Institute site should serve both as housing and history

The Wrangell Institute was a big part of history — for the Native students who went to school there, for the community and the state. The Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school, which operated at the site above Shoemaker Bay from 1932 to 1975, was among several federal- and church-run schools common across Alaska for much of the 20th century.

Many of the schools, including the Wrangell Institute, graduated a generation of leaders who served important roles as Alaska Natives gained recognition and rights long denied.

But, sadly, many of the schools also left behind a legacy of mistreatment and dismissive attitudes toward Native culture and heritage.

The borough, which has owned the Institute property since 1996, wants to develop and subdivide the 134 acres, creating as many as 40 lots for residential construction. The community desperately needs more housing if it is to accommodate and attract workers. The property has great water views, is close to town, and can be developed with full utilities.

But before it can start any development work and hold a land sale, the borough needs a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit to fill a small amount of wetlands. More importantly, it needs to conduct a ground search of the property to ensure no cultural sites or, even worse, human remains are present from the decades of use by the school.

The borough is making plans for the ground search, including seeking proposals for archaeological surveys and advice on best practices for such an undertaking, while consulting with the Wrangell Cooperative Association, the governing body for more than 850 tribal citizens.

The tribe is starting work on the design for a memorial for Native children who attended the school. “What the tribe is looking at is consultation with affected tribes and then the construction of a memorial gazebo honoring all the tribes that attended the Institute, then doing a healing ceremony,” Tribal Administrator Esther Reese told KSTK radio last week.

As part of the Army Corps permit process, and following the rules of the State Historic Preservation Office, the borough will send a letter to tribes and Native corporations across the state — children came from all over Alaska to attend school at the Institute — telling them of Wrangell’s development plans and seeking their input.

And though the property has been known as Wrangell Institute for almost 100 years, its first name bestowed by the First Nation was Keishangita.’aan, or Alder Top Village. The borough had asked WCA to provide a name for the future subdivision, and the tribe answered that the original was still the name.

It’s the right thing to keep the name, to build a memorial and install historical displays and storyboards at the site, and to develop the land so that it can serve two purposes: Needed housing, and a needed reminder of history.

—Wrangell Sentinel


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