Stories from Our Elders

Developed as a collaborative effort between the Pre-Elementary Grant, funded by the Alaska Dept. of Education - Office of Indian Education. Artwork, photographs, and interviews by Beth Hill.

Dan O'Hara: Life in Pile Bay

Danny recounts growing up in Pile Bay and tells of his mother who survived the flu pandemic of 1918. – Beth Reardon Hill

My name is Daniel J. O’Hara and I live here in Naknek since 1969.  I grew up and was born in Old Iliamna.  Old Iliamna at one time had 400 people and they were the Dena’ina, Athabaskan Dena’inas, and the convention center in Anchorage is named after us.  Of course, the white man screwed it up, calling it Da’Nina when we are really Dena’inas, and that is okay.  And so, at one time there was about 400 hundred of them that lived in Old Iliamna.  It was a big village, and as it dispersed, a lot of them went to Nondalton and then those that wasn’t in Nondalton, there was another community connected to Nondalton, and that is the same tribe we are from. Your grandma and my mom. 

My grandpa, he was a chief, and he had a huge reindeer herd and he used them for travel, and of course he used them for food.  And he had a sled that sometimes the reindeer would want to stomp you.  They would become very angry, so he had a sled he could get under until they got over their orneriness, which you never hear people talk about.  I think one of the reasons he was the chief was because he had this huge reindeer herd.  He would take them from Old Iliamna all the way down to Eagle Bay, just above Iliamna.  If you fly by there, you’ll see a little cabin up there where the herd was stayed with.  They started down toward the end of April, and first of May.  Lake Iliamna never went out until the tenth of June when I was a kid.  There was 36 inches of ice.  Once it froze in January, they brought the herd back up and they stayed in the community.

My mom was born in 1914.  She went to third grade in education.  When she was growing up and after that age in school and the white man came as teachers and they were too lazy to learn our language, so they forbade her to speak her language in her home from the time the teacher got to Old Iliamna.  That would be the biggest loss you ever saw today.  You know that took care of a lot of language.

So, after my dad, Thomas Patrick O’Hara, who our late son Tom is named after, married mom I was born in Old Iliamna.  There was no such thing as going to ANMC (Alaska Native Medical Center) or any medical center to get a child born everything was mid-wife.  I was born there. 

It’s really interesting that the old... I don’t know what tradition it would fall into, but they would take the afterbirth, the lady who had birthed the child, she would take the after birth and put it in a bag and that lady would go up into the trees, over away from the houses, climb up the tree and tie it in up to the top of the tree.  Why, I don’t know.  I don’t know if you have heard too many stories from people who had done it, but that was a tradition thing. As we grow older, I remember women would come to our house there in Old Iliamna and they would be in labor. We all had to go to the end of the house.  There was a lot of yelling going on.  It scared us to death and my dad was there boiling water and everything.   

So then, over a period of time you probably heard of the plague or whatever it was that killed off all the native people – the flu.  It was a flu.  And my mom, being born in 1914 and she was about 3 years old when this hit and she said she doesn’t remember very much about what was called the flu, or the plague, or whatever they called it, but it hit about, if I am correct, you might have heard this from some of the other people you’ve talked with, but it hit about 1917.  And she remembered people, going out, almost on a daily basis.  People were going out of the village.  They were packing people out.  And she said it was a lot of crying and weeping.  She didn’t understand what it was, but what it was was people were dying from that plague.  Then that village started declining.  Down to 200 people, and then it went down to about five or six families:  Rickteroff, and Evon, and Akita, and all those old-timers lived there when I was a little boy.  And so, then Old Iliamna kind of went away.  You know we were one of the last ones.  We lived not at Iliamna, but across Iliamna river, which is the big river into Lake Iliamna, in a place called Boss’s cabin, across from where that 16-mile road started that went over to the bay.  Karl Williams named it Williamsport, after himself. 

And so, we moved from there over to Pile Bay which is three miles, at the head waters of Lake Iliamna and my dad put up a tent, end-to-end tent, maybe 8 x 12, or whatever those tents were.  And he had cellatex and he insulated it and put sawdust in it.  We lived in that tent for a couple years in 15 to 20 below zero weather.  Just a little bit of information that leads back to what we take for granted and do every day.  I remember I was about 10 or 12 and Frank Rickteroff would have been about 25 or 30 and Evon would have been about 80 so that is almost 100 years.  And the generation just before Evon, his dad, said that he killed a moose up on Iliamna River.  They didn’t know what it was, but it tasted good.  And that is the first bit of history we heard growing up.  And I was born in 1939 and there wasn’t anything until I flew out of Pile Bay and went to high school in Seattle at a private school with a dormitory.  Those moose from the time that early story took place, which is all we had to go by, was just two or three generations back.  But we all know the history of the moose.  They come out of Canada and they come down the Alaska Range and go all the way down to Cold Bay.  It hasn’t been more than 60 or 70 years before they even had moose in Cold Bay, so they come all the way down and followed the chain line of food.  That is how moose came about, as far as I know, in our country.

Ok, so we’re in Pile Bay, we got to have something to eat.  Everyone came to Pile Bay, back home from wherever they came from that summer and Karl always got his everything from Soldotna, coming across.  We all went down to Bristol Bay and my dad would load up a sailboat and bring it home.  Five or six hundred pounds of flour, at least four or five hundred pounds of rice, which we didn’t eat, we fed to the dogs and then it would be cases of milk, butter, and everything until break up and you went back down to Bristol Bay.  I remember them getting grass and making a big hole in the basement of our house and putting the potatoes and eggs down there and they lasted for months on end.  The biggest thing was keeping the mice out and that’s why we had a cat.  The fish gave out about August month – they would spawn out.  We didn’t have any species of fish in Pile Bay except sockeye (reds).  My mom and I, when I was growing up, we would catch three to four hundred fish a day and filet every one of them.  We would get up before breakfast to go across in a skiff.  We rowed, we didn’t have an outboard motor so we would row across there and got this net, and we would beach sein for reds, maybe several hundred and bring them home.  We had a pen and throw them in there.  We had filet tables, fish racks, smoke house, five, six or seven dogs up there.  Then we would have breakfast and split everyone of those fish hang every one of them up on the rack.  We were done with the fish and now were going to have to eat something, and it is September.  The moose are very abundant.  There was an occasional moose killed probably between September and… maybe if we found a cow in December and it still wasn’t really good travel… about the first week in January it got really good travelling with a dog team, so we killed a moose every month.  Of course, we had seasons.  It was a territory and Jay Hammond was the law enforcement guy and Bob Mahaffey was really… we didn’t like him.  He used to give the kids candy in Pile Bay and ask them, “What did you have for dinner?” because he wanted to catch us catching moose out of season.  We gathered up all the hair and all the bones and hid it under the bed or something.  We kids were coached very well on what we had for dinner.  “I had New York steak.  Prime Rib.”  No, I didn’t.  Anyway, we used the dogs for hauling wood and we worked non-stop.  This matter of being lazy was not an option.  I didn’t find very many lazy people, and if they were, they didn’t have very much wood.  Come springtime, about April, we would all head down the Iliamna River to get ducks.  The same as the spring season we have now.  We just did it because we had to have food.  I just turned 80 something.  I’ve lived a long, long life with a lot of things in it. 

2 of 8 Stories

Listen to Danny tell his story.


Pride of Bristol Bay: A Conversation with Jerry and Caleb Jacques about their grizzly family

When Jerry Jacques was 17, he ran away from California and hitchhiked to Alaska. He had heard stories of his great-grandfather and grandfather prospecting, trapping and living in the far north and intended to follow in their footsteps.

Read the entire story