In Memory of Traditional Chief Simon Francis, Sr.
Pictured above left to right: Cabins built by Chief Francis, Chief Francis as a teenager and Chief Francis at age 93 with his daughter, Aleta.
Chief Simon Francis, Sr., Traditional Chief of Fort Yukon, passed away peacefully in Fairbanks, Alaska, on June 10, 2017, at age 93. Born in Whitehorse, Canada, on February 20, 1924, to Johnny and Mary Thomas of Old Crow, he was the last of his family, which included 13 brothers and one sister. At the age of 7, Chief Francis was adopted by his aunt, Bella, and her husband, Adam Francis from Old Village (John Herbert’s Village). Upon adoption, he became an American citizen, was raised in Old Village and spent much of his life on the Porcupine River.
A prominent bearer of the Gwich’in culture and tradition, Chief Francis was an avid trapper, woodsman, boater and craftsman. On July 4, 1947, he married Bella Mae Strom. Together they led a happy subsistence lifestyle raising five children: Josie, Linda, Charles, Aleta and Simon, Jr.
In 1957, after having lived off the land for many years, Chief Francis moved his family to the village of Fort Yukon, the largest Athabascan village in the Interior of Alaska, so his daughter, Josie, could attend school. In 1962, the family moved to Canyon Village. In 1967, the family moved to Chalkyitsik from where Chief Francis took his sons to Old Village to subsistence trap and hunt.
Renowned for his subsistence skills, traditional knowledge and craftsmanship in making traditional snowshoes and sleds, Chief Francis spent many hours teaching young people his skills and how these skills could serve them well in the future. He and Bella worked for the Riverboat Discovery for 15 or so summers, where they demonstrated and showed tourists in Fairbanks the Athabascan cultural ways of living a traditional subsistence lifestyle.
In 2000, Chief Francis and Bella moved to Fairbanks to be near a hospital for Bella’s illness. While living in Fairbanks, Chief Simon and Bella served as Elders in Residence at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where they documented traditional skills and cultural information for the Native Cultural Language Program.
Chief Francis’ daughter, Aleta, who had been by his side for the past 30 years, took him and close family on annual spring trips to his cabin located off the Porcupine River, where they spent weeks at a time hunting, setting fish nets and enjoying each other’s company on the Porcupine. “No one knew that river better than him,” said Aleta.
Chief Francis leaves a lasting legacy to those he influenced as a lifelong bearer of traditional Athabascan skills and the Gwich’in culture.