Content warning: This story contains accounts from descendants and others of boarding schools and may be distressing for some audiences. A list of available services and organizations is available for people in Alaska, Canada and the Lower 48 at the bottom of the story.
At the turn of the 20th century, the federal government created boarding schools in an attempt to assimilate Indigenous children into “American society.” The lasting legacy of the boarding school era devastated Native cultures across North America.
Now, people all across the country are demanding accountability and working to bring the remains of boarding school students home.
Sophia Tetoff is the first Alaska Native student buried at the former Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania to return to Alaska. She wanted to come home.
“Sophia is my grandmother’s aunt and so she’s my great-grandfather’s stepsister,” said Lauren Peters, who is Unangax̂ (Agdaagux Tribe of King Cove) and the Alaska Native adviser at Fort Ross Conservancy in California.
Up until four years ago, Lauren Peters didn’t even know Sophia existed or that they were related. The way Peters tells it, Sophia found her.
We’ll get to that. But first — a little bit about Sophia.
She was orphaned in the early 1900s.
For most of the 19th century, Russia had used Unangax̂ people as forced labor in the fur seal trade — transporting many of them to the Pribilof Islands. Sophia came from a large family. Her father had been married previously and had 13 kids. He remarried after his first wife died. The new couple later had Sophia’s older sister, Irene, and then Sophia.
In the 1900s, a measles epidemic — called “The Great Sickness” — hit Alaska. Many Unangax̂, Yup’ik and Inpuiat became infected. First Irene and Sophia’s father died, then their mother.
The two girls were moved from St. Paul Island to Unalaska where the Jesse Lee Home housed mostly coastal Alaska Native children.
“There are quite a few orphans that were removed — a lot of them just went down to the Jessie Lee home,” Peters said. “And then from what I’ve read, if they found the children either troublesome or promising, they would send them to Carlisle.”
Irene died in Unalaska. Sophia was sent on to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania.
“Going from St. Paul to Unalaska was, what, 400 miles? It’s still Unangax̂ and it’s still treeless and volcanic and windswept and all the beautiful weather,” Peters said. “And then to go 4,000 miles, imagine landing in Washington state and then going all across the Plains into the big cities and whatnot, and then ending up at Carlisle. And I saw the actual tracks that she would have ridden the train up on and get out. And there’s a platform right there that would walk up into the school.”
Carlisle was established in 1879. It was a non-reservation, federally-funded boarding school established by the military. Carlisle was considered a flagship model for other institutions of its kind. Similar boarding schools were later established in Alaska.
“I was imagining how foreign that had happened to her and how frightening that had been to end up in this landscape that you don’t know anything about. You don’t know what’s poisonous. You don’t know what’s edible,” Peters said. “Must have been really disorienting.”
While the Carlisle site returned to military use in 1918, other schools continued to operate into living memory. Many Alaskans have heard stories of schools in White Mountain, the Copper River Valley, the Wrangell Institute, and even Mount Edgecumbe — which continues to run as a public boarding school in Sitka.
Traditional and cultural ways of knowing and being were intentionally severed as Native children were removed from their homes and families and forced into boarding schools in an attempt to assimilate them.
Barbara Landis is the former Carlisle Indian School archives and library specialist for the Cumberland County Historical Society in Carlisle.
Landis said she first became involved with the boarding school when Tribes began reaching out to the society to track down information on Native students.
“But there are some universal issues. For example, children dying at boarding schools. That touched every nation. And so, it’s a very conflicted response that descendants have to what happened to their relatives who were at the boarding schools. And there’s not just one black and white. So it’s a really tricky episode in United States history and clearly in Canada’s history also,” she said.
In 2021, news surfaced that ground-penetrating radar was used to uncover the location of hundreds of unmarked graves at residential schools in the community of Kamloops in Canada.
Since the announcement about Kamloops, Landis has been fielding phone calls from families and media outlets.
“I really believe that the Kamloops discovery has been a catalyst for people starting to become aware of the residential boarding school system, the mission schools and the government-run schools,” Landis said. “And then, Deb Haaland’s assignment as cabinet secretary and her dedication … to investigating the children from the boarding schools, the deaths and all the children, what happened to them. That adds a whole layer of heft to the importance of getting to the bottom of these stories.”
U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced a national initiative to investigate the traumatic legacy of boarding schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“Our communities are still mourning,” Haaland said in June. “The federal policies that attempted to wipe out Native identity, language and culture continue to manifest in the pain our communities face, including long-standing intergenerational trauma, cycles of violence and abuse, disappearance of Indigenous people, premature deaths, mental disorders and substance abuse.”
The new initiative will document boarding school policies and also identify burial sites near schools.
“I come from ancestors who endured the horrors of Indian boarding school assimilation policies carried out by the same department that I now lead, the same agency that tried to eradicate our culture, our language or spiritual practices and our people. To address the intergenerational impact of Indian boarding schools, and to promote spiritual and emotional healing in our communities, we must shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past, no matter how hard it will be,” Haaland said.
She ordered a final report from the investigation of BIA boarding schools to be issued by next April.
Back in California, Peters often plans an Alaska Native Day for Russian-era Fort Ross. She incorporates dancers, artists, storytellers, and more. Four years ago, she invited Tlingit Elder and storyteller Bob Sam. He’s a cemetery caretaker from Sitka who also works on repatriation.
“In 2017, he called me and said, ‘Hey, I’ve been trying to get the orphans at Carlisle deemed wards of the state.’ But when they were taken, there wasn’t a state. That was just proving impossible and time was ticking,” she said.
Sam asked whether she could track down information on students in the Unangax̂/Alutiiq region and gave her six names — three from St. Paul and three from Kodiak.
Sophia was first on the list.
Again during a summit with the Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition that Peters attended, Sophia’s name was on another list. Peters still had no idea they were distantly related.
Peters researched Sophia’s origins on St. Paul Island, tracing the student’s family tree when branches with Peters’ own family history matched up. She worked with others to ensure Sophia’s remains were returned to St. Paul Island, Alaska.
In May 2016, the Northern Arapaho Tribe began the process to exhume three of their children from the Carlisle cemetery. But one of the graves contained two sets of remains — and neither were the child supposed to be buried there. In 2018, four children were returned to their family and Tribes; and six in 2019.
After COVID-19 complicated repatriations in 2020, 10 children are scheduled to be returned, at full cost to the Army. Nine were Rosebud Sioux. The other was Sophia.
Peters hopes Sophia’s story inspires others to seek the return of their ancestors.
“She felt clever and brave and leading the Alaskans out of the cemetery, you know, through Bob and me. And I just really admire her and felt really at peace and good about the whole process and some other people who are trying to get their kids out of the cemetery. At the same time, we’re feeling the anguish of these children that are still stuck in there. And several of us got together and said, I feel like these children are saying, ‘What about me? Aren’t you going to take me?’ And it was very powerful. But Sophia, with the process, I felt really good at the end. And I’m really happy to be taking her back to St. Paul and I’m really happy to be reuniting her with our family up there. It’s a really good feeling,” she said.
Lauren’s 21-year-old son, Andrew, joined her at Carlisle to begin the process of returning Sophia’s remains to St. Paul.
“He was my absolute rock up there. He took care of her person,” Peters said. “That’s not something I could do. I didn’t have the strength as a mom to look at some, you know, at her person. And he checked in with her. He made decisions about how he wanted her to be handled respectfully. And he put her to bed at the end and carried her to the ceremony and carried her out to be placed in the container that is taking her to St. Paul. And I’m really proud of him. But as a parent, you know, she’s my girl. I’m really fiercely protective of her,” she said.
Lauren Peters was scheduled to return to St. Paul after the Fourth of July holiday to re-inter Sophia’s remains but travel was postponed due to weather.
Years ago, the military relocated the graves at Carlisle but the information became misplaced.
Eleanor Hadden’s great-aunt is one of about 180 buried at Carlisle, but she’s one of many under a marker labeled unknown.
For Hadden, the return of one student and the larger conversation around boarding schools is a good first step.
“I’m glad it’s happening now. It would have been nice if it happened earlier, but there’s too much that has gone on within the Native community that, you know, how many battles can we fight? How many things can we get out in the open to let people know these things are happening, or these things did happen to us?” Hadden said.
Because of some Indigenous cultural taboos against further disturbing remains, the graves can’t be disinterred, nor can DNA testing be performed, despite Hadden’s willingness in an effort to find her aunt.
“We get overwhelmed with all the sad news that’s making us want to fight more, which is good,” Hadden said. “I would say it’s a very complicated scenario that we all have to go through. And to heal from all of this.”
Family members of Carlisle students must fill out the Army-required affidavits to return the remains. But in many, many cases, the children were orphaned when they arrived at Carlisle. Family can be hard to find.
For more information contact the Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. You can call them at 612-354-7700.
KNBA’s Hannah Bissett contributed to this story. Special thanks to KTOO’s Rashah McChesney for the story coaching and editing.
This story has been updated.