Marie Orsen

Marie Moon Orsen – Eagle Moiety, Keet Gooshi Hit

(Killer Whale Dorsal Fin House)
DOB: 1886 – DOD: 12/05/18

This is the matriarch of the Moon clan, Mary Marie Moon, also known as Marie Orsen. Mary was born in a Tlingit village in Klukwan, Northern Alaska, in 1886. She was born into Dakl’weidi, or Eagle Moiety. She was one of 5 children, and her Tlingit name was K’oots’ee. Her brothers and sisters English names were John, Archie, Kitty and Susie. Her father’s name was Wachei. I don’t know the name of her mother, but it perhaps has something to do with the fact that when Mary was still very young, her mother was killed in some community violence, between the Tlingit and a neighboring group of Haida.


Her father, Wachei, was out hunting when he heard the bad news of his wife’s death. He rushed home and gathered up the family, and they moved south to Douglas, near Juneau. In Douglas, he would go into town to trade furs for supplies, and one day a family of Quaker missionaries noticed that along with his other supplies, he was buying shoes and clothes for children as well. They asked him if they could raise and educate his daughters, and that is how K’oots’ee became Mary Marie Moon.

Marie was sent to the Carlisle Indian school in Pennsylvania, where she excelled in all areas of study, but especially in writing. She and her sister were separated from the rest of their family and not allowed to speak their native language in front of the missionaries. When she returned to Alaska, she chose to move to Juneau, where she worked as an interpreter for the court. She met and married a young and handsome Norwegian fisherman, by the name of Ole Orsen. Marie and Ole lived in a large Boat House on South Franklin Street, that years later was converted into a restaurant with rooms for rent.

Together, Marie and Ole had 5 surviving children; Thelma, Albert, Marie, Martha and Francis. Martha, her second youngest, was my great grandmother, who I had the privilege of knowing in my lifetime. Her daughter Marie died in 1999, before I ever had a chance to know her. Despite her fine education, Marie still lived in a world that treated her like a second class citizen. Besides being a wife, mother and a Court reporter, she was also very involved in the issues of her day, such as the education of Native children. She opposed segregated schools, and fought to have her own children attend the Juneau public school. She was very conscious of social issues and ill treatment experienced by Native people.

But her most lasting achievement, and the one she is known for, was helping to organize the Alaska Native Brotherhood in 1912. The purpose of that organization was to assist Natives to better themselves, to oppose and overcome racial prejudices, to preserve the fine qualities of the Native Cultures such as their art, history, lore and virtues, to improve health and labor conditions, and cultivate morality and respect for the letter and spirit of the American Constitution, that it should include rights for the Native people of Alaska. There were 13 founders of ANB, 12 men and one woman, her. She was given the position of First Recording Secretary of the ANB, not only because of her skill in writing, but also because she shared the concerns of the founding brothers. I have been very fortunate recently, in that I have been able to learn more about her life, and who she was as a person. Since they were never wealthy, she would sew clothes for her large family. She could bake, and make Taffy, and still knew how to prepare Traditional Tlingit foods. She knew how to make baskets of spruce roots, and dye from cedar and berries. She also knew how to paint on fine China, and develop her own film. I don’t know how she found the time to do all of this, but I think she tried to live her life to the fullest, because she knew she didn’t have very long to live.

You see, she had tuberculosis. And in 1918, a flu epidemic swept through Juneau, which probably worsened the long term effects of her tuberculosis, and took her life at the age of 32. Her body was buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Juneau. The final indignity coming after death, in that she and her husband were not allowed to be buried next to each other, because the racial segregation included even the cemetery.

With such excellent role models as Mary Moon, my family and many other Native families find the strength and courage to carry on, fighting for equality, striving to always improve the education system in Alaska, and retain a strong sense of heritage and culture. I think that Mary Moon would be very proud of her descendants, if she could see us now. And my family has always felt her presence, watching over us, and guiding us towards making a difference in the world around us, the same way she did. When I look at that picture of her now, I see my mother. I see my aunt. And I see myself. And I can only hope to make as much of a difference in my lifetime as she accomplished in her short time here, and to find within myself that same inner strength. Mary Moon truly had the heart of an Eagle.

(This information is courtesy of www.alaskool.org, and the book Haa Kusteeyi by Dauenhauer & Dauenhauer. The Dauenhauers are currently teachers at the University Of Alaska)