John Fredson

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John Fredson, (Neetsaii Gwich'in), was a tribal leader born near Table Mountain in the Sheenjek River watershed. He is most noted for gaining federal recognition for the Venetie Indian Reserve, then the largest reservation in Alaska, and containing approximately 1.4 million acres (5,700 km²).

As a youth, he had been part of Hudson Stuck's expedition to climb Denali, and served as base camp manager. Afterward he was sponsored for college, attending Sewanee, The University of the South and becoming the first Alaska Native to graduate from college. He worked in a hospital and as a teacher, becoming a leader and activist.

Early life and education[edit]

Born in 1896 to a Gwich'in family near Table Mountain in what is now designated as Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area, Alaska, John Fredson grew up speaking Gwich'in as his first language. Orphaned at a young age, he attended a mission school operated by the Episcopal Church. From an early age, he became skilled in following trails, climbing and hunting.

At the age of 16, he was part of the 1913 climbing expedition of the Hudson Stuck, Episcopal Archdeacon of the Yukon, who led the party that ascended Denali, the highest peak in North America. Fredson was the base camp manager. His role is documented in Stuck's book, Ascent of Denali (reprint 2005).[1] Fredson stayed at base camp for 31 days by himself, hunting caribou and Dall sheep, while awaiting the return of the climbing party. He saved his ration of sugar for their return.

With Stuck's encouragement, he gained more formal education and was the first native of Athabascan descent to complete high school.[2] He went on to attend Sewanee, The University of the South, an Episcopal college in Middle Tennessee, and was the first Alaska Native to graduate from a university. While there, he worked with Edward Sapir, a noted linguist, and helped to classify Gwich'in within the Na-Dene language family. This work is documented in the book John Fredson Edward Sapir Ha'a Googwandak (1982).[3] His work on communicating Gwich'in concepts of space and time may have also influenced Sapir's later work that established the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis.

Life's work[edit]

After his return to Alaska, Fredson worked at a hospital in Fort Yukon. In his later years, Fredson built a solarium for tuberculosis patients at the hospital. It was then the only hospital in the far north, and was often overwhelmed by Alaska Native patients, primarily Gwich’in. They needed treatment for Eurasian infectious diseases, to which they had no immunity.

Fredson taught school in the village of Venetie, and taught the community how to grow gardens. He was assisted by Chief Johnny Frank, a notable medicine man and storyteller among the Gwich'in. The chief's exploits are recounted in the book Neerihiinjik: We Traveled From Place to Place (2012).[4]

He became a tribal leader and worked to establish their rights to their traditional lands. He was the primary founder of the Venetie Indian Reserve, the largest reservation in Alaska, which achieved federal recognition in 1941, before Alaska was admitted as a state. The Reserve was approximately 1.4 million acres (5,700 km²) at the time of its establishment.

Family life[edit]

John married Jean Ribaloff, a woman whom he met while at the hospital in Fort Yukon. They had three children, William Burke Fredson, Virginia Fredson (Dows), Lula Fredson (Young).[5] He died of pneumonia on August 22, 1945.


  1. ^ Stuck, Hudson (2005-05-01). Ascent of Denali. Wolf Creek Press. ISBN 0-9732683-1-X. 
  2. ^ Clara Childs Mackenzie, Wolf Smeller (Ruler of Awesomeness): A Biography of Mel Facenda, Native Alaskan, Alaska Pacific University, 1985
  3. ^ Sapir, Edward. John Fredson Edward Sapir Ha'a Googwandak: Stories Told by John Fredson to Edward Sapir. Alaska Native Language Center, 1982. ISBN 0-933769-02-4. 
  4. ^ Frank, Sarah (2001). Craig Mishler, ed. Neerihiinjik: We Traveled from Place to Place: Johnny Sarah Haa Googwandak: The Gwich'in Stories of Johnny and Sarah Frank. Judy Erick (trans.) (2nd ed.). Alaska Native Language Center. ISBN 1-55500-054-1. 
  5. ^ Mackenzie, Clara Childs (2014). Wolf Smeller: A Biography of Mel Facenda, Native Alaskan. Alaska Pacific University Press. ISBN 0-935094-09-1.