Haaland leads historic day of healing at totem raising for Alaska boarding school survivors

A group of people lift a totem pole
Participants helped to lift the newly crafted totem pole for the Alaska Native Heritage Center’s Healing Garden in Anchorage. Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Sunday was an emotional day at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, where U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland spent the day listening to survivors of Alaska Native boarding schools share their stories about the abuse they suffered at government employees’ hands.

Haaland also helped to raise a healing totem pole made by two Haida brothers, master carvers Gidaawaan Joe Young and Sgwaayaans TJ Young.

The totem is the first in the nation dedicated to boarding school survivors and their families. The raising of the totem followed hours of painful testimony.

Haaland began with a greeting in her Kares language, spoken by the Pueblo people of New Mexico.

“Guw’aadzi haupa,” said Haaland, who told the gathering her name in Keres is Crushed Turquoise.

Deb Haaland
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland brushes a healing totem pole for Alaska Native boarding school survivors with a bough of cedar to bless it. (Rhonda McBride/KNBA)

She explained how her family’s knowledge of their language fractured, after a priest took her grandmother away at the age of 8 on a train to a Catholic boarding school. There, she was punished for speaking Keres and quit using it, so it wasn’t passed on. Today, Haaland says she understands some of the language but can’t speak it.

“This is the first time in history that a United States cabinet secretary comes to the table with the same trauma that all of you have,” Haaland said. “I want you all to know that I’m with you on this journey. I will listen, I will grieve with you. I will weep and I will feel your pain.”

This is the 10th stop on the secretary’s Road to Healing Tour. As she travels across the country, Haaland hopes to create a permanent oral history of boarding school abuse. But more importantly, she wants to develop programs to help survivors and their families.

Alaska had 21 Native boarding schools, and they have touched almost every Alaska Native.

Jim LaBelle, president of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, is one of them.

“Many of these kids were as young as 5 years old,” LaBelle said.

two boys
Jim and Kermit LaBelle, shortly before they were sent to the Wrangell Institute. (Courtesy Jim LaBelle)

LaBelle was only 8 years old when the government took him away from his mother, along with his younger brother Kermit.

When they were sent to the Wrangell Institute in 1955, LaBelle was bilingual.

“I quickly shut down my Inupiaq side, because I saw so many of my (fellow) students beaten in so many different ways,” he said.

There was the gauntlet, in which a naked child would be forced to run past a row of kids, who lined up to strike them with their belts – and if they didn’t hit hard enough, they would be punished too.

“We just didn’t do it once. We did it many times,” he said. “And a lot of times that drew blood on our bodies.”

LaBelle also described how dormitory matrons used a paddle known as a cat of nine tails. It had holes that would leave blood blisters. There were also shaming tactics. When children were caught speaking their Native language, they were forced to wear cone-shaped hats, labeled in big letters with the word “Dunce.”

But LaBelle said that wasn’t the worst of it.

“Matrons were sodomizing boys in their beds or in the bathroom,” he said. “We saw girls going home in the middle of the school year, pregnant.”

a couple
Jim LaBelle and his wife, Susan (far left), watching as the totem pole is prepared to be raised. (Rhonda McBride/KNBA)

LaBelle said some were as young as 11 and 12. And because Wrangell was a small campus, the kids knew what was going on but never told anyone — secrets which darkened the rest of their lives.

Even 20 years ago, LaBelle said, people didn’t see the relationship between boarding schools and trauma. After years of therapy, he decided to share his story, to help people like Martha Senungetuk connect the dots.

“A lot of trauma is carried on from one generation to the next,” said Senungetuk, who is of Aleut and Russian heritage. “That’s what happened in my family.”

And yet, Senugetuk said this was never talked about in her family.

“Some people became alcoholics. There was domestic violence in the family,” Senungetuk said. “And not knowing how to raise your children, because no one ever taught you. Grandma didn’t know how to raise children in a boarding school.”

A volunteer from The Alaska Native Heritage Center instructs how to lift the Totem Pole on Sunday, Oct 22, 2023. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)
A volunteer from the Alaska Native Heritage Center instructs people on how to lift the totem pole. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Bob Sam, a Lingít from Sitka, told Haaland that the Interior Department’s investigation needs to expand beyond schools, but also to institutions like the Morningside mental asylum in Portland, Oregon.

Sam said Alaska Native children who were born with birth defects and intellectual disabilities were sent to Morningside, labeled as “defective children.” Many died.

“Every single boarding school child that has died, their last thought was, ‘I want to come home,” Sam said.

a boarding school
An archival photo of Alaska Native children at the Morningside Hospital in Portland, Ore. A printed caption at upper left refers to the children as “Alaska defectives.” (Courtesy Lost Alaskans Project)

Sam said these deaths need to be accounted for, to grasp the depth and breadth of the trauma.

“Every single one of us has somebody out there,” Sam said. “There is so much pain in our soul, many of us even forgot where this pain came from.”

an elder
Bob Sam, a Sitka Lingít elder, watches the totem as it’s positioned in place. (Rhonda McBride/KNBA)

The boarding school testimony was followed by an indoor ceremony to prepare people for the totem pole’s installation.

Just before sunset, the crowd moved outside, to watch the totem pole rise up. They found it laid out on the ground, the last chance to see its carvings up close, especially those at the top of the pole.

Jim LaBelle watched, standing beside his wife, Susan, who has been a steadfast supporter of his efforts to share his story, especially decades ago, when they were met with skepticism, even disbelief.

But now, he said, he feels a lot of strength and pride. He said he could feel a lot of healing, just standing there in front of the totem as it was being positioned into place.

It only took a few seconds for the totem to go up, as a crowd of more than 600 people cried out in joy and wonder.

LaBelle called it both a memorial and a remembrance.

“But I think it’s really a celebration,” he said, because it represents the power of people, standing up to tell their truth.

Alondra Sheakley keeps her sister Alaina Thomas warm at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage.. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)
Dancers from the Alaska Native Heritage Center bless a newly crafted totem pole. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)
A crew from the Alaska Native Heritage Center lifts the newly crafted totem pole. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)
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