AFN Convention tackles painful topic of Native boarding schools

Boarding school survivors say the trauma they experienced is still impacting generations of Alaska Natives
Published: Oct. 21, 2022 at 6:22 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Echoes of a painful past is how one Alaskan who attended a native boarding school described the experience he says is still affecting generations of Alaska Natives.

Vice President of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition Jim LaBelle, Sr. spoke at a panel discussion at the Alaska Federation of Native Convention in downtown Anchorage Friday.

Boarding schools have a long history in the state. Starting in the 1900s all the way to the 1970s, many rural Alaska Native children were forced to attend boarding schools far from their homes, sometimes out of state. Some suffered physical or sexual abuse, but panelists spoke about how the effort to assimilate Native children also stripped them of their culture and identity. LaBelle, who identifies as a boarding school survivor, said the trauma imposed by boarding schools affects even youth today.

“The echoes of boarding school in Alaska are still with us today,” LaBelle said. “And what I mean by that is, all we have to do is look at our national suicide rate that’s higher than any other ethnic group in America. All we have to do is look at the 40% Native incarceration rate in Alaska when we only make up 15% of the state’s population.”

Theresa Sheldon, another panelist with the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, encouraged the crowd to voice support for a bill that is currently in congress. The Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act would establish a commission to look into abuses at Federal Indian Boarding Schools. Sheldon said it would also require the commission to learn more about children who died while attending the schools.

“The investigation would locate and document all children still buried at or near boarding school facilities that are not documented, and their stories are not told,” she said.