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Fortuna Odell
Fortuna Odell
Fortuna Odell talks about coming to Juneau for the first time, returning after some schooling, and then working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She talks about the segregation of the Native people in Juneau, World War II, and working for the Territorial Health Department.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2010-06

Project: Juneau Communities of Memory
Date of Interview: Nov 17, 1995
Narrator(s): Fortuna Odell
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
Alaska Humanities Forum
Alternate Transcripts
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Coming to Juneau

Working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs

Life on the waterfront

Segregation of Native People in Juneau

Juneau during World War II

Working for the Territorial Health Department

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FORTUNA ODELL: I came to Juneau the summer of 1934 as I just graduated from high school. I had gone to school up where I was born we only had went to the eighth grade so we had to leave town to to go to high school.

And the Bureau of Indian Affairs had vocational high school on White Mountain up near Nome and so my, several of us in my family went there.

And I, I went there three years and then they closed the school because it was too expensive to operate. And they opened one up near Eagle River, near Anchorage. Eklutna High school and that's where I graduated from.

And how I got Juneau was that the Bureau of Indian Affairs Area Director would come around to inspect the schools and I was working for the school principal in his office.

And the school principal told him that I was through high school now I was gonna to go off to business college and that I would be looking for a job afterwards. And he suggested that maybe they could use me in the Juneau office.

So I came down here to work the summer of '36. And I -- coming from the Lower Yukon, and just briefly seeing Anchorage. And Juneau was the first sea port really that I'd seen. And I was impressed by all the, boat activities, steamers and, and of course the mine was very impressive to me.

I'd never seen that. I came from a gold mining town but it was placer mining and this was a different kind of mining. So it was an exciting three months that I was here.

And when I got ready to go to the Seattle to continue to school there was a strike threatened here. The long shore men I believe were threatening to strike and they did go on to strike.

And everybody that wanted to get out of Juneau was trying to get out of Juneau on the last boats. And I had made reservations for, there were three, at least three steamship companies here.

Alaska Steamship, there was one Northland and then there was another one that can't remember the name. But I remember there was Northland dock and the Alaska Steamship dock and the dock over here by sub port that they called Frommers dock.

And there was a little boat called the Motor Ship Zepora that was taking passengers, 18 passengers was all they could take from here to Seattle. And I was I had as I said made reservations on the Northland but when I went to get my ticket they were over sold and so I was lucky to get on the Zepora.

And of course it took twice as long to get to Seattle on a little boat like that, than on a steamer.

So I spent my winter there going to school and then came back to Juneau the summer of '37 to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And -- the all the federal offices in Juneau were housed in what is now the Capital Building.

We had, the Bureau of Indian Affairs had part of the second floor. The post office, the territorial treasurer, all their offices were in that one building, including the museum.

The museum was above us and there was a little Russian priest, called father Kaschever who was the curator at the museum. And he had I don' t know if he was part Aleut himself, but he was married to a Aleut person so he was very interested of course in Alaskan Native People.

And the, the Bureau of Indian Affairs was just starting that year to hire Native People. And they'd already hired some teachers, they were teachers in the, in the bush, but in the office I was the second one, second clerical person that they hired.

They had one girl that had been before me. So I was kind of a curiosity to the people, especially because I'm Eskimo and not Indian. My mother was Yupik Eskimo and so, they were always pointing out to me this little Eskimo girl. So I got a lot of attention at me.

And, anyway the, those of us that were single federal employees, most of us lived in the hotel called Zinda Hotel (phonetic) which is above the corner, oh right above where, office of the Alaska Office Building there.

And we could pay by the month and purchase cafe allowed us to charge our meals, so we charged our meals on our purses. And it was really a nice way to go because most, when I landed I didn't have much money either.

And all, everything the City Hall was just right by the Alaska Office Building facing the city museum. It was the City Hall there and I remember it had chute bellow with the bell up there and when there was a fire they rang that bell.

And you folks that were here before probably heard about Patsy the dog that that hung around there and Patsy lived there at the city museum. Right near the Capital, City Hall and you heard that she always went down to meet the boats as they, somehow she knew the boats were coming in.

And the activity as I said down there and the waterfront was really something because everybody went down to meet the boats when they came in or to see them leave. They had orchestras on the boats and they'd, it'd really be nice to hear the ships leaving with the orchestra playing.

And so a lot of the life centered around the waterfront and the waterfront was not where it is now. the buildings that are on the waterside of Franklin were about the only buildings there. Tide, tidewater came under them.

And there was just really Willoughby Avenue was partly on tidewater, the village was built on piling. And the I remember the churches all everything was downtown.

Because 12th street was I think as far as the city went, that was the residential area. And all the churches that were in town, there weren't very many, were all built downtown. Schools, the two schools, what is now Capital School and play where the playground is was the high school there.

They had a Bureau of Indian Affairs school for the Native children down in the village. And this was, I remember the '30s and they were segregated. The children, the Native children went to school down there and I think it was then in the early '40s probably when they started integrating the Native children into the public school.

the, a lot of people worked hard, I'm sure most of you've heard about Elizabeth Bergovitch who was very instrumental in getting things going as far as accepting the Native people in public schools and so forth.

I was as I said I came from a little gold mining town which was predominately Caucasian so I wasn't very, I was, segregation was kind of new to me. And I for some reason or other maybe because the people I worked with I, I didn't, I wasn't affected so much by it.

But I remember the first church I went to here was the Native church and not because I was told I had to go there, but I was invited there. And the, it happened to be desk clerk in the Zinda Hotel was a handsome young man who was the son of the minister of this little Native church down here.

He invited me to go there, so I went there for a while. And he had a beautiful voice and I said he said he was handsome and all. And then my two bosses the Area Director, Claude Hirst and Assistant Director, Charles Hoxworth were members of the Northern Lights Presbyterian Church

and they needed a, they needed a church clerk, -- to secretary. So I of course I was doing office work basically recruited me and so I got to start going to the Northern Lights Presbyterian Church.

And I did that for several years until I met and married a Methodist, yeah.

Anyway, I remember when more Native people started working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs there were three of us young girls. And, and in those days the legislature met about four times every four years and, we decided, the three of us decided we'd go and talk to a legislator about integrating the schools.

And I remember this man telling us, we were telling him it wasn't fair and all that stuff. And he listened to us and he said found out that we'd all graduated from BIA boarding schools and we'd all gone to business college.

He said,"well it seems to me that the Bureau of Indian Affairs is doing pretty good job you girls are better educated than I am" and so he suggested we just leave things as they were and not disturb anything. Of course we were just young girls so we left it at that and other people went on to work with it.

Anyway, I worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs for about five years and before I was through, I got married. And, the war was on in the early '40s and my husband was working in the mine and the mine started to close down, they were laying off people.

And they were building Japonski Island over in Sitka as a navy base and they hired, they were hiring jackhammer workers and my husband was one. So we were going to move over there and so I quit working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs

but I got sick and had to go to the hospital and have surgery. And my husband came over here to be with me and then he was offered a job at Juneau Dairies, so we stayed here.

And we have had, Bill bought a little, business from one of his friends. We delivered milk and ice cream and coal and newspapers and groceries to people out the road. When I say out the road, means you, know Loop Road was in existence then.

And, so we had that little sideline and it was there were hardly any homes out there. The mink ranches, fox ranches, goat ranches, goat farm and the glacier covered the area where the observatory now stands.

And you approached it from a different from up towards the hill there. And,so it was a really different life out there. People got to depending on Bill and I to as I said deliver things that they had in town because there weren't very many cars in Juneau.

And, I remember there was a lady, a lovely lady that was cook at the jail which was up here on Telephone Hill. I think you see pictures of the old jail that has -- on and all that.

Her name was Minnie Field and she was a cook there and she began working with orphans and she started a home out in around Lena Beach up there somewhere.

I think you can still the properties still there down on the beach. So she opened this Minfield they called it the Minfield Home. And I remember Thanksgiving, Bill and I delivered ice cream with Juneau Dairies was donating to Minfield Home, ice cream you know things like that.

And I remember how Minnie Field was so pleased to have us bring this, and she wanted us to stay for thanksgiving dinner but we had other deliveries to make so she fixed us up a big Thanksgiving dinner and sent us on our way.

And, there are people living here in Juneau that were raised out there in the Minfield Home that, established homes here and grown up here. That was one of the nice things that I remember about the early 40s.

As I said during the war, they had, blackouts here, we had to cover our windows and they had men, armed I believe as I remember, who patrolled. They were called the Home Guard or somebody remembers what they were called.

They went house to house to see if you were violating the the order to keep your windows blacked out. If some light showed through your windows they'd knock on your door and tell you to take care of that.

It was kind of, rather spooky Juneau had that happen. And we were hearing rumors of course of submarines coming up Gastineau Channel and hovering around Sitka and all that. So that was interesting time too.

And, then I had quit working for a while and then went to work in '52 for the State Health, Territorial Health Department. The Territorial Health Department occupied a building that was, I understand was called the Palace Theatre in years past.

And it was right there were the little log cabin is now and it was an old building and the whole Health Department was housed in that that one building. Now they take over the whole Alaska Office Building and they spread out to other offices around.

And we didn't have any regional offices in Fairbanks or Anchorage either when I started. And, I remember we had a coffee break place down in the basement of this old building.

It was really dirt floors and they used to have to set traps down there to catch the rats and mice that came around there. Somebody would come through with a dead rat and, and that was we had no unions to take care us then you just existed like that.

But, there were a lot of wonderful people that were, that I worked with in the Health Department. And some of them are well known here Joe Walters is one of them, Red Morley is another person who was with the health department.

Ruth Anderson who passed away recently she was another one that was an early time Health Department employee. Even then I, I don't think they had, in fact I'm pretty sure they didn't have even a public health center, nursing center here in Juneau.

At first they had a room in the in this building that I worked in where they had the nurses and Kitty Gehr was one of the early nurses. Peggy Bigsby and I remember mothers would come and sit out in the hallway with their babies and bring their babies for immunizations in the Health Department there.

And I, from there I we moved over to the Alaska Office Building and I stayed with the department for 30 and a half years and saw tremendous growth of course in all the offices.

And as I said when I started the Health Department was by itself and later they had the -- Welfare they combined with Welfare.

The weather here when I first came I've got to hit on that was used to be colder and we had icebergs floating out in the channel when ships came in they were iced, just covered up with ice.

So it's warmed up since I've been here in 58 years and I, I'm thankful that the Lord sent me to Juneau because I would you know I love it here and I'd be here forever.