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Quakers formally apologize to Alaska Native communities for residential schools

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Quakers formally apologize to Alaska Native communities for residential schools

Oct 04, 2022 | 8:00 am ET
By Lisa Phu
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Quakers formally apologize to Alaska Native communities for residential schools
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Jan Bronson of Anchorage and Cathy Walling of Fairbanks, representing the Alaska Friends Conference, apologize to Alaska Native communities for the boarding schools it ran in Alaska and the United States. The apology took place at Sayéik Gastineau elementary school in Juneau, the former site of a Quaker mission school, during Orange Shirt Day on Friday. (Photo by Lisa Phu/Alaska Beacon)

The Alaska Quakers apologized to Alaska Native communities for the boarding schools it ran in Alaska and the United States, which forcibly assimilated and abused Indigenous children, separated them from their families and caused intergenerational trauma.

In the 1800s and 1900s, the Quakers ran about 30 boarding schools for Native American and Alaska Native youth in the U.S. and its territories, including one in Alaska – the Douglas Island Friends Mission School in Juneau.

Members of the Alaska Friends Conference of the Religious Society of Friends formally read the apology out loud on Friday at the former site of the Quaker-established mission school, which is now Sayéik Gastineau elementary school. 

“The methods used in some of the Friends schools were harsh and often cruel. Alaska Native people have described to members of Alaska Friends Conference and other listeners what it was like for them or their relatives to go to a school where children were tortured and/or physically, sexually, emotionally, spiritually, or otherwise harmed,” the apology said.

“Punishment like this caused humiliation, shame and alienation. You, your ancestors, nor anyone else, deserves this kind of treatment. We are deeply sorry.”

Cathy Walling, a member of the Chena Ridge Friends Meeting in Fairbanks, and Jan Bronson, an Anchorage Quaker, traveled to Juneau to read the formal apology during an Orange Shirt Day event, a day of remembrance for what are known as Indian boarding schools in the U.S. and Canada.

The Douglas Island Friends Mission School, which was both a school and an orphanage, was established in 1888 by Quaker missionaries. In 1893, 26 Alaska Native children were in residence there, according to Walling. It operated until 1902.

Jamiann S’eiltin Hasselquist said the location of the Douglas Island Friends Mission School has a lot of significance. Hasselquist is vice president of Alaska Native Sisterhood Camp 2 in Juneau, which helped organize the Orange Shirt Day event. Present-day Sayéik Gastineau elementary school was built upon a Native burial ground in the late 1950s.

Jamiann S’eiltin Hasselquist, vice president of Alaska Native Sisterhood Camp 2 in Juneau, and Jan Bronson hug after the apology at an Orange Shirt Day event at Sayéik Gastineau elementary school on Sept. 30, 2022.
Jamiann S’eiltin Hasselquist, vice president of Alaska Native Sisterhood Camp 2 in Juneau, and Jan Bronson hug after the apology at an Orange Shirt Day event at Sayéik Gastineau elementary school on Friday. (Photo by Lisa Phu/Alaska Beacon)

“We know about the remains that were disturbed several years ago and, historically, people have identified that area as a Native cemetery. I’m associating at least some of those resting places with the Douglas Island Friends Mission School,” Hasselquist said.

Burial sites have been found in dozens of Indian boarding schools across the country and in Canada.

Seikooni Fran Houston said it was emotional hearing the apology and she was touched. Houston is tribal spokesperson for the Áakʼw Ḵwáan people.

“It was a long time waiting. If only my ancestors and my grandparents, all of them could hear that. But I know they’re there. They’re here,” she said.

This is the first time she’s heard anyone apologize for the residential schools in Alaska. “I’m just glad it came out,” she said.

Reparations

In the apology, the Alaska Friends Conference acknowledged the mission school sought to assimilate Alaskan Native children and youth into white culture, punished kids for speaking their language, banned dancing and separated children from their birth culture.

“Once fractured, these ties are difficult and sometimes impossible to mend,” the apology said. 

The apology also acknowledges that the harms caused are cumulative and ongoing.

“We believe that there should be reparations and restitution for harms from the boarding school system. We will actively identify reparations we can make while also advocating for them in broader society,” the apology said.

At this point, though, it’s unclear what those reparations will be, according to Douglas Mertz, a member of the Juneau Friends Meeting of the Alaska Friends Conference.

“There’s a general consensus that another step has to happen. You don’t just say I’m sorry and then close the door. But what that step is, there’s got to be a lot more thought and work done on it,” Mertz said.

Hasselquist said she’d love to see a healing center built near Sandy Beach in Douglas, which is also where the City of Douglas in 1962 burned down the Douglas Indian Village.

“We’re telling our stories, we’re singing and dancing and learning our language. Where’s our facility to be able to do that? I think that would be the best – a healing center,” she said. “I think that’s a good start to some sort of reparation.”

It could also be a place where people can research their clan structure, reconnect with family members and repair family structures, learn clan songs and share clan stories.

“That would help repair so many disconnects that occurred through the harm,” Hasselquist said. 

Walling said the Alaska Friends Conference was inspired to apologize through its work and relationship with the First Alaskans Institute, which hosted truth and healing tribunals in the past few years and held a summit in February focused on the residential school experience.

Mertz said he hopes the Quakers’ apology will inspire other organizations to do the same.

“I think that churches and religious organizations nationwide should be re-examining their history and reevaluating what they did,” he said.