By Lilly Milman
Margaret Judson Katzeek, also known as “Grandma,” liked to call Skagway “her town,” her daughter Marian Kelm told Jeff Brady in an interview for his book “Skagway: City of the New Century.”
Katzeek was born on Aug. 22, 1890, in Metlakatla — the only reservation in Alaska, about 20 miles south of Ketchikan. She was born into and later became the matriarch of the Tlingit Frog clan, which is a part of the Raven moiety — one of two Tlingit descent groups. Margaret did not move to Skagway until after she married Dan Katzeek, a member of the Eagle moiety, in 1911. The couple then moved to Klukwan — a small community north of Haines — in 1918 to raise their children, but Margaret returned to Skagway with her daughter Marian and son-in-law Ernie in 1978 after the death of her husband.
Marian Kelm attributed her family’s move to Skagway to her mother, who had relatives buried in the Pioneer Cemetery off Dyea Road.
“My mom wanted to come to Skagway,” Kelm said in an interview conducted for Thomas Thornton’s 2004 Ethnographic Overview and Assessment for the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. “Her mother (Ann Gordon) was buried here in the old cemetery, as were her sister and a niece. We asked her where she wanted to go. … My mom said, ‘We’ll gamble on Skagway.’ So we brought her over here and she stayed with us for 12 years.”
Margaret was a well-known basketball fan and showed unwavering support for the Skagway School team, said Sheryl Dennis, who lives in Skagway year-round and married into her family. Margaret also encouraged people to learn about Tlingit customs, which she passed on to her daughter. Ernie learned to speak the Tlingit language from Margaret and Marian, according to Brady’s book, and Marian invited Skagway locals into her home to learn about Tlingit art and traditions.
“Marian, who had learned from her mother, was always willing to teach anyone who came to her house,” Dennis said. “She taught me how to make Alaska Native dolls and clothes for them. She also taught my children some introductory Tlingit words and phrases.”
Marian also beaded the vest that her nephew, Skagway resident Si Dennis, wore in this year’s Fourth of July parade.
The Kelm family watched the social landscape of Skagway change during their time living in town, Thornton noted.
“Both (Marian Kelm) and her sister also noted that Skagway was very much a white town and that being an Indian was not always ‘popular.’ By the 1970s, however, this was beginning to change and by the 1980s Mrs. Kelm became involved in very public efforts to educate students and other Skagway residents about Tlingit customs,” he wrote.
“Grandma” Katzeek passed away at the age of 94 in Skagway on April 17, 1985. That same year, Skagway School dedicated the yearbook to her. Her remaining family then brought her back to Klukwan, where she was buried with a signed basketball from Skagway School, Brady wrote.