Young chief leads his people to a promising future

EAGLE, Alaska On a cold night, two days before Christmas 2005, a young Alaska Native lay bleeding by the side of the road near Eagle Village.

EAGLE, Alaska

On a cold night, two days before Christmas 2005, a young Alaska Native lay bleeding by the side of the road near Eagle Village.

It was 2 a.m. when the 25-year-old on the snowmachine tried to pass a car on the narrow road. The two vehicles collided and the young man slammed into the driver’s side of the car, breaking all the major bones in the right side of his body.

His head went through the right rear window and the broken glass cut his face and head severely. It was several hours before he arrived at the hospital in Fairbanks on a medevac flight.

By any rights, doctors said, Conan Goebel should have died that night.

Instead, less than a year later, Goebel is the new first chief of Eagle Village, a Han Athabaskan community on the upper Yukon River.

“It’s a miracle,” Goebel said.

Not only did he survive the accident, but he was chosen as leader of the Han people, fulfilling his lifelong dream of following in his grandfather’s footsteps as chief.

Goebel is a tall, good-looking young man who wears a bone-bead choker and a necklace with a single black bear claw.

Soon after the election, he could be seen driving through the gravel streets of the village in a Blazer with the word “chief” scrawled in the dust on the rear window.

Goebel says he can scarcely believe how his life has turned around since his difficult teenage years.

He spent most of his childhood in Eagle, with brief periods in Phoenix, Miami, Cleveland and other cities in the Lower 48 as his father worked construction jobs during the winter.

His parents divorced when he was 12, and he lived with his mother in a rough neighbourhood in south Fairbanks.

In his school, Goebel was an average student and an above-average basketball player, playing at the varsity level.

But gradually, he found himself drawn into a life much different than he had experienced growing up in a bush community.

“I witnessed some bad stuff,” he said.

Of the dozens of young men he knew in his teenage years, Goebel said, “only me and one of my friends are left. All the rest are either dead or in jail.”

As time passed, Goebel grew increasingly angry at his situation.

“I was really sick of living like that, not knowing where I was going to sleep at night, where my next meal was coming from.”

He resolved to find a way out, and he began by distancing himself from his old crowd.

He cleaned up his act and graduated from high school determined to pursue “a good, honest career.”

Goebel’s father was working on the pipeline and got him involved in a labour union’s father-son program, which provided training in construction to young men whose fathers were union members.

Goebel landed a construction job on the pipeline and advanced quickly.

By the age of 22, he had logged over 5,000 hours and was given his own crew, becoming the youngest journeyman in Local 942.

But one day, Goebel looked around and realized, “Here I am, in 80-below weather, working outside in a ditch. I decided there had to be a better way.”

The technicians he worked with every day, he realized, made more money, enjoyed frequent rest and relaxation and “were never dirty.”

By that time, Goebel and his longtime girlfriend, Rachel Myers, had become parents. Suddenly he had a family to support.

With his grandmother’s encouragement, he decided to go back to school with the goal of becoming a technician.

Goebel entered the Process Technology program at University of Alaska Fairbanks, a two-year initiative that trains students to work as technicians at oil refineries.

“It was hard,” Goebel said. It had been five years since he got out of high school, and his math skills were rusty.

But he tackled advanced math classes, including trig and calculus, and found that his teachers were happy to stay with him after class to go over the material.

“Nobody expects you to go in as a genius,” he said.

Goebel learned how to study effectively, take notes and locate information.

He put in extra time, often studying until 2 a.m.

He learned to “think faster, better, more clearly.”

Soon he was on the dean’s list, earning a 3.8 grade-point average.

In his second year in the program, Conan and Rachel went home for Christmas, taking their four-year-old son, Sean, and their new baby, Deven.

Eagle Village was home for Rachel as well as Conan.

They’d known each other since they were 12, when Rachel began spending summers with her aunt and uncle, who lived next door to Conan’s father.

The morning of Christmas Eve, Conan woke to find his head swathed in bandages, with dozens of stitches closing a long gash on his face.

His right wrist was broken, his right thigh had suffered a compound fracture, and his right knee and ankle were both smashed. Doctors discussed amputating the leg.

Even if they were able to save it, they said, it was doubtful he would be able to walk again.

Goebel spent weeks in the hospital, undergoing a total of four surgeries.

“I went through hell,” he said.

While recuperating, he started asking himself if becoming a technician was really what he wanted to do.

It occurred to him that his course of study at UAF had nothing to do with his Native heritage, which had taken on a new importance after the accident.

He realized that he wanted to do something for the Han people, but he didn’t know what. Goebel took a leave of absence from the university and returned to Eagle Village.

Goebel arrived back home at a critical time for the small community on the banks of the Yukon River.

For years, the Han, or “people of the river,” had been in a decline.

Elders with traditional knowledge were dying off, the old ways were disappearing and only seven or eight fluent speakers of the Han Athabaskan language remained.

The population had shrunk to just a few dozen residents.

“It was looking pretty bleak,” said Tribal Administrator Joanne Beck.

“We were down to only a couple of children in the village. We prayed for the return of everything — the children, the fish, the animals.”

Since then, Beck said, “We’ve seen blessing after blessing.”

Over the next few years, things began to improve.

Young men and women who’d grown up in Eagle Village, including Goebel and Rachel, started returning home with their young children.

The number of native children in the community grew so quickly that they now make up the majority of students at Eagle Community School.

The long-awaited relocation of Eagle Village away from the flood-prone banks of the Yukon River finally became a reality this summer with the start of construction on the new village, eight kilometres upriver.

And a new project to create a Han dictionary has sparked interest in reviving the moribund language.

According to Beck, the elders who worked on the project with a linguist this fall “have started speaking our language more and remembering stories that were passed on to them.

“They’re more involved now and willing to share. It’s exciting.”

To many people, it appears that Eagle Village is poised to enter a new era of growth and rejuvenation.

Amid positive change and new opportunities, the tribe recognized that it needed new leadership with the energy and drive to move the village forward.

In September, they voted into office the youngest council ever to serve Eagle Village: four of the five new members are younger than 30.

From among those five, Goebel was elected first chief. (Under village bylaws, the councilmember with the most votes becomes first chief and the runner-up becomes second chief.)

Though initially he felt unprepared for the heavy responsibility thrust upon him, Goebel trusts that he will be shown the way.

“I always wanted to come back and do the right thing for my people, but I didn’t think it was time. God is saying it is.”

Goebel readily admits that he knows little about village politics and tribal administration, but he is confident in his ability to learn.

“I don’t want to leap into things unprepared.” Now is the time “to sit back and absorb all I can, so that down the road I’ll be an effective leader.”

Although the thought of everything he has to learn can be “overwhelming,” he says the study skills he learned in college are helping him absorb a lot of material in a short amount of time.

Beck praised the new chief’s willingness to learn.

“He’s always wanting to know more. He spends time down here at the tribal office, just to see what we do.”

Goebel is especially interested and involved in the relocation project.

His construction background makes him more comfortable exercising leadership in this area.

“This is stuff I know,” he said.

He sees the new construction as a good opportunity to provide job training for those who want to work.

“A lot of people say they’re ready to work,” he said. “(But) I tell them that when this work kicks off, you’ve got to show up every day. If one person is late or doesn’t show up, that causes delays and affects the budget.”

Goebel himself plans to be an active presence on-site.

“A leader should be the first one out there and the last one to leave. When my people see that, I hope they will join me.”

It is that sense of working toward a shared vision that Goebel hopes to nurture.

He aims to put an end to the divisiveness that has marked village life in recent years.

 “I want to unite the community,” he said, simply.

It appears to many observers that Goebel may succeed where others have failed.

The people of Eagle Village are standing behind their new chief, giving him a level of support not always offered to newly elected leaders.

Goebel said, “I think they can see that I’m trying my hardest to do things right.”

His energy and optimism is apparent in the plans he has laid out for what he wants to accomplish during his term as first chief.

Top priority is building the new village and getting it off to a good start.

It will be an attractive, healthy place to live, with walking trails, a playground, laundromat and other amenities, he said.

The new village must convey a more positive impression than the old village, which he calls “gloomy.

“I want the new village to look good, something you want to look at when you walk out the door,” he said.

The first thing on the new chief’s agenda is sprucing up the old village by planting grass and flowers, building a greenhouse and starting a community garden.

He wants to put in picnic tables and have barbecues that focus on healthy cooking and eating.

“I want to keep people busy so there will be less drinking,” said Goebel.

At village council meetings, Goebel and the other young council members brainstorm ideas for new activities, such as a cooking class for kids, and birch-bark basket and drum-making workshops taught by village elders.

They would like to bring the men together to repair the two fish wheels owned by the village and put them back in operation.

Indeed, Goebel is so full of ideas, plans and dreams for the village that Beck cautions him to avoid trying to do too much too soon.

Beck, herself a former first chief, advises Goebel to listen to the people and respond to their requests, but to realize that not everyone has to get what they want when they want it.

“He needs to keep his vision of where he’s going, work toward that, and be careful of distractions,” said Beck.

Although his duties as first chief keep him very busy, Goebel has not allowed his new role in the village to distract him from his own personal and career goals.

He is looking into continuing his studies at University of Alaska, Fairbanks through distance education, perhaps with a change of major.

A degree in business administration, he feels, would make him better able to help his people if he decides to stay on in a leadership capacity after his term ends in 2008.

Almost one year after his snowmachine crash, Goebel walks with a cane and still suffers chronic pain. The 10-centimetre scar that curves along the right side of his face is a constant reminder of the accident.

The former athlete is frustrated that he can’t do many things he used to take for granted — simple things like cutting wood or playing a game of basketball on the court built recently in the old village.

He expresses impatience with the slow process of recovery.

Goebel is not able to get out as often as he used to, especially in winter when walking is difficult for him, so he spends a lot of time on the phone and the computer, keeping council members up to date on current issues and dealing with concerns that individuals bring to him.

When he needs a break from village business, Goebel picks up his guitar and practices a blues riff. His young sons often join him, playing along on their toy guitars and drums.

Although he’s teaching himself to play the blues, Goebel isn’t complaining about his life.

He realizes that he was very lucky on that fateful Christmas Eve and has been given a second chance.

He appreciates the opportunity he now has to effect positive changes in the community and to improve the quality of his people’s lives.

“The tribe wanted someone to tie together the elders and the old ways, and the young people and the new way of doing things,” Goebel said.

Eagle Village’s new first chief is ready to take on that challenge.

“I’m willing to be the one to tie that knot.”

Louise Freeman-Toole is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle, Alaska.