Many times dedicated teachers commit themselves to the important social causes of their day. This is true of John Fredson, an Alaskan Native American educator and hospital worker who labored tirelessly on behalf of the Neetsaii Gwich’in people of the Yukon.
John was born in 1896 near Table Mountain by the Sheenjek River watershed in the Yukon. He grew up speaking Gwich’in as his first language. His Gwich’in name is Zhoh Gwatson, which translated means “Wolf Smeller.” Orphaned at a young age, John attended a mission school operated by the Episcopal church.
As a youngster, John became exceptionally skilled in climbing, hunting, and following trails. At age 14, he became a member of a 1913 expedition that climbed Mount Denali, the highest peak in North America. For this expedition Johnny served as the base camp manager. While the older men climbed, John remained at the base camp for 31 days by himself, feeding himself by hunting caribou and sheep. The young boy’s experiences are documented in the book Ascent of Denali by Archdeacon Hudson Stuck, another member of the expedition.
With the Archdeacon’s encouragement, John decided to continue his education beyond elementary school, becoming the first native of Athabascan descent to complete high school. He earned a scholarship to attend Sewanee, the University of the South, an Episcopal college located in Tennessee. He was the first Alaska native to graduate from a university. While there, John worked with renowned linguist Edward Sapir to classify Gwich’in as part of the Na-Dene language family. This work is documented in the book John Fredson Edward Sapir Ha’a Googwandak (1982).
After he graduated from college, John served his country in the US military. When he was discharged, he returned to Alaska, where he worked at a hospital in Fort Yukon. In his later years, he built a solarium for Native American tuberculosis patients. At that time, his facility was the only hospital in the far north, and was utilized by many native Alaskan patients, primarily from the Gwich’in tribe. Most of these patients suffered from communicable diseases introduced by Europeans and Asians to which the natives had no immunity.
John also taught school in the village of Venetie, teaching how to grow household gardens to a community who had previously supported themselves through hunting. In Venetie John became a tribal leader and worked to establish the Native Alaskan rights to traditional lands. He was the primary founder of the Venetie Indian Reserve, the largest reservation in Alaska, which earned federal recognition in 1941, before Alaska was admitted to the Union as a state. The reserve was approximately 1.4 million acres at the time of its establishment. There the John Fredson School of Yukon Flats has been named in his honor, and the school remains there to this day.
All his life, John “Wolf Smeller” Fredson was a Native American rights activist, writer, hunter, skilled debater, musician, artist, and more. He is said to have lived his life with integrity, passion, and a great sense of humor. He always exhibited a great love for the land and for his people, and he made many significant contributions to his tribe in his relatively short life. This chalkboard champion died of pneumonia on August 22, 1945.