Boarding school panelists talk of maintaining cultural strengths

Last Saturday at the Sharing Our Knowledge Conference, a “Break the Silence” panel discussion highlighted a wide range of perspectives on and experiences with Alaska Native boarding schools.

Some panelists identified with the term “boarding school survivor;” others did not. Some lost their language while attending a church- or government-run institution; others did not. Even the act of recounting boarding school experiences, while healing for some, was exhausting for others.

“We have different experiences. We’re different people,” said panelist Barbara Hobbis, of the Teslin Tlingit Council in Canada’s Yukon Territory. “We come together on where we are today and where we’d like to go.”

Hobbis expressed the desire to move on from past traumas, and her remarks focused on the future of Alaska Native culture and education, rather than her personal experiences at boarding school. “We’ve been traumatized enough,” she told the Nolan Center audience. “We do not want to go back and regurgitate all those stories.”

Hobbis also stressed the importance of culturally informed education, which she uses in her classroom as a curriculum developer for the Yukon government. Alaska Native and First Nations children should be taught to be proud of who they are, she explained, and described how she used snowshoe-making activities to teach students both science and spirituality.

Panelist Sophie Jenkins, a social worker with the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., spoke about the importance of education within the family. Families, she suggested, need to prepare their children for life’s challenges, particularly mental health struggles such as depression. Members of her family were instrumental in getting an alcohol treatment center opened in Bethel.

“My ancestors are very strong people, I believe them now,” she said, and wants to assure that “our grandchildren take after us.”

Panelist Bob Sam, a tribal council member of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, closed the discussion with a message that expressed both great joy and deep sorrow. Sam has dedicated his life to conserving and restoring Alaska Native cemeteries. His mission is to return the bodies of children who died in boarding schools to their lineal descendants.

“Many of these children died 100 years ago,” he said. “But to our people here in Alaska, 100 years ago is just like yesterday.”

Because of the massive scope of his project, Sam recognizes the need for a collective effort. He plans to teach his nephew about his work and encouraged the audience members and community to get involved. “It’s together that we’re going to bring them home,” he said. “No one person can hold this pain.”

Sam also shared the excitement he feels seeing the recent “renaissance” of Tlingit language, culture and education. For him, the value of young people learning their language and traditions is immeasurable — “there’s no money you can put on that,” he said.

At the conclusion of the discussion, buses transported the speakers and audience to Shoemaker Bay, near the site of the former Wrangell Institute, for a healing ceremony. The federally operated boarding school operated 1932 to 1975. The borough now owns the property.


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