BIA boarding schools’ devastating legacy continues to echo in Alaska

By John Tetpon, Alaska Beacon - April 23, 2024
White Mountain Industrial School's first graduating class is seen in a 1928 photo. (Alaska State Libraries collection)
White Mountain Industrial School’s first graduating class is seen in a 1928 photo. (Alaska State Libraries collection)

There was only one purpose for the boarding school system in Alaska. In fact, there was only one purpose for the Bureau of Indian Affairs educational program in America.

It was all about white power. White supremacy. Assimilate the savage Natives by force.

The Inupiat people of our Bering Straits region, first subjugated by the Swedish Covenant Church in Unalakleet in 1887 under a missionary named Axel Karlsson, became the norm for the Bering Straits Inupiat from that point on. Every village was dominated by the church and the BIA school system.

In tandem with the BIA objectives, the accompanying church contracts with the U.S. government system also added their layer of rules about who the masters were over our people.

The unholy remnants of that system remain to this day.

All of the villages in my region, now served by Bering Straits Native Corp., have locked themselves into a system to leave their cultural roots behind. Damage was done to the arts, the languages, the heritage of Inupiat song and dance, the storytelling as my Grandma Kipo used to do and along with that, the 10,000 years of respect for elders.

She was the last of her roots. She passed on in 1953.

The Washington Post in an August 2023 report said that life was not easy for Native students.

Forced by the federal government to attend the schools, Native American children were sexually assaulted, beaten and emotionally abused. They were stripped of their clothes and scrubbed with lye soap. Matrons cut their long hair. Speaking their tribal language could lead to a beating.Taken from their homes on reservations, Native American children — some as young as 5 — were forced to attend Indian boarding schools as part of an effort by the federal government to wipe out their languages and culture and assimilate them into white society.

As the Post reported:

“For nearly 100 years, from the late 1870s until 1969, the U.S. government, often in partnership with churches, religious orders and missionary groups, operated and supported more than 400 Indian boarding schools in 37 states.

“Government officials and experts estimate that tens of thousands of Native children attended the schools over several generations, though no one knows the exact number. Thousands are believed to have died at the schools.”

There were at least a dozen combination church-government schools in Alaska that sprang up as a result of the thousands of parents that died from the Spanish flu and along with it the push to expand the boarding programs across America.

Their charge was to completely and utterly assimilate the children.

The schools in Alaska included the Eklutna Vocational School, the Mt. Edgecumbe High School, the White Mountain U.S. Government School, Wrangell Institute, the Tanana Orphanage, the St. Mary’s Orphanage, the Holy Cross Orphanage and the Dillingham Tutorial School. Several of these schools were operated by churches under contracts with the federal government.

The number of Native students that attended all of these schools is unknown.

Each and every institution had their rules and regulations handed down from officials of the federal government. Students at Wrangell Institute for example, were not always called by their names. Instead, each was given a number. If you attended Wrangell Institute from the first grade on, you were called “number so and-so,” for the next 12 years. “None of the school staff knew our names.”

Some Alaska Native grandpas and grandmas to this day remember their numbers, like 124, “that was my name,” one said.

A system of federal, private and religious-run boarding schools over more than 150 years did its best to wipe out thousands of years of Native languages, cultures and family ties. The damage done to these children, and to the generations that followed, is immense.

Somewhere in Alaska are the remnants of more than 2,000 boarding home students who have never said a word about their experiences. The fabric is still torn. I myself was abused in Shaktoolik Day School by a BIA teacher bent on something so terroristic that I still can’t understand the inhumanity.

I was almost killed at the age of 6 for speaking Inupiat. And the teacher was making an example of me by violently washing my mouth out with a bar of Fels-Naptha soap.

One thing I cannot yet forget is the 12-year-old girl in my classroom who sobbed as she was ordered to explain in English that I was being punished because I spoke my God-given language in class.

I can’t remember the girl’s name. She cried so hard that day.

Our parents did nothing. Not a word was said. And neither did anyone from the village. Nothing was done. Why?

At that time the word of a white man was absolute law.

When the teacher was done washing my mouth out, he dropped me on the hardwood floor. I landed on my hands and knees with the bar of soap still in my mouth.

I was choking, but I knew I had to live. I fought to live. I fought hard to catch a breath. Finally, the bar of soap popped out along with a mouth full of bubbles.

That violence has never been forgotten by me. It will never leave my presence. At 81 years of age, I still take a medication for post-traumatic stress disorder once a day.

I am not the only one in my family who was victimized by federal and church policies that have caused eternal harm.

One day in July, a hot summer afternoon, I met a Tlingit man I had known for years, sitting on a bench at the former Sears Mall in Anchorage. There he told me an incredible story I never knew about.

He spoke of how he came to know my parents. He said the captain of the Alaska Bureau of Indian Affairs supply ship had dropped off four little Inupiat children on the Hoonah beach on its voyage back to Seattle sometime in the 1920s.

“They were all alone, just standing on the beach, four little ones about 4, 5, 6 years old. We saw them from our house and went down and took them home with us.”

He allowed me to know how his father and mother raised them from then on as their own.

The four were my dad’s siblings: Ann, George, Edward, and Axel Jackson. The captain said he put them on his ship in Nome, Alaska, to see if he could find them a home and family on his way south to Seattle. The captain also said he stopped at every village and town along the way. No one volunteered.

Alaska was in the midst of the Spanish flu epidemic at the time and people were dying by the thousands. Tuberculosis was also rampant. A report from that time told of people dying in every village, with at least 10 a day in the Nome area gold fields where my father’s dad, Erick Jackson, worked as a mining engineer.

Jackson was from Finland, and was one of many who trekked across the Chilkoot Pass on his way north to the Nome gold mines.

The Spanish flu and TB took many lives, with some villages entirely wiped out. The Tetpon family of Shaktoolik later adopted my father Eric Jackson Tetpon Sr. when he was 2 years old.

The other four were left in Hoonah.

Hoonah is located in Southeast Alaska and was the last stop on the supply ship’s voyage back to the Pacific Northwest. The four grew up as family members of the Mercer family in Hoonah and later, Anne, George, Edward and Axel were sent to Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon.

Three of the four did well and survived the hell they experienced at Chemawa Indian School. Axel Jackson did not make it. The word is that Axel was so badly abused at the school that he was admitted to the Morningside Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Portland.

My father said he never spoke another word for about 30 years. Axel passed away there.

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