John “Wolf Smeller” Fredson: Chalkboard Champion and Native Alaskan Rights Activist

24210_405689419765_7704338_n-350x640Many 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.

Teacher Etta Schureman Jones: The Chalkboard Champion and Prisoner of War

51o3JyH9AlL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_[1]Teacher Etta Schureman was over forty years old when she and her sister ventured into Alaska Territory to teach Native Eskimos in primitive rural schools. After one year, the sister returned to the Lower 48, but Etta, who had met Foster Jones, the love of her life and married, settled permanently in Alaska.

Eighteen years later, Etta and her husband were working together  in the remote Aleutian island of Attu when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Empire of Japan on December, 7, 1941, “a day that will live in infamy.” They were slated to be evacuated by the U.S. Navy when the island was invaded by Japanese troops. Although the couple were in their sixties, Japanese soldiers killed Foster and removed Etta to an internment camp in Japan, where she was incarcerated with a small group of Australian nurses who were also prisoners of war. The Attuan natives, about three dozen of them, were also taken to Japan, with the apparent intention of assimilating them into the Japanese population. Although the surviving Attuans were repatriated after the war, Etta never saw her students or their families again.

Etta’s intriguing tale of survival is told brilliantly by Mary Breu in her book Last Letters from Attu: The True Story of Etta Jones: Alaska Pioneer and Japanese POW. A fascinating read, to be sure. You can find this book at amazon at the following link: Last Letters from Attu. I have also included a chapter about this fascinating teacher in the book I am currenlty writing, Chalkboard Heroes.

Carol Comeau: The Alaskan Noon Supervisor That Became a Teacher, and Then the District Superintendent

carol-comeau[1]Ever since Alaska became part of the United States, so many outstanding teachers have gravitated to the vast territory. One of these amazing educators is Carol Comeau, who once worked as a noon duty supervisor in an Anchorage school, became a teacher there, and eventually retired as the district superintendent 38 years later.

Carol was born in Berkeley, California, in 1941, although she was raised in Iowa. When she was young, she wanted to be an investigative reporter, so after her high school graduation she enrolled at the University of Oregon to persue a bachelor’s degree in journalism. In her sophomore year, however, she discovered her passion for teaching and changed her major to elementary education.

In 1960, Carol met her future husband, Denny Comeau. The pair married in 1962. His father owned a grocery store in Anchorage, so the couple decided to spend the summer following their marriage in Alaska. Although they returned to Oregon in the fall so her husband could complete his degree, a love for the state sprang from her summer experience there. For the first year the couple spent in Oregon, Carol taught elementray school in Spokane. In 1974, the Comeaus returned to Alaska permanently. By then, Carol and Denny had three children, and Carol had been a stay-at-home-mom for ten years. Once her children were all of school age, and enrolled at Ocean View Elementary School in Anchorage, Carol took a job at their school as a part-time noon duty supervisor.

Carol earned her master’s degree in public administration and education from the University of Alaska, Anchorage. She resumed her teaching career in 1975 when she was hired to teach second grade at the Ocean View School. In 1984, she was named president of the Anchorage Education Association, and by 1993, she was promoted to superintendent for the Anchorage School District. She became Head Superintendent in 2000. “I laugh because I think if my sixth grade teacher could know that I was a superintendent, she would turn over in her grave,” Carol once said of her favorite teacher. She recalled the sixth-grade teacher was always telling her to work harder and stop being so chatty.

As an administrator, Carol worked to get Jewish and Islamic holidays added to the school calendar, and to include sexual orientation as part of her district’s anti-harassment policy. At 48,200 students, Anchorage is the state’s largest and most diverse district.

Carol was named Alaska Superintendent of the Year in 2004. In 2007, she was awarded an honorary doctorate at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. In 2012, she was named an Alumnus of Distinction and given the Alumni of Achievement Award by the University of Alaska, Anchorage. Also, an endowment specifially for education at the Alaska Community Foundation is named after this remarkable educator. Carol was inaugurated to the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame in 2009. She retired on June 30, 2012, and today makes her home in Bellingham, Washington.

Alaskan Pioneer and Chalkboard Champion Orah Dee Clark

Orah_Dee_Clark[1]Many talented educators were pioneers as well. A fine example of this is educator Orah Dee Clark, a teacher who is best known for being the first superintendent for the first school in Anchorage, Alaska.

Orah was born in 1875 in Firth, Nebraska. She started her teaching career in 1906, when she was hired by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to teach in the Territory of Alaska. She worked in a number of remote outposts, including Kodiak, Anvik, Tanana, and the Aleutian Islands. In 1915, she was named the first superintendent of the first school in Anchorage. After leaving her position in Anchorage, she helped establish schools up and down the railroad belt in towns including Wasilla, Eske, Fairview, and Matanuska. She also taught in Unga, Kennicott, Ouzinkie, Takotna, Kiana, Nushagek, and Moose Pass. This amazing pioneer concluded her fifty-one-year career when she retired in 1944. A champion of Native Alaskan rights, Orah always believed that all children should be integrated into schools that fostered individual growth. Throughout her career, she was a strong advocate for schools where Native Alaskans and white students would attend school together.

Clark Middle School in Anchorage was opened in 1959 and named in her honor. In the early days of the school, Orah visited the campus often. It is said the students enjoyed talking with her between classes and after school.In 1962, Orah was awarded the Scroll of Honor by the Cook Inlet Historical Society. In 1980, the school where she served as the first superintendent, the Pioneer School House, was added to the National Register of Historic Places. In 2009, Clark was inducted into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame. Her personal papers are held in the collection of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and the Anchorage Museum holds a collection of photographs she once owned. Every year, the Anchorage Women’s Club awards a high school scholarship for boys and girls named after Clark.

This remarkable educator passed away in 1965.

Carrie McLain: A Pioneer Teacher in Northwestern Alaska

51f8ZZ5X-FL._SL500_SS500_[1][1]Carrie McLain was born in 1895 in Astoria, Long Island, New York. When she was just a child of ten, her father moved Carrie and her four siblings to the fledgling village of Nome on the ice-crusted coast of northwestern Alaska. There she grew to adulthood, became a pioneer teacher, married, and reared a family of one son and three daughters. McLain tells the fascinating story of her provincial life in Pioneer Teacher: Turn of the Century Classroom in Remote Northwestern Alaska. Anyone interested in learning more about rugged existence on the frigid Alaskan frontier would be interested in reading this slender volume  (it’s only 70 pages, including photographs). Pioneer Teacher can be found on amazon.