Respected Elders Drown In Yukon River Near Marshall

May 17, 2016

Fishing skiff in Marshall, Alaska.
Credit Danielle Ringer / Alaska Department of Fish and Game

Two elders drowned this weekend in Marshall when their vehicle suddenly slid into the Yukon River. The couple left a legacy of sharing traditional knowledge with their community. KYUK’s Anna Rose MacArthur reports.

According to the Alaska State Trooper dispatch, Angelina Coffee, 76, and her husband Frank Coffee, 80, were launching their boat Saturday evening. Frank was driving when the vehicle suddenly plunged down a steep bank into the water. A nearby man dove into the river to pull out the couple. Bystanders began administering CPR and transported the elders to the community clinic. The couple was pronounced dead about an hour after the accident.

Clara Shorty was in the clinic lobby, praying with the Coffee family when the pronouncement came. Afterwards she blessed the bodies with holy water. Clara worked with Angelina at the Marshall Catholic Church for more than 20 years and says the couple stood as respected elders among the community.

“They both contributed to our community by sharing our native way of life. They showed their children and grandchildren how to gather off the land, prepare and preserve fish for the winter, [and] how to hunt off the land,” Clara said.

Clara says Angelina also instructed students at the Marshall school—telling traditional stories and teaching skills like crocheting and fur boot-making. Clara says the elder mentored everyone.

“She was my mom’s friend. And when my mother passed away, she became a mother figure for me. She was my elder," Clara said. "If I had troubling questions about life problems, I would go to her, and she would give me advice."

Clara and Angelina served as Eucharistic ministers at the church and would hold services and funerals in the absence of a priest, which Clara says happened more times than not. With the women’s close relationship, Clara says she won’t be able to lead the Coffee’s funeral. The emotion would be too great. She says the Sunday service the morning after the accident was the hardest she ever did.

“Because knowing her that she wouldn’t be with me anymore during the services was hard. But I made it through with the parishioners. They came to pray with me, so that gave me a lot of support. Family members were there, and that made me happy, too," Clara said. "That made me able to go through the service.”

Angelina worked as the school cook until retirement. Frank hunted, trapped, and worked as a mechanic. They are survived by eight children and many grandchildren.

The family will decide the funeral date once the bodies return from the State Medical Examiner's Office in Anchorage.