Alaska Native Voices from WWII Are Focus of Historical Project

Elderly woman and young woman sit smiling, side-by-side

Most people, Alaskans included, don’t know very much about the role of Alaska Native people in World War II. That’s according to Dr. Holly Miowak Guise, of Unalakleet and Anchorage. She is currently documenting the experiences of Alaska Native elders in a book and digital library.

Dr. Guise says she never heard about the Aleut internment or other struggles Alaska Native people faced during the war when she was a young student. Later, as a historian, she noticed Native voices were often missing from academic archives.

A pair of wolf head mittens made by Lela Oman, who Guise interviewed in 2008.

So, Guise began to collect stories. She flew around the state, interviewing over ninety Alaskan veterans and elders, both Native and non-Native, who shared their memories of World War II. Some said they primarily served to protect their communities, either in the armed forces or the Alaska Territorial Guard.

Hearing story after story of displacement from war and internment camps, Guise said she got a picture of rapid change and movement happening for Alaska Native people over a short period of time.

It’s Guise’s hope as a historian that the memories these elders share can help build a more complete record of Alaska history, bridging the gap between oral histories in university and tribal archives.

Many of the wartime stories included violence and great pain. Even though those memories were still present with the elders she interviewed, she found rich stories of Native resilience in the midst of it.

One Aleut elder she interviewed, Alice Petrivelli, told Dr. Guise about life in the internment camps where they didn’t have enough food. “The only way they survived the internment camps at Killisnoo in Southeast Alaska was from the help of the Tlingit, who would come to the shores of their camp and drop off salmon for them,” she recounts.

Those everyday stories don’t always make history books. Guise says it’s the voices of everyday people that give context to the full moment in history. Dr. Guise was recently recognized by the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, as one of “40 Under 40” Native leaders in the United States who are making significant impacts in their community or the business sector.

Image at top: Dr. Holly Guise interviews the late Frances Charles at her home in Unalakleet in 2015. Photo by Dr. Holly Guise; used with permission.