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 and the recent findings of graves at residential schools have prompted local officials to exercise caution before starting.
After the Wrangell Institute closed in 1975, the old residential 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 members of the Wrangell Borough assembly ran for re-election this year on a platform to develop and sell the Institute’s former 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 former Wrangell Institute property, the Army Corps of Engineers said it was unaware of no cultural resources on the site.
But days later, news 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 would be found at the sites of former residential schools across Canada, highlighting 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 to 25,000 Indigenous children may have died in schools.
Wrangell’s Director of Economic Development Carol Rushmore said the discovery in Canada halted the process of redeveloping the Institute’s 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.
“They 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,” Rushmore said. “There are issues with the requirements of the privacy law 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 search for records. “
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.
“They will both have their own requirements as to what the borough needs to do to ensure that there are no cultural resources on site,” Rushmore said.
Cooperation with the Wrangell Tribal Government is integral to the task.
“We are just happy to be able to work with the city on something of such crucial importance and a sad part of the history of our people,” said Wrangell Co-operative Association tribal administrator Esther Reese. , whose Lingít name is Ax̱seen. “So it is very fitting that the city is working with the tribe on this. “
Reese says the Town and Borough of Wrangell have 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.
“Because 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,” 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 says the Wrangell Tribe is starting to work on a memorial design 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 says that at this point the Borough is still trying to contact the tribes and work out how to conduct a ground search of the property, but nothing is set in stone yet.
Located at a site in Lingít known as Keishangita.’aan, or Alder Top Village, the boarding school opened in 1932. It was not affiliated with any particular religious denomination, although federal records show the priest Wrangell Catholic in the late 1930s became interested in the school and incorporated it into his parish.
Reese says the name of the site, Keishangita.’aan, was rediscovered by a tribal citizen in Professor Thomas Thornton of the University of Southeast Alaska “Our Grandparents on Earth”.
“We let the city know that because we can’t rename something that had already been named by our ancestors,” Reese says. “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 five to 15.
The institute housed more than indigenous children. During World War II, in the summer of 1942, the Unangax̂ 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. In part, that means federal and state investigations. Reese, the tribal administrator, said the borough is expected to launch a request for proposals for ground studies 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.