The remains of 15 Alaska Natives may soon journey home from the Carlisle Industrial Indian School in Pennsylvania. A small group of people working with the U.S. Army and the First Alaskans Institute have authored a resolution they hope to see passed at this year’s Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Fairbanks.
While the resolution is focused on students of the past, there is still concern for potential future boarding school students.
Bob Sam says the Army wants to see the repatriation process completed in less than a year, and they’re going to foot the bill. Sam is confident it can be done, but points out that the Carlisle school is just one of many schools Alaska Natives were sent away to.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg, … Carlisle school is just the beginning,” Sam says. “It’s one of the first boarding home military-type schools in America and all boarding home schools used Carlisle as a model. Chemawa, Haskell, they all have their cemeteries.”
Sam has been helping repatriate human remains for 30 years. From a former tuberculosis sanitarium in Sitka to helping a friend recover his Ainu ancestor’s remains from a university in Japan — Sam has a talent for what he calls “bringing bodies home.” And he’s well-known in Southeast for his dedication to restoring old cemeteries. There was the Russian Orthodox cemetery in Juneau and another one in Sitka.
Sam is working with Nancy Furlow and Jim LaBelle Sr. LaBelle spent 10 years at the Wrangell Institute in Southeast Alaska. He says his time there was traumatic and he’s spent a lifetime working to heal from it.
There is little study on the history and impacts of residential schools on Alaska Native children. In a 2005 study by the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage, 61 adults who attended boarding schools from the 1940s through the 1980s were interviewed. Some said they were abused. Others experienced no abuse and enjoyed school. And some said that while they weren’t traumatized by their school, they remember seeing abuse.
Some lawmakers see regional boarding schools, or even virtual schools, as a cheaper solution to education in rural Alaska. Former Gov. Sean Parnell was a strong advocate for regional boarding schools and included increased funding for them in education bills he sent to the legislature.
As time goes on, LaBelle thinks there will be more pressure to consolidate schools and increase support for residential schools.
“Should this happen, there needs to be a process where communities and families participate at all levels of this discussion,” LaBelle says. “If there is eventually going to be a return to boarding schools in some parts of Alaska, at least it will be done in the way that respects the culture, respects the language, doesn’t provide for an institutional setting.”
And these schools should not be forced on rural communities, he says.
“There’s got to be a full participation process. In the days when I went, we had no choice. If you protested or objected, parents were sent to jail.”
Both LaBelle and Sam say there are a lot of issues for Alaska Native people that need to be resolved. Bringing home the remains of Alaska Native students at the Carlisle school in Pennsylvania is part of the process, Sam says.
“Once we resolve these issues, American Indians and Alaska Natives will go on to be the people that they were intended to be and they will begin to have some sort of forgiveness in resolving. But there’s another side to it,” Sam says. “The non-Native people who have guilt, they will begin to resolve their guilt so that they can go on to become the human beings they were intended to be. And we get to know each other doing these kinds of things together.”
The resolution is expected to be presented to delegates Saturday.
About the Carlisle Industrial Indian School
The Carlisle Industrial Indian School was founded in 1879 in Pennsylvania by an Army officer who believed that the federal government was holding Native American people back by segregating them.
The word “racism” is believed to have first been uttered by Richard Henry Pratt, who founded the school.
At an annual conference in 1896, Pratt said: “Segregating any class or race of people apart from the rest of the people kills the progress of the segregated people or makes their growth very slow. Association of races and classes is necessary to destroy racism and classism.”
Pratt believed Native people were intended to be inherently equal to European-Americans, they just needed to be civilized.
“It is a great mistake to think that the Indian is born an inevitable savage. He is born a blank, like all the rest of us,” Pratt said in a speech at an 1892 convention. “Left in the surroundings of savagery, he grows to possess a savage language, superstition, and life. We, left in the surroundings of civilization, grow to possess a civilized language, life, and purpose. Transfer the infant white to the savage surroundings, he will grow to possess a savage language, superstition, and habit. Transfer the savage-born infant to the surroundings of civilization, and he will grow to possess a civilized language and habit.”
Operating throughout the height of the Progressive Era until 1918, more than 10,000 attended the school. The school’s foremost goal was assimilation of its students. English was the only language allowed to be spoken. In the dorms, no two students from the same tribe were allowed to live together. Students were made to pick out new English names. Boys were required to cut their hair. The phrase, “Kill the Indian, save the man” — Pratt coined that, too.
Correction: Earlier versions of this story misstated when the resolution will be presented to the AFN delegates. It’s expected to be presented Saturday.