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The missing chapter: Alaska Native boarding schools and historical trauma

Dr. Theresa John performs with a dance group at opening ceremonies for a week-long listening and learning session on Native boarding schools at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in April.
Photo by Rhonda McBride.
Dr. Theresa John performs with a dance group at opening ceremonies for a week-long listening and learning session on Native boarding schools at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in April.

Native boarding schools and their legacy have long been shrouded by the fog of historical amnesia.

In partnership with the U.S. Interior Department, the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition has sent a team across the country to collect stories from boarding school survivors about the abuses they experienced as children. It’s part of a national effort to seek truth, justice, and healing.

On May 13, the group will head to Minneapolis to record the oral histories of boarding school survivors. Last week, the team followed up on about 20 Alaska Natives, who shared their stories last month in Anchorage.

During the week of April 15-19, the Alaska Native Heritage Center was converted into a safe space to disclose traumatic experiences. There were educational presentations, healing ceremonies and time set aside for each survivor to meet with an oral historian. Those interviews were conducted privately in various houses on the Heritage Center campus, dedicated to different cultural groups. It was up to the survivor to choose the place to share their stories.

Denise Lajimodiere is one of those who came to listen and learn. She says some of the survivors have come to tell their stories for the first time and ask her why now, after all these years, they are ready to talk.

“They said, ‘I don’t know why I’m telling you.’ And I said, ‘Because we asked,” said Lajimodiere, who helped found the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, called NABS for short.

Lajimodiere, an Anishinaabe, said her own family’s story has been a driving force in her work to break the cycle of boarding school trauma.

She says her father was nine when his mother died in the 1918 flu epidemic. Afterwards, he was sent to the Chemawa Indian School in Oregon, where he was never hugged or shown affection while he was there. But instead, he was raised under a harsh military-style form of discipline.

“Papa was pretty free his belt,” she said. “But that’s the way they learned to parent.”

She says that was how trauma was passed on to her family.

Lajimodiere has listened to more than a hundred boarding school stories. Some of those are in her book, “Stringing Rosaries: The History, the Unforgivable and the Healing of Northern Plains American Indian Boarding School Survivors.”

Over the years, she’s heard bits and pieces of Jim Labelle’s story, when he represented Alaska on the NABS board. But at this gathering, she sat down with LaBelle to conduct a formal interview.

“I’m glad that he will get his story reported formally,” Lajimodiere said, “that his kids and grandkids, and anybody that wants to know about what happened to us, will be able to access his story.”

LaBelle says he was glad to tell his story to someone who is familiar yet also a professional oral historian. Even so, it was still difficult to travel back in time 70 years to his days at the Wrangell Institute in Southeast Alaska, where he was taken away from his mother at the age of eight, along with his younger brother, Kermit.

Jim and Kermit LaBelle, shortly before they were sent to the Wrangell Institute.
Courtesy of Jim LaBelle
Jim and Kermit LaBelle, shortly before they were sent to the Wrangell Institute.

“I felt heavy,” he said, “because when you unload like that, and you tell those kind stories, your whole body feels the memory.”

About 20 years ago, LaBelle went public with his story at a time when many of those who had experienced boarding school abuse had not even told their own families about what happened to them.

LaBelle said a lot of people didn’t take him seriously, including his own Native people, who told him, “That happened a long time ago, get over it.’”

“So how do you get over losing ties to your family?” LaBelle said. “How do you get over losing your identity?”

While it took LaBelle many years and hours of therapy to find answers to those questions, he kept telling his story, to make it easier for others to tell their stories.

Over the years, LaBelle has shared painful memories from his days at the Wrangell Institute, describing how small children were stripped down naked when they first arrived, had their hair cut and their heads shaved, de-loused with a chemical and hosed down in a group shower. And if they didn’t understand how to bathe themselves, matrons would pick some of the most frightened children to use as an example. LaBelle says they would use a floor brush and lye soap to scrub a child’s skin raw, to the point of bleeding.

Each was then given a number, which matrons preferred to use instead of their names, because they had trouble pronouncing them.

In a hearing last fall, LaBelle told U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haland that the abuse didn’t stop there.

“Matrons were sodomizing boys in their beds or in the bathroom,” LaBelle testified. “We saw girls going home in the middle of the year pregnant.”

Not all children who attended Native boarding schools suffered abuse. And in more recent years, the boarding school experience has been positive for many, obscuring the troubled past.

Indigenous researchers like Benjamin Jacuk say what happened to Native children in the last century, when they were taken from their families and forced to attend religious and government schools, is very different. Jacuk calls it one of America’s best kept secrets.

“In order to heal, we need to know what we’re healing from,” said Jacuk, who has been looking into church records. Jacuk says he’s found some disturbing patterns in which religious institutions conspired with mines and fisheries to separate Natives from their lands and resources.

He says the boarding school oral histories will help to hold government and religious institutions accountable, key to bringing about truth and reconciliation.

“These kinds of things are never the end. They’re the beginning,” Jacuk said, “the beginning of a new future for all Alaska Native people.”

NABS team leaders like Samuel Torres say the stories they are collecting are an important body of knowledge.

“So this can never be repeated again, it needs to be powerfully remembered, powerfully honored and revered, in a way that we recognize these are deep offerings,” Torres said, “and they deserve our respect.”

For boarding school survivors like Jim LaBelle, it’s important that their stories will be housed in a national archive.

“I’m hoping my story, collectively with all the other stories that are gathered together, will go into the future,” he said, “so that future historians, researchers, and policy makers can see the harm that was done.”

LaBelle says the harm goes beyond what took place at boarding schools. He says we need a better understanding of what happened to students after they left.

He believes research will show that boarding school trauma is one of the root causes of homelessness in Alaska’s cities and its high rate of missing and murdered Indigenous people.

“Personally, I have a had a lot of close friends and relatives go to the streets after boarding schools,” LaBelle said, “And a lot of them died on the streets.”

LaBelle says shedding light on this dark chapter of history may ultimately help more than just the survivors and their families, but the whole state.

Before sharing their stories, Jim Labelle and other boarding school survivors underwent a sacred smudging ceremony for protection.
Photo by Rhonda McBride
Before sharing their stories, Jim Labelle and other boarding school survivors underwent a sacred smudging ceremony for protection.

LaBelle and all the other boarding school survivors who shared their stories will be offered ongoing emotional support in the coming weeks and months. There are also regularly scheduled check-ins, like the one last week.

LaBelle says, while it is always difficult to share his story, it was as if his interview with an old friend brought him full circle. He said it helped afterwards to sit with a group of people in a relaxed setting and shake off the heaviness.

“I was able to get back on my feet,” he said.

The work for LaBelle and others who seek to overcome historical amnesia is far from over. He plans to push the NABS board for more listening sessions in rural Alaska.

“Alaska is a big state,” LaBelle said. “We have 229 tribes, and almost every tribal community has boarding school survivors. And we have only touched a small portion of it here in Anchorage.”

Rhonda McBride has a long history of working in both television and radio in Alaska, going back to 1988, when she was news director at KYUK, the public radio and TV stations in Bethel, which broadcast in both the English and Yup’ik languages.