Historical Analysis of the Forced Assimilation of Native Alaskan youths in Boarding Schools and Homes (2020)

“Moreover, the educators in the schools were, for the most part, doing what they believed was right. With the exception of those who intentionally engaged in violent and predatory behavior, most of the adults in the boarding schools were acting according to what was, at that point, considered acceptable practice” (Hirshberg, 2008).

            When the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in the 19th century, many of the Russian Orthodox schools shut down leaving many of the Alaskan Natives without access to education. This continued until around 1884 when boarding schools and housing programs were erected and the compulsory education of Native Alaskan indigenous started in an attempt to assimilate them into American culture (Getches, 1977). In 1885, the Department of the Interior established the “General Agent of Education” offices (Department of the Interior, 1886). At the time, a Presbyterian minister named Sheldon Jackson was appointed as Territory’s General Agent of Education which led to the construction of many schools including the Wrangell Institute in Sitka, Alaska. Jackson reported to Congress that the Native Alaskans were savages and felt as if it were his duty to instruct them both morally and in the way of civilization (Department of Interior, 1886). Children were forced to leave their homes, sometimes as young as age five, to attend these schools in South Central Alaska leaving their parents and cultures behind them (Hirshberg, 2008). Following the U.S. purchase of Alaska in 1867, the forced assimilation of Native Alaskan youths led to abuse, negligence, and the destruction of rural culture and communities.

            By analyzing this topic through a legal and military lens, we can see how there was validation and justification for forcibly removing children from their homes. There were many factors that set the stage for Native Alaskan youths to find themselves carted away from their rural villages and placed in boarding homes and schools in South East Alaska. Compulsory education of Native Alaskan adolescents started with Alaska’s Organic Act passing through Congress in 1884 (Getches, 1977, para 3). In 1891, the United States passed a compulsory attendance law in New Mexico that required Native children to attend school and permitted law enforcement by federal officers (Laurence, 1977). These may seem unassociated, but they enforced one another, allowing both elected officials and the military in Alaska the power to remove children from their homes and place them in these schools. Without legal backing, the children would never have left their homes in the first place.

            The majority of Alaskan villages are sprinkled over vast, harsh, and desolate stretches of uninhabited lands. Even today, most of these rural villages are only accessible by boat or plane. In the 19th century, transportation was even more difficult, making the shipping of supplies expensive and unreliable. This, combined with the low population of students in isolated villages, made it difficult to build and sustain schools within villages. It was more cost-effective and logical to send children down south to stay in boarding homes and schools than it was to build and staff schools in each village (Getches, 1977). The reasonings were valid, and children were carted off to religious ran institutions established within South East Alaska.

            With the religious historical lens in mind, we can understand how normal people could come to allow cruel injustices to take place regarding children. In 1866, Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian minister and the General Agent of Education in Alaska wrote to Congress, “They are savages, and, with the exception of those in Southern Alaska, have not had civilizing, educational, or religious advantages” (Department of the Interior, 1886, para 64). This perception of Native Alaskans reflected the beliefs of American society at the time. The instructors tending to these children thought it was their responsibility to not only instruct these children’s education, but their morality, and this set the stage for abuse and the destruction of Native Alaskan cultures.

            A look at this topic through the social lens illustrates the vast and complex impact Native Alaskan Boarding schools had not only on the generations which attended, but those left behind and the following generations raised by its attendees. The Native Alaskan youths were carted away from their homes for the winter months, leaving their villages void of children for the darkest and coldest time of the year. In Hirshberg’s report she wrote, “When the children were taken away to boarding school the parents turned to alcohol for solace. One described how this led both to the accidental drowning of children left unsupervised while adults were drinking, as well as a rash of suicides by younger community members” (Hirshberg, 2008, p. 26, para 6). These schools not only had a lasting impact on the villages left behind but the students enduring deplorable conditions within the boarding schools and homes.

One student recalled, “I do remember that at lights off, when one would start crying, then the whole dorm would start crying….Sometimes I still hear little children crying, you know.” (Hirshberg, 2018). When arriving at the boarding homes and schools, they were faced with racism from other non-Native peers, being treated differently by their instructors than non-Native students, forbidden to use their Native languages, and suffering the loneliness of homesickness (Hirshberg, 2008). The students reported both positive and negative experiences. If the student’s home life was more abusive or negligent than the boarding schools, the students often reported an overall positive experience. There were also accounts of the life-long friendships obtained, being able to see life outside of the village, a sense of being motivated, and access to extra-curricular activities that helped balance out the negative experiences (Hirshberg, 2008).
            One of the more tragic and consistent experiences reported by students was that of physical and sexual abuse. Multiple suicides were recorded occurring within the boarding schools and of students after graduation (Hirshberg, 2008, p. 5). In Diane Hirshberg’s (2008) collection of interviews, one of the students recalled,

“And the thing that I remember most about Wrangell, to this day, is they used to pull everybody from the boy’s dorm… whenever they caught somebody, they’d bring the whole dorm down there, and they’d have the two biggest boys in the dorm, and they would give them razor straps, you know the kind you sharpen razors with, and if a Native boy, now that’s all that was in Wrangell Institute at the time, if they spoke their own language, they got swatted 10 times by two of the biggest boys in school” (Hirshberg, 2018, p. 13, para 3).

Although when questioned, many prior students preferred to remain silent, multiple accounts of sexual assault were recorded taking place within both the boarding homes and schools. Still, the evidence of sexual and physical assaults is underreported as, “…students indicated they had no effective avenue of reporting abuse” (Hirschberg, 2008, p. 16, para 4). Hirshberg accounts that there were many students she was unable to interview because they had either committed suicide, lost themselves to addiction, or were currently homeless following their educations within these institutions.

            These boarding schools and homes remained regular practice until Native Alaskans sued the State of Alaska in 1975 for the right to have schools built in villages in what became known as the Molly Hootch case (Hootch v. Alaska State-Operated School System, 1975). This case was monumental to the education of Native Alaskan youths because it required the State of Alaska to provide a high school to any village which wanted one regardless of the population. Currently, there are still concerns regarding the quality of education these schools provide for Native Alaskan children. As resources are limited, and the class sizes mean fewer instructors often taking on the responsibility of teaching multiple disciplines. Hirshberg’s intention for creating her report was to remind the Alaskan people of what happened prior in boarding schools and homes as it is a recurrent discussion as to whether to reopen them or not.

            There were many long-lasting consequences to these schools that still impact Native Alaskan culture and society. In Hirshberg’s report, students reflected on how they suffered a loss of identity and the opportunity to be raised by their families and village. They lost the chance to learn important skill sets and felt as if they were no longer a part of their Native communities. Another consequence is that now there is a problem with parenting. This generation that was not able to see how to raise a child now does not know how to raise their own children. In that same thread, they are unable to pass down the knowledge that they would have learned from their villages had they received traditional instruction.

            The psychological damage, the loss of identity, and the lack of seeing how to parent have further affected these communities. Many of the students committed suicide, developed addictions, ended up homeless, or reported PTSD from their experiences at these boarding schools. Many former students reflected on how they left these institutions not even remembering their first languages, which is terrifying considering most of these languages do not have a written counterpart and are kept alive by oral tradition. Most damaging, though, is that not only did these cultures lose generations of lessons traditionally passed down from their elders, but they lost the knowledge of how to parent in general. One student was quoted, “The guidance, we missed out the guidance that we could have received from them… So when I see parents not doing anything with their children, parents that are my age, I think about that” (Hirshberg, 2018). This has a trickle-down effect from generation to generation leading to the neglect and mal-instruction of future children beyond those forced into these schools.

            By analyzing this topic through multiple lenses, it becomes clear that the issue, both current and past, of boarding schools within Alaska, is complex. While looking at the intentions of people such as Sheldon Jackson and the instructors who did not stop abuse from occurring, it becomes evident that their intentions were not evil. They believed they were strengthening moral integrity, exercising a sense of patriotism and nationality, and saving children’s souls based on their religious doctrines. Analyzing the subject through social lenses shows us the full impact of Alaskan boarding schools during the initial years of instruction and their long-term effects generationally. By looking at the topic through this lens, the interconnectivity between student experiences and the preservation of cultural beliefs within future generations becomes evident.

The next aspect to consider is one of the future. There is still a need for quality education within rural villages. Although schools are provided, small classroom sizes and limited resources provide modern resistance to supplying these children with an adequate high school experience. The discussion of whether or not to reopen these schools to Native Alaskan youth is a recurrent one, which makes the analyzation of past events and analyzing the way these events affect multiple aspects of the human experience all the more important when it comes to community decisions. I chose to research the impact of boarding schools and homes on Alaskan Native culture because I am an Alaskan resident and a writer with the power to ensure people are informed about the past to make decisions about the future re-opening theses schools is a reoccurring issue within Alaska. Before conducting research, I believed all boarding schools and homes were detrimental to Alaskan Natives and should never re-open. However, after diving into the research and source material, my viewpoint became more balanced. Suppose Alaskans take the painful mistakes of the past and create solutions to prevent history from repeating itself. In that case, these schools are a viable option for ensuring students living in small, rural villages acquire an adequate education. By implementing Native Alaskan instructors, curriculum preserving cultural tradition and heritage, utilizing technology to keep students connected with families throughout the long months away from home, giving the parents a choice in sending their children to the schools or not, and ensuring there are protection and routes to report abuse or harassment it were to occur, the negative aspects of these schools is eliminated. If I were to conduct further research on this topic, I would dive into analyzing the rates of alcoholism and the mental health impacts of these communities at a deeper level.


Department of the Interior (1886, March 3). Letter. Retrieved November 28, 2020, from http://alaskaweb.org/govt/1886rpteduak.html

Getches, D. H. (1977, September). Law and Alaska Native Education. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from http://www.alaskool.org/native_ed/law/law_ane.html

Hirshberg, D. (2008). “It was bad or it was good:” Alaska Natives in Past Boarding Schools. Journal of American Indian Education47(3), 5.

Hootch v. Alaska State-Operated School System. (1975, May 23). Retrieved November 28, 2020, from https://law.justia.com/cases/alaska/supreme-court/1975/2157-1.html

Laurence, R. (1977). Indian Education: Federal Compulsory School Attendance Law Applicable to American Indians: The Treaty-Making Period: 1857-1871. American Indian Law Review, 5(2), 393-413. doi:10.2307/20068040

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