Basdut (Chief Ezi)
1870-1935 | Dena’ina Athabascan Indian Elder and Chief, Upper Cook Inlet
Basdut, or Simeon Esia (his last name changed to Ezi by non-Indians), was a respected Dena'ina Athabascan Indian elder associated with the now abandoned Native village of Niteh near Palmer just west of the Matanuska and Knik Rivers. He was born in 1870 and was one of the last recognized chiefs of upper Cook Inlet. He married his wife Olga about 1896 and they lived in Eklutna and in what is now Palmer. Knik Lake (Lake George) flooded almost annually, however, and the family moved to the other side of the Knik River in 1913. The couple had five children, Bill, Pete, Jack, Mary, and Annie and frequently took orphans into their home as well.
Early in his adult life, Basdut operated a small boat delivering supplies from the large ships in Anchorage to the smaller communities of Cook Inlet. The Ezi family also followed a traditional subsistence lifestyle, fishing in season and hunting moose, ducks, and sheep in the fall and winter. According to Shem Pete the area around Niteh was good hunting for moose and rabbits. They also trapped in the Jim Creek, Friday Creek, and Nancy Lake areas. Basdut and his family represent both the changes brought by Euro-Americans to Alaska Natives as well as the persistence of Dena'ina culture, values, and skills.
Shem Pete told a story about how Basdut became rich. His wife, Olga, was from the Tyone Lake/Copper Center region; according to Shem Pete, her father was a "big medicine man." He was staying with the Ezis in the 1920s when a Knik Lake flood washed away several homes and businesses. As a result of the flood, a store drifted onto Fire Island with most of its wares intact. A safe, however, washed out and was eventually buried in the sand. Basdut's father-in-law instructed him to find the safe by poling into the sand. The father-in-law also gave directions on which way Basdut should go. When Basdut found the safe, it was so heavy with twenty-dollar gold pieces he could not lift it. He packed the gold home load by load and later held a potlatch at his village of Niteh (Matanuska).
Basdut died of pneumonia in 1935. The Anchorage Daily Times ran four separate stories about him and his funeral between January 18 and January 24. The funeral combined Orthodox ritual with traditional Native rites; scores of people, both Native and non-Native, attended. John Bagoy, who researched the Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery, helped located Basdut's grave site, which may have originally been marked by a wooden grave house often used by Dena'ina Russian Orthodox believers. Bagoy remembered seeing grave houses over Native graves in the Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery in the 1940s. Granite headstones replaced the long-gone grave houses for Basdut, Chief Nicolai, and Chief Nicolai II in 2003.
The 1920 Alaska federal census shows "Esey," aged fifty-one, occupation trapper, with wife Olga, aged 45, with five children aged between six and twenty-one, living at Eklutna. The 1930 Alaska federal census shows "Chief Ezi," occupation trapper, then sixty-two, living with his wife Olga, fifty-four, in Eklutna. Adjacent households are headed by Pete Ezi and wife Ruth and William Ezi and wife Arlissa.
The 1940 Alaska federal census lists Olga (age sixty-nine) as a widow living with her son Jack (age thirty). Her occupation is listed as 'skin sewer,' and they lived either at Matanuska Village or Matanuska Bridge, the latter being described by the census enumerator as being inhabited by Natives. In the adjacent dwelling lived Pete Ezi, probably Olga and Basdut's son, with wife Ruth and children Alberta E. and Peter A. Neil Ezi, a brother-in-law, lived there also. Pete Ezi is listed as a fisherman and Ruth as a skin sewer. Olga is listed as a resident of Eklutna in the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs 1945 village census rolls, but also as a resident of Matanuska by Dr. Hoehn, a census taker for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Information for this entry is from James Kari and James A. Fall, compilers and editors of Shem Pete's Alaska: The Territory of the Upper Cook Inlet Dena'ina (Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press , 2003); Alberta Stephan, "Athabaskan Natives of Cook Inlet," in Adventures through Time: Readings in the Anthropology of Cook Inlet, Alaska, compiled and edited by Nancy Yaw Davis and William E. Davis, 145-150 (Anchorage, Cook Inlet Historical Society, 1996); and A. E. Stephan, Cheda, [Athabascan Indian for grandma] (Anchorage, AK: Todd Communications, 2001), about the life of Olga Nikolai Ezi. The entries for Olga Ezi from the 1920-1940 Alaska federal censuses were accessed from Ancestry.com. The entry for Olga Ezi in the 1945 Eklutna Village Census Rolls is located in the Village Census Rolls, 1935-1972, Box 10; U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (Juneau Area Office); Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Record Group 75; National Archives at Seattle, Seattle, WA (see ARC Identifier No. 628296). In addition, see also the short biographical entry on Simeon Ezi in Suzi Jones, James A. Fall, and Aaron Leggett, editors, Dena'inaq' Huch'ulyeshi/The Dena'ina Way of Living (Fairbanks, AK: University of Alaska Press in association with the Anchorage Museum, 2013), 87 and 90.
No entry for Basdut ("Chief Ezi") was published in John P. Bagoy’s Legends and Legacies: Anchorage 1910-1935, (Anchorage, AK: Publications Consultants, 2001. This biographical sketch was drafted by Mina Jacobs in 2012. Revised by Walter Van Horn, 2013. Note: edited slightly by Bruce Parham, April 3, 2016.
Preferred citation: Mina Jacobs and Walter Van Horn, "Basdut (Chief Ezi)," Cook Inlet Historical Society, Legends & Legacies, Anchorage, 1910-1940, http://www.alaskahistory.org.
Major support for Legends & Legacies, Anchorage, 1910-1940, provided by: Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, Atwood Foundation, Cook Inlet Historical Society, and the Rasmuson Foundation. This educational resource is provided by the Cook Inlet Historical Society, a 501 (c)(3) tax-exempt association. Contact us at the Cook Inlet Historical Society, by mail at Cook Inlet Historical Society, Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, 625 C Street, Anchorage, AK 99501, or through the Cook Inlet Historical Society website, www.cookinlethistory.org. Copyright © 2017 by Cook Inlet Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.