Taissumani: May 29, 1983 — The death of Ada Blackjack
Wrangel Island is situated directly north of Russia. Alaska lies between it and Canada. Perhaps no-one other than the most irresponsible of all Arctic explorers, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, would have thought that it should belong to Canada. But he did, and launched a hare-brained expedition to the island, an expedition that sent three young Americans and one Canadian to their deaths.
Stefansson himself never set foot on Wrangel Island. But in September of 1921, he sent four men there to raise the British flag and claim the island for Canada. They were accompanied by a 23-year old Inuit woman, Ada Blackjack, who had signed on as seamstress.
Born in Spruce Creek, Alaska, she had been sent to Nome to attend a Methodist school. She had married young, to an abusive husband, who abandoned her and their young son, Bennett, who suffered from tuberculosis.
Things went reasonably well on Wrangel Island for the first year. But the following summer the expected supply boat did not arrive. The next winter three of the men, Allan Crawford, Fred Maurer and Milton Galle, left for Siberia, hoping to make their way to Alaska, as Bob Bartlett had done eight years earlier on another disastrous Stefansson expedition, to seek help. They never returned. That left Ada Blackjack alone on the island with Lorne Knight, who was sick and too weak to travel. From that point on, Ada Blackjack would be responsible for his and her own survival. She taught herself to trap, to use a gun, and to hunt. But her care for Knight was to no avail. The young man died on June 22 of scurvy.
Now Ada was completely alone, helpless on an island infested with polar bears. Once, while hunting seals, she came upon a mother bear and cub. “Finally, I realized it was a polar bear,” she wrote, “and I was four hundred yards from my tent. I turned and ran just as hard as I could until I got to my tent. I was just about ready to faint when I got there, too.”
Ada had begun to keep a journal in the spring. In the lonely summer of 1923, she began to use Galle’s typewriter. Each day, before heading out in search of food, she wrote a note on the typewriter. But this was more than just a diary. It was a dated message to her would-be rescuers, should they arrive while she was off on an excursion, that she was still alive and that they should not leave the island without her. On July 23 her message was brief and stark: “I thank God for living.”
In early August she finished making a boat of driftwood and canvas, the better to be able to hunt during the remainder of the summer. At the same time she finished a pair of beaded slippers for her son, although she wondered if she would ever see him again.
On August 19, a relief vessel, the Donaldson, arrived to pick up the abandoned party. Harold Noice, in charge of the rescue, was shocked to discover that all the men had died, that only Ada survived. Ada in turn was stunned to learn that the party of three who had left for Siberia had never reached Nome.
On board the Donaldson, while bound back to Alaska, Ada Blackjack wrote out the story of her ordeal. Of Lorne Knight, she wrote, “I had hard time when he was dying. I never will forget that all my life. I was crying while he was living. I try my best to save his life but I can’t quite save him.”
Amazingly, Noice blamed Ada Blackjack for the death of Lorne Knight and for a time she was vilified in the press. But Knight’s parents saw through Noice’s malice. They became friends with Ada, and Mr. Knight issued a statement, “I still maintain that Ada Blackjack is a real heroine, and that there is nothing to justify me in the faintest belief that she did not do for Lorne all that she was able to do… I feel that I owe [this statement] to the public and to a poor Eskimo woman who is being wronged and is helpless to defend herself.”
Ada remarried and had another son, Billy Johnson, but the marriage was loveless and ended in divorce. The rest of Ada’s life was a constant battle against grief, poverty and illness, amidst humiliation at the accusations that were periodically made against her. She died at the Palmer Pioneer’s Nursing Home in Palmer, Alaska, on May 29, 1983, aged 85. She was buried in Anchorage.
A month after her death, the Alaska Legislature officially recognized Ada’s heroism with a citation which it described as “a small token of remembrance for a woman whose bravery and heroic deeds have gone unnoticed for so many years.”
Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History recounts a specific event of historic interest, whose anniversary is in the coming week. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.