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Sitka vigil a chance to mourn, reflect on history of residential schools

Following the discovery late last month of the remains of 215 children in a mass burial site at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, an anonymous artist installed 215 eagle and raven feathers on the lawn of Sitka’s own former residential school, Sheldon Jackson.

Steve Johnson noticed the installation shortly before it was taken down.

“I drove by one day, and I saw a bunch of feathers there, and I didn’t have to count them or think. Immediately I knew what it was and why,” he said. “It was a very powerful statement to me.”

Johnson was born and raised in Sitka, and his family has a deep connection to Sheldon Jackson.

“My father’s name was Steve Johnson, who was a teacher at Sheldon Jackson College and a painter,” he said. “And my grandfather was A.P. Johnson, Andrew P. Johnson, who was the first valedictorian of the first graduating class of Sheldon Jackson when it was an industrial school. The history of my family and the history of residential schools are very intertwined.”

And he said that history is complex.

“There are many people in this town and many people within my family who the legacy of growing up with Sheldon Jackson, as a college and as a trade school, is very close and very near and dear to their hearts. And we recognize that. And there are people that have benefited greatly from their experience there,” Johnson said.

“But when we step back and look, these things were tools of assimilation,” he said. “And although they were great things that came of it. There were also things that are not so great.”

Johnson says there are plenty of parallels with the history of residential schools in Canada and the United States. The policies, the timeframe — it’s all similar. For over a century both governments forced Indigenous children from their homes and into boarding schools.

“And a lot of these kids that went to industrial residential schools, many of them never went home. And there’s different stories from different schools in different parts of the country. But the simple fact is, nearly every residential school has a graveyard,” he said.

Johnson is organizing a vigil to remember the 215 children in British Columbia and to acknowledge Sitka’s own history, which includes some children who were involuntarily sent to Sheldon Jackson, whether as orphans or as the result of relocation.

“I feel like the kids who were rounded up and taken to Sheldon Jackson College, their story is underrepresented,” he said. “And I would like to see it included in the canvas that is our town.”

He hopes the event will open up a dialogue about a subject that can be difficult to discuss.

“To gather together and to talk a little bit about the history. And to talk about how it’s impacted us, as two, three, four generations down the line from our parents, from our grandparents who experienced these things,” Johnson said. “And also to lend support and to recognize that we don’t have to whisper about these things anymore, we can talk about them, and we can address them.”

While Johnson has speakers lined up for Sunday’s vigil, he doesn’t want to discourage anyone in the community from attending and sharing their stories.

“Bring a candle. Bring a tissue. Bring a story if you’d like. Bring a picture,” he said. “This is this is an event by and for all of the people who wish to talk real history. Good or bad.”