“Not Native Enough” and Other Lies of Colonization: The Boarding Era and Stolen Culture

Written by

Benjamin Jacuk

“You aren’t Native enough” is a phrase most Native peoples have heard throughout their lives, regardless of whether they grew up in the city, the reservation, or the village. A lie derived from those whose standards are not our own but who have the most to gain from our disappearance, from those whose only point of reference is either Pocahontas or a sports team mascot’s interpretation of Nativeness.

Five hundred years of colonization and cultural genocide have created a feeling of loss within our communities that makes this phrase, albeit a lie, continue to hurt our communities. We hold the knowledge that practices our ancestors followed since the beginning of time, making up their whole being, were systematically stripped from our peoples. A reality that makes many of us question whether the lie is true. The origin of this lie, for Alaska Native peoples, began with the boarding school era.

Alaska’s forgotten history of boarding schools starts in 1877 with Rev. Sheldon Jackson,[1] a Presbyterian missionary who labeled our cultures “pagan,” “heathen,” and “evil.” It was, therefore, his mission to exterminate the practice of our cultures at all costs. While we can usually assume this practice to be symptomatic of nationalistic Christianity, it was far more insidious—our cultures not only were considered an evil to be extinguished, but also a threat to American exceptionalism and expansion itself.

In 1880, Jackson gathered the heads of various Protestant missions societies, later including the Roman Catholic Church, to split up Alaska so that each denomination would have a region for creating assimilative boarding schools—an agreement which would later be known as the Comity Plan. Recent research done through Lach’qu Sukdu (True Story in Dena’ina Athabascan), the Alaska Native Heritage Center’s research program, where I am the lead researcher, has shown that the real reason for the ecclesial carving up of the region was for personal financial profit, as Jackson and his colleagues understood the amount of money to be made in the territory. The only way for these groups to gain access to the wealth was to eliminate its Indigenous peoples. The disappearance occurred via forced assimilation through boarding schools as per Jackson’s strategy.

For the next one hundred years, Alaska Native children were forcibly removed from their families and communities. This was an act of cultural genocide, a colonial project many children did not survive, and those who did were left with a significant portion of their identity stolen. Methodist Comity Plan member John Reid said, “It is simply a matter of dollars and cents, it is cheaper to convert the Indian, than it is to shoot him.”[2]

While Jackson’s goal was the destruction of our cultures, our supposed “depraved nature,” he also sought to make a profit by robbing Native graves of sacred items to sell to the highest bidders. Jackson would later go on to have children as young as five years of age create art meant to represent the caricatures of cultures, devoid of meaning. These pieces would then be used to show funders what he was “saving” us from. In my first semester of graduate school on the East Coast, I saw one of these items on display in the campus library—a small totem pole. I remember thinking it was something an eight-year-old created. It was an odd thing to see on display in a library so far from home. After doing a little research, I realized this was something a young member of my own family could have been forced to make in boarding school. One of my own grandparents, aunts, or uncles making this represents a story never uttered by our elders; that walked with me. Even so far from home. Many of these items, both those created by children for monetary gain and those stolen from the graves of our ancestors, are still located in repositories and private collections over one hundred years after they were stolen from our communities.

While this history is something our elders rarely talked about due to how hard it was, there is much healing to be done in our communities; there is not a Native family in Alaska that has not been and does not continue to be impacted by this history. Nevertheless, healing can only come when we know the full truth. While this is an important history to uncover, it is also important to not define our elders, our peoples, by the colonial project they as children could not control or resist without being killed. This story is a balancing act—showing the true effects of the boarding schools while also not portraying our elders and ancestors solely through the lens of colonialism. This is the vision of Lach’qu Sukdu’s ability to tell the truth in a way that respects our elders and reality, and it is oriented toward healing and liberation of all Indigenous peoples, not just that of Alaska Natives.

A part of telling this history is uncovering that which is meant to be forgotten: primary source information from the assimilative boarding schools in Alaska. Through our efforts, we found numerous repositories that have shaped the truthful narrative of the boarding schools in Alaska. While gaining access to these repositories, something else was uncovered—culturally significant Alaska Native pieces. Items, which were either grave robbed or made by children, that were meant to be sold for a profit. There were other pieces for ceremonial use that had a different story. These items were not taken for museums or to be sold. In fact, many of these items came from villages hit hardest by the forced assimilation of Jackson’s boarding schools. We realized that the teachers and missionaries stole these precious cultural items just to have a cultural trophy, a trophy taken to remind these colonial harbingers of the cultures they thought they had successfully extinguished. Many were the last items of their kind, stolen by those they thought to have conquered for personal wealth, never to be returned to the Indigenous communities. Nevertheless, through Alaska Native Heritage Center’s efforts, these items are finally returning home—not to sit on a shelf lifeless but to be revived and practiced again by their communities of origin. We showed an elder one of these items and, with tears rolling down her cheek, she told me that even her elders barely remembered these items that she thought were gone forever. Crying tears of joy that our ancestors, through the workings of Creator, are teaching us what was once thought to be lost. More importantly, it is our ancestors in the face of continued oppression who are reminding us of our worth as Alaska Natives, a reminder that we are never alone, that they are always walking alongside us.

Our communities recovered the pieces that were stolen for the gaze of oppression, to be used as trophies both physically and figuratively, enabling us to access knowledge that was meant to be lost by colonialism. The stitching found in some of these items, the carving marks, is our elders teaching us how to do these things again. Things that were stolen, things that were never meant to come back, are. Once trophies of colonization, once meant to be looked upon by the thieves of generations, they are coming back to tell a history defined not by trauma and violence, but purpose and healing. To tell us that we are more than enough.

[1] Jackson later became the territory’s secretary of education.

[2] Sheldon Jackson, Sheldon Jackson Papers, Series V: Scrapbooks, 1875–1884, Presbyterian Historical Society, 10.

Benjamin Jacuk

Alaska

Benjamin Jacuk-Dolchok (Dena’ina Athabascan, Sugpiaq) is the Unguwat Program Manager and Indigenous Researcher at the Alaska Native Heritage Center, Anchorage. Jacuk became the first Alaska Native to speak at a WCC assembly, as he did at the recent 2022 Assembly in Karlsruhe, Germany speaking out against the church-run Boarding Schools, Doctrine of Discovery, and ecological matters. Jacuk’s main focus in his current work is research into boarding schools in Alaska. A specialist in this research, he also acknowledges its very personal nature for him, as his grandfather attended boarding schools growing up. Jacuk, an enrolled member of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, said his mother reinforced Alaska Native values in him. Jacuk went on to master’s degrees from Princeton Seminary (M.Div. and Th.M.). He was just the second Alaska Native or American Indian person to graduate from Princeton Seminary. Ben has worked with the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and he helped edit the apology the Presbyterian Church made at the 2016 Alaska Federation of Natives Annual Convention for its past treatment of Alaska Native people, and especially for abuses in boarding schools. Benjamin Jacuk was recently announced as the winner of the 2022 Alaska Young Professional of the Year award. Benjamin is married to Keilina Jacuk and now resides in Anchorage, AK.