• Thirty Years Later: The Long-Term Effect of Boarding Schools on Alaska Natives and Their Communities

      Sharp, Suzanne; Hirshberg, Diane (Center for Alaska Education Policy Research, University of Alaska Anchorage, 2005-09-01)
      In 2004 and 2005 we gathered information on how boarding school and boarding home experiences affected individual Alaska Natives, their families, and communities. From the early 1900s to the 1970s Alaska Natives were taken from rural communities that lacked either primary or secondary schools and sent to boarding schools run by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), by private churches or, later, by Alaska’s state government. Some were also sent to boarding homes to attend school in urban places. We interviewed 61 Alaska Native adults who attended boarding schools or participated in the urban boarding home program from the late 1940s through the early 1980s, as well as one child of boarding-school graduates. Their experiences, some of which are shared in this report, reveal a glimpse of both the positive and negative effects of past boarding schools. Many of those we interviewed spoke with ambivalence about their boarding school experience, finding both good and bad elements. Some of the good experiences included going to schools that had high expectations of the students; educators and other school personnel who developed personal relationships with students; individualized support for students who were struggling; and discipline and structure that was supportive, not punitive. For many of those we interviewed, boarding school offered an opportunity to learn about the world beyond village boundaries and to develop lasting friendships. But these good experiences came at a cost. The cost for some was abuse,; interviewees reported physical and sexual abuse at theWrangell Institute. At that school, children were forbidden to speak their native languages and were even beaten for speaking them. The goal of many educators at the time of mandatory boarding schools was to assimilate people of different cultures and ethnicities into the dominant culture. This cost many students not only the loss of their language, but also their culture and identity. These practices had lasting effects on individual students, their families, and communities. Those we interviewed told of finding it difficult to return home and be accepted. They felt that by being sent to boarding school they had missed out on learning important traditional skills and had a harder time raising their own children. For communities, the loss of children to boarding schools created a tremendous void, one that interviewees said was filled by alcohol and a breakdown in society. Drugs, alcohol, and suicide are some of the effects interviewees spoke of as coming from boarding home experiences and the loss of cultural identity and family. In 1976, the State of Alaska agreed to build schools in rural communities having eight (later ten) or more school-age children. When these schools were built, it was no longer necessary to send Native children to boarding schools. However, there is now an ongoing policy debate over the cost and quality of these local schools and whether Native children might be better off attending schools outside their communities. We hope that policymakers consider Alaska Natives’ past experiences with boarding schools reported here and learn from them. Boarding Schools, p. iv One important caveat to this report is that it is not a comprehensive analysis of the boarding school experience. It is based on experiences of the people who were able to participate in our survey. There are many who were unable to participate, for a variety of reasons. Some have left the state; others are homeless; some live in remote rural villages and either did not hear about our project or were unable to come to the urban hubs where we did our work. Sadly, too, some have died. For these reasons, we use caution in drawing conclusions about the experience. Instead, we have done our best to present some of the stories shared with us in the hope that they will encourage others to come forward with more stories from their experiences. Only as people share their experiences can we learn more about the lasting effects of the boarding home experience on individual Alaska Natives and their communities.