- By Jenna Kunze
A religious group responsible for the forced assimilation of Native youth in Alaska has paid $93,000 in reparations to the Organized Village of Kake, a tribe in Southeast Alaska that was once the site of a Quaker assimilation school for Native kids.
Members of the Alaskan branch of a Quaker group that ran a mission school in Kake from 1891 to 1912 (when the Presbyterian’s took over) delivered the check in person on Jan.19, accompanied by a four-page apology.
The Quakers, also called “Friends”, were one of a handful of religious groups that helped the federal government run its more than 500 institutions aimed at eliminating Native culture, language, dress, and customs from 1819 through 1970 through re-education and identity-altering methodologies. Thirty institutions were located in Alaska, according to the Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, the expert source on Indian boarding schools in the U.S. Nationwide, the Quakers ran 30 assimilation institutions for Native youth, the Alaskan Quakers say.
“We apologize that Friends wanted you, your ancestors, or your children to feel that your customs and worldview are wrong,” the apology, obtained by Native News Online, reads. According to Quaker member Jan Bronson, the group spent a year crafting the apology in consultation with Alaska Native partners and initially read it in October 2022 at the site of the Quaker's first mission school in Douglas, Alaska.
“It was wrong of us to believe that Western European worldviews and practices are superior to ones that you have lived for thousands of years. We apologize for Friends who have not respected your ways of living and for Friends’ participation in forcing a Western way of life upon you.”
In Kake, a roughly 500-person village, tribal president Joel Jackson told Native News Online that the funding will support the creation of a tribal healing center, aimed at addressing generations of trauma that separated Alaska Native people from their identity.
“They did away with our way of life, really,” Jackson said of the Quakers and other religious groups who participated in Native erasure. “They forced their religion on us, and forced assimilation to the Western way on us. They were here from the late 1800s through 1921.”
The result of assimilation schools manifested in widespread alcoholism, substance abuse, and a suicide crisis, Jackson said. By the late 1980s, 15 community members in Kake died by suicide, and it was Jackson—the former village police chief—who was responsible for responding to each one. The intergenerational and present-day impacts of colonization were acknowledged in the Quaker's apology as “direct harms” that “remain personal, cumulative, and ongoing.”
State officials came to Kake to advise community leaders on what to do with their suicide epidemic—the community was leading the state in its per-capita suicide rate, and the state was leading the country. Jackson remembers the words of an elder after the state’s health department left: “the only people that can save us is ourselves.”
“From there, we started reintroducing culture,” Jackson said. That effort has looked like: founding a culture camp that just celebrated its 35th anniversary in July, where kids learn from elders how to hunt and prepare their traditional foods; to introducing Tlingit language class into schools; to hosting workshops where knowledge bearers teach traditional Native dance, skin sewing, carving, and weaving practices.
“Getting people to know who they are, where they come from, who their family is, and what their clan is, it’s really important for them to feel like they matter,” Jackson said.
It’s the same idea behind the healing center. The tribe plans to enter into a ten-year lease with the U.S. Forest Service for the free use of an abandoned building in Kake. They’ll use the repatriation money to insure and renovate the building, Jackson said. He hopes to open the healing center in late summer, with programming based in Native values and traditions. The center will have a capacity for 16 people at a time.
As for the Quakers, Bronson said they are still listening and learning to and from Alaska Native community members on how to move towards healing.
Alaska Friends, the state’s Quaker group, will support five young adults to travel to Washington D.C. this Spring to lobby for a Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding Schools Policy Act in March 2024. The bill would allow for a 10-member commission of former Indian boarding school students and truth and healing experts, appointed by the president, to make recommendations “on actions that the Federal Government can take to adequately hold itself accountable for, and redress and heal, the historical and intergenerational trauma inflicted by the Indian Boarding School Policies,” the bill says.
Recommendations would include: protecting unmarked graves, supporting repatriation, and stopping modern-day Indian child removal policies.
The commission would also be empowered to subpoena records from private entities, including churches, that operated schools or institutions intended to assimilate Native youth, as well as government records needed to locate and identify children who attended boarding schools, their tribal affiliations, and unmarked graves. The subpoena power would give the commission a powerful tool that is not available as part of the ongoing investigation of boarding schools by the Department of Interior.
In Kake, Jackson said that the Quaker’s apology was well received, but is only the beginning of a long road ahead.
“They acknowledged the wrongdoings of the church, and acknowledged things that happened, shouldn't have happened,” he said. “But this [money] by no means lets the Quakers off the hook. This is a good start to healing.”
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