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Surprising histories of missionary schools

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Students from the Sheldon Jackson choir on a visit performing in Seattle. (Photo credit: Alaska State Historical Collections: Sheldon Jackson Archives)

An oral history study of the former Sheldon Jackson School in Sitka is showing that many students thrived in the institution’s strict, missionary environment.

This is in contrast to widely-held views that missionary schools served only to break Alaska Native traditions, culture, and language.

While that negative reputation is sometimes well-deserved, Sitka artist Rebecca Poulson is learning that Sheldon Jackson had an upside for many Alaska Natives that is not well understood.

“In a way, it’s like not PC to say, ‘I went to a mission high school, and it was fun!”

Poulson is an artist who lives in Sitka and grew up here. For the past year she’s been recording interviews of students and faculty who went to Sheldon Jackson, for an oral history project about the school. The Alaska Humanities Forum is funding her work.

At her house, Poulson has a stack of large black and white photographs. They’re dated from the early 1900s to 1950s and are pictures of Native American students and white teachers at the school.

In one picture a class of girls is lined up on the front lawn holding up barbells for a PE class. In another, a bunch of boys are hovering intently over glass beakers in chemistry class. In some of the pictures they look like they’re having a lot of fun.

“I guess that’s been the most surprising thing: the amount of love for this place, even though everyone suffered to some extent.”

For Poulson, it’s that contradiction that really makes this history interesting and worth understanding. She says these interviews have been a way to see through some of the stereotypes of missionary schools, whether they’re positive or negative.

“That’s the caveat with Sheldon Jackson, it was a mission school and that’s a really heavy, complicated area because education is empowering but having your culture taken away or ignored, is devastating. And you can’t separate those two things. But the people we were interviewing got a lot out of the school.”

After I visited Poulson, she gave me some of the recordings that she’s done so far, so I could listen to them. This is an interview with Fred Hope who was a student there in 1950.

“Sheldon Jackson’s been good to me,” Hope explained, “I learned a lot of things that I would never have learned if I went somewhere else. After we’d been here for a while we weren’t afraid of people, we just talked to everybody.”

Rachel James, another former student from 1950, said this:

“After leaving school we just knew people from all over the state. And its really great when we travel; we look up old friends and a lot of time just run into them whatever we’re doing.”

Poulson says it’s not a surprise that most of the interviews she’s done have been positive, since the people who had good experiences are probably more likely to want to talk about them.

“That’s just the reality the people we’re talking to don’t have much bad to say about Sheldon Jackson. So that’s something to keep in mind because it wasn’t perfect.”

Sheldon Jackson School was established in the early 1900s, by Presbyterian missionaries and over time it was a high school and later college. It closed in 2007 after going through a series of financial hardships. At that point the trustees gave the campus to Alaska Arts Southeast, which runs the Sitka Fine Arts Camp.

Poulson and her contributing partner, Alice Smith, are continuing to gather oral histories of graduates and teachers at Sheldon Jackson. She’s looking for histories to reflect the full experiences of the school – both positive and negative. Her project will also include video recordings and a written narrative. Still, she describes it as a “partial history.” Its complex she says, and is a story that she’s piecing together through the living memories of those who are still around.

If you’d like to contact Rebecca Poulson to be interviewed, she can be reached at 747-3448.

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