Boarding Schools

Eklutna Vocational School. Photo courtesy of the CVTC Permanent Collections & Archives, CVTC Anchorage Museum Collection.

“They are savages, and with the exception of those in Southern Alaska, have not had civilizing, educational, or religious advantages…. [We] must try to educate them out of and away from the training of their home-life.  They need to be taught both the law of God and the law of the Land.”  

-Sheldon Jackson, First Commissioner of Education for Alaska

The forced removal of Indigenous children to boarding schools knowingly contributed to historic and intergenerational trauma among many Indigenous Peoples and resulted in the breakdown of traditional indigenous kinship systems. Imagine being torn from your family as early as 5 years old, shipped far from your home, forced to learn a new language and customs or face the terrifying consequences of corporal punishment at the hand of strangers. Imagine a community without children; imagine the silence. This strict educational indoctrination system of assimilation was devastating, not only for the children torn from home, but also for the families left without their children, their future.

During Russian occupation, boarding schools were first introduced in 1780 to assimilate young Native hunters. Sheldon Jackson, Alaska’s First Commissioner of Education (1885-1908), believed Alaska’s Indigenous Peoples should be assimilated as quickly as possible. Jackson strongly opposed the use of Indigenous languages in churches and schools. His approach towards assimilation in education was reflected in the harsh rules that were implemented in classrooms, which included prohibiting the use of Indigenous languages, disallowing cultural practices and forbidding students from relying on traditional beliefs or knowledge during daily lessons.  When students failed to comply with the rules, educators often used corporal punishment. There are documented cases of mental, physical, and sexual abuse of students that were carried out by school staff and older students who were once victims of corporal punishment themselves. An educational system of cruelty played a large part in causing historic and intergenerational trauma for Alaska Native peoples and created the lasting negative legacy of Native boarding schools. (As an aside, during his time as Alaska’s Commissioner of Education, Jackson was simultaneously the head of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, receiving salaries from both the federal government and the church, which today would be viewed as a conflict of interest and a violation of the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.)

While there are former students with good memories of the boarding school experience, for too many others, everything about boarding school was wrong and in some cases criminal. For Nay’dini’aa Na’ Kayax (Chickaloon Native Village) Elder, Penny Westing, “it was not pretty.” Westing had just turned 10 years old. With arms and legs flailing, she was full of tears as school officials forced her and her four younger brothers onto a small airplane headed to a boarding school in Bristol Bay, Alaska. “It was all so scary,” said Westing. Student life was difficult. Many, like Westing, were forced to do manual labor throughout the school, some students were sent to private homes. This work helped to maintain the school facilities and grounds to help pay for their tuition. Students attended classes that taught a Western curriculum with textbooks based on “realities” and “facts” that were sometimes in contradiction to traditional ancestral knowledge.

The boarding school environment was designed to create structure and routine for students, who were told what to do, and when to do it, almost every minute of the day. This form of institutionalization learning produced students, who were taught what to learn rather than how to learn to survive in the harsh Alaskan environment, and all the other valuable lessons children received being part of their Tribal home communities. Students at boarding schools often learned occupational skills that served no purpose in their home villages, such as clerical and technical factory abilities. They were also not given the urban survival skills needed to succeed, so many could not easily transition into the rapidly growing dominant society.

Boarding schools in Alaska largely succeeded in their attempt to assimilate Indigenous Peoples. The federal policies behind them were detrimental to Indigenous peoples by breaking up families, indoctrinating Native children with non-Native ideals and pulling apart the social fabric that allowed communities to thrive and transmit their language and culture from one generation to the next for thousands of years. In fact, so much harm has been done that many of Alaska’s Indigenous Peoples refer to boarding schools as contributors to cultural genocide. Loss of language and culture not only left scars on those who attended boarding schools, but also on the families they left behind. For many Tribal citizens of Nay’dini’aa Na’ Kayax (Chickaloon Native Village), boarding schools produced generations of Ahtna people who cannot speak the Ahtna language and who have been deprived of Ahtna cultural traditions. It is for this reason, the Ya Ne Dah Ah Dats’ehwdeldiixden (Ancient legends or stories school) was founded in 1992, to re-connect Tribal citizens to their Ahtna language and cultural lifeways, and to help strengthen Tribal citizens’ cultural identity and to thrive as whole Ahtna Dene Peoples once again. 

  • Bates, Clifton and Michael J. Oleska. Conflicting Landscapes: American Schooling/Alaska Natives. Anchorage: Kuskokwim Corporation, 2008.
  • Barnhardt, Ray and Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley, ed. Alaska Native Education Views from Within. Fairbanks: Alaska Native Knowledge Network, 2010.
  • Easley, Cheryl, and Kanaqlak (George P. Charles). Boarding School: Historical Trauma Among Alaska’s Native People. Anchorage: University of Alaska, Anchorage National Resource Center for American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian Elders, 2005. Print.
  • Stout, Mary A. Native American Boarding Schools. Santa Barbara: ABC – CLIO, LLC. 2012
  • Westing, Penny. “Penny Westing Boarding School Experience: Aleknagik Mission School.” 
  • Interviewed by Selena Ortega-Chiolero and Angela Wade. 25 Sept. 2018. Chickaloon 
  • Village Traditional Council Permanent Collections and Archives.