By Melinda Munson
As the Civic Affairs Committee discusses a proposed resolution to divide Garden City RV Park into lots to be sold for affordable housing, the Skagway Traditional Council (STC) made two recommendations regarding the RV park, the former location of St. Pius X Mission, a residential boarding school primarily for Native youth.
In the Sept. 9 letter addressed to the mayor and assembly, STC asked for an archeological assessment of the land (Blocks 95 and 102) “including the use of ground penetrating radar” and that “a section of this property be gifted to STC for the purpose of acknowledgment of the school’s existence and its impact on the lives of the Indigenous People of Southeast Alaska.”
Sara Kinjo-Hischer, STC tribal administrator, confirmed the intent of the radar is to search for human remains.
“It would be a reassurance,” she said.
In the past year, the bodies of over 1,000 unidentified Native children have been found at residential Canadian boarding schools.
Skagway’s mission school, founded by Father Edgar Gallant, was in operation from 1933 to 1959. There is no record of exactly how many students attended. According to “Skagway, City of the New Century” by Jeff Brady, 65 students were enrolled in 1953, 22 of those were Skagway residents.
STC President Jame Bricker said students’ experiences varied.
“…I’ve talked to tribal members that have attended Pius X Mission and there’s good memories there, there’s good experiences there, and their stories aren’t mine to tell. But I also feel that I need to speak for my grandfather and my uncles who can’t tell us those stories any more, they’re gone — and just really acknowledge that no matter what their experience was at a boarding school, I can’t imagine that it is an experience that was better than they would have received with their mother.”
Bricker said she regretted not making a case for the land when the Catholic Church sold the lot to the municipality. She believes it’s possible the federal government helped the Catholic Church fund the original purchase of the property, but hasn’t found any proof.
“…that land, or at least a portion of it, should have been Skagway Traditional Council’s property, if it was funded for the intention of educating Indian children, then I believe the Native people in this valley should have had an interest in that land,” Bricker said.
“I’m not Tlingit. I’m not Tlingit because my grandfather was relocated here,” she continued. “He and his brothers were taken from his mother and sister in Kodiak, and they were brought here for the purpose of eradicating a culture and creating one that supported ways that aren’t theirs. And I know nothing about my heritage — and it’s part of the reason I’m so passionate about trying to conserve what we know of, and what we have of Tlingit language, art and culture from my Tlingit brothers and sisters in this traditional valley.”
Kinjo-Hishcher hopes an archaeological assessment will turn up “something that might tell the story of the piece of land.” She pointed out that many of the students who attended the school were young, and that while the community needs to be educated about the residential school, the tribe is still collecting information and “educating ourselves.”
Bricker feels that now is the time for that education and reflection.
“The Pius X Mission is history in Skagway that goes largely unrecognized, and with the realization by our federal government that perhaps boarding schools were a mistake, I think it’s important that we locally reflect on that too,” said Bricker. “At what cost did we do this to people? I think about my grandmother saying goodbye to her three sons and I can’t imagine that as a mother.”
The discussion of Garden City RV Park and the Pius X Mission comes at a time when Skagway is experiencing a chronic housing shortage, and wondering where to put independent travellers and seasonal workers, many of whom utilize RVs.
Kinjo-Hischer said the tribe didn’t discuss the community’s reaction to their request.
“We thought about what would be the right thing to do,” Kinjo-Hischer said.
Assemblymembers Reba Hylton and Deb Potter expressed support for STC’s request at the Sept. 16 meeting. Asemblymember Jay Burnham voiced similar approval at the Sept. 20 candidate forum.
“I believe both recommendations have merit,” said Assemblymember Sam Bass, sponsor of the resolution to divide and sell Garden City.
Bass said he began drafting a resolution to direct the municipality to find a contractor to conduct an archaeological assessment. He also “requested information from the STC asking what amount of property, or action might be considered an appropriate gift to acknowledge the school’s existence and its impacts.”