When someone thinks that they are going through a hard experience in their life, they only have to take a look at history to discover many cases of such seriousness that they will probably leave that experience as something anecdotal. What we know of Ada Blackjack’s life is a good example: two dead children, the third left in an orphanage, divorce, a time in destitution and the attempt to get out of it all by embarking on an adventure that ends in disaster, spending two years on an abandoned island in the Arctic.
Ada also had the added handicap of being Native American, at a time when that status was equivalent to marginalization. She belonged to the Iñupiat people, related to the Inuit -both come from the Thule culture- and distributed along the Pacific coast of Alaska, from the Bering Strait to the Canadian border. They were originally hunter-gatherers who moved to the continent from the islands that dot that area around 1000 BC.
The Iñupiat spread across Alaska after falling prey to an epidemic, probably introduced by American and European whalers fishing in those waters. Some tribes settled in fixed sites with igloos as homes, while others remained nomadic. In general, they lived by hunting and fishing, without discarding any game: seals, walruses, caribou, cetaceans, bears, birds, fish… They also collected roots and shoots, practicing, in short, a subsistence economy.
Ada Deletuk, that was her maiden name, was born in 1898 in Solomon, a tiny community created from a Fish River tribe village that later became a mining camp and at the beginning of the 20th century would end up becoming a town whose inhabitants could Count on the fingers of one hand. Despite being Indian, she did not have the typical learning (hunting, survival), since she was raised by Methodist missionaries who, as she was required to do, taught her religious education, sewing and cooking; all in the English language, as children were punished for not speaking their native dialects. She didn’t stay long in that unpromising place and she moved to the neighboring city of Nome.
Not that Nome was big either (even today it hardly exceeds three and a half thousand inhabitants), but there she entered a new and hopeful stage of her life when she found a husband when she was barely sixteen years old. She however she was not lucky; as we said at the beginning, they had three children of which only one survived and the marriage ended in abandonment by him. Ella was left with her new surnames, Blackjack Johnson, and a surviving child, Bennett, whom she was forced to temporarily institutionalize because he was sick with tuberculosis and she could not support him or pay for his treatment. .
In 1921 she sensed that her great opportunity was coming when she was hired for the expedition that the explorer and ethnologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson organized to Wrangel Island. Stefansson was the son of Icelandic immigrants but was born in Gimli, Manitoba, so he had Canadian nationality; however, he never forgot his roots to the point that as an adult he changed the real name that his parents had given him to integrate him, William Stephenson, for the other, with a more evident Icelandic resonance.
He studied anthropology at Harvard, where he became a professor, and in 1905 he embarked on his first archaeological research trip to Iceland, later living with the Inuit of the Mackenzie River delta and gaining enough experience to lead other expeditions around the world. Arctic, earning the nickname of blond eskimo. Polo shirts were all the rage in the early 20th century, once the mysteries of Africa had all but been unraveled.
When he planned his new adventure in 1921, he had just reaped a resounding failure in what had been baptized as Canadian Arctic Expedition 1913-1916since one of the boats used, the Karluk, was trapped in the ice and was crushed by it. Stefansson was spared because he had gone hunting but that mission ended with the death of eleven men – including one who had been with Ernest Shackleton – in various circumstances, which affected his reputation. So, now he had the opportunity to redeem himself.
The goal was to reach Wrangel Island and colonize it, claiming its sovereignty for Canada. It was about seven and a half thousand square kilometers of desolate, tundra-covered land located at the 180th meridian, one hundred and forty kilometers from the coast of Siberia, in the De Long Strait. Although it had been sighted since the 18th century and named by an American whaler in 1867 in honor of its main explorer, the Russian Ferdinand von Wrangel, it had belonged to Russia since it was claimed in 1916.
Some of the castaways Karluk They were abandoned there for nine months and after their rescue, realizing that there was no one in the entire island territory, Stefensson had the idea of occupying it de facto for your country. As the government did not cooperate, he offered the company to Great Britain, which also rejected it to avoid an international incident with Moscow. However, Stefensson did not give up and went ahead hoping to succeed by fait accompli, although this time he limited himself to planning and financing the project, leaving the direction of it in the hands of another explorer, Allan Crawford.
Not that it had any sign of success, seeing that the plan was to send only five colonists to settle: three Americans, Lorne Knight, Milton Galle and Fred Maurer (who was a repeat offender, as he was one of the survivors of the Karluk); a Canadian, the aforementioned Crawford; and an Iñupiat, Ada. They were selected for their experience in the Arctic and their academic scientific training, but the oldest was only twenty-eight years old, while the youngest was nineteen; she went as cook and seamstress. They sailed aboard the Silver WaveThey crossed the Chukchi Sea and landed at Wrangel on September 15, 1921.
But, like the previous one, the expedition turned out to be poorly planned and equipped, with only six months’ supplies. When they exhausted them, they could not replace them with game, as planned, because winter came and the weather conditions were adverse; In addition, the animals were scarcer than expected in such a hostile environment, with only canvas tents to protect themselves from the cold and blizzards, since the schooner teddybearwho was supposed to bring them construction materials in 1922, had to turn around as he could not advance through the frozen sea.
The situation became dramatic and on January 28, 1923 three of the men decided to try to reach Siberia for help; for this they had to cross the Sea of Chuckchi on foot, on its frozen surface. It was a near-suicidal attempt and, indeed, they were never heard from again. Lorne Knight, who was ill with scurvy, had been left under the care of Ada, whom he treated rather rudely. He finally died on June 23.
She, who had had to add to her occupations that of a nurse -with infinite patience-, woodcutter and hunter, was left completely alone on a desert island without food, with the only company of Victory, a cat. But Ada was an Iñupiat, after all, and she managed to survive in those extreme conditions of hunger and freezing for another couple of months.
He had to use his wits. For example, the ground was so hard with ice that he was unable to dig a grave for Knight and opted instead to build a kind of closet over the corpse to keep out predators and insulate himself from the stench of putrefaction; she or she was forced to cover her own bed with a wooden frame to sleep safe from bears. She also set fox traps, erected a lookout tower, fashioned a primitive sailboat out of tent canvas, and attempted to take pictures with the team’s camera.
Thus, until August 19, when the Donaldson, a ship captained by Harold Noice, Stefansson’s former collaborator, who brought her back. The sailors said that, according to her first impression, Ada had managed magnificently and she could have lasted another year. She argued that she always did it for her son, the pearl that was missing to be involved in a wave of certain fame.
She was the subject of reports and interviews in which she was called the Female Robinson Crusoe or his adventure was compared to Jules Verne’s novel two years vacation, in which a group of boys are shipwrecked and spend their time on a desert island getting by on their own. Stefansson and Noice conscientiously exploited the story to earn money by publishing books and, the latter, took the opportunity to try to cover up their responsibility in that new travel fudge that had raised strong criticism in public opinion.
The deported Inuit, aboard the Krasny Oktyabr/Photo: public domain on Wikimedia Commons
For her, all that assembly did not report any benefit and she only received the salary of her contract (fifty dollars a month, for her a huge figure) and what she obtained from the sale of the skins collected in Wrangel. But it was enough to get her son back to Seattle, where she was able to pay for medical treatment for her illness and keep Bennett alive until 1972.
In the city he married again and had another child, Billy. Later, amid some smears that she had treated Lorne Knight inappropriately, she decided to cut herself off from it all and return to her homeland. On May 29, 1983, eighty-five years old and with hardly any financial resources, she stopped bargaining to death: she died in Palmer, at a charity called Alaska Veterans & Pioneers Home; she is buried in Anchorage, next to Bennett.
As an epilogue, saying that the ship that rescued her left thirteen other settlers on the island, twelve Inuits (later another on-site) under the command of American Charles Wells. It was for a short time; in 1924 the Soviet Union sent the ship Krasny Oktyabr to evict them and found a permanent settlement. Wells died of pneumonia in Vladivostok, and the Inuit were deported to China for relocation to Alaska. As there were no funds to pay for the trip, the US consul in Harbin turned them down on the grounds that they were not US citizens and in the end the Red Cross had to do it.
Adam Blackjack. A true story of survival in the Arctic (Jennifer Niven) / Browned in the Arctic. The true story of Ada Blackjack, the «Female Robinson Crusoe» (Peggy Caravantes) / Stefansson and the Canadian Arctic (Richard Diubaldo) / Wikipedia