtna. He's of the government and he wants to change me."
The cold voice continued, "If you are smart, learn that the Ahtna language is dead. Only ignorant natives in the Copper River Basin will use it in the future. The world is changing; it is 1918. You can't keep living like your people did 100 years ago. In the world, which you know nothing about, people speak English. They have light bulbs, cars, indoor bathrooms, and new medicines. Your people could have those things."
Harry thought, "This man cannot do many things, which my family knows how to do. Can he drive a dog sled? He eats food from cans, because he doesn't know how to get food here. We gather salmon with fish traps and nets. Cranberries are ripe and he doesn't pick them. He thinks we have deer and waits for one to appear. He could use a gun and get a caribou or moose or bear. My brothers and I shoot ducks and ptarmigan. We snare beaver. He talks."
Now the voice was stern. "I will help you to remember better that you are to speak English. Come here; hold out your arms."
The teacher took a yardstick and beat Harry until his arms were covered with long ugly marks and his back burned inside.
His face was tight with pain and embarrassment, but not filled with tears. His friends looked down, sharing his disgrace.
After school he went to his Aunt Walya's. She tenderly touched his face. "Harry, you are a good boy. You and I will go away until these bruises heal. Your father must not see them or he will kill the teacher. The teacher has disrespected us."
Harry and Aunt Walya walked twenty-five miles to a hunting area. He did not return to school.
Soon, as a nine year old, Harry was hauling water for Copper Center Lodge, and being a stock boy and wood cutter. He was a hard worker, alert, and talked little.
By age twenty he was working for the Territorial Government Railroad Commission. His world, the Copper Valley Basin of Alaska, was changing. Settlers were coming from the Lower 48, to "the last American frontier." They were not prepared to live in their new world. They asked, "How do we live where there are no roads for cars, no electricity, and no plumbing? How do we survive when winter temperatures are often 30 to 50 degrees below zero? How do we cross rivers covered with ice and no bridges?
The foreigners brought medicines, books, new music and instruments, money, and tools. They talked about radios, phones, and something strange called movies. Harry searched for answers to the questions: "How do we keep our Ahtna culture? How do we teach our children when they are forced to go to government schools and lose our language? How can we know who we are? Are there ways we should change?"
Christian missionaries came into the Copper River Basin in the 1930's. They were not like the government teachers. Harry's son Ken described one of the missionaries, Vincent Joy. "He was no icon. He was the messenger. He was brought in by God to bring good news of the true God." Harry accepted the message that he could know God through Jesus Christ. He gained victory over alcohol abuse. He shared his faith with many other people for the rest of his life.
When he became the Ahtna Region Traditional Chief and a Christian pastor, he was a strong voice for the Ahtna people. They saw that Chief Harry Johns chose wisely from the past and the present.
I am privileged to write about Chief Johns. Please check out thisweeksstory.com.