Wrangell to inspect the site of a former residential school for Indigenous children
A government residential school for native children in Wrangell was one of the first of its kind in Alaska. Now there are plans to redevelop the site of the former facility of the Office of Indian Affairs which has been open for 43 years. But sensitivity to the legacy of abuse and trauma as well as recent findings of graves at Canadian residential schools have prompted local officials to exercise caution before opening the field.
Listen to this story:
After the Wrangell Institute closed in 1975, the old boarding school was used sporadically. He was transferred to the local government in Wrangell about 20 years later. There was some outside interest in using at least part of the site for another residential school, but nothing worked.
Now, the Wrangell assembly views it as land for new housing, with a plan to subdivide the 134-acre property into residential lots. One of the Wrangell Borough assembly members ran for re-election this year on a platform to develop and sell the former Wrangell Institute property.
But first, the city needs federal permits to fill in the wetlands. It applied earlier this year to the US Army Corps of Engineers after investing around $ 1.3 million for the redevelopment.
When the City and Borough of Wrangell applied in May for a wetland backfill permit to begin development of the residential school property, the Army Corps of Engineers said it was not aware of any cultural resources. on the site.
But days later, word broke of a gruesome discovery in Canada: the remains of more than 200 Indigenous children were found on the grounds of a former residential school in British Columbia. Over the next few weeks, thousands more bodies were found at the sites of former residential schools across Canada, shedding light on the country’s dark history of abuse of Indigenous peoples. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has documented more than 6,000 Indigenous child deaths in Canadian residential schools, but estimates that 15,000 to 25,000 Indigenous children may have died in schools.
Carol Rushmore, Wrangell’s director of economic development, said the discovery in Canada halted the process of redeveloping the Wrangell Institute property. This is in part because the US Army Corps of Engineers is taking a fresh look at former residential school sites in the United States. The former property of the Wrangell Institute among them.
“The permit was not issued due to cultural resource issues, possibly burials at the site,” Rushmore told KSTK in an interview.
US Home Secretary Deb Haaland, a registered citizen of Laguna Pueblo and first Native American cabinet secretary, has ordered a federal investigation into the suffering and burials at former BIA schools, with a report expected in April.
âThey are digging through the old archives, and a lot of files are in boxes, they are not scanned, they have to go through them by hand,â Rushmore said. âThere are issues with the requirements of the Privacy Act by reviewing some of these files. And they are trying to consult with the various tribes, including the WCA, to identify their concerns and information regarding this registration research.
While the federal investigation is more case-based, the Army Corps of Engineers and the State Office of Historic Preservation are looking to conduct field research in Wrangell.
âThey will both have their own requirements as to what the borough needs to do to ensure that there are no cultural resources on site,â Rushmore said.
Part of the job is cooperation with the Wrangell Tribal Government.
âWe are just happy to be able to work with the city on something of such critical importance and such a sad part of the history of our people,â said Wrangell Co-operative Association tribal administrator Esther Reese, whose the name LingÃt is AxÌ±seen. âSo it’s very fitting that the city is working with the tribe on this. “
Reese said the Town and Borough of Wrangell had kept the tribe informed of developments on the property. Earlier this year, the city was considering possibly using ground-penetrating radar to survey the site.
âBecause the ground is somewhat uneven, they were looking to bring in dogs that would help with a search, as it looked like radar technology would be more difficult due to the topography,â Reese said.
In September, Rushmore reported to the borough assembly that the town was drafting a letter to tribal entities and indigenous societies in the state, informing them of Wrangell’s development plans and asking for their advice.
With those comments, Reese said, the Wrangell Tribe begins work on the design of a memorial for Indigenous children from across the state who attended the Wrangell Institute.
“What the tribe is considering is a consultation with the affected tribes, then the construction of a memorial kiosk in honor of all the tribes who attended the Institute, then a healing ceremony,” said Reese.
Rushmore said the Borough is still trying to contact the tribes and determine how to conduct a ground search of the property, but nothing is set in stone yet.
Located at a LingÃt site known as Keishangita.’aan, or Alder Top Village, the Wrangell Institute opened in 1932. It was not affiliated with any particular religious denomination, although federal records show that the Catholic priest of Wrangell in the late 1930s became interested in the school and incorporated it into his parish.
Reese said the name of the site, Keishangita.’aan, was rediscovered by a tribal citizen in Professor Thomas Thornton of the University of Southeast Alaska’s âOur Grandparents on the Earthâ.
âWe made it known to the city because we can’t rename something that had already been named by our ancestors,â Reese said. “So that was the name the tribe brought to the city.”
The Wrangell Institute was one of some 20 Alaskan Native residential schools that operated throughout the 20th century. Its enrollment peaked in the mid-1960s with just over 260 students aged 5 to 15.
The residential school housed more than native children. During World War II, in the summer of 1942, the UnangaxÌ who were forcibly displaced from their homes remained in tents on the grounds of the Institute.
Individual and state-collected records recall the intense physical, sexual and emotional abuse inflicted on students at Wrangell Institute. Students have been beaten for speaking their first language, survivors told KSTK in 2016.
So there is a lot of work – and healing – to be done before the property can be redeveloped, Reese said. In part, that means federal and state investigations.
Reese said the borough is expected to launch a request for proposal for ground surveys soon, possibly with the help of federal funding.
The borough and tribe said they will also continue to gather feedback from tribes and indigenous organizations in the state whose children have been sent to the Wrangell Institute, hoping to gather comments and stories. for a memorial that will speak about its history before the soil is reused for the future.
[Sign up for Alaska Public Mediaâs daily newsletter to get our top stories delivered to your inbox.]