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


  On the other side of the door, Ada rose from her bed and pulled on her bathrobe. It was 9:30 on a Sunday morning and she had not yet eaten. The room was cold and unheated. She wanted to be left alone. She had taken Bennett to the hospital to be cured, and now she must wait until he was well. The world had been unfriendly to her ever since she had left Nome for Wrangel Island. It had become even more unfriendly since she returned from the island, and she did not know whom to trust. Everyone seemed to want something from her, and she was tired. But this was Lorne Knight’s father, all the way from Oregon, and she felt that she must see him, if only for a brief time, because Lorne had been kind to her and had been her friend.

  Despite all that time Mr. Knight had spent and the distance he had traveled, Ada only sat with him for ten minutes. He was impressed by her quiet manner, her diminutive stature, and her dignity. She was withdrawn, shy, and didn’t seem to want to say too much. Her speech was direct but halting. She seemed to regard him warily. But she was clearly intelligent, he thought, and a perfect lady.

  Ada told Mr. Knight she had never heard the men quarreling or fighting. They were all good friends, they all worked hard, they all did the best they could, and were very nice to her. She told him of the polar bears who came to camp, but always at the wrong times, when they didn’t want them or need the meat, and she told him how the supplies had run out, leaving them hungry and desperate.

  She told him that Noice took her diary from her without her consent and without paying her, and that he also collected the pictures she had taken on the island. She had made one especially for Mr. Knight, a photograph of Lorne’s grave so that he could see where his boy was laid to rest, but this Noice had taken, too. She had written to Noice herself, asking him to give these things back to her, but he did not answer and she did not understand why. As far as she was concerned, her diary belonged to the Knights because she only began writing it when Lorne was unable to continue his own. She had kept it for both of them, and now it was her wish that his family have her journal. “Why did Noice not give you Mr. Lorne’s diary?” she wanted to know. “It was yours, you are his father and it belonged to you.”

  After the ten minutes, Ada appeared discouraged and weary, as if she did not want to relive old memories any longer than she had to. She spoke briefly of W. Harvey, who had registered at the rooming house as Jack Tanana, and whom she had met on the ship to Seattle. He was trying to get her on the vaudeville circuit, even though Ada wanted no part of it because she knew she could never stand up in front of a crowd of people. He was also trying to sell her story to the public and had gotten $35.00 out of the Seattle Times for an interview. The very thought of this man made Mr. Knight uncomfortable because Harvey was clearly after Ada’s money, and he had so influenced her that she was refusing to see friends and others who only wanted to help her and protect her from such exploitation.

  When he returned to McMinnville, Mr. Knight sent Ada an invitation to visit his family and stay in their home, along with the money it would take for her to make the trip. It would be easier for Ada to remain in Seattle near Bennett. Long trips held little appeal to her now, and she didn’t like the thought of being away from home, such as it was. Still, Mr. Knight had seemed like a nice man and he had sent her money to come. She needed to return Mr. Lorne’s belongings to his parents because she had forgotten to do so when Mr. Knight had visited her. She thought maybe she would accept the invitation so that she could give them Lorne’s items. And besides, Mr. Knight had come an awfully long way just to see her.

  Ada didn’t like most women, and Helen Lomen was no exception. Miss Lomen had a picture of Ada that Ada hadn’t given her and now she was asking to have it autographed. Ada refused to do it because she felt this woman had no right to have such a thing. Still, Miss Lomen, as a favor to her brother Carl, who had been anxious to help John Knight, was the one who sent the telegram to the Knights saying that Ada was coming. She had also purchased Ada’s ticket for her because Ada did not know how, and she had taken Ada to the train to make sure she knew where to get on and which one to take.

  Ada arrived in Portland on Monday, December 10. The Knights met her at the train station and packed her into the car. She stared, wide-eyed, through the window as they drove the forty miles to McMinnville. She had never ridden in an automobile before, and except for her trip to Wrangel Island, had never been so far from home. She told the Knights she would stay until Christmas if Bennett remained well at the hospital.

  The Knights’ house was old and modest, but to Ada it was a palace. She had never been a guest in a white man’s home before and she marveled at the modern conveniences. “This is a beautiful house,” she breathed, as she walked in the door. As she stood there, taking it all in, Joseph asked her if she knew about the radio. Ada had never heard of radio, and so he tuned it in for her and soon a man’s voice was booming out of the box, filling up the room. Joseph told her it was a man talking live from another place, but Ada refused to believe it. To her, it must be a special phonograph.

  Then there was music, which filtered in sweetly, and the Knights told her it was from Los Angeles, but that seemed very far away to Ada. And later there was music from Vancouver, and Ada knew where that was because it had been explained to her. She wanted to walk outside then and see the tower which brought the music to them.

  That night, she ate good, hearty food, and afterward fell into the comfortable bed they gave her and slept restfully. The next morning, she awoke somewhat refreshed, and unearthed from her suitcase Lorne’s Kodak camera, with his name inscribed on it, and the leather Bible, which had belonged to his grandfather. She was afraid the Knights would want to keep the Bible, but she knew that she must return it to them because even though Lorne had let her read it and had said she could have it, they deserved to have the option of taking it back. When they saw how much it meant to her, the Knights told her she must keep it always and Mr. Knight even inscribed it to her. She belonged to the Methodist Church, she told them, and promised to treasure that Bible for the rest of her life.

  The Knights were moved to see what she had brought them. These few objects were, in a way, pieces of Lorne, which they could touch and hold. Ada had forgotten Lorne’s field glasses in Seattle, but she promised to send them when she went back. She had withheld all these items from Noice because she worried he would not give them to the family, just as he had not returned Galle’s typewriter to his parents, and because Knight had made her promise to see that his things reached his mother and father.

  The Knights were struck by her intelligence and her good manners, even though she did not speak readily. Her answers to their questions were mostly yes and no, and she would suddenly stop herself in the middle of a sentence and just fall silent. But when she began to speak of the four men and Wrangel Island, she became more talkative and she would often weep. Her fondness for the young men was obvious in the great emotion she expressed. At all other times, about all other things, she remained reserved.

  Galle had been especially jolly and very considerate of her, and they had become great friends. Maurer was always very polite, and Crawford—whose very name elicited a deep sigh—was a gentleman. Knight was a good boy, too, although he had had such a hard time of things. This made her very sad, but the Knights sat there looking at her and she felt she had to find the words to tell them about their son.

  She had first noticed a difference in Lorne when he returned from his exploring trip in the summer of 1922. By the time he and Crawford left for Siberia in January 1923, he was quite ill but trying to hide it from the others. Forced to turn back, he watched Crawford, Maurer, and Galle retrace his steps while he stayed behind with Ada. Later, she said, he had regretted not keeping one of the men to help Ada with him. She had to care for him all alone, and he had worried.

  On the island, she sometimes had nothing to eat but hard bread and tea. There were days when she would try to eat it but could not swallow it. She would chew and chew, but the bread still would not g
o down. At those times, she told the Knights, she would think, “Well, I must live for my mother and for Bennett, my little boy at Nome,” and then she would take a drink of tea and force the food down.

  Noice had twisted some of her words for the newspaper stories and it upset her. She didn’t understand why he had said some things, such as that she was well and fat when he found her on the island, when actually she had lost thirty pounds by the end and weighed little more than ninety pounds at the time the ship came. Nor did she understand why he made up other things and said they came out of her mouth.

  She did not like the comments Noice made about Crawford and Knight and the others—the cruel and insulting remarks about their capabilities. She had been reading the papers and his words hurt her. She also felt her own rights were not being respected as they should. He said things about her that cut deeply—implying that she had done something harmful to Mr. Lorne’s diary and that she had something to hide from the world.

  Ada’s sisters thought Noice dishonest and sneaky, particularly since he had taken Ada’s diary and photographs from her and refused to give them back. Ada wanted them because she thought the Knights should have what she had written and she also hoped she could earn some money from their sale. Mr. Knight tried to convince her to wrestle the diary away from Noice and give it to Stefansson, so that he would have the complete record of the expedition. But even though she had confidence in Mr. Stefansson and believed him to be honest and true with the Eskimo people, Noice, not Stefansson, had saved her life. According to her, “Noice saved my life and he brought me from the Island to my Mother and Bennett and I can’t go against him.”

  Everyone in McMinnville wanted to meet Ada or catch a glimpse of the heroine of the Arctic. Many were just curious, calling to feign interest in visiting with Mrs. Knight as if they hadn’t read in the local paper that Ada was in town. But others genuinely wanted to meet Ada because they had known and loved Lorne. A steady stream of visitors flowed in and out of the house, and Ada enjoyed meeting most of them. There were some who thought she was a cannibal and asked her rude and insulting questions, and then she simply clammed up and sat staring at the floor. But most were respectful of her and hung upon her every word.

  Mrs. Knight took her visiting to the homes of some of her lady friends, and Ada admired them greatly—such elegant people with such lovely manners. She particularly liked a woman with brilliant red hair who seemed to be everything that Ada wished she herself could be— polished, sophisticated, beautiful. In Mr. Knight’s opinion, however, Ada had nothing to envy and “could teach some curious self conceited women a good deal about how to be a lady and yet, these same people would ask her questions as if they deemed her a wild woman.”

  People brought her presents for herself and for Bennett so that it was like Christmas every day she was there. Joseph gave her his very own Kodak camera, which was small and compact, and Ada was delighted. Mrs. Knight gave her the silk American flag presented to Lorne when he had been initiated into the Elks, and again she was pleased. The Knights gave her a handsome wristwatch with wide leather straps and a large face, and when Mrs. Knight slipped it onto Ada’s wrist, she let her sleeve fall over it so that it was hidden. When she did not wear it the next day, Mr. Knight told her he would like to take it to be engraved, and she admitted that it was too large and heavy for her wrist. When Mr. Knight exchanged it for a smaller one with fifteen jewels and a solid gold bracelet, Ada was thrilled. She had never received such a beautiful, extravagant present. They had it engraved to say, TO ADA FROM MRS. KNIGHT, 12-15-23, and Ada wore it every day for the rest of her visit.

  Mrs. Knight had been weeping daily since the tragedy, but not while Ada was with them, and it was good for her to have this time with the one person who could offer her firsthand information about her son. Because they now thought of her as family, the Knights and Ada dressed in their finest and visited the local portrait studio to have some formal pictures made. She was, to them, “nearer to us than almost any one else outside of our own relatives,” and they came to love her for her sweet reserve, her earnest good manners, and her tender heart, as well as for all she had done for Lorne. To them, she was and would always be a hero, and they knew without a doubt that she had done all she could for their son. Perhaps if she had been more experienced or more savvy she could have done more, they would later write, but she was human and it was impossible for anyone to stand in another’s shoes and say how this and that should have been or how he or she would have done it instead. The Knights loved Ada just the way she was, and could find no fault in that.

  Ada was as proud of those portraits as were the Knights. The Knights were not fancy people, but they were fancy to her, and here were two white people who had taken her into their home and made her feel accepted and appreciated and loved. After all she had been through, all she had suffered, it felt like a miracle to sit with them at breakfast or to listen to the radio with Joseph or to see the gold sparkle at the end of her arm.

  When a letter came from the hospital in Seattle saying that Bennett had contracted measles, Ada began to worry and longed to go home. She was still enjoying her visit, particularly the afternoons when everything was so bustling and energetic. But at bedtime, she wished for Bennett and every morning she said wistfully that she wanted to go back.

  She stayed a week in all, and on her last night there, she and Mrs. Knight headed uptown to see the sights and do some shopping. Ada said she did not think she would wear a hat this time, as she always did when they went out, but that she would let everyone see that she was an Eskimo girl. As Mr. Knight noted, “What a lot of rubber there is in the McMinnville necks.”

  On December 16 the Knights drove Ada to Portland, where she would catch her train to Seattle. Before her departure, a reporter from the Portland Oregonian telephoned the Knight house to ask if he could have an interview with Ada because “she was the most famous Eskimo in the world.” When the Knights and Ada arrived at the train station, the reporter and a photographer were waiting. As she always did with strangers—particularly reporters—Ada shut her mouth and refused to say a word. They offered her $5.00 to pose for a photograph, but still she declined.

  As Mr. Knight escorted Ada through the gate at the station, the photographer snapped a picture of her. As the flash exploded, Ada muttered, “Damn. That makes me mad.”

  Just a few days after she settled back into her hotel in Seattle, Ada received a letter from the Knights, asking her to come live with them and to bring Bennett. “You are all we have left of the Wrangle [sic] Island expedition,” they wrote, “and we feel that you are now almost a part of our family. We would be glad if you would like it, to have you live with us so that we could repay you for what you did for Lorne.”

  It was a touching offer but one Ada felt she had to refuse. She knew that she needed to close the door on Wrangel Island once and for all so that she could begin to live again.

  Noice had heard that Ada Blackjack was a prostitute. That, according to Carl Lomen, was Noice’s justification for mangling Lorne Knight’s diary and holding on to Ada’s. Not that Lomen had actually been allowed to look at the mutilated pages, but Noice had described the material when they met, just after he returned from the island. It was because Ada was a prostitute, said Noice, that she had refused to work when she first went to the island—she thought she had been hired for sex only and not as a cook and seamstress. When the men told her she was expected to cook instead, she refused to lift a finger. It was Noice’s belief that the four had lured Ada to go on the expedition under the pretense that they knew what she was because they felt it was the only way to get her there. But they had no interest in her sexually, and so Ada, who was used to friendly relations with men, was deprived of any such contact for two years.

  Noice’s remarks about Ada were the first Lomen, Taylor, or Stefansson had heard of Ada being anything other than a seamstress. There had been rumors, of course, of a bad reputation in Nome, of too much drinking and too many men
. Marshal Jordan certainly was familiar with her history and had encouraged her to go along on the journey and get away from town, but there was no evidence that Ada was a prostitute.

  To his friends in New York, Noice told a different story. He said to them that he had removed certain pages of Knight’s diary because they revealed the fact that Ada eventuallyadapted to her job as seam-stress, but the young men tried to persuade her to work as a prostitute as well. To anyone the least acquainted with Crawford, Maurer, Knight, and Galle, it was a ridiculous charge. All had been attracted to and attractive to women, but Maurer was happily married, Knight happily engaged, Crawford happily studious, and Galle happily free. What’s more, the earnestness and sobriety with which theytreated their mission was apparent to everyone. To imply that they had gone up to Wrangel Island to cavort with a prostitute was ridiculous. It was, as usual, impossible to know what to believe or if anything could be believed, given Noice’s reputation for dishonesty.

  Stefansson could not come to any conclusions about the entire mess until he had the chance to view Knight’s diary himself. He had not yet been able to recover Ada’s journal and the expedition photographs, but he was prepared to prosecute Noice if he didn’t receive them, something his lawyers made very clear to Noice. Not long after the warning, Noice’s attorney alerted Stefansson’s lawyers that his client was ready to agree to a settlement which stated that he would turn over all diaries and papers—and Galle’s typewriter—to Stefansson’s company. This was good news not only for the families but for Stefansson, who planned to write a book on the venture, using the diaries and other papers as material.

 
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