When the discovery of hundreds of dead Indigenous children outside a residential school in Canada shone the spotlight on the atrocities perpetrated by churches and the government under the guise of civilizing members of those populations, Juneau residents held their own ceremonies to help guide children home.
Now, as Orange Shirt Day, a day of remembrance started in Canada for the victims of residential schools arrives, more people speak up to recognize what was done in severing those children from their culture and casting them adrift.
“When we talk about boarding school, institutions, even though I didn’t attend them, I’m a descendant,” said Jamiann Hasselquist, vice president of Alaska Native Sisterhood Camp 2 and an organizer of the events following the revelations in Canada over the spring. “Our history was just erased. Our history needs to be reckoned with as well.”
Hasselquist and others held an educational event on Tuesday ahead of the holiday to teach invitees more about the ghastly legacy of the residential schools at Juneau Montessori School in Douglas, which had been built by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, who managed the residential school program.
“This is something that has impacted our Native community with a ripple effect,” Hasselquist said. “A lot of us are stereotypically labeled as drunks, drug addicts, homeless, people in domestically violent relationships. We’re caught in the ripple effect of the past.”
The residential schools were the brainchild of Lt. Col. Richard Henry Pratt, a Civil War veteran who spearheaded the effort to assimilate the country’s Indigenous population, beginning with the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. Some Alaska Native children were taken from homes here in Juneau, such as Mary Moon (Kotsa) who left the school in 1899, according to the Carlisle school’s own records.
“I myself am the product of this on both sides of my families,” said Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska President Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson during the unveiling of a crosswalk honoring Orange Shirt Day next to Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on Wednesday. “We knew Kamloops Residential Indian School was not alone. All across Canada and the United States, these schools were established to ‘kill the Indian, save the man.’ It’s time to call it out for what it is: An act of genocide.”
Pratt, known for popularizing that phrase “Kill the Indian, save the man,” made the children taken forcefully from their homes to conform to Western fashion and naming conventions, speak English and practice Christianity while being denied their own names and languages. The concept saw widespread adoption across the country, including here in the Southeast, where the Sitka Industrial and Training School was founded by missionary Sheldon Jackson.
“We have heard about Sheldon Jackson over in Sitka. The Sheldon Jackson institute and the Carlisle Institute were married,” Hasselquist said. “A lot of times, missionaries would look at our children, and they’d say, ‘I like that one.’ And they’d just take them.”
Churches were often closely affiliated with the residential schools. Physical, mental and sexual abuse was common in the schools, according to the Alaska state archives. The worst rates of abuse were found in Christian-operated schools, the archives said.
“Really, the problem is not recognizing where the problem came from. These institutions were federally funded and mostly run by Christian entities. These churches that were federally funded were responsible for doing these things to us,” Hasselquist said. “I started getting phone calls. People started telling me their stories. I know there are loved ones in the treeline in Wrangell. I know there are loved ones near the incinerator in Sitka.”
Hasselquist said she invited the heads or board members of local organizations, such as superintendent Bridget Weiss, as well as local and state elected officials, many of whom attended or sent representatives. At the federal level, the United States is beginning to reckon the legacy of the residential schools as well, digging through the past to recognize what the government had done.
“The Orange Shirt Day educational evening was incredibly powerful. It is important for us to understand and to remember the injustices that occurred in our community and across the country,” Weiss said in an email. “Healing takes time and only happens when there is recognition of the hurt and discrimination that takes place. The district is committed to continuing our partnerships and contributing in any way to restoration.”
Hasselquist thanked the leadership of the Montessori school for their energetic participation in the healing process as the legacy of the BIA schools becomes better known.
“They didn’t even really know until we were singing out there the one day. The article on top of it brought awareness to the school,” Hasselquist said “Laura (Talpey), the director of Juneau Montessori, has been providing space for healing. We have survivors tomorrow who will be speaking who went to that school.”
Other organizations, including Goldbelt Heritage, University of Alaska Southeast, Tlingit and Haida, Goldbelt Corp. , and Sealaska Corp. helped sponsor events centered around Orange Shirt Day, Hasselquist said.
“We are still here,” Peterson said. “We are speaking our ancestors’ languages on our lands. We are singing their songs.”
The crosswalk next to Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall was Hasselquist’s idea, Peterson said, inspired by a social media post about a similar crosswalk in Ontario and conceived and executed in less than a month. It’s just one action being taken, Hasselquist said, as Indigenous people seek to reclaim their history and heal the trauma of the past.
“Restoring names is an action. Getting those people labeled at the cemeteries is an action. Being here today is an action,” Hasselquist said. “We need to see ground penetrating radar systems right here at home. Any of our loved ones that were buried somewhere else and never returned home, they need to come home.”
Know & Go
What: Orange Shirt Day event and march
When: 5:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Sandy Beach with a march concluding at Juneau Montessori School.
• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at (757) 621-1197 or email@example.com.