Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic by Jennifer Niven

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I subscribe to Jenni Monet’s online newsletter, Indigenously. It’s a great resource for information concerning Native American issues. She often makes suggestions for further reading. Based on Monet’s recommendation, I read Ada Blackjack. Her story is a page-turner about early exploration in the Arctic. In 1921 four young men and one Native American woman, Ada Blackjack, set out on an expedition to Wrangel Island north of Siberia to claim the island for the United Kingdom. Blackjack was a young a mother who was desperate to earn money to pay for medical help for her young son. She was hired as a seamstress to repair and make clothing for the expedition team. The conditions were adequate when the team arrived on the island, but as time went on things took a turn for the worse. Three of the men were forced to leave the island and go for help leaving Blackjack and one team member who was afflicted with scurvy behind. As the man got weaker, Ada Blackjack had to manage caregiving, tend to the camp, hunt for food which was scarce, and fight the weather. She had no survival skills and had to teach herself to take care of both herself and her sick employer. Her story is harrowing. Although she was the only survivor, the story of her amazing courage, fortitude, self-taught skills, and dedication to helping her dying comrade were lost to history for years while the rest of the expedition was memorialized and the backer of the expedition and Blackjack’s rescuer exploited her story. Blackjack received a meager salary and a few hundred dollars that she had earned for the furs she trapped on Wrangel; otherwise, she did not benefit from her ordeal and received no compensation from the books that were written about her. Ada Blackjack died in 1983 at age 85. Her son Billy spent years trying to get the Alaskan government to recognize his mother. Finally, a month after her death, the Alaska State Legislature formally honored Ada Blackjack as a “true and courageous hero.”

Most importantly the author, Jennifer Niven, documented Ada Blackjack’s story. She also made early Arctic exploration very vivid for her readers. The human drama around this expedition is complex and compelling. I feel especially honored to have read the story of this almost forgotten Native American hero. The book is also a tribute to the four brave young men who lost their lives for a cause they believed in and an indictment of the men who exploited the expedition for personal gain.

2 comments on “Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic by Jennifer Niven”

  1. Wow, B. What a sewing gig. What a way to step up to what was thrown her way. Sad words, these: a month after her death. I assume her son Billy is the child she was working to save?

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    1. The son Ada was trying to save ended up dying in 1975 at age 58-59. Ada married again after she returned from Wrangle Island and Billy Blackjack Johnson was born in 1924. When Ada left for Wrangler Island trying earn money to help her son Bennett, she was a desperate, uneducated, poverty stricken, single parent abandoned by her first husband. She was in her early 20’s. She never had an easy life before during or after the expedition. Given her circumstances, she was an amazing woman. While this story is full of hardship, it is also inspiring. The human spirit has a miraculous ability to persevere in the face of unimaginable obstacles.

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