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The Indian Industrial and Boarding Schools – Part 4

Wrangell Alaska
Pictured above is Wrangell Alaska Harbor where the Indian students were brought from their homes. The picture dates to 1935, during the time the school was in operation.Photo courtesy of Wikimedia


Mountain Stewards

By Don and Diane Wells
The newly formed US Government in 1776 followed the example of the Colonial governments and forged westward opening new lands for the ever-increasing immigrants arriving in this country. Under the banner of “Manifest Destiny and Doctrine of Discovery” (God gave us the right to take property), the government pushed the Indians across the Mississippi and all the way to Oklahoma. With the sale in 1803 of 828,000 square miles of the Louisiana Purchase, the US government opened the territory west of the Mississippi and most Indian tribes were eventually forced onto reservations.

In 1867, the US government purchased the Alaska territory, 586,412 square miles, from Russia. Unlike the land rush on the continental US, few migrated to Alaska as a place to live. Even during the Klondike/Yukon gold rush between the period of 1896 to 1899, less than 100,000 people beat a path to Alaska.

Some Indian tribes were impacted during the gold rush, but for the most part, the Indian tribes of Alaska were unaffected. That all changed in the early 1930’s when the Alaskan government, long before it became a state, decided to follow the example of assimilating the Indian children as was being done in the lower 48 states.

There seems to be no rational reason to have started the Indian Industrial Schools in Alaska. There had been no wars, no major migrations of immigrants seeking new homelands, no troubles with the Indians and the white settlers. There was no need to disrupt the way the native peoples had lived for thousands of years. But in 1931, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) decided that it was their responsibility to educate (assimilate) the Alaskan Indian children.

Shortly after that, the Wrangell Institute Boarding School was formed on Wrangell Island in the Alaskan panhandle. A small fishing village that occupies a sliver of shoreline, Wrangell is cut out of the steep mountainous region. The school was built into the base of an imposing island mountain backdrop surrounded on three sides by 100 foot tall green Sitka Spruce. To a young Indian child from the relatively tree-less, mostly flat open tundra of Alaska, even the geography of the site was traumatic.

In Alaska, as it had been in the continental US, the parents had no choice but to give up their children to go to the BIA Schools or go to jail. The children were put on airplanes which they had never seen before and flown, in some cases across three times zones, from the artic plains to the Wrangell School with its high, rugged mountains and heavy forest.

After the horrible, frightening experience of the trauma of their removal and transportation, children as young as five were met in Wrangell by a cadre of BIA employees. They lined the children up according to their home villages, sometimes tying them together with a rope, before transporting them to the school.
There they went through the same entrance processing we described in Part 3 of this series. They were stripped of their clothes, disinfected, given a tag with a number. Their hair was cut and they were placed in a dormitory. Here, in this strange, frightening new world, the children of Yupiit, Inupiat, Athabascan, Aleut, and Suqpiat heritage would live for nine months of the year.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs followed the same acculturation and assimilation process in Alaska as in the BIA Schools in the lower 48 states. The language and customs of the child’s native tribe were literally beaten out of them. No matter where they might be, on the school campus or on field trips, any student caught speaking his/her Native language was punished. The punishments included having their mouths washed out with soap, being put in closets for long periods of time, being spanked or whipped with belts and cat-o-nine tails or having their knuckles rapped with sticks and rulers.

The National Resource Center for American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian Elders published the report, “Boarding School: Historical Trauma among Alaska’s Native People” in 2005, which details the long-term trauma experienced by the Alaskan Indians from the boarding schools. The report includes personal accounts of the students who attended the Wrangell Boarding School and others.
These accounts tell of countless acts of cruelty against the children including emotional abuse, psychological abuse, physical abuse, and sexual abuse. In one case it was reported that:  “A grown man beat a twelve year old boy into unconsciousness. The force of the man’s fist against the young boy’s jaw splayed the boy’s mouth open to his ear. His cheek just fell open. He quickly blacked out from the force of the blow. The sight of the young boy with his mouth wired shut was a constant and daily reminder of that violent scene.”

As had occurred in other Indian Boarding Schools, sexual abuse of the students was a nightly occurrence. One personal account stated, “Shortly after lights out, some of the men who worked as teachers, administrators, or matrons would come into the dorm rooms to pick out their prey.

Occasionally a female matron would select a child for sex as well. Sometimes the molestation appeared random, while other times certain boys became favorite targets.”

The impacts of the BIA educational policies have resulted in a society of indigenous people some of whom find it difficult to cope in today’s society. Faced with a loss of cultural identity, language, and tradition, they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the indignities and traumas of years in boarding school. The health care and justice systems must now continue to deal with the Indian Boarding Schools legacy: alcoholism; domestic violence; murder; and suicide.

Sadly, as we have interviewed a number of tribal elders about the impact of the Indian Schools, we have learned that some, who never healed from those emotional wounds, passed this legacy on to their children and grandchildren, Many who experienced this trauma in their lives refused to teach their children their language and their customs for fear they too would have to live with the trauma of the boarding schools. With each generation, more of the culture has been lost and recovering it is extremely difficult.

To learn more about the Indian Industrial and Boarding Schools, watch the documentary, “Our Spirits Don’t Speak English: Indian Boarding Schools, a documentary by Rich-Heape Films.

 

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