Missionary Schools in Alaska and the Legacy of Child Separation

Large group of Alaska Native children with blankets outside a missionary school.
Photo: Russian School, Sitka Alaska, c. 1889. ASL identifier: ASL-P91-49

In light of recent events at the U.S.-Mexico border regarding separating infants and children from parents, the legacy of missionaries separating Indigenous children from their families is more relevant than ever.

Viewing children from Native tribes as an affront to “Christian values” and as needing to be saved, missionaries throughout Alaska tore families apart and punished them for speaking their language and practicing their beliefs. This shameful legacy continued well into the middle of the 20th Century.

Newspapers from this era, primarily written by and for white men and women, discuss the legacy of missionary schools from the perspective of the “white savior complex”, in that the destruction of Native cultures was necessary for colonialism, under the guise of “saving” tribe members by exposing them to “civilization”. Historical newspapers are primary sources that directly reflect attitudes such as these,  as spelled out in an excerpt from an op-ed from the May 30, 1900 issue of the Douglas Island News regarding Indigenous dances:

Indian War Dance. The habits and customs of a strange people have a peculiar fascination for one who is interested in the study of humanity. As we look at the careless, dirty habits of dress always noticeable in the Alaska Indians; their stoical expression and slanting foreheads, we are forced to believe that as a race they can only belong to the lower orders of humanity, and we expect their actions and expressions to bear us out in this belief. In this we are not deceived, for in most cases they are ignorant and superstitious; clinging to the habits of their forefathers despite the teachings of the schools and missionaries. The beautiful evolutions of the white man's dances, executed as they are designed to be, in perfect time with perfect music, are perhaps the highest point to which this form of amusement has attained. The other extreme is reached when we see the untutored savage, jumping, twisting, whirling, and even groveling in the dirt, to the accompaniment of pounding sticks and discordant voices.
Douglas Island news. (Douglas City, Alaska), 30 May 1900. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84021930/1900-05-30/ed-1/seq-3/>

An attitude such as this one, prevalent among white individuals, removed the humanity of Alaska Native people.

Missionaries, from both the Lower 48 and from the Russian Orthodox Church within the state, thus saw fit to establish schools that stemmed from the toxic ideology to “kill the Indian, save the child”. Similar to the current border policy, there was never any intention to reunite children with their parents. Each child in these photographs were separated from family members and their way of life:

A black and white photograph of about 40 Alaska Native children with two white missionary instructors outside a school.
June 15, 1895 [Juneau, Alaska], ASL identifier: ASL-P297-364
Six Alaska Native boys standing in front of the camera in dark clothing and somber expressions.
Alaska Native boys, c. 1925 or 1926, ASL identifier: UAF-2002-158-75

Newspapers provided largely indifferent coverage of these schools, and journalists wrote exclusively from the perspective of the missionaries and teachers.

Miss Rose Sibley, who is on her way to Carcross as a missionary school teacher in the Indian school there, arrived in Skagway on the Princess May this morning and left for her destination on the train today at 1 o'clock p.m.
The daily Alaskan. (Skagway, Alaska), 23 Sept. 1914. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82014189/1914-09-23/ed-1/seq-4/>
Rev. Forbes is Enroute North on Inspection. To investigate the need for more Presbyterian missions in Alaska, to inspect existing missions and Sunday Schools and to make any changes necessary in the missionary administration policy of the North, Rev. W. B. Forbes, educational and missionary superintendent for the Presbyterian Sunday School Board, is now enroute north from Seattle with Mrs. Forbes. Dr. Forbes is in charge of the district comprising the Northwest and Alaska. Rev. and Mrs. Forbes left yesterday on the steamer Mariposa. They will go direct to Anchorage and after investigating conditions in that vicinity will return to Juneau and Skagway. Rev. Forbes plans to visit every Presbyterian Sunday School and mission in Alaska. He will place a general Sunday School missionary in charge of the Alaska work. "The development of Alaska," Mr. Forbes said in the Seattle Times of May 19th, "has been rapid in recent years and a corresponding growth in the missionary and Sunday School policies is necessary. I expect to start a forward movement in the North which will keep the church one of the best developed institutions in the North. Success in the present venture will mean similar tours of other United States Pacific Ocean possessions for the purpose of inaugurating similar development campaigns." Rev. Mr. Forbes expects to be more than two months in his Alaska survey. He will be present at a number of Sunday School and temperance conventions in the north, at some of which he will deliver short addresses.
The Alaska daily empire. (Juneau, Alaska), 26 May 1916. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84020657/1916-05-26/ed-1/seq-2/>
Miss Emma J. Naftal, missionary teacher in the native school at Carcross, left on the Princess Sophia for Toronto on a nine months' furlough.
The daily Alaskan. (Skagway, Alaska), 05 Oct. 1917. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82014189/1917-10-05/ed-1/seq-4/>

Once children aged out of missionary schools, authorities sent children to boarding schools for Native adolescents in Oregon and Oklahoma. In the landmark 1976 ruling Tobeluk v. Lind, 27 students brought forth a lawsuit in 1974 against the State of Alaska over the unjust, separate and unequal boarding schools for Native students and argued on behalf of the construction of a high school in the same town or village with an elementary school. Dubbed the “Molly Hootch Case” for the first student plaintiff named in the suit, this case arrived at a time when the federal government issued reparations for the historic treatment of Native Americans, such as the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act in 1971. Tobeluk v. Lund gave local native tribes agency in reclaiming the education of their children. (The lawsuit can be obtained here in full.)

In recent years, the Presbyterian Church has issued an apology for its treatment of Native peoples, yet historical trauma remains to this day.

An apology to Alaska Natives by Presbyterians. Whereas, some Presbyterian missionaries, with best intentions in bringing the Gospel to Alaska, were among those who misunderstood the nature and purpose of Native culture, art and artifacts (for example, mistakenly teaching that totem poles were idols), and Whereas, this misconception still exists among some Christians in Southeast Alaska, and Native culture is still held in suspicion by some Native and immigrant Christians as a result of these teachings, and Whereas, both the early destruction of Native art, and the continuing denigration and pillage of Native gravesites did not, and do not, promote the Kingdom of God, but rather represent a kind of violence against some of God's children and a loss for us all, Therefore be it resolved that the Presbytery of Alaska...believes that the Lord our God is One, has created all peoples, and declared that creation is good...we disavow those teachings which led people to believe that abandoning Native culture was a prerequisite for being Christian. We deeply regret the church's part in the destruction of Native artifacts and the church's part in the loss of Native languages.
Photo taken at the Alaska State Museum.

How will history judge us for the treatment of thousands of children stranded at the border, torn from their families?


2 thoughts on “Missionary Schools in Alaska and the Legacy of Child Separation

  1. Pingback: Newspaper in Focus: The Eskimo Bulletin – Alaska's Digital Newspaper Project

  2. Pingback: Indigenous People’s Day – Alaska's Digital Newspaper Project

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