Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

Native leader who bridged generations dies at 92


March 23, 2023

Joe Hotch was the Hit Saati (caretaker) of the Brown Bear house.

Hundreds of people honored the memory of Chilkat leader Joe Hotch last weekend during two days of ceremonies and gatherings in Klukwan. Hotch was buried Saturday in the village cemetery. He died March 14 at Mount Edgecumbe Medical Center in Sitka at age 92.

Hotch served more than two decades as president of the Chilkat Indian Village, through an era when the tribe developed professional staff and services and started contracting directly with the federal government.

He led the village through successful efforts to reclaim the prized Whale House artifacts and laid groundwork toward establishing a cultural heritage center that had been discussed for nearly a century.

Retired District Court Judge Linn Asper worked as village attorney during the tumultuous late 1970s when Hotch and village councilors took measures to safeguard historic totems from art dealers making lucrative offers to villagers for their purchase.

"Joe could put a foot in the traditional side and a foot on the modern side and bridge that gap," Asper said. "At the time there was a real divide between the older Tlingit-speaking elders and the young people like Joe who were coming up. There were others on the council who couldn't manage that gap as well as Joe could."

At the time of his death, Hotch was one three fluent Tlingit speakers in the Chilkat Valley.

As Hit Saati or caretaker of the Kaagwaantaan Brown Bear house, Hotch pledged to store the Bear Tunic and other house artifacts in the yet-unbuilt Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage Center, a symbolic gesture of support toward a new way of honoring and preserving clan treasures vital to tribal history and identity.

Chilkat Indian Village President Kimberly Strong this week described Hotch as a nimble leader whose humility helped him succeed in politics. "He influenced me with his respectful way of working with people. He didn't publicly shame or ostracize others for what they believed. He engaged in the issues, not in the personalities of people."

Hotch was named Chilkat Indian Village President Emeritus in 2014 to honor his leadership.

But most of the tributes spoken last weekend centered on Hotch's warmth, humor and concern for others, including students and young people, rooted in a religious faith. A sign planted in the snow outside the village gymnasium where services were held Saturday read, "Welcome home, Joe, our kind friend."

"Everything in his life was people-focused," Hotch's daughter Elsie Spud said this week. "The leadership stuff was an added benefit."

Villager Valentino Burratin described Hotch's love for others as "supernatural and contagious." Hotch's grin was rarely defeated, said mechanic Paul Nelson. Nelson met Hotch when the villager's fishing boat was broken down at the harbor, but Hotch's smile betrayed no misfortune.

Kath Hotch said her father's humor endured to his final days at the hospital in Sitka, when he was joking about getting a recliner so he could complete some prescribed physical therapy exercises.

"He always brought up crazy things. That's where I got it from. I think we all got our sense of humor from him... It's going to be hard not to have a seat ready for him when we have our Christmas program and other celebrations," Kath Hotch said.

After serving in government, Hotch became a regular at Klukwan School, where he was known as "Grandpa Joe."

School officials said Hotch took an interest in the welfare of students, Natives and non-Natives alike, their interests and projects. Into his 90s, Hotch made regular visits to the school with fellow elder Smitty Katzeek, teaching Tlingit language, Native sovereignty, and Chilkat history and understandings. The lessons continued through the pandemic, using Zoom.

"A huge reason why Klukwan School is the way it is is because Joe and Smitty instilled in all of us these cultural values, especially respect," said Justina Hotch, the village's education liaison. "He was part of shaping the roles that people have taken in the village... He taught students what leadership looked like without ever saying, 'This is what leadership looks like.'"

Hotch served the Sealaska Heritage Institute as a "traditional scholar." In a statement last week, the institute said, "Joe was a culture bearer and Lingit speaker celebrated for sharing his love of language and deep cultural knowledge with students from all walks of life."

Besides a long memory and knowledge about Tlingit customs and natural history, Hotch represented a living link to village brass bands prominent in the first half of the 20th century.

He played saxophone, trumpet, guitar and drums, performing in the village church and at special events like Klukwan's Christmas celebration. He played for years with other village musicians, including brothers Dick Hotch and Steve Hotch.

Sonny Williams, whose father Tom Williams played with Hotch, recounted performances of the band at 10 Mile Steakhouse, and at dances at gyms and schools in town and Klukwan. "I always remember them playing and everybody having a good time listening to them play. Those are good memories."

A recording of Hotch playing the Gospel standard, "Just A Closer Walk With Thee," on saxophone was played during Saturday's church service.

Hotch was born May 17, 1930 in Haines to Victor and Annie Hotch. His Tlingit name was Goox da ka sh́u. He attended the village Bureau of Indian Affairs school through eighth grade and attended Sheldon Jackson School in Sitka briefly before returning to Klukwan.

Family members said Hotch's return to the village gave him the opportunity to learn Tlingit social protocols first-hand from village elders that he later taught to others. Hotch served in the U.S. Army 1952-54 in Interior Alaska. He played on the Klukwan Vets basketball team and became a fervent Los Angeles Lakers fan.

Hotch worked as a commercial gillnetter into his late 70s. He skippered three vessels: Nancy II, Vali and Chilkat Eagle.

He served on the boards of the Klukwan ANB, BIA Task Force, United Southeast Alaska Gillnetters, Sealaska Elders Council, Klukwan, Inc. and the Chilkat Indian Village tribal council.

Hotch is survived by his wife of 26 years, Georgianna Hotch of Haines, by sisters Katherine Shirley of San Francisco and Ruth Hotch of Hoonah and by adopted brother Ed Warren of Klukwan. He also is survived by children Kath Hotch, Elsie Spud, Dan Hotch and David Hotch, all of Klukwan, and by 10 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

He was preceded in death by brothers Steve Hotch Sr., Dick Hotch Sr., Jones Hotch Sr., John Hotch and Roy Hotch; by sister Eva Pardee and by parents Victor and Annie Hotch.


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