Keynote speaker will talk about healing from boarding school

Jim LaBelle entered the Wrangell Institute in 1955 at the age of 8. Over the next 10 years, he would lose his hair, large portions of his memory, and the ability to speak Inupiaq. He has spent his life trying to understand what happened, and he will tell his story Saturday morning at the Sharing Our Knowledge conference.

For LaBelle, storytelling is an essential part of the healing process. As one of the keynote speakers at this week’s Sharing Our Knowledge conference of Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian tribes and clans, LaBelle will relate his experiences in an effort to “let the healing begin.”

His presentation is set for 10 a.m. Saturday at the Nolan Center, followed by a panel discussion about Native boarding schools at 1:15 p.m. and then a healing ceremony at the former Institute property at 3 p.m.

LaBelle’s 10-year stay at the Institute was a period of trauma and forced assimilation, he said in a phone interview on Aug. 31. Like residential schools across the nation, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Wrangell Institute separated Native children from their cultures and support networks before “Americanizing” them, a process which at many schools around the country involved mental, physical and sexual abuse.

The Wrangell Institute alienated LaBelle from his identity. “I was 8 years old when I went in and 18 when I went out the other end,” he said. “At the end of that 10 years, I didn’t really know who I was as a Native person. I knew everything else — American history, world history, English, English, English. But who is Jim LaBelle? What is his culture? What is his language?”

The federal residential school system lasted for more than 100 years and spanned 37 states, with 21 schools in Alaska alone, most operated by religious orders. Graves of American Indian children have been uncovered near many of the schools in the Lower 48, and a 2022 report by the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative anticipates discovering more burial sites as research continues.

No graves have been identified near the Wrangell Institute, which closed in 1975.

LaBelle speaks about his experiences as a boarding school survivor in confident, measured tones. But it wasn’t always that way. “I got all tied up in knots and couldn’t breathe,” he said, describing his early efforts to articulate his trauma. “I’d break down.”

Over time, recounting his experiences became easier, and LaBelle hopes that his commitment to storytelling will inspire others to share. “Talking is healing in itself,” he said.

He’s since shared his story with countless news outlets, some from countries as far away as Qatar, Greenland and Japan. He’s not surprised that his experiences with colonial oppression resonate with readers and listeners across the world. “It didn’t just happen to me,” he explained. “It happened to Aborigines in Australia, Māori in New Zealand. It’s really all over the bloody place.”

The messages he would like to send to the town of Wrangell center around healing, remembrance and acknowledgment. After seeking therapy, LaBelle has cultivated forgiveness for Institute staff, who he believes were indoctrinated by the government’s racist “kill the Indian, save the man” philosophy. “I can’t continue to harbor all this negative energy and hate toward institutions and people who contributed to my traumas,” he said.

LaBelle doesn’t want his remarks to be “all gloom and doom.” He’s quick with a joke — if Sharing Our Knowledge conference audiences are lucky, they might just get to hear his imitation of a Southern Baptist preacher. But despite his desire to “let the healing begin,” he is not sure how Wrangell will react to his story.

“A lot of people owed their careers to the Wrangell Institute,” he said, and not everyone wants to hear about the harm that was perpetrated there. Though he has no desire to “blame and shame,” he hopes that Wrangell residents, particularly representatives of local Christian denominations, will use Sharing Our Knowledge as an opportunity to listen and reflect.

LaBelle will never forget the past, but he views the movement to reclaim Native culture with excitement for the future. The language-learning resources, the culture camps, the resurgence of traditional dancing, singing, and drumming are all part of “the resilience (he) sees in our Indigenous people.”

Resilience is part of the theme for this week’s conference in Wrangell. An estimated 90 visitors, academics, organizers, historians and healers will come to town for the sessions. The annual event, which moves between Southeast communities, was canceled last year due to COVID. It is run by a Juneau-based nonprofit with committee members from throughout Southeast.

While the conference seeks to build a healthy future for Alaska Natives, it is also committed to reckoning with the region’s past. The conference opens with a welcoming ceremony at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Chief Shakes House.

Sessions start at 8 a.m. Thursday and run three full days and Sunday morning. Most events will be held at the Nolan Center. A trip to Anan is planned for Sunday.

For more information or to register, go to

And though conference organizers were unsure last week, it appears housing is settled for attendees. Thanks to the efforts of the Wrangell Cooperative Association housing committee consisting of Jana Wright, Brooke Leslie and Virginia Oliver, all of the conference’s out-of-town guests will have a place to stay as they share stories, watch informative presentations, and connect with one another during the event’s five-day run. Houses, churches, and rental properties around town have opened their doors to visitors.

Not all the conference’s registered guests have yet confirmed their housing with Wright, but if anyone shows up and needs somewhere to sleep, she has a variety of options “on standby.” For housing questions, contact Wright at 907-470-1011.


Reader Comments(0)