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An Unangax girl returns home 125 years after being sent to an East Coast boarding school

Published: Sep. 14, 2021 at 5:40 PM AKDT|Updated: Sep. 14, 2021 at 10:48 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The 229 white headstones, familiar to any who’ve been to a military cemetery, reflect brightly in the sun in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. But unlike most military headstones, these names don’t have military ranks, or a “spouse of” notation. Some don’t even have last names. Dora Daughter of Brave Bull. Friend Bear HH. Alvan. Instead of a military branch, a tribe name — Sioux, Arapahoe.

One reads: Sophia Tatoff, Chuskon, May 6, 1906.

Sophia Tetoff’s journey to this resting place at the Carlisle Indian School Cemetery — her name misspelled and her origin mis-documented — was a long one. She hailed from St. Paul Island, Alaska, a place few in the Keystone State at the turn of the century had likely ever heard of or have probably heard of even to this day.

Sophia Tetoff's headstone (spelled "Sophia Tatoff" and listing her tribe as the nonexistant...
Sophia Tetoff's headstone (spelled "Sophia Tatoff" and listing her tribe as the nonexistant "Chuskon") at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, before she was disinterred and returned to her home island of St. Paul.(Curtis Keester | U.S. Army photo by Curtis Keester)

St. Paul, 2021

It was an overcast, breezy day in St. Paul in 2021. The July funeral service for Tetoff to be lain to rest — in her final resting place — had been delayed. Fog halted the plane flying to the island; the last leg of the journey that brought her remains across the country, and across the state that remained a territory for close to 60 years after Tetoff had last seen it.

Community members had held a potluck in the days before her arrival. Lauren Peters, a great-grand niece of Tetoff, had come to the land of her mother to see her great auntie home, after discovering their relation and going through the process to make the repatriation happen. She and her adult sons spent their days on St. Paul Island visiting with relatives, and attending Unangam Tunuu language lessons in person, rather than over a computer screen.

In a way, the landing of the plane carrying Tetoff’s remains brought more than her physical body back to the island. It brought back some sense of community that had faded away, even before the COVID-19 pandemic discouraged large gatherings.

“In St. Paul Island, it was always a tradition to go out and greet the plane,” said Father John Kudrin of Saints Peter and Paul Holy Orthodox Church. “That had not been done for several years, even before the pandemic. But when Sophia was on her way, coming back home, there was a good majority of the community out at the airport waiting to, you know, bring her back in.”

Sophia Tetoff's casket was covered in phrases in the native language of the Unangan people,...
Sophia Tetoff's casket was covered in phrases in the native language of the Unangan people, Russian Orthodox relics and draped in gold cloth for her funeral service in Sts. Peter and Paul Holy Orthodox Church in St. Paul, Alaska, 115 years after her death. (Photo courtesy St. Paul Island Productions)(St. Paul Island Productions)

Tetoff’s casket was driven through town – past the home she was born in, which is Peters’ family’s home. In the Saints Peter and Paul Holy Orthodox Church, her casket was decorated and draped with a gold cloth. A wreath of yellow flowers was placed at it, and the community came to say farewell to the lost child returned home. Peters’ son Andrew carried the casket in to the church. Her younger son, Lucas, carried a cross in front of the procession.

Kudrin performed the first rites funeral, more than 100 years after her death, because she had not received an Orthodox funeral when she died.

Lucas Peters carries the cross for the funeral of Sophia Tetoff in St. Paul, Alaska. Tetoff was...
Lucas Peters carries the cross for the funeral of Sophia Tetoff in St. Paul, Alaska. Tetoff was taken from the island as an 8-year-old orphan in 1895 and ended up at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, where she died in 1906. Her remains were repatriated to St. Paul Island in July of 2021. (Courtesy St. Paul Island Productions)(St. Paul Island Productions)

“Today we have the honor, the pleasure of being part of bringing home a lost child,” Kudrin said in the service.

He talked about Tetoff’s journey across the country, and the harm done by those who took children from their homes.

“There is not enough words for an apology for what has happened to her,” Kudrin said. “Sheldon Jackson ran a cult by taking Native children away from their homes to try to assimilate them into a new life which would make them forget their Native culture and their heritage.”

Then, at the windy hillside cemetery, local men lowered her casket into a grave, and covered it with dirt while the community sang hymns and a Native drummer played out a rhythm.

The Pribilofs and Unalaska of history

St. Paul Island is one of the four Pribilof Islands in the middle of the Bering Sea, partway between Alaska’s mainland and Russia. To this day, the island is home to just one community, St. Paul. The Unangax people, called Aleuts first by the Russians, were brought there from other villages in the Aleutian Islands by Russian traders, forced to hunt fur seals starting in the late 1700s and becoming year-round residents of the island in the early 1800s. When Russia’s Alaskan territories were acquired by the United States, the practice didn’t end. Residents of the islands were considered wards of the state, and their movements, marriages, employment, and administration of justice were run by the federal government.

In the late 1800s, a group of Protestant churches came together to “civilize” the Native people of Alaska. According to the book “Family After All: Alaska’s Jesse Lee Home, Vol. I”, the state’s territory was divided up between the denominations — Methodist, Catholic, Moravian, Presbyterian, Congregationalists and Baptists. Not included were the Russian Orthodox, representing the religion that many Alaska Native people had adopted during Russia’s occupation of the broad swath of territory. The Protestants established their missions in their respective regions of Alaska.

In the Aleutian chain, south of the Pribilof Islands, the Methodists took charge. According to the book, Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian minister, became the government’s special agent in charge of education for Alaska. With Jackson’s assistance, the Methodist Woman’s Home Missionary Society established an Alaska Bureau in 1885, and built a children’s home at Unalaska, on its namesake island near the bottom of the Aleutian chain. The Jesse Lee Home, named for a Methodist clergyman who had worked in the Northeast U.S., began as a home for girls, because the Orthodox church already ran a boarding school for boys on the island.

Sophia’s story

Sophia Tetoff was orphaned at 8 years old. She and her 10-year-old sister, Irene, were the youngest among more than a dozen half-siblings. Despite the family present around them, in 1895, Peters says, the orphaned girls were not beneficial to the sealing industry on the island, and were sent to the Jesse Lee Home on Unalaska, an island in the Aleutian chain 270 miles southeast of St. Paul Island.

There, Irene died at 13 from tuberculosis, according to “Family After All”. Tetoff was sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, more than 4,000 miles away.

The book also details Tetoff’s voyage to Carlisle. She traveled first via steam ship to Port Townsend, Washington with the Jesse Lee Home’s administrators and four other girls. Her response to some of the sights of city life were noted by the administrator. Upon seeing telegraph wires for the first time, Tetoff reportedly said, “O my!! What for do they have their clothes lines so high?”

The voyage from Unalaska to Carlisle took 18 days by ship and train. Tetoff arrived at the school on July 26, 1901 at the age of 12. Within eight months, she was sent on her first “outing,” which Peters described as the students working as servants in local people’s homes.

The school newsletter, The Arrow, included updates from current and former students, sending messages about how well they liked their new jobs, or new homes in other cities. Tetoff’s student record card lists five placements in New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Her final placement notes that she returned to the school sick, on May 16, 1905. She died almost one year later on May 6, 1906 from what the school superintendent recorded as consumption, after having been ill since her return to the school. Her death was announced in the school newsletter on the same pages as letters from former students, vacation announcements of staff, and an update on the repair of a school drum.

The death of Sophia Tetoff was reported to the Bureau of Indian Affairs the day after she died....
The death of Sophia Tetoff was reported to the Bureau of Indian Affairs the day after she died. (From National Archives and Records Administration)(National Archives and Records Administration)

She was buried in the school cemetery the next day, and a funeral service was performed, according to her student record card.

Lauren Peters says she’s found no record that the school or Bureau of Indian Affairs sent word to the community of St. Paul that either of the Tetoff sisters had died. The BIA was notified of her death, and the school’s acting superintendent requested approval to spend $45 for burial costs for Tetoff and another Alaska Native girl.

“They sent them so far away, they didn’t want them to come back,” Peters said. “They wanted them to assimilate. They wanted them to be lost.”

‘She found me’

In 2017, Peters, who is working on a doctorate in Native American Studies, was contacted by Bob Sam, a Tlingit elder who works with the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. He was helping identify the home communities of some of the children buried in the cemetery at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. The campus had since been taken over by the U.S. Army. The cemetery was moved in 1927.

“There’s a girl from your area there,” Peters recalls Sam telling her. “Can you help find her family?”

Peters contacted the Pribilof Islands Association, the tribal corporation for St. Paul Island. The tribe had no record of the Tetoff sisters.

“Nobody’s looking for the children at all,” Peters said. “Because nobody knew that they’re missing. They were not in any of the tribal records.”

“I feel like she found me,” Peters said, describing the fortuitous timing of her meeting Bob Sam, his visit to Carlisle school in Pennsylvania, and his seeking information about Tetoff.

Peters said that once she knew about Tetoff, she had to do something about it, not just for her family, but for others.

“I feel a responsibility to her, and to the other kids, that I let their family members know that their children are there,” she said.

She hopes her journey will pave the way for other lost children to return to their homelands.

The lost children

Tetoff was one of thousands of children taken to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, and among at least 189 who didn’t make it out. This past summer, she was one of 10 children whose remains were repatriated — brought back to their home tribes. The other nine were members of the Rosebud Sioux in South Dakota. U.S. Secretary of State Deb Haaland, the first Native American to hold the position overseeing the Bureau of Indian Affairs, attended the disinterment ceremony for those nine children in Pennsylvania.

A reckoning across North America has begun. In Canada, hundreds of children’s remains have been found at historical boarding schools – many in unmarked graves. Children were taken from their families with the promise of education, gentrification, and wellbeing. Some were taken as wards of the state, or leased out from orphanages and children’s homes, like the Jesse Lee homes in Alaska. Some were taken without their parents’ consent. The Carlisle School’s and others’ missions were to “kill the Indian; save the man.” Students were forced to speak English, dress in western clothes, and punished for speaking their Native tongues.

In Canada, groups determined to find the lost children, and return them home, have scanned the grounds of former residential schools and group homes with sonar, finding the unmarked graves.

Haaland has vowed to investigate the system in the United States.

“For more than a century, the Department was responsible for operating or overseeing Indian boarding schools across the United States and its territories. The Department is therefore uniquely positioned to assist in the effort to recover the histories of these institutions,” Haaland wrote in the memo announcing the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative. “While it may be difficult to learn of the traumas suffered in the boarding school era, understanding its impacts on communities today cannot occur without acknowledging that painful history.”

Father Kudrin, from St. Paul, agrees. An Alaska Native, his family has experienced some of the legacy of mistreatment in the past. His mother’s family is from Atka Island, and his grandfather was taken to an internment camp during World War II, when the Japanese were invading the Aleutian islands. After the war, he says, his grandfather was brought back home, and like generations before, harvested seals for the U.S. government.

“There is no room to try to deny what has happened, especially with the graves that have been found throughout the Lower 48 and through Canada,” Kudrin told Alaska’s News Source. “The reality of this has to be accepted in order for all of us to move on.”

While many of these children were lost to their tribes, and lost to history, the children buried at Carlisle and those who may not even know they want to find them, are some of the lucky ones.

Carlisle’s campus, a former Army barracks, became an Army post once again, and its cemetery became part of the Office of Army Cemeteries. Its occupants are documented, and when the cemetery was moved in 1927, headstones were made. On her headstone, Tetoff’s last name was misspelled, and her tribe listed as “Chuskon,” a word Peters thinks is made up.

Experiencing Tetoff’s homecoming as both a priest and community member, Kudrin hopes it can start to bring some of that closure to other families.

“Knowing that there are thousands of other children regardless if they are Alaska Native or not, I feel for all of them,” Kudrin said. “And for all of the relatives and family members throughout the United States and Canada, that are going to have to do the same exact thing that we did with Sophia. But I hope and pray that they are able to do what is best for them.”

The other lost children

When Peters was contacted by Sam to search for the family of Tetoff, her journey to bring her auntie home began. Thankfully, she says, the Army was a great partner.

“Sophia is the first child that has come back from Carlisle from Alaska,” she said. “And I’m hoping that that opens up the door for the other families that want to bring their kids home.”

The process of bringing Tetoff home was well-coordinated, and her remains were treated with utmost respect, Peters said. Kudrin says a Russian Orthodox priest was able to perform a Panikhida service at the disinterment, a service to pray for the departed soul.

“They took very good care of us,” Peters said of the Army. “They’re very respectful, the people that they hire are the top of the top in the world at what they do as archaeologists and anthropologists. They are minimally invasive, there’s no DNA extraction or anything like that. And whenever they get to a point in the process, they stop and they ask the family, how would you like to proceed?”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, outside visitors were not allowed to St. Paul Island to observe the funeral ceremony. Peters and her sons were allowed as family returning for a funeral service. Local videographers and photographers documented the funeral.

Peters’ adult son Andrew accompanied her to Carlisle and was designated as the family’s caretaker of Tetoff’s remains. He witnessed the transfer of the remains into a new box, and was the pallbearer who carried the remains into the church on St. Paul Island.

Peters is hoping that her experience can help pave the way for other schools to use a streamlined process to return remains to their closest family members.

“Just knowing where the children are, even if the families don’t believe in re-earthing them, is I think the main point,” Peters said. “That these children have been lost, and it’s important to find them and let the families know where their children are.”

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the number of years Alaska remained a territory after Sophia Tetoff was taken to an East Coast boarding school before gaining statehood.

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