AHS Blog

Interview with Mary Ehrlander, editor of “Seventeen Years in Alaska”

Date Posted: June 15, 2014       Categories: 49 History

Editor’s note: Seventeen Years in Alaska: A Depiction of Life Among the Indians of Yakutat, a new book by Albin Johnson and edited and translated by Mary Ehrlander, is Johnson’s account of his service as a missionary among the Tlingit at the turn of the twentieth century. The Swedish missionary arrived at a time when Alaska and its Native peoples were undergoing remarkable changes. The book is published by University of Alaska Press. Ordering info available here. Ehrlander is professor of history and director of the Northern Studies Department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The following interview was conducted by e-mail.

1) Tell us briefly about the book and how you arrived at this particular topic.

Seventeen Years in Alaska is a memoir of a Swedish Evangelical Covenant missionary who spent 17 years among the Tlingit at Yakutat from 1889 to 1905. It was published in 1924 in Swedish (for Swedish-American and Swedish audiences) and had never been translated. I used it in other research that I did on Edward Anton and Jenny Olson Rasmuson, parents of Elmer Rasmuson, who were missionaries at Yakutat toward the end of the Johnsons’ stay there and afterwards.

I thought it was a great primary resource on the tremendous socio-economic and cultural change that was taking place at that time. The Tlingit still maintained many traditional ways at the same time that so much was changing around them, and they wanted to be a part of some of those changes. So I wanted this resource to be available to those interested in Alaska history who do not read Swedish.

2) What brought Albin Johnson to Alaska?

Albin Johnson was a newly ordained Swedish Evangelical Mission Covenant pastor. He was sent on this mission by the Covenant in Sweden, which was interested in bringing Christianity to “pagan” peoples of the world. It’s believed that the Swedish-Finnish explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiold had notified leaders in the Covenant in Sweden of the great needs among Alaska’s Native peoples. They also may have read some of Sheldon Jackson’s writing.
3) You write that Johnson arrived to work among the Tlingit tribes of Yakutat but that waves of foreign immigrants were pouring into the region and bringing tumultuous social and economic changes. What was life like in Yakutat in the early twentieth century and what sorts of challenges did Johnson and the Tlingit face?

Challenges the Tlingit faced related to their being inundated by western influences, including Christianity, employment opportunities (in particular canneries at Yakutat), alcohol, and various diseases. The Covenanters did not aim to change the Tlingit into white people. However, they strongly urged them to denounce their shamans, dispense with the potlatch, give up dancing and abstain from alcohol. And of course they worked hard to change their worldview to a Christian one. While there were many benefits to being associated with the mission, many of the missionaries’ rules did not make sense to them. For instance why was drinking forbidden when it was white men who had brought alcohol to the Tlingit.
From the missionaries’ perspective, I think the greatest challenges were to convince the Tlingit of the truth of Christianity and to guide them into accepting the best of western civilization and rejecting its “evil” aspects. The Tlingit found alcohol very enticing, and even the most faithful in the congregation would sometimes “backslide.”

Missionaries were also very frustrated that the American government did so little to protect Alaska Natives from exploitation by white people of bad character and from the diseases that migrants inadvertently brought in. The needs of the people were so great and the missionaries’ means were so small in comparison.
4) Tell us about the process of translating Johnson’s journals. Where are the original journals located? What considerations go into producing a faithful translation?

Rasmuson Library at UAF has the book in Swedish — Sjutton Ar i Alaska — (the A in the second word should have a little circle over it) — Seventeen Years in Alaska. I did significant research to contextualize the book and make it understandable (in English) to 21st century readers. The Covenant’s archives are at North Park University, which was established as the Covenant Seminary in the late 1800s. Fortunately, many of their documents, including the yearly reports of the missionaries, are available online. These early docs are all in Swedish. They were great resources for me, because they helped me to flesh out Johnson’s story.
The main challenges I encountered in translating the book itself were 1) the many Biblical allusions (I’m not a Biblical scholar!) and the old Swedish. The Swedish language has changed significantly in the past 130 or so years.

Also, it was difficult to know how much liberty I should allow myself to translate Johnson’s meaning, versus his words. As time went by I felt increasingly comfortable taking liberties, and I know in the end this was the right thing to do. Doing so helped me achieve a more pleasing and readable narrative in English. David Bellos’ book Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything was really helpful in that regard.
5) You get the last word—what else do you want folks to know about your book?

I think people will find this missionary’s perspective on life at Yakutat in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries very interesting. It certainly “complicates the narrative” of missionary history in Alaska. I think that many people assume that missionaries were all of one stripe and that they merely were self-serving, ethnocentric and paternalistic do-gooders who did much harm, especially to Alaska Native languages and that Alaska Natives would have been better off if missionaries had never come to Alaska. Having done fairly extensive research on some missionaries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it is entirely obvious to me that without the missionaries, the impacts of western migrants and culture on Alaska Natives would have been much more devastating.