Mary Hunt, a survivor of Holy Cross Mission, holds flowers during an Orange Shirt Day ceremony at Ggugguyni T'uh, "Raven Place," outside the Dena'ina Wellness Center on Friday, Oct. 6, 2023 in Kenai, Alaska. Orange Shirt Day honors indigenous elders who survived and children lost from boarding schools established to detribalize indigenous people. (Ashlyn O'Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

‘You don’t understand unless you lived it’

On day of remebrance, two elders share stories of childhood in a boarding school

On a dreary Friday morning earlier this month in Kenai, a group of about 12 people huddled around a fire at Ggugguyni T’uh, or Raven Plaza, outside the Dena’ina Wellness Center. Some wore white and orange buttons, others held orange flowers or wore orange clothes.

Karen Trulove, a traditional healer at the Dena’ina Wellness Center, offered sage smudging for attendees, and read a prayer through tears.

“Today, we weep and pray for the sacred children whose bodies have been found, for the many children who remain lost, for those who survived and have carried the trauma,” Trulove read. “Together, we grieve for the families and communities who lost a child and carried throughout the generations a broken heart. Our tears flow like rivers that never stop, mourning the pain of the survivors.”

Attendees were there to observe Orange Shirt Day, also called the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Orange Shirt Day honors survivors and victims of the forced assimilation and cultural genocide that occurred at boarding schools for Indigenous children in Canada and the United States.

Orange Shirt Day takes its name from the story of Phyllis Webstad, who is Northern Secwpemc from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation and now lives in British Columbia. Per the Orange Shirt Society, which Webstad founded, Webstad’s grandmother gave her an orange shirt to wear on her first day at a mission school. The shirt was taken from her upon arrival at the mission and never returned.

“The color orange has always reminded me of that and how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing,” Webstad writes on the Orange Shirt Society website. “All of us little children were crying and no one cared.”

This year, observance of Orange Shirt Day comes as the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs works to fulfill the mission of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, which was launched in 2021 by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland.

As part of that initiative, the Bureau of Indian Affairs in May 2022 published a first-of-its-kind report that, summarizing the history of the United States’ dispossession and assimilation policies toward Indigenous communities, explains how boarding schools operated and recommends ways for the federal government to start the healing process caused by the federal boarding school system.

In all, the report found that the United States operated or supported 408 boarding schools across 37 states or territories between 1819 and 1969, including 21 in Alaska.

The same report identified at least 53 burial sites for children across the network of schools, with that number expected to increase as the department continues its research.

For the purposes of the investigation, the department defined Federal Indian boarding schools as those that provided on-site housing, that provided formal academic or vocational training, that received money or support from the federal government and that were operational prior to 1969.

The report found that the Federal Indian boarding school system “deployed systematic militarized and identity-alteration methodologies” in an attempt to assimilate Indigenous children, such as by renaming the children with English names, cutting children’s hair and discouraging or preventing the use of their native language, among others.

Further, the report summarizes the conclusions of what it calls the “watershed” Running Bear studies — the first medical studies to systematically and quantitatively study the impacts of childhood attendance at residential schools on physical health as adults.

Part II

Among the roughly 12 people who gathered around the fire at Ggugguyni T’uh during the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s remembrance ceremony were Mary Hunt and Mary Lou Bottorff. They both held orange flowers and wore orange clothing — Hunt’s peeking out from under her coat.

Hunt and Bottorff have known each other since childhood, when they were both residents at the Holy Cross Mission in Holy Cross, Alaska. Located on the Yukon River, the Holy Cross Mission operated as a boarding school and orphanage between 1888 and 1956. The community of Holy Cross has also been known as Koserefsky and Askhomute.

Bottorff arrived in Holy Cross from Nome in 1948, when she was 8 years old. She has a picture of her en route to the school taken as she was leaving Nome. The small black-and-white picture shows a smiling, curly-haired Mary Lou in pants and a zip-up hoodie sitting with a man on the edge of the boat.

“I remember getting seasick on the boat and them telling me if I didn’t quit being seasick, they were going to put me in a little rowboat and tow me behind,” she said.

Bottorff said her mom sent her to Holy Cross due to the prejudice she experienced by her stepfather, who rejected Mary Lou for having a white father. Bottorff said her mother was trying to protect her by sending her to Holy Cross, but that it actually made things worse.

“It was just a bad place,” Bottorff said.

Bottorff also remembers when Mary Hunt arrived at Holy Cross.

“She was so small,” Bottorff said of Hunt.

Hunt was born in Kotzebue and was sent by her dad to Holy Cross with her four brothers and sisters. After her mom left the family to escape abuse, Hunt said a neighbor reported their family to the Catholic church, which sent a priest to talk to Hunt’s dad.

“The priest talked to our dad and he said he’d take us off his hands,” Hunt said. “Dad said, ‘Go ahead,’ and so he got a pilot and flew all of us to Holy Cross.”

Her first memories of the school are of the dog team that took her family from the river to the school, and the “long white strips” the mission’s lights made on the snow. Hunt said she and her sister, who were often together because they were close in age, played in one room while her dad talked with the nuns. Then, her dad left.

“It took (my brother) a long time to convince me that he wasn’t coming back,” Hunt said. “Days turned into years.”

Hunt did see her dad again, after he was in a plane crash and at the hospital on Elmendorf Air Force Base, but she didn’t leave Alaska’s boarding school system until she was 18 years old.

Hunt said students’ day-to-day life included waking up early, going to Mass and doing different jobs depending on their age, such as sewing, collecting firewood and weeding. She said she also sometimes helped a student who had trouble seeing in the dark move between mission buildings.

They both remember there never being enough food — Bottorff described a nun soaking and then reusing a bacon rind to add flavor to a soup, being served leftover fish hearts and pretending to sleepwalk into the kitchen at night to find food.

“They gave us fish hearts because they didn’t want to give us the fish,” Bottorff said. “Because the fish was used for trading.”

Bottorff said students were assigned numbers — she was #32 — and weren’t permitted to speak to each other. She said she was frequently beaten — for speaking Inupiaq, for talking back, for being left-handed and, in one instance, for biting the thumb of a nun who tried to force-feed her.

“I remember getting beat because I spoke my Inupiaq language, and then plus I was left-handed — they beat me over to my right,” Bottorff said. “They just beat you just to beat you.”

Both also recalled pervasive sexual abuse of students by missionaries.

As reported by the Anchorage Daily News, Jesuits West in 2018 published the names of at least 33 of its Alaska clergy and volunteers who have been credibly accused of sexually abusing children. Of those, 16 spent time at Holy Cross Mission, including Father James Poole, who Bottorff said was known to have been abusing students.

Bottorff said she was sexually abused by a priest while at Holy Cross, but said she had to “keep silent about everything.”

“What do you do when you have nobody to tell?” she said.

Hunt said she also knew of sexual abuse taking place, and that law enforcement weren’t much help.

“Whenever the police showed up, the priest would stop him and say, ‘We’ll take care of it,’ and the cops would leave,” Hunt said. “I mean, they got away with everything.”

Hunt lived at Holy Cross Mission from when she was three years old until she eight, when she and other orphans at Holy Cross were moved to the Catholic-run Copper Valley School. Hunt lived at the Copper Valley School until she was 18, when she was told to leave.

“They said, ‘Pack your stuff and leave,’” Hunt remembers. “I’m looking at him like, ‘Why?’ ‘Because you’re not our responsibility anymore.’”

Hunt ended up in Anchorage, where she learned about things like utility payments and bank accounts from a friend. She got her GED and now works as an assistant at Alaska Christian College’s Learning Resource Center.

Bottorff said she didn’t recognize her mom when she returned to Nome after five years at Holy Cross. Because she wasn’t allowed to live in her family home, Bottorff said she worked as a babysitter for $20 per week plus room and board. She eventually stole money to buy a plane ticket to Fairbanks, then took the train to Nenana, where she had a godmother, then ended up in Anchorage.

Bottorff moved to Kenai in 1972, after the Kenai Native Association purchased Wildwood from the military and was hiring for counselor positions. She’s been here ever since.

Part III

Today, Bottorff and Hunt are both members of Trulove’s healing circle for survivors of residential boarding schools.

“I came to lunch one day, and she goes, ‘Were you at Holy Cross?’” Hunt said of Bottorff. “I hadn’t heard that name in, you know, 60-some years.”

Trulove said she was motivated to start the circle after seeing how lost the tribe’s un’ina — people coming to her for help — were.

“All of a sudden, I have elders that were coming to me, and they’re like, there’s something wrong, and I don’t know what,” Trulove said. “ … Then I started discovering that they were part of the boarding school survivors, and I’m just like, there’s so many of them. We need to start a healing circle.”

Trulove said there have always been healers in her family on her mom’s side, which is Dena’ina Athabascan. She worked as an emergency medical technician before becoming a community health aide, which allowed her to work in clinics in 17 villages around Alaska. Her grandmother is also a survivor of a boarding school, and had siblings and cousins that died in schools.

“Just being out in the villages and working with the elders and the youth and helping people on their healing journey, and connecting them back to our culture in Indigenous ways is so healing,” she said.

The traditional Indigenous practices Trulove said she does with tribal members involve connecting with nature, such as devil’s club, which she described as one of the tribe’s most sacred plants. Devil’s club salve, she said, is a huge hit with tribal elders. She also leads birch tapping classes and harvests local sage to use for prayer.

Hunt said that after leaving Holy Cross, it was important to her to reconnect with parts of her culture that she had lost. She learned how to make salmon strips, volunteered to help clean a seal using an ulu during a visit to Kotzebue and has kept up with sewing skills she said she learned at Holy Cross.

“It was tough, but I’m tough too,” she said of the school. “ … I purposely learned to go make Native things when I was on my own because you were forbidden to do that at the school.”

Bottorff said she bumped up against the legacy of the Jesuit influence while trying to trace her family history. Her grandfather was the first person in her family to have two names; he was originally known as Amarok, meaning “wolf,” because it’s said he once owned a pet wolf.

It was priests, Bottorff said, who imposed a two-name structure on her family; her grandfather eventually took the first name “Joseph,” and became Joseph Amarok. His brothers also took English first names, meaning they all had different last names.

“That’s why it’s hard to trace back, because five brothers will have five different last names,” she said. “‘Oh, that’s your brother? How come he has a different last name?’ Well, because that’s the way the English people want it to be at that time.”

Trulove said she finds elders wanting to share their story and reconnect with culture now that they are not shunned for doing so.

“Now that it’s OK and they find someone that they trust, then they start opening up because they want to tell their story before they die,” Trulove said. “They want to give their knowledge that it was always shunned to give. … Now a lot of them are stepping forward and they’re like, ‘No, my story needs to be heard,’ and I’m very honored that I’m sometimes that person that they want to tell it to.”

Bottorff said it’s important for people to know what Indigenous children endured in boarding schools, but said it’s impossible to really understand what happened if you didn’t experience it first hand.

“They should know everything that happened because, like I told you, you don’t understand unless you lived it,” Bottorff said. “All I can say is what I went through, what she went through, what those poor Canadian kids went through — they’re just finding out now the multitude of deaths in the mission schools in Canada. Now hopefully they’ll come to Alaska and do the same thing.”

As part of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, Secretary Haaland and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland are stopping in Anchorage later this month.

The visit, to be held on Oct. 22 at 10 a.m. in Anchorage, is just one stop in the department’s “The Road to Healing” tour, which is taking Haaland and Newland around the country to meet with survivors and descendants of the Federal Indian boarding school system.

More information about that tour and the second volume of work produced as part of the Federal Boarding School Initiative can be found on the Department of the Interior’s website on doi.gov.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Mary Hunt lived at Holy Cross Mission until she was 18 years old. Hunt lived at Holy Cross until she was eight years old and was then moved to the Copper Valley School, where she lived until she was 18.

Kenaitze Tribal Elder Sharon Isaak comforts boarding school survivor Mary Hunt while Traditional Healer Karen Trulove reads a prayer at Ggugguyni T'uh, "Raven Place," outside the Dena'ina Wellness Center on Friday, Oct. 6, 2023 in Kenai, Alaska. Orange Shirt Day honors indigenous elders who survived and children lost from boarding schools established to detribalize indigenous people. (Ashlyn O'Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Mary Lou Bottorff, a survivor of Holy Cross Mission, speaks about her experiences during an Orange Shirt Day ceremony at Ggugguyni T'uh, "Raven Place," outside the Dena'ina Wellness Center on Friday, Oct. 6, 2023 in Kenai, Alaska. Orange Shirt Day honors indigenous elders who survived and children lost from boarding schools established to detribalize indigenous people. (Ashlyn O'Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion
Mary Lou Bottorff, a survivor of Holy Cross Mission, holds a picture taken of her en route to the mission taken in Nome in 1948, when she was 8 years old, inside the Tyotkas Elder Center on Oct. 4 in Kenai.

Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion Mary Lou Bottorff, a survivor of Holy Cross Mission, holds a picture taken of her en route to the mission taken in Nome in 1948, when she was 8 years old, inside the Tyotkas Elder Center on Oct. 4 in Kenai.

Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion
Mary Lou Bottorff, a survivor of Holy Cross Mission, speaks about her experiences during an Orange Shirt Day ceremony at Ggugguyni T’uh, “Raven Place,” outside the Dena’ina Wellness Center on Oct. 6 in Kenai. Orange Shirt Day honors indigenous elders who survived and children lost from boarding schools established to detribalize indigenous people.

Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion Mary Lou Bottorff, a survivor of Holy Cross Mission, speaks about her experiences during an Orange Shirt Day ceremony at Ggugguyni T’uh, “Raven Place,” outside the Dena’ina Wellness Center on Oct. 6 in Kenai. Orange Shirt Day honors indigenous elders who survived and children lost from boarding schools established to detribalize indigenous people.

Mary Hunt, a survivor of Holy Cross Mission, holds flowers during an Orange Shirt Day ceremony at Ggugguyni T’uh, “Raven Place,” outside the Dena’ina Wellness Center on Oct. 6 in Kenai. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Mary Hunt, a survivor of Holy Cross Mission, holds flowers during an Orange Shirt Day ceremony at Ggugguyni T’uh, “Raven Place,” outside the Dena’ina Wellness Center on Oct. 6 in Kenai. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

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