Project Jukebox

Digital Branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program

Mary Jane Nielsen

Mary Jane Nielsen

Mary Jane Nielsen is a Sugpiaq (Alutiiq) elder from South Naknek, Alaska. Her parents were Vera and Trefon Angasan, Sr., who was a survivor of the 1912 volcanic eruption of Mt. Katmai after which he and his family fled from their home village of Savonoski to to a location they named New Savonoski, and eventually to South Naknek. As a founding member of the Council of Katmai Descendants, Mary Jane is personally and professionally interested in preserving information and practices of her ancestors. She has many personal memories of her grandmother, Pelagia Melgenak, and her Taata (grandfather), One-Arm Nick Melgenak, as they taught her and her brothers and sisters how to harvest and process redfish. Mary Jane talks emotionally about the dietary and cultural importance of dried redfish (spawned-out red salmon) as a delicacy and link with the past and with places that are considered almost holy by Katmai descendants. For years, Katmai descendants had to furtively harvest their traditional food within park boundaries in the area where their families had fished for uncounted generations. It was only in 1996 that redfish harvesting became legal again. In 1998, Mary Jane helped conduct oral history interviews in South Naknek, along with Pat Partnow, for the Katmai National Park Project Jukebox. In 2005, she earned a master's degree from the Department of Alaska Native Studies and Rural Development at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, with her thesis being the story of her grandmother, Pelagia Melgenak. Mary Jane is currently the president/CEO of the Alaska Peninsula Corporation, based in Anchorage.

Mary Jane wrote the following autobiography in 1998 in a magazine article writing class taken by audio conference from Chukchi College, a Kotzebue-based campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks:

Alaska Native Seeks to Document Her People's Heritage
By Mary Jane Nielsen

After the first minor rumblings of Mt. Katmai, in Southwest Alaska, and on to the roaring volcanic explosion in June of 1912, my father, Trefon Angasan Sr., his parents, and fellow villagers were subject to a forced transition to escape the volcano's fury. The villagers of Savonoski, in what is now known as Katmai National Park, fled across Naknek Lake and down the Naknek River in the early years of this century, to a new place, aptly named New Savonoski. Trefon Angasan and Vera Kie's first three of their 10-children brood were born in this place of refuge.

Our parents had moved down the river, from Savonoski to South Naknek, by the time my oldest brother was about to be born. My father used his dog team to transport Mom to Savonoski. The matriarch of our family, Grandma Pelagia Melgenak, also a midwife, delivered my brother Ted in 1944, me in 1945, and my brother Trefon Jr. in 1947. We older children spent parts of early childhood summers scurrying around Savonoski. We helped to pick salmon from the nets, washed fish, and at least tried to help split the fish for drying or smoking. My grandma praised me for splitting fish, although "mutilating" might be a better description.

Today, New Savonoski is deserted, except for the remains of old homes marked by grass-covered holes in the ground. The old Russian Orthodox Church and surrounding graveyard still stand as a monument to the survivors and descendants of Old Savonoski and to the once-thriving subsistence community of New Savonoski. The last of the families moved to present-day South Naknek: the Andrew Wassillie family left in the middle 1950's because of school-age children; ailing Grandma Pelagia Melgenak and Teddy, her deceased husband's great-nephew, in 1958; the Macarlo family in the middle 1970's.

Other villagers from the Shelikof Strait side of the Katmai coast, in Douglas, Kukak and Katmai, sought refuge in safer places down the coast or in the Kodiak Islands across the strait. The Katmai villagers moved down the coast to Perryville, named after the ship captain who took them there. Others moved to the Bristol Bay side of the peninsula through portages or mountain passes. The original refugees from the Katmai villages have all passed on, leaving descendants scattered from the outskirts of the Katmai National Park to other places beyond the Bristol Bay region.

This is my heritage. My own desire and the inherent necessity to research and document this heritage has influenced and ultimately changed my life's direction.

My husband of more than three decades, Donald Nielsen, has encouraged my quest as have our living legacy and most important assets: two daughters, a son, and six grandchildren. Our oldest daughter, Lorianne, works for the Aleutian-Pribilof Island Association in Anchorage. Lorianne's children are Lorianne, born in 1983, Joseph in 1984, and Paul Fredrick in 1988. Our second daughter, Eva, is a community health aide in South Naknek. She and her husband have three sons who are: George, born in 1987, Rytter in 1990, and Bjornie in 1992. Our son, Donald Nielsen II, commercial fishes on our family boat in Bristol Bay each summer and out on the Bering sea on the Pacific Navigator each winter.

When our own children were younger, we would bring them up to the Old Savonoski area where my dad was born, including the area around Brooks River, just as our parents had brought us to their ancestral homeland. I remember my Grandma Pelagia venerating the land by dropping to her knees to touch her forehead to the ground. My little brother, Ralph, who was about 3 at the time, thought she was kissing the ground, so that was what he would do too. We tease him about it to this day. My father's children and grandchildren still return to the area to visit and to feel the spirits of our ancestors where we once caught fish and dried them on racks.

In the early 1950's, more and more people began to visit the Brooks River area, first because of the sport fishing and after 1953, because of the high concentration of brown bears. Tourists would look across the river and stare into our camp as if we were some kind of alien creatures. A few would even take pictures. Eventually, our family would migrate later in the year when the tourists were gone. At some point during those years, we were informed that it was against the law to harvest spawned-out red fish (salmon) because the area was within the Katmai National Monument. (President Wilson had declared a part of the Katmai area a national monument in 1918. President Hoover's 1931 proclamation for the monument expansion included the Brooks River area.) Red fish are a traditional part of our diet. The only places to catch red fish are in the national monument, so we would fish anyway. Only now we felt like thieves.

When my father was still alive, we weren't afraid to use nets to catch the spawned-out red fish. After his passing in 1988, however, we felt less confident and became more furtive.

Finally, my brother, Trefon Angasan Jr., through Bristol Bay Native Corporation helped write federal legislation for local residents who are descendants of Katmai and have lived in the Naknek Lake and Naknek River drainage, to continue their traditional fishery for red fish within Katmai National Park. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 (ANILCA) had expanded the former monument to become a national park. Changes to that original federal law allowing the harvest of red fish took effect in November 1996. Nevertheless, the battle rages on. The National Park Service, for example, has submitted a proposal to the Alaska State Board of Fish to make this customary and traditional taking of red fish "experimental." We hope, someday, the so-called "pilfering" of our red fish will become a thing of the past.

Today Alaska Natives combine their traditional way of life with formal Western education and other requirements of the modern world. Although I became a college "dropout" in 1963, I am still working today on getting "educated," at least in the Western sense. In May 1997, I earned my associate's degree, finally, at the age of 52.

My goal is to earn a bachelor's degree in Rural Development with an emphasis in Community Research and Cultural Documentation. The historical accounts of people I remember are fading, and tragically, few of them have been documented. I want to change that.

Many descendants of Katmai, unfortunately, do not know their history, little of which has been widely disseminated. In addition, the traditional language is fading. Tony Gregorio of Perryville and Chignik Lagoon, today in his forties, is the youngest person I know who is fluent in the Sugpiaq (Alutiiq) language.

As time passes, it becomes more compelling for me to become involved in community and genealogical research, and to learn the methods for repatriation of human remains removed during past building phases and archeological studies of the Brooks Camp area. Archaeologists in the Brooks River area affiliated with the University of Oregon were William S. Laughlin in 1953, Don Dumond in the 1960's and 1970's, and Harvey Shields in 1974.

Human remains were unearthed during the laying of foundation for a new building in 1964, as well as during construction of a waterline for the Wien Consolidated Camp in 1965. Additional expansion of underground utilities in 1974, built during the expansion of what is now Brooks Camp, a growing tourist attraction for viewing brown bears, has dislodged even more human remains. The Council of Katmai Descendants has requested the human remains be re-buried in our homeland.

Unlike the forced transition early in this century when my ancestors fled from their villages, today we have formal education, persistence and determination to empower us to have control over more and more transitions, at last.

Mary Jane Nielsen appears in the following new Jukebox projects: