‘Part of the same system’: DOJ investigates similarities between Indigenous boarding schools, mental health treatment facilities

Youth mental health care in Alaska bears uncomfortable similarity to how previous generations of Indigenous people were removed from their homes for school.
Published: Jan. 11, 2023 at 6:43 PM AKST|Updated: Jan. 11, 2023 at 10:27 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Paul Ongtooguk grew up witnessing countless instances where his friends were shipped off to boarding schools.

“You would just be loaded onto a plane and taken to a school,” Ongtooguk said. “A village would get emptied out during the fall of any students who were high school age eligible.”

According to a report by the University of Alaska, by 1969, at least 2,076 Alaska Native children had been enrolled in a secondary boarding school. Ongtooguk became emancipated and was able to avoid going to a boarding school, yet, the eerie memories are still there.

“I was surprised by the schools in how little they regarded the history and culture of the overwhelming majority of students who were attending the schools,” Ongtooguk said.

He recalls that every year, the numerous students committed suicide. The trauma the boarding schools caused have created a lasting impact.

On Dec. 15 2020, the Department of Justice announced they had reasonable cause to believe Alaska was violating Title II of the Americans With Disability Act “by failing to provide services to children with behavioral health disabilities in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs.”

The investigation also drew parallels between the boarding schools and the removal of youth from their hometown for mental health treatment.

“The experience of PRTF placement can be devastating for children—and uniquely so for Alaska native children, compounding the trauma of past generations when Alaska Native youth were routinely taken from their communities and sent to boarding schools, including some run by the State or the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs,” the report said.

In the fiscal year 2020, the report states that at least one-third of the youth receiving state-funded mental health treatment were Alaska Natives. Between July 2018 and February 2021, the report said that at least 150 youths were transferred from North Star Behavioral Health System to an out-of-state treatment center.

Alaska’s News Source reached out to North Star to request comment numerous times.

“We do not wish to participate,” a spokesperson said.

The DOJ writes in its report that psychiatric residential treatment facility settings “are disconnected from their culture, losing opportunities to learn from elders, learn Native languages, learn how to live off the land, and participate in cultural traditions that affirm their identity.”

Ongootooguk said that the practices of mental health treatment facilities and boarding schools are similarly damaging to Alaska Native youth.

“From a cultural standpoint, the removal of kids for mental health care is a part of the same system of boarding schools and foster care and the overall alienation of kids, of young people, so that they are not able to be productive members of the community and culture they are a part of,” Ongootooguk said.