In 2007, the Native Community and Interior Alaska lost the beloved Reverend Chief Dr. David Salmon, who passed away at the age of 95 at home in his favorite chair. Chief Salmon was a Gwich’in Athabascan who was born 1912 in Salmon Village, founded by his father William Salmon. David was raised in the traditional Athabascan lifestyle by his father after his mother Alice Salmon, passed away when he was nine years old.
Determined for his son’s survival, William Salmon raised the future Traditional Chief deep in the Interior for the next 18 years passing onto him traditional knowledge for bush survival, sharing stories and legends that date back to his grandfather’s time, King Salmon, who was born approximately 1808. He and his father lived in “No man’s land” and trapped fur for money by camping out of a canvas tent and surviving on wild game with only a few staples in extreme conditions that often reached 50 ° below for extended periods of time.
With a formal education that lasted approximately two years, he referred to the Sears Catalog as his first schoolbook. Chief Salmon was married to Sarah for 59 years before her passing. She also schooled him on how to read and write, although he spoke and wrote in his own traditional language fluently. Together they had one son, William Salmon, and one adopted daughter, Sarah Henry, as well as five grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
Chief Salmon, who was first made Chief of Chalkyitsik at the age of 29, helped shape the community and was instrumental in building a school and starting a store. He introduced the first Christmas tree and potlatch, and built the church by hauling 90 logs at the age of 70, using only a chainsaw.
In 2004, Chief Salmon was made the First Traditional Chief of the Interior. He was also a founding member of both Tanana Chiefs Conference (TCC), a non-profit organization that works toward meeting the health and social service challenges for more than 15,000 Alaska Natives, and Denakkanaaga, a non-profit elders organization who TCC often turns to for direction and wisdom.
A treasure to his culture and a model for all Alaskans, Chief Salmon was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2002. He continued to share his knowledge of traditional hunting tools and lifestyle right up to the day of his passing. He was a master musician, and toolmaker who made several pre-contact canoes and tools which are on display at UAF; the main offices of Doyon, Limited, in Fairbanks; and the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage.
Chief Salmon was a retired Episcopalian priest and in 1962 was appointed the first officially ordained Athabascan priest for Interior Alaska. He was the founder and pastor of New Life Ministries and traveled throughout Alaska to small villages by plane or boat ministering and using the money he earned from his tool-making skills for hosting two to three revivals a year in Chalkyitsik.
Chief Salmon always referred to himself as a servant of God and his people; he credited God for all his achievements, telling people when they honor him, they are really honoring God.
My Father Saved My Life – story told by Chief David Salmon on September 24, 2007.