Rhonda Lee McIsaac —
Skwa’al Frederick Hamilton Sr. celebrated his 96th birthday on February 2, 2017. He belongs to the Gaw k’iiwii Those born at Masset Inlet people of the Raven clan. His family crests are owl, Brown bear and flicker. Skwa’als family is a very accomplished, adventurous family.
The family is related to Chief Skowl who was the town chief of Howkan and Kasaan in Alaska.
Skwa’al’s mother is Joy Edenso and his father is George Edward Hamilton, Sr. Longevity it seems is a familial trait as his father, George, lived to be 101.
Skwa’al’s paternal great grandmother was Gulsigut, sister of Chief Albert Edward Edenshaw. His maternal great-grandmother Annie traveled from Alaska to Victoria, British Columbia, where her daughter, Maggie Levy, was born in 1871. Maggie returned to Alaska with her Haida uncles as a young teenager after her mother died and her father, a Jewish man of English descent, born in Wellington, New Zealand, was re-locating to Washington state. Maggie was subsequently adopted by her maternal aunt, Fannie Frank. She died in 1936. A paternal aunt, Emma Levy, is buried in Skidegate .
At 96 years, having been born in 1921, Sk_wa’al is in good health today, surrounded by family, and remembers his youth fondly.
“As a boy we had no central power [in Craig, Alaska]. We lived by kerosene lamps and gas lamps. After a few years, my dad and my uncle got together and started a movie hall. So, twice a week, on the weekend, they’d fire up the auxiliary [power] in the movie hall, and of course there are lights there. They got the idea of running wires to my uncles and our house, and so two days a week we had power!” he says.
The family benefited from their ingenuity. “My mother had a gas-powered washer machine which my dad put an electric motor on so she’d have power twice a week!”
Living in Craig in his early life also made an impression on him and his work ethic.
“Craig has always had a problem with the water. There was two sources of water; cannery water and city water. We weren’t allowed to use the cannery water so every winter we’d have problems with the water. We used to pack water every winter … quite a change from today,” he notes.
The town looked very different in his youth.
“We had board walks back then and just one main street. One dirt road coming into town and the rest were board walks. There was one car; a Model-T [Ford], a couple cows and some chickens. Craig used to be an island at high tide. We had to cross the channel to get to the other side. No traffic jams! That’s a good thing,” he says smiling. “There’s been so many changes since then, it’s just like a different world today. If we can’t use our cell phones today or the lights go out, it’s amazing! Major catastrophe!” he chides.
Skwa’al has by all accounts lived an amazing life including the highs and lows that go along with that life in Craig.
“[My] mother passed away [when I was young] and we had nine children in the family.” He recounts how he worked to contribute to his education and ease his father’s workload.
“I fished with my dad on a seine boat and made $90 for a whole season. I paid $35 per year for school tuition, I had spending money, and bought my own school clothes for the year,” he says. “[School in Sitka] almost seemed like a home with the Christian missionaries. [It was] like [being] at home with my mother except there were a lot of orphans,” he says.
Like in Canada, the missionaries sent the children from Craig to Sitka for a ‘proper education’.
The ‘proper education’ did not include teaching the skills needed to live off the land and ocean and for Skwa’al this meant learning these lessons later on in his adult life.
“My son-in-law Jerry from Nome, [who is the] husband of my oldest daughter Evelyn, lived in Anchorage and came to Craig with a canoe on their truck,” he says, describing a family visit. “We went up the Klawock Lake. [It is] about 10 miles from here. [We] launched the canoe and Jerry said ‘Get in’.” Skwa’al looked quizzically at the canoe and asked, “Well, how do you get in?” He’d never been in a canoe before. “What dang kind of an Indian are you anyways?” Jerry exclaimed! Although Skwa’al did not know how to get into a canoe, he was never afraid of water, he says. Skwa’al served in the Navy from 1942-1946 and after four years of service, he married Beverly Bailey in 1946.
Skwa’al and Beverly started a family. They had six children; their first, Bob, born in 1948 and they then suffered the loss of a baby boy in 1950, after only four hours of life. In 1951 they had Frederick Jr. and daughter Evelyn followed in 1953. James arrived in 1955 and baby girl June in 1956. The house was bustling and the couple worked hard to feed the many mouths. It was in 2005 that Beverly passed away leaving behind her family and beloved husband. It was the best 59 years of his life, he says.
Skwa’al attributes his longevity to many things but it is the love of his family that has kept him strong, he says. “There’s no question about it. It’s about coming home to a good home and being taught the right thing to do. Being able to pass these lessons along to your family is wonderful.” He also believes in “attending church and teaching your kids about going to church and to live life with no alcohol or drugs”.
His energy and memory are a result of a lifetime of good living he says. “Eating natural foods and living off the land. I think that’s a very healthy diet and having an up-beat attitude has helped me to live a long life.” His advice is to “always think positive and get along with everyone; being a friend with everyone else has helped too,” he says.
He advises youth to “be yourself. Be honest and stand by what comes out of your mouth. Be kind to everyone”. He also warns to “stay away from drugs and alcohol. I’ve seen too many people ruined by that!” He believes that eliminating prejudice and discrimination is key to a positive future.
It is believed to be that Skwa’al is the oldest living Haida. Former President of the Haida Nation, Lavina Lightbown was born in September 1921.