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Advocates hope return of Alaska Native boarding school student from Carlisle is first of many


At the turn of the 20th century, the federal government created boarding schools in an attempt to assimilate Indigenous children into “American society.” The lasting legacy of the boarding school era devastated Native cultures across North America.

Now, people all across the country demand accountability and working to bring the remains of boarding school students home. 

One student is the first Alaska Native student buried in a cemetery at the former Carlisle school in Pennsylvania to return to Alaska. 

Sophia Tetoff wanted to come home. 

Editor’s note: This story contains accounts from descendants and others of boarding schools and may be distressing for some audiences. A list of available services and organizations is available for people in Alaska, Canada and the Lower 48 at the bottom of this story. This story has been updated to correct transcription errors.

"Sophia is my grandmother's aunt and so she's my great-grandfather’s stepsister," said Lauren Peters, who is Unangax (Agdaagux Tribe of King Cove) and the Alaska Native adviser at Fort Ross Conservancy in California. 

Up until four years ago, Lauren Peters didn’t even know Sophia existed. Or that they were related. In fact, the way Peters tells it -- Sophia found her.

We’ll get to that, but first -- a little bit about Sophia. 

She was orphaned in the early 1900s.

At the turn of the 20th century, Russia used Unangax people as forced labor in the fur seal trade -- transporting many of them to the Pribilof Islands. And Sophia came from a large family. Her father had been married previously and had 13 kids. He remarried after his first wife died. The new couple later had Sophia’s older sister, Irene and then Sophia. 

In the 1900s a measles epidemic -- called “The Great Sickness” -- hit Alaska and many Unangax, Yup’ik and Inpuiat became infected. First Irene and Sophia’s father died. And then their mother. 

The two girls were moved from St. Paul Island to Unalaska where the Jesse Lee Home housed mostly coastal Alaska Native children. 

“There are quite a few orphans that were removed -- a lot of them just went down to the Jessie Lee home. And then from what I've read, if they found the children either troublesome or promising, they would send them to Carlisle.”

Irene died in Unalaska. The Jesse Lee Home was later moved to Seward, Alaska.

Sophia was transported from her home in St. Paul, Alaska, first to Unalaska and then all the way to a Native boarding school -- the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. 

“Going from St. Paul to Unalaska was, what, 400 miles? It's still Unangax and it's still treeless and volcanic and windswept and all the beautiful weather,” Peters said. “And then to go 4,000 miles, imagine landing it in Washington state and then going all across the Plains into the big cities and whatnot, and then ending at Carlisle. And I saw the actual tracks that she would have ridden the train up on and get out. And there's a platform right there that would walk up into the school.”

Carlisle was established in 1879. It was a non-reservation, federally funded boarding school established by the military.  Carlisle was considered a flagship model for others of its kind. 

“I was imagining how foreign that had happened to her and how frightening that had been to end up in this landscape that you don't know anything about. You don't know what’s poisonous. You don't know what's edible,” Peters said. “Must have been really disorienting.” 

Similar boarding schools were later established in Alaska. 

And while the Carlisle site returned to military use in 1918, many other schools continued to operate into living memory. Many Alaskans have heard stories of schools in White Mountain, the Copper River Valley, even the Wrangell Institute and Mount Edgecumbe -- which continues to run as a public boarding school in Sitka. 

Traditional and cultural ways of knowing and being were intentionally severed as Native children were removed from their homes and families and forced into boarding schools in an attempt to assimilate them into “American society.” 

Barbara Landis is the former Carlisle Indian School archives and library specialist for the Cumberland County Historical Society in Carlisle. 

Landis says she first became involved with the boarding school when Tribes began reaching out to the Historical Society to track down information on Native students. 

“But there are some universal issues: For example, children dying at boarding schools that touched every nation. And so it's very it's a very conflicted response that descendants have to what happened to their relatives who were at the boarding schools. And there's not just one black and white. So it's a really tricky episode in United States history and clearly in Canada's history also.” 

In 2021, news surfaced that ground penetrating radar was used to uncover the location of hundreds of unmarked graves at residential schools in Canada. 

Since the announcement about Kamloops, Landis has been fielding phone calls from families and media outlets. 

“I really believe that the Kamloops discovery has been a catalyst for people starting to become aware of the residential boarding school system, the mission schools and the government run schools,” Landis said.  “And then, Deb Haaland’s assignment as cabinet secretary and her dedication …  to investigating the children from the boarding schools, the deaths and all the children, what happened to them. That adds a whole layer of heft to the importance of getting to the bottom of these stories.”

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) announced a national initiative to investigate the traumatic legacy of boarding schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“Our communities are still mourning,” Haaland said June 22, 2021. “The federal policies that attempted to wipe out Native identity, language and culture continue to manifest in the pain our communities face, including long standing intergenerational trauma, cycles of violence and abuse, disappearance of Indigenous people, premature deaths, mental disorders and substance abuse.” 

The new initiative will document boarding school policies and also identify burial sites near schools.

“I come from ancestors who endured the horrors of Indian boarding school assimilation policies carried out by the same department that I now lead, the same agency that tried to eradicate our culture, our language or spiritual practices and our people to address the intergenerational impact of Indian boarding schools and to promote spiritual and emotional healing in our communities, we must shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past, no matter how hard it will be.”

Secretary Haaland ordered a final report from the investigation of BIA boarding schools to be issued by next April.

Up until four years ago, Lauren Peters didn’t even know Sophia existed. Or that they were related. In fact, the way Peters tells it -- Sophia found her.

Back in California, Peters plans an Alaska Native Day for Fort Ross and incorporates dancers, artists, storytellers, and more. Four years ago, she invited Tlingit Elder and storyteller Bob Sam. He’s also a cemetery caretaker and works on repatriation.

“In 2017, he called me and said, ‘hey, I've been trying to get the orphans at Carlisle deemed wards of the state.’ But when they were taken there wasn't a state that was just proving impossible and time was ticking.” 

Sam asked whether she could track down information on students in the Unangax/Alutiiq region and gave her six names -- three from St. Paul and three from Kodiak. 

Sophia’s was first on the list. 

And again during a summit with the Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition that Peters attended, Sophia’s name was on another list. And Peters still had no idea they were distantly related. 

Peters researched Sophia’s origins on St. Paul Island, and traced the student’s family tree -- and branches with Peters’ own family history matched up. 

She worked with others to return Sophia’s remains from the site of the Carlisle cemetery back to St. Paul Island, Alaska. Sophia’s remains are the first Alaska Native student to be repatriated from the former school site. 

In May 2016, the Northern Arapaho Tribe began the process to exhume three of their children from the Carlisle cemetery. 

But one of the graves contained two sets of remains -- and neither were the child who was supposed to be buried there. 

In 2018, four children were returned to their family and Tribes; and six in 2019. 

After COVID-19 complicated repatriations in 2020, 10 children are scheduled to be returned -- at full cost to the Army. Nine were Rosebud Sioux and one was Sophia. 

Peters hopes Sophia’s story inspires others to seek the return of their ancestors. 

“She felt clever and brave and leading the Alaskans out of the cemetery, you know, through Bob and me. And I just I just really admire her and felt really at peace and good about the whole process and some other people who are trying to get their kids out of the cemetery. At the same time, we're feeling the anguish of these children that are still stuck in there. And we several of us got together and said, I feel like these children are saying, what about me? Aren't you going to take me? And, you know, and it was very powerful. But Sophia, with the process, with so I felt really good at the end. And I'm really happy to be taking her back to St. Paul and I'm really happy to be reuniting her with our family up there. It's a really good feeling. 

Lauren’s 21-year-old son, Andrew, joined her at Carlisle to begin the process of returning Sophia’s remains to St. Paul. 

“He was my absolute rock up there. He took care of her person. That's not something I could do. I didn't have the strength as a mom to look at some, you know, at her person. And he checked in with her. He made decisions about how he wanted her to be handled respectfully. And he put her to bed at the end and and carried her to the ceremony and carried her out to be placed in the in the container that that is taking her to St. Paul. And I'm really proud of him. But as a as a parent, you know, she's my she's my girl. I'm really fiercely protective of her.

Lauren Peters was scheduled to return to St. Paul after the July Fourth holiday to re-inter Sophia’s remains. But travel was postponed due to weather.

Years ago the military relocated the graves at Carlisle and the information became misplaced. 

Eleanor Hadden’s great-aunt is one of about 180 buried in graves at Carlisle, but it’s one of many under a marker labeled unknown. 

For Hadden, the return of one student and the larger conversation around boarding schools is a good first step.

“I'm glad it's happening now. It would have been nice if it happened earlier, but there's too much that has gone on within the Native community that, you know, how many battles can we fight? How many how many things can we get out in the open to let people know these things are happening or these things did happen to us?” 

Because of some Indigenous cultural taboos against further disturbing the remains, the graves can’t be disinterred nor can DNA testing be performed, despite Hadden’s willingness in an effort to find her aunt. 

“We get overwhelmed with all the sad news. That’s making us want to fight more, which is good. I would say it’s a very complicated scenario that we all have to go through. And to heal from all of this.”

Family members of Carlisle students must fill out the Army-required affidavits to return the remains -- and in many, many cases the children were orphans when they arrived at Carlisle -- and family can be very hard to find. 

For more information contact the Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. You can call them at 612 354-7700. 

KNBA’s Hannah Bissett contributed to this story. Special thanks to Rashah McChesney for the story coaching and editing. 

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