Charlie Jimmie was image of Alaska to outside world


Charlie Jimmie

Haines cultural and dance leader Charlie Jimmie, 84, died Friday in the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage following a brief illness.

He had been in frail health at the Forget-Me-Not assisted living facility for about a year. He recently celebrated his birthday in Anchorage with family and friends. A service at the Haines ANB Hall will be held later this month.

"I love to perform – to dance. It's in my blood, like jitterbugging used to be for the youngsters. It also makes me feel proud," Jimmie once said in a Haines Sheldon Museum interview. He explained that in Tlingit dancing, "The energy is very concentrated. If the dancer is (portraying) a halibut, then all his movements are only those of a halibut."

Alaska Indian Arts president Lee Heinmiller said Jimmie's ability to focus, combined with his charisma and showmanship, is what made him great. "Plus, he had a lot of fun doing it."

Jimmie was the Native face on tourism posters and brochures in Haines and across Alaska. Heinmiller said early tourism industry officials chose Jimmie as "a character" for their promotional materials, and he remained a popular cover image on many for decades. "With his nose ring and full regalia he looked the part, and he was real photogenic," Heinmiller said.

Everywhere Jimmie traveled with the local dancers or carvers, his picture made the TV and newspapers. He appeared on magazine covers, "Good Morning America" featured him dancing on its broadcast from Haines, and one of his Tlingit comedy skits made "America's Funniest Home Videos." Jimmie had a Hollywood turn as well, playing Gray Beaver's father in Disney's feature film "White Fang." "For years he got a $14.37 check from the movie world," Heinmiller said.

In 1998 Jimmie was named an American "Living Cultural Treasure" by Indian Art Northwest in honor of his contribution as a role model for Native art and culture.

Heinmiller said Jimmie grew up dancing and singing with his family, and taught many current Tlingit culture bearers how to dance and tell stories. "He danced with the Marks Trail dancers, the Gei-Sun dancers and the Chilkat Dancers, and had a long career as a mentor. He was really good because he was such a jovial guy." Jimmie also taught storytelling and dance at the Chilkoot Culture Camp with his mother and stepfather, Lillian and Austin Hammond.

Donna Catotti's portrait of Jimmie, whose Tlingit name, Gayeis Gaaw Eesh, means Iron Drum Father, is titled "Tlingit Elder Speaks" and was purchased by the Rasmuson Foundation for the permanent collection at the Sheldon Museum. Catotti chose Jimmie as her subject for both his appearance and because he held "the knowledge of his Native tongue, rituals, stories, dances, harvest practices and totem carving."

Charlie Jimmie was born July 10, 1932, in Yakutat to Lillian George and Joseph Jimmie. "As far as I know, both of his parents were full-blooded Tlingits and fluent speakers," Heinmiller said.

His father was from the Thunderbird house in Klukwan and his mother was born in Dry Bay. He had one older brother, Tommie.

After his father died, Jimmie, his brother and mother moved to Haines. When he was 4, his mother married Austin Hammond, chief of the Chilkoots. Jimmie grew up in the Raven House tribal home on Front Street and credited his booming voice to days spent on the Chilkoot River with his uncles, as the people from that village all spoke loudly to be heard over the rushing water. "Chilkoot is where I learned to sing and dance, when we used to go up to the head of the lake and we'd sing Gook. You gotta keep singing those songs or they go out of your head," Jimmie told writer Dan Henry.

Jimmie's earliest memories included dancing on the Raven House table for visitors. As a child and young man, Jimmie lived for a time with an aunt in Petersburg, attended the Wrangell Institute Native boarding school, and fished commercially with relatives in Lynn Canal and Icy Straits.

Jimmie and several friends were arrested for stealing beer and a .22 in Juneau, and at 16 he was sentenced to two years in a federal penitentiary. "It was unbelievable. He was a minor, a Native, and had no rights at all. He came home at 18 and never complained. He always said, 'Hey, at least I learned to box in prison,'" Heinmiller said.

Jimmie married Esther Smith of Hoonah, and they had three children. In the early 1970s, they moved to Seward, where he worked as a grader operator. They returned to Haines, where Jimmie was the Chilkat Dancers cultural director, drummer and dance leader from 1975-2000. "Charlie had a few rough years, but for the last 30 or so was proud that he was sober," Heinmiller said.

When Jimmie was a boy, Walter Soboleff's mother taught him a comedic shaman skit in order to make mourners laugh during traditional Tlingit memorial parties. He continued the act with the Chilkat Dancers for tourists.

"He had a serious amount of humor in it. He'd spit out his teeth and make a Polident joke," Heinmiller said. "He used the shaman bit to make fun of Western medicine. There was a lot of tongue-in-cheek stuff; the patient got 'cured' by a pill but would collapse again, only to be revived by the shaman's rattle, that sort of thing."

Charlie Jimmie was a Raven-Coho of the Whale House at Dry Bay, a member of the Chilkoot Indian Association, a lifetime member of Haines ANB Camp #5, and served as an officer of the ANB Grand Camp. He once sang popular music with a small local band.

On a trip to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Charlie and his second wife Verna Erickson dressed in regalia and sang traditional songs for the museum director. Looking at all the objects from the Chilkat Valley in storage there saddened Jimmie. "There are just rows and rows of the stuff in the basement that no one ever saw. He said it would be nice, especially for the carvers like himself, to see them all," Heinmiller said.

Charlie Jimmie leaves children Charles Jimmie Jr. and Ronald Lee Jimmie of Haines, and Lena Jimmie of Juneau, as well as numerous nieces and nephews.


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