A real heroine

I can't get Ann Keener out of my mind. I've been thinking about the diminutive, well-dressed elderly lady ever since I watched her telling her life story, on videotape, while researching her obituary. I write obituaries for our weekly paper, the Chilkat Valley News. They aren't your standard one-paragraph-announcement; they are features, usually with a picture, about a person I probably knew, and most of the readers did, too.

The Ann Keener we knew was aging well. She had her hair done at the beauty parlor and dressed in pressed blouses and slacks, often with colored shoes to match. An octagenarian, she still pedaled the exercise bike 20 minutes daily at the senior center. She was bright and organized, serving as the treasurer of the Gei Sun Indian Dancers. She was also fun, and enjoyed performing with the troupe.

Ann was one of a group of elderly ladies that I tend to bunch together as a type – the "aunties." They were – and some still are – quietly content women who lent a unjudgmental ear to their children and grandchildren. They have seats of honor at community gatherings.

"In a word, Ann was Grace," said one friend. Others said she was generous, kind, stylish, classy, and well-educated. Her family called her a matriarch. All fit the Ann I casually knew.

Which is why I was surprised when I watched the oral history she recorded for the historical society.

Ann was born in the small village of Hoonah in 1909, to Tlingit-speaking parents. She never had formal schooling. She was married at 12 and had her first child at 13. Her father arranged the marriage. Back then, Tlingits favored these family-brokered unions for the same reasons European royalty did – wealth and social status.

Ann never met her husband before the wedding. He was supposed to marry her older sister, but she refused and ran away. Ann already had two children that had been another sister's, who died and left them to 10-year-old Ann to raise. Ann's mother couldn't help with the children because she became silent and sad, following the deaths of 18 of her children to disease. At the time, villages across Alaska were decimated by similar occurrences.

On the tape, spunky Ann relayed this enormous tragedy matter-of-factly. No tears. No drama. She compared her early years to a shattered glass, all tiny fragments of light, but not whole. Then she joined the Salvation Army Church. Her newfound faith gave her hope. She already had strength and courage. Ann's husband was killed in a fishing boat accident shortly after their second son was born. Ann was still a teenager.

She supported her family in a rapidly changing world where living off the land was giving way to a cash economy. Native children who spoke Tlingit in school were beaten. Many were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools as far away as Oregon. Ann kept her children with her, working seasonally at the cannery across the strait from Hoonah at Excursion Inlet.

During the Second World War, Excursion Inlet was chosen as the site of a strategic military base. The US government spent over $40 million on what they assumed would be a small city of 10,000. Turns out it was never needed, so German prisoners of war were brought in to dismantle it.

Ann ended up caring for the prisoners. She treated them well, and even organized a Christmas party. They were so grateful, she said, that many wept openly. Later, they built her a cedar chest, and somehow managed to fill it with blankets and linens.

Not long after the war, a fire destroyed Hoonah. Ann lost her home and all her possessions. She said it felt "just like falling out of something." But Ann didn't hit the ground hard. Instead, she soared above the new tragedy.

Taking care of children and elders, prisoners and officers alike, she learned she had the gift of comforting people. Although she had no formal training, for the rest of her life she worked as a nurse in Juneau, in San Francisco, and even as far away as as Kansas City, where she moved with her third husband. Explaining her four marriages, she said "being a widow didn't appeal to me."

After reading her obituary, many people commented they had no idea Ann had lived such a remarkable life. I hadn't either. All the times I saw her in the grocery store, or performing native dances for out-of-town dignitaries, I never recognized a real heroine. That regret is what keeps Ann Keener on my mind.

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