Why a Wrangell boarding school plan stirs bad memories — and opportunity

An undated photo of the Wrangell Institute school from a collection with covering 1898 to approximately 1946. (Photo courtesy < a href="http://vilda.alaska.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/cdmg21/id/1848/rec/1">Alaska State Library Historical Collections)
An undated photo of the Wrangell Institute school from a collection spanning 1898 to approximately 1946. (Photo courtesy Alaska State Library Historical Collections)

For one family, a proposal to build a 400-bed boarding school on the site of the former Wrangell Institute boarding school, which had a history of abusing students, is stirring up bad memories.

As an Alaska Native child living in Fairbanks in the ‘50s, Jim LaBelle wasn’t the most likely candidate to be sent to the Wrangell Institute. LaBelle thinks it was his troubled family life that landed him there.

“My younger brother and I were taken to the Fairbanks Airport in 1955 by our mother with an apology saying we had to go to the school,” said LaBelle.

LaBelle, who now lives in Anchorage, said his father passed away when he was 6, leaving him under the care of his alcoholic mother.

“I think I was 8 years old then, and my brother was 6. When we got to the airport in Fairbanks, we were quickly tagged with a yellow name tag with a metal twisty tie on it that had our name, our destination, our flights,” said LaBelle.

The Wrangell Institute, which opened in 1932, was one of two Bureau of Indian Affairs schools in the state. Students came from Nome, Barrow, Tok and other communities all over the state.

LaBelle said once he and his classmates arrived at the school, their heads were shaved. They were told in English to get into large, open-room showers. Staff scrubbed the children who could not bathe themselves. LaBelle said many children were confused, as they only spoke their Native languages.

“But we had each been given a set of numbers that were applied on our clothing, our sheets. We were given government issued clothes,” he said. “It doesn’t help if you didn’t remember your number. That’s how we got our mail, got our clothing washed and returned back to us.”

The BIA’s primary objective was to educate children who didn’t have schools in their villages.

Dianne Hirshberg is director of the Center for Alaska Education Policy Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She said others, such as LaBelle, were targeted for different reasons.

“There were a lot of students that had gone there because they were orphans, or their parents weren’t able to take care of them because of things like the tuberculosis epidemic that hit Alaska in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” said Hirshberg.

The abuses Hirshberg heard throughout her studies of U.S. Native boarding schools were numerous.

“At one point I was told about the dorm staff getting the older children to beat the younger children for speaking their language. So now you’re starting to set up a culture of violence amongst the students, not just the teachers or dorm people abusing the students,” she said. “To students being taken into rooms with adults and coming out crying without saying what happened.”

LaBelle said getting caught speaking a Native language or any other offense could lead to the belt line, one of many abusive techniques used at the institute.

“Your fellow students and friends would line up on either side of you in this row, and you were forced to run or walk through this line of students who were told to use their belts on you,” said LaBelle. “I can say I had to go through that belt line a number of times as a kid, other kids did as well. I used to witness some of that. I remember having to use my belt on other kids as well.”

But both LaBelle and Hirshberg say that didn’t happen to every child, and the conditions were better for some compared to home life in a village.

“There were people who talked about going to boarding school, including the Wrangell Institute, the first the time they got eyeglasses or had hearing problems diagnosed,” said Hirshberg. “So for some students, it was both in terms of the actual education and in terms of the other aspects of living in a structured environment, it was an improvement over where they were coming from.”

The BIA closed the Wrangell Institute in June of 1975, partially due to the Molly Hootch case. The lawsuit settlement forced the state to build schools in villages with eight students or more, decreasing the demand for boarding schools. The requirement was later increased to 10 students.

Now, 36 years later, the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program is working with the community of Wrangell to build another 400-bed boarding school on the former Institute property. ANSEP is an accelerated learning program based at UAA that focuses on giving Alaska Native children a better shot at college success. ANSEP wants to expand from its curriculum of summer programs for children and support for UAA students.

Jim and Lilani LaBelle. (Photo courtesy Marleah Labelle)
Jim and Lilani LaBelle. (Photo courtesy Marleah Labelle)

LaBelle’s 13-year-old granddaughter Lilani is part of ANSEP’s community of 2,000 students and alumni. She attended one of their summer camps earlier this year.

“My favorite part was probably making new friends. I also like making the computer. I thought that was really, really cool,” said Lilani.

Lilani said she enjoyed ANSEP’s challenging curriculum because the other kids were just as excited as she was to participate. She said she’s going back again next year.

“It’s not like going to science class and having a few people wanting to participate. They all want to be there, and they are all really smart. It makes it a lot easier and a lot more fun,” said Lilani. “Next year, I’m going to go to the acceleration academy for five weeks and start taking college courses.”

Lilani said she would be interested in attending an ANSEP-style high school. Lilani’s mother Marleah LaBelle and her grandfather agree it could be a great opportunity. But, both say the family’s history with the institute property would make the decision for Lilani to attend the school a difficult one.

“Absolutely, yeah. It would be hard, yeah. I believe in ANSEP. It’s an incredible program. It’s really about creating their future and creating opportunities for them that may not have existed before. It certainly wouldn’t be without some strong emotions,” said Marleah.

She said it could be a healing process for people like her father.

“Maybe this could be an opportunity to have more healing, more awareness. It could be a positive thing for the Alaska Native community,” said Marleah.

ANSEP is starting its first high school program in the Matanuska-Susitna school district this fall. Wrangell School Superintendent Patrick Mayer is leading a committee of borough and school officials as the process moves forward.

If the boarding school is built, Mayer said it will be part of Wrangell’s district. He said it will learn from the Mat-Su school and include the Native community in the planning process.

The Wrangell School Board, Borough Assembly and tribal government have all supported building the new facility.

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