Elim’s Eliza Katongan celebrated a big milestone last week: she’s officially been alive for a century, and she says it feels good.
On Thursday, Jan. 8, friends and family travelled from all over, including Shaktoolik, Unalakleet, Koyuk, and Montana, to celebrate Eliza’s 100th birthday.
Eliza’s niece, Grace Morris of Koyuk, said of her aunt, “she’s a real blessing to me and my family, and I praise God that she lived 100 years old!”
Pink and purple streamers hung in the Elim School gymnasium as more than 100 people were welcomed for the birthday celebration and potluck, featuring the Native food Eliza most enjoys.
In her 100 years, Eliza has touched countless lives. Born in 1915 at the original site of Shaktoolik, six miles up the Shaktoolik River, Eliza later settled in Elim, where she has lived most of her life. She had 14 children, and has dozens of grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and even great-great grandchildren.
Family members and friends know Eliza as a loving caretaker and a fountain of cultural and subsistence knowledge, and they were eager to share stories of how Eliza has impacted their lives.
Morris, who lost her mother at a young age, described Eliza as her “mentor.” She said, “As I was remembering this morning, I said, man, she saw a lot of changes in her lifetime, from using dog team, to snow machine and now probably truck every now and then. She’s one of the first I know of who lived this long within our area.”
Others shared stories of Eliza’s love and skill for berry picking, fishing, and sewing.
“When she was 93 years old, she used to come get me,” said Michelle Saccheus, Eliza’s great-granddaughter. “She’d go knock on the door, and she’d say, ‘Go get my Honda! Let’s go pick berries,’ or, ‘Let’s go pick greens.’”
Paul Nakaruk grew up in Elim and has known Eliza his whole life. “She has done a lot for the community,” he said. “I have some things that she made over the years, even a pair of dog mittens that she gave me from years back. She’s a real active lady, still moving around and shopping and getting around.”
Several people noted that it is Eliza’s generous, loving spirit and life philosophy of forgiveness that have helped her to live so long.
“I never in my life saw her go a day in want,” said Violet La Forge, Eliza’s daughter, during an opening prayer. “I saw she gave what she had—all the food that she put away, she gave to people in need. Because of that, she is blessed.”
Eliza’s niece, Teresa Sockpealuk-Perry, shared one piece of wisdom that Eliza has repeated throughout her life. “One of things she said was ‘Forgiveness is a great thing to live by. We need to continue to forgive people who do us wrong.’ She has had a lot of sorrow in her life and if she carried all that sorrow inside her, she wouldn’t have been this healthy.”
The celebration lasted about five hours, with live performances of some of Eliza’s favorite songs and, of course, a joyful rendition of the “Happy Birthday” song in honor of Eliza’s special day.