Historian assembles 40 years of stories from Wrangell Institute

Award-winning historian Ronan Rooney’s latest project is filling up a new webpage with interviews, photos, government and university reports — even the student newspaper and yearbooks — remembering the Wrangell Institute Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school.

Rooney started his “Wrangell History Unlocked” podcasts in 2020, recalling shipwrecks, the Stikine River route to the Klondike gold rush of 1898 and environmental advocate John Muir’s life and famous story about building a fire in 1879 atop what is now called Mount Dewey.

“The Wrangell Institute was always on my list,” he said in an interview last week. “This is my one super-person power in the world, I can find Wrangell history.”

The school shut down in 1975, 10 years before Rooney was born, though he admits sneaking inside the closed buildings as a high school student. He left Wrangell for college in 2003, but never lost his interest in the community.

“The Institute was once the point of pride in Wrangell,” he said. “The Institute was not an island, it was part of Wrangell.”

He acknowledged, however, that a cloud hangs over the school’s history and its treatment of Native students, particularly as the country learns more about the past of mistreatment of American Indian and Alaska Native children at boarding schools run by the federal government and religious orders.

Several thousand students over more than four decades from across Alaska were sent to the Wrangell Institute, which operated from 1932 to 1975 on a 134-acre campus of dormitories, classrooms, a gym and other buildings upland of Shoemaker Bay.

Many former students have said they were treated poorly and forced to stop speaking their Native languages at the school. The historical reports and videos on Rooney’s website tell the stories, often in the voices of the former students.

The website also includes links to a three-part 2003 series by Anchorage TV station KTUU, “Wrangell Institute: Legacy of Shame,” which won a national journalism award for its reporting of incidents of verbal and sexual abuse at the school.

In addition to the easily discovered reports, such as the KTUU series, Rooney said he “dug through old BIA reports and old newspaper articles” to assemble the history-focused compilation.

“As I am learning stuff, I want to be sharing with people,” he said of the website, which is available at wrangellhistoryunlocked.com.

The site includes scanned copies of 15 yearbooks from the school, and he is hoping people with the missing years will contact him and add their books to the digital history. The Irene Ingle Public Library scanned the copies it had on its shelves to start the collection.

The webpage also includes copies of the student newspaper from several years in the 1960s.

Rooney is asking the public to help with his research. “There’s still a lot we don't have online. If you have anything that you’d be willing to share online, please send me a message.”

Anyone with material to share can email him at wrangellpod@gmail.com.

He does not accept advertising for his website or podcast, which started as an indoor project during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s become a great way to connect with people in Wrangell, said Rooney, who works as a software developer in Wilsonville, Oregon, just south of Portland.

The federal government gave the school property to the Wrangell municipal government in 1996. The borough is planning to sell lots next year in the first phase of the Alder Top Village (Keishangita.’aan) residential subdivision.

 

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