Alaska Native remains repatriated from Oregon asylum but many Lost Alaskans still buried

Lifelong cemetery caretaker Bob Sam (left), a Tlingit elder from Sitka, and his daughter Birdie Sam (right) at a March 9 ceremony to honor the souls of hundreds of Alaska Native people who died at a government-funded asylum throughout the 1900s. (Jenna Kunze/Native News Online)

In Alaska’s days as a territory, thousands of Alaskans were convicted of being mentally ill and sent to psychiatric hospitals in the Lower 48.

They included a disproportionate number of Alaska Native people, and in many cases, their families never saw them again.

Patients who died at the asylums, like Morningside Hospital in Portland, were often buried there, forgotten about and never returned home. They’re called the Lost Alaskans.

Native News Online reporter Jenna Kunze recently wrote about the continuing efforts to identify and repatriate the Lost Alaskans’ remains back home. And, so far, Kunze says, those efforts have been almost entirely driven by volunteers, tribes and family members.


[Sign up for Alaska Public Media’s daily newsletter to get our top stories delivered to your inbox.]

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Jenna Kunze: Well, it’s not far removed from them. In some cases, this is their grandparents. These are their great uncles, you know, that their family lore goes, “Oh, Uncle George was sent out” — “was sent out” is the term. And that’s all that was known. That was the history that was passed down and passed down, and with the increased visibility of this Lost Alaskans Project and research into the records of what exactly happened at Morningside, what the treatment and mismanagement and abuse that happened there is coming to light, in addition to that is who is still buried there.

So a lot of families are just finding out, but some of them like Irene Dundas, this is the repatriation coordinator for the Ketchikan Indian Community, she had grown up with this family tale that her great-grandfather had been sent to to Morningside and nothing more was known. And it wasn’t until this Lost Alaskans Project started gaining traction and presenting — like they presented through Sealaska Heritage (Institute) a few years ago — that Irene and others were able to actually locate the gravesite of their relatives. And so to see a headstone that says the name of your great-grandfather, who you know, was sent out because he had dementia, it’s incredibly surreal and also motivating for people like Irene, specifically, who are in a position to bring their relatives home. And not just her great-grandfather, you know, this has spurred action within her tribe specifically. They’ve already started research and located dozens of other relatives that they’re now connecting to a history of land claim loss.

Casey Grove: Yeah, I thought that was a super interesting part of your story at Native News Online that there were these simultaneous, or near in time, deed transfers. Can you tell me more about that? What do we know about that at this point.

JK: Yeah, so what we know about that at this point is that this was prevalent throughout the history of Indian removal in the United States, like in Bryan Newland, Assistant Secretary of Interior’s federal Indian boarding school investigation, the top takeaway from that report, the Indian boarding school system worked with two goals in mind: to dispossessed Native people of their land while simultaneously stripping them of their culture.

And so it’s not a surprise. And this was before they had this researcher to look into it more for their tribe, but their suspicions were exactly correct. She already had readily available, these deeds and through the Lost Alaskans Project, was able to look through the names and match the names of people that both sold land — “sold land,” I’m using quotes — and were sent to Morningside. You know, they’re looking at this more critically and are looking at it from a historical lens or saying, “I wonder what would happen when we look at all of the records of who was sent there and what was lost and dispossessed as a result?”

CG: Well, speaking of that work, I mean, you mentioned there’s this volunteer effort and and some local tribal groups are working on this themselves. But is the federal government, are they involved in this effort?

JK: So there’s a forthcoming Volume Two of the federal Indian boarding school investigation that’s due out like at any moment and should come out. But what we know from Volume One that came out about a year and a half ago now, the federal government has undertaken this huge investigation to look into how many boarding schools it ran, how many children went through the boarding school system, how many died there and where they’re located. So that’s a pretty hefty task that they have on their hands. We know that there were more than 500 Indian boarding schools operated or paid for by the federal government throughout the 1970s.

So in that report, where they’re sort of delineating how many boarding schools there were and what the function was, they counted more than 1,000 institutions that fell outside of that definition, and included in that is what was insane asylums, sanatoriums, orphanages, day schools. And so Morningside is one of those institutions that the federal government is not looking into. But when I asked DOI, the Department of the Interior, specifically about if they have a number of how many psychiatric institutions treated Indigenous people through the DOI’s programming, they said that they don’t have that information currently. So what that tells me, what that tells us, is that they’re not looking into this right now. It’s outside the scope.

CG: And you’re talking about thousands of people just going into one institution.

JK: Exactly. Yeah. Exactly. And dying there. And … there are more than 200 unmarked graves associated with Morningside, but these, we’re mostly talking about marked graves, as well. So it’s really a Pandora’s box once you start unearthing a lot of these realities.

CG: There’s a part in your story that really struck me towards the end where the caretaker for the Morningside cemetery went to a different cemetery where some folks are buried in unmarked graves like that. And it was part of a private cemetery. It’s called Greenwood Hills, I guess. And it seemed like there was literally a difference between, you know, some graves there and these other graves, and can you describe that scene for me and, kind of, what you saw there?

JK: Yeah, so Eric Cordingley, who is the volunteer summer cemetery caretaker for the larger cemetery that has the majority of graves associated with Morningside, so he was walking around the bigger cemetery with me and Bob Sam. Bob Sam is a Tlingit elder from Sitka. He’s a repatriation guy and a cemetery guy, as he calls himself. And Bob specifically was looking for George Shakes, someone that his community wants to bring home. And Eric was like, “Oh, George Shakes isn’t here, he’s at this other cemetery, Greenwood, which is, you know, 10 minutes down the road.” And so we got in the car and drove to Greenwood.

From the outside, it looks like just another normal cemetery. You know, you can’t really see a difference, but Eric was walking us around through it and it’s like, completely maintained immaculately in what you can see and the headstones. And we get to this portion that’s completely overgrown. It looks like a forest within the side of the cemetery, sort of cordoned off and there are more than 200 people, Native and non-Native, from Morningside, Morningside patients that are buried here. They were just buried in unmarked graves and it’s been completely overgrown. And so the difference is distinct, to see this forest beside a perfectly maintained cemetery that otherwise has Portland residents in it.

Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him at Read more about Casey here

Previous articleAlaska News Nightly: Tuesday, April 9, 2024
Next articleCruise ship season begins in Juneau