In the summer of 2021, 215 feathers were placed on the lawn of Sitka’s former residential school, Sheldon Jackson, in remembrance of the 215 children whose remains were discovered at a former residential school in Canada (KCAW/Tash Kimmell)

The Sitka Assembly is throwing its support behind a senate bill to study the history and effects of residential boarding schools in the United States. 

Bill 2907  was introduced in the US Senate last fall, and is now being reviewed by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. If signed into law, it would establish a “Truth and Healing Commission” to investigate the impacts and ongoing effects of Indian Boarding School Policies in the US– policies that “stripped American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children of their Indigenous identities, beliefs, and languages to assimilate.”

“Sitka is a a unique place in Alaska, when it comes to the history of boarding schools,” said Kevin Knox, who co-sponsored the resolution with Rebecca Himschoot. “There are some things that came out of some of these schools that might have been positive for some people, but by and large, it was something that has hurt quite a few people, inter-generationally, historically traumatic, and being able to find that path of healing and reconcile is important.” 

The assembly resolution also invites the future commission to visit Sitka, which was the home of the first boarding school established by Americans in Alaska in 1878 by Presbyterian missionaries. The memo from the sponsors outlines some of the history of the Sitka Industrial and Training School, founded by Sheldon Jackson. Among other practices, the residential school advocated an English-only policy, which forbade the use of Indigenous languages and cultural practices and beliefs. 

Assembly member Crystal Duncan said the effects of residential school policies remain visible today:

“The truth is, we don’t have to look far to find primary sources,” Duncan said. “We’re the descendants of them. For me, I have my parents who both attended school here at Mt. Edgecumbe, and how they got there, we don’t go into detail, but we know it wasn’t all bad. We’re not saying that. But we know, more than not, folks had pretty difficult experiences as they went through the residential school system…This is an important conversation that needs to take place. And I say that because 10 years ago, we weren’t willing to have those conversations publicly.”

“It’s not very far removed. My grandfather was brought here from Kake and he never went back to Kake and went to Sheldon Jackson when it was a school,” said Rachel Roy during public comment. “There’s a lot of really raw real work that needs to be done.”

If established, the Truth and Healing Commission would also make recommendations on ways to protect unmarked graves, support repatriation, and identify the tribal nations from which children were taken. Additionally, the commission would work to discontinue the removal of Indigenous children from their families and tribal communities by state social service departments, foster care agencies, and adoption agencies.

The assembly unanimously passed the resolution in support of the bill, which remains in Senate committee for now, with its first hearing held late last month. It has 24 co-sponsors, 23 are Democrats, and the twenty-fourth is Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski.