Alaska Native elders share boarding school experiences on ‘Orange Shirt Day’

Trauma, abuse and lifelong fallout shared by Alaska Native elders
Alaska Native community members held a vigil to honor the memory of both the 215 indigenous...
Alaska Native community members held a vigil to honor the memory of both the 215 indigenous children found in unmarked graves at a Canadian boarding school as well as boarding school victims across the United States.(Tanana Chiefs Conference | Tanana Chiefs Conference)
Published: Sep. 30, 2021 at 1:59 PM AKDT|Updated: Sep. 30, 2021 at 2:02 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Alaska Native and other Indigenous groups across North America spent Thursday, Sept. 30, honoring students who were sent to Indian Residential Schools, or boarding schools, in the U.S. and Canada. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, in the U.S., administered boarding school programs across the country that in many cases forced children from their homes, to attend boarding schools, sometimes thousands of miles away, where they would be Westernized.

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

During an online event hosted by the First Alaskans Institute, three Alaska Native elders shared their experiences in boarding schools, and how the trauma impacted their lives.

James LaBelle Sr., Inupiaq, shared his story of being sent to the Wrangell Institute after his mother’s alcohol addiction resulted in a choice by social workers — give up James, 8, and his younger brother Kermit, 6, for adoption or send them to boarding school.

He described arriving at the airport in Fairbanks, where they were greeted by Bureau of Indian Affairs officials, teachers, administrators, and many other children.

“The first thing they did to us was they tied us together to other children with rope,” LaBelle described. “If you can imagine, just hundreds of feet of length of rope, that was entwined through our waists, through our belt buckles, we were tied to other children, and there were dozens and dozens of children together that were tied up like this.”

The children had yellow name tags with their flight destinations pinned to their clothes.

“If you can just imagine, a bunch of little children, maybe 5, 10, 11, 12 years old, just a sea of these little guys and girls, all tied together,” he recounted. “I can still remember the look of just absolute terror in some of these children that didn’t really understand what was happening. They had been taken out of their villages and within a short period of time put in an alien environment.”

He described the cacophony of cries at night in the boys’ dorms, often sparked by a younger child and spreading through the rest of the bunks, as the boys cried themselves to sleep for weeks. The matrons of the school did not comfort them, he said, even as they woke up in the morning with puffy, crusty eyes.

LaBelle is a board member of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. The group calls for accountability from the federal government for its Federal Indian boarding school policies.

Liz Sunnyboy, a Yup’ik elder, shared how her experience in boarding school, and the feelings of loneliness it created, contributed to alcoholism in her adult life. She has since become sober and supports others in their journeys to sobriety.

In June, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland called for a Federal Boarding School Initiative on the past policies of the government.

Thursday, Haaland announced the first step of the program, which will be to consult with Tribal governments, Alaska Native Corporations, and Native Hawaiian organizations about the Initiative.

A larger focus on the dark past of government- and mission-run boarding schools in North America comes as hundreds of unmarked graves have been discovered in school grounds in Canada. The government of Canada has officially recognized Orange Shirt Day, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has publicly apologized for the program in that country, committing to “working together in true partnership to right these historic wrongs and advance reconciliation in concrete, meaningful, and lasting ways.”

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