Kenneth Thomas Sr., passed away surrounded by family, March 13, 2013. Kenneth Thomas Sr. was born in Mansfield Village in 1922, and spent most of his life in Tanacross Village, on the Upper Tanana River. |
His mother, Sarah James, was from Batzulnetas, and his father, Peter Thomas, was from Mansfield Village. He was Alts'iidendeey, after his mother's clan, and his Indian name was Wu elnahts'aaxughinxeed ("He was given to us as a replacement"), referring to his deceased older brother, Silas. His other siblings were Lena, Lucy, Lula, Minnie, Silas and Calvin, all of whom preceded him in death.
Kenny took on the responsibility of his siblings at the age of 12, after both parents passed from illness. He then went on to work for John Hajdukovich, hauling freight on river boats based at Rika's Roadhouse at Big Delta, to support his younger brothers and sisters. Later on, Kenny trapped and prospected for gold. As a young man, he was drafted to serve in the Eleventh Army Air Corps in World War II and sent to Kiska in the Aleutian Islands and later on to Okinawa, where he earned a Purple Heart in combat.
After the war, he married Ellen Joseph, of Tanacross, in 1947, and began raising a family. He worked many highway construction jobs including jobs at Kenicott Copper Mine, telegraph lines from Eagle Trail to Valdez and back, and also helped construct many buildings in the Tok area, including St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in Tanacross. He was one of the very few in the area qualified to operate a cat and grader to help construct the Taylor Highway between Tetlin and Eagle. He also made a career out of seasonal firefighting with the Bureau of Land Management, both in Alaska and Outside, where he was a senior crew boss.
In later years, he worked as a substance abuse counselor and started the summer culture camp at Mansfield, where many people and children of all ethnic backgrounds were warmly welcomed. There he taught traditional Indian values and crafts, including songs and dances. He also had a great amount of support and participation in documenting the Tanacross language. Kenny admired teaching his people traditional values practicing his Athabascan culture.
Kenny and his late wife, Ellen, danced at every opportunity and were a fixture at the Athabascan Old-Time Fiddlers Festival held in Fairbanks each November. It was one of his dreams to bring back old-time fiddling and square dancing to the Upper Tanana area where it flourished during the 1930s and 1940s.
Kenny taught his family great traditional value to keep their culture going strong and to believe in T'axdiht'eey (Jesus). He adored his grandchildren and great-grandchildren more than anything and treasured every moment with them.
Most importantly, Kenny was instrumental in reviving traditional singing and dancing and was well known for this powerful leadership. He was a talented harmonica player, skilled drummer, violinist and gifted storyteller. He was also an authority on the traditional potlatch, based on his detailed knowledge of clan and kinship relations.
As a result of his leadership, Tanacross now has one of the strongest tribal song and dance traditions in the Interior. Kenny's oral life history, Crow Is My Boss, the result of a four-year collaboration with longtime friend, Craig Mishler, was published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2005.
Kenny is survived by his eight children; his daughters, Mildred (Alfred), Betty (Roy), Diane (Ray), Nancy (Brian) and Debbie (Robert); his sons, Kenneth Jr., Raymond and Kirby (Michelle); his two grandsons, Richard Thomas and Michael Thomas, both of whom he helped raise; and his great-grandchildren. He is preceded in death by his son Delbert, his daughter, Debbie Eleanore, his parents and his siblings.
Visitation will be at Fairbanks Funeral Home from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, March 16, 2013. Funeral service is at 2 p.m. Monday, March 18, 2013, in the Tok School Gym.
Arrangements were entrusted to Fairbanks Funeral Home.
Published in Daily News-Miner on Mar. 15, 2013