A sculpture of Dena’ina matriarch Olga Nicolai Ezi, known affectionately as “Grandma Olga,” stands proudly next to a bronze fish-drying rack in the Ship Creek Small Boat Harbor near downtown Anchorage.
Located along the banks of Ship Creek, a still-thriving urban salmon fishery, the bronze sculpture is part of a larger public art installation honoring this well-respected Dena’ina leader, her family, and their native customs. The Dena’ina were the original inhabitants of this south-central part of Alaska, and the only coastal Athabascan tribe.
Small in stature, but highly influential, Olga Nicolai was born in 1875 in the Tyone Lake, Copper Center regions, where her father was a noted medicine man. In 1896, Olga married Simeon Ezi, one of the last chiefs of the upper Cook Inlet.
Credited with much of the tribal lineage, the couple and their five children lived in the Native Village of Eklutna and took pride in the Indigenous customs—fishing in summer and hunting and trapping in the fall and winter. The family also operated a small boating business, shipping supplies from Anchorage to nearby villages.
Dena’ina artist and University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate Joel Isaak sculpted the installation, called One’s Spirit, over roughly two and a half years. The artist spent months talking with Alaska Natives about their unique features and customs, which shows in his detailed metal work. Olga’s shoes, for example, would have been made of fish scales. The artist mimicked that unique texture in his work. The statue was officially unveiled in January 2019.
In all, the Grandma Olga section of the installation includes the elder, a fish trap and rack, and bronze salmon lying on the concrete. Plaques nearby detail her contributions and those of the Dena’ina people. The surrounding area’s stunning coastal views and scenery make it worth a visit, too.