Local writer receives national nod for northern magazine reporting

A Yukon writer's reporting on the lesser-known wartime internment of Alaska's indigenous Aleut people has landed her national recognition.

A Yukon writer’s reporting on the lesser-known wartime internment of Alaska’s indigenous Aleut people has landed her national recognition.

Eva Holland has been nominated for a National Magazine Award this year for her story on the Aleut survivors of government camps where they were forcibly sent during the Second World War.

During the war, about 800 Aleuts were rounded up out of their homes on the Aleutians islands off Alaska’s southwestern coast.

The Japanese invaded the Aleutians in 1942, about six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was the only land battle on North American soil during the war and also included the bombing of the community of Dutch Harbor.

After the bombing the non-Aleut residents could choose to stay, despite the possible danger, but the indigenous population was rounded up with little notice and shipped to camps in the coastal rainforest of the Alaskan panhandle.

“The evacuation was prompted partly by a sense of paternal benevolence and responsibility but was conditioned by racist attitudes. It would result in three years of suffering and the death of more than a tenth of the Aleuts in the camps,” Holland writes.

“Afterwards, life on the islands would never quite revert back to its previous stability: alcoholism would take hold and some villages would never be repopulated.”

A lack of any sort of planning meant the camps were hastily put together, Holland writes. With limited medical help and non-existent sanitation, diseases like tuberculosis, the flu, measles and pneumonia were serious problems.

Looking back, Holland said she took the responsibility of telling the survivors’ stories seriously.

The story, which appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of Maisonneuve Magazine, is full of direct quotes, more than you would find in your average magazine story.

It was a deliberate choice.

“I was one in a line of white people from Outside who had showed up and been like, ‘tell me about your suffering,’” she said.

“Normally magazine stories wouldn’t have as many direct quotes as I put in, but I tried to quote from them really heavily so that I wasn’t diluting their voices too much.”

Survivors described being crammed into a ship’s cargo hold and taken away. “We were treated like animals,” said one.

For Holland, the story was triggered by something small: a panel on a wall in an Alaskan museum.

It was 2011 and she had signed up to volunteer for the Yukon Quest. But -50 degree temperatures meant she couldn’t get on a plane to get to the fly-in checkpoint where she was supposed to be helping out.

Instead she was stuck in Fairbanks, waiting for conditions to improve. She filled her time with a visit to the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the exhibit on Alaska during the Second World War.

“There was some stuff about the Japanese internment, because there were Alaskan residents who were Japanese Americans who were interned during the war, and then there was like one panel about the Aleut interment,” she said.

She knew there was a possible story there, but she wasn’t quite ready to tell it just yet.

Holland decided to go full-time into freelance writing in 2008. About a year later she would make the Yukon home.

Early in her career she worked in travel writing. Among the highlights: “Nashville: Get Your Honky-Tonk On” and “Essential Tunes for a Mississippi Delta Roadtrip.”

Years later her byline has appeared in more prominent publications like Pacific Standard, Smithsonian Magazine and Grantland. She also sometimes writes for the Yukon News.

But when she stumbled upon the museum exhibit she was just on the cusp of making that transition.

“No big-shot magazine editor was going to trust me with this story at that point in my career because it was a big step up for me,” Holland said.

Two years and one Yukon Government Advanced Artist grant later, she would actually start on the story.

In April 2013 Holland spent a week in Anchorage speaking to survivors and working at local archives and two weeks in Dutch Harbor.

While on the island she stayed in the only hotel, paying $200 a night and roaming the streets during the day looking for contacts.

Fortunately, with a population of about 4,000 people, it didn’t take long for the locals to notice the new face.

“I’d be walking around and people would literally stop their cars and get out and be like, ‘Who are you and what are you doing here?’” she said.

“Not in a mean way, just curious about what I was doing there.”

Holland would explain herself and that would inevitably lead to names, suggestions and phone numbers for her to try.

Not everyone wanted to talk about what happened. No one had spoken publicly about the camps until the 1980s, Holland said. She met with the high school history teacher and volunteered at the local seniors centre.

That kind of on-the-ground reporting allowed the natural introvert to get details and contacts difficult to come by in any other way.

She spoke to children of survivors, many of whom didn’t know about what happened to their parents until decades later.

It’s easy for regional wartime tragedies like this one to be lost outside of the community itself when compared to the larger atrocities of the war, Holland said.

“I wanted to tell this little-known story, and to give them a place to tell their story, after so many decades of silence. Because what happened to them was wrong and preventable, and people should know that.”

This year more than 200 Canadian magazines submitted their work to the awards.

Holland’s piece is in the Society category along with articles from publications including The Walrus and Toronto Life.

The National Magazine Awards winners will be announced in Toronto on June 5.

Holland’s full story can be found online at: maisonneuve.org/article/2014/07/16/forgotten-internment

Contact Ashley Joannou at ashleyj@yukon-news.com