Sealaska Mourns the Loss of Tlingit leader David Katzeek

It is with great sadness, but also reverence, respect and gratitude for his innumerable contributions, that we share the news of the passing of Tlingit Elder and culture bearer Kingeistí David Katzeek.

Katzeek was a clan leader for the Eagle moiety, Shangukeidí (Thunderbird Clan) of Klukwan. Katzeek was from Kaawdliyaayi Hít (House Lowered from the Sun), and Shis’g̠i Hít (Tree Bark House) in Chilkat K̠wáan Klukwan, after his mother, the late Anna Klanott Katzeek. He was a child of the G̠aanax̠teidí after his father, George J. Katzeek, who was a Raven G̠aanax̠teidí Clan of the Raven-Otter-Whale-Frog House in Klukwan.

Katzeek was born in Klukwan on November 12, 1942, and moved to Juneau in 1948. He died in Juneau on October 28, 2020.

He was deeply involved with community life in Juneau, with particular commitment to language preservation and the education and mentorship of young people — Native and non-Native alike.

“This is an incredible loss for so many,” said Sealaska Board Chair Joe Nelson. “I am personally thankful for the time I had with him. I am especially thankful for the time so many of our kids had with him, including my own kids. Kingeistí set the bar higher for all of us. He did it with passion, grace and love.” 

Katzeek was the first president of Sealaska Heritage Foundation, and served as a traditional scholar for Sealaska Heritage Institute for nearly 20 years. He served on the Sealaska board of directors from 1979 to 1981. He worked with others to help implement the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, and was an advocate for many other legislative changes impacting Alaska Native people. He also worked closely with public schools in Juneau and educated teachers, support staff, administrators, and community and school board members on the rich history and culture of Alaska.

Katzeek learned Lingít from his grandparents, and his dedication to speaking the language and transmitting the cultural values contained in its words and phrases was a source of inspiration for the establishment of Sealaska’s $10 million language endowment. Many young Tlingit children heard their first words in Lingít from Katzeek. His is among several voices featured on the first-ever Tlingit language app, “Learning Tlingit,” released in 2016 by Sealaska Heritage Institute.

He was recognized by the Juneau School District and the Alaska Legislature in 2019 for his work with the Tlingit Culture, Language and Literacy program. A Juneau Empire article about this honor quoted Katzeek expressing his relationship to the Lingít language as follows:

“When I begin to look at the root of a word, and really get in connection with the word, the intimacy, the admiration of a word, and how it was placed. Almost like an artist placing something, to enhance something someone else might experience. I sense the presence of my ancestors … when I start reading something, looking at something that came from my grandfather’s people, I’m listening to their heartbeat, that’s the reason I like what I do.”

Sealaska President and CEO Anthony Mallott praised Katzeek’s role as a leader and cultural guide.

“Whether you personally knew David Katzeek or not, if you are Tlingit — if you are Indigenous to Southeast Alaska, or if you just value this land and these waters — you are the beneficiary of the wisdom he cultivated and shared,” Mallott said. “He has long been a source of personal inspiration and guidance, particularly because of the way he embodied our Elders’ commitment to future generations. I trust his family will be comforted by all the love and gratitude that is being shared about this great man throughout our homelands.”