Sitka elder calls on Haaland to investigate deaths of Alaska Native children at Outside institutions

Bob Sam
Bob Sam addresses Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Assistant Secretary Bryan Newland at the Alaska Native Heritage Center on Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska will now be a part of the oral histories that U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland collected following her visit to Anchorage for the Alaska Federation of Natives convention. It was the 10th stop on her Road to Healing Tour, a series of listening sessions to document the abuse Alaska Native children suffered at government boarding schools.

Haaland told a Sunday gathering at the raising of a healing totem pole outside the Alaska Native Heritage Center that it’s important to hear from survivors and their families, to better understand how to end the cycle of trauma that has been passed down through the generations.

Bob Sam, a Lingít elder from Sitka, was among those who stepped up to speak. Sam asked her to dig deeper.

“My Lingít name is Shaagunastaa,” Sam said. “Shaagunastaa roughly translates to the man who taught human beings to respect the dead. It’s a very old name.”

And out of respect for the dead, Bob Sam called for a full accounting of what happened to Alaska Native children who were sent to schools out of state, where many died.

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 how to lift the Totem Pole on Sunday, Oct 22, 2023. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

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

He says the remains of these children need to be returned to their families, so they can heal. Sam also says the Interior Department’s investigation needs to cast a wider net — to include institutions like the Morningside mental hospital in Portland, Oregon.

Before statehood and into the early 1960s, children with physical and intellectual disabilities were sent to the asylum. Many never returned. Some died.

“This gets even deeper,” Sam said. “You know how Morningside was funded — the Department of Interior.”

a boarding school
A women’s ward at the Morningside Hospital in Portland, Ore., with an archival caption attached. (Courtesy Lost Alaskans Project)

Sam told the secretary there was also an orphanage called Baby Louise Haven in nearby Salem, where Alaska Native babies and toddlers died. It was also funded by the federal government.

“I think it’s critically important for us to know this history,” said Niesje Steinkruger, a former Fairbanks judge, who came out of retirement to launch the Lost Alaskans Project.

Steinkruger says it’s important to know the history, to prevent the mistakes of the past from re-occurring. That’s why she and other volunteer researchers have combed court records at the State Archives in Juneau to find out what happened to Alaskans who were sent to Morningside and Baby Louise Haven. Steinkruger agrees with Bob Sam, that families deserve answers.

“We know that there were at least 1,500 Alaskans that died at Morningside Hospital and never came home to Alaska,” Steinkruger said.

These deaths involved mostly adults, both white and Alaska Native, but Steinkruger says most of the children, based on archival photographs, appear to be Native.

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)

She says one photo stands out — a picture of a group of children outdoors. There are hand-typed words in the left-hand corner that read, “Alaska defectives, happily in the mild climate at Morningside.”

Steinkruger says she also came across some disturbing correspondence between staff at Baby Louise Haven and the state of Alaska.

“I just remember this one letter asking about up to what age child they would take,” Steinkruger said. “Well, the children had to be under four feet, because the enclosed cribs, as they call them, which is like a crib cage — (so) a child could not be longer than four feet to fit in there.”

Steinkruger says, based on records of family names, most of the children at Baby Louise Haven were Alaska Native. She says the government entities that took charge of these children have a responsibility to help their families.

“Find their remains,” she said. “And bring the remains back to Alaska for their families.”

Steinkruger acknowledges that it would be a costly process to repatriate the remains, but says it’s the right thing to do.

As for Bob Sam, he’s planning a trip to Portland soon to visit the graves of the children who died at Morningside. He says he will drink tea, talk to them and sing songs in the Lingít language.

“Let’s be the best of who we are,” Sam said. “And let’s bring our children home.”

And that, says Sam, is the first step on the road to healing.

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