Before my great-great aunt Hope ever set foot in the Philippines, she taught at a school in Alaska. I don’t know how she got there or why, but when I mention Hope’s name to family members on my dad’s side, this fact quickly enters the conversation. “She was a schoolteacher in Alaska!” I’ll admit, I am equally as fascinated. Alaska evokes the feeling of adventure and imagery of the northern lights, igloos, extreme weather, and survival in the wilderness. Growing up on a small farm in New Hampshire and venturing to Alaska as a young adult sounds alluring, inspiring, and thrilling! In the 1920s, having moved to Alaska (most likely alone) as a young women, immediately defines her as a fearless, adventurous, pioneer superstar. (At least in my mind.)
Since no one in my family knows about Hope’s life in Alaska, I’ve invented this image in my mind-- a young, adventurous teacher with an open-mind, willing to challenge herself to navigate the world in a new way. On the other hand, I fear that she could have been an ignorant white woman with a patriotic mission to colonize and whitewash Alaska’s indigenous youth.
So why did she go to Alaska? I’m not sure what prompted Hope to move to Alaska, but I want to believe that she moved there for the same reasons why I have moved to different countries around the world: to feel a sense of freedom in a land where no one knows my name, experience a different way of life, challenge myself, and learn from others.
I recently contacted a librarian in New Hampshire to help me find more information about Hope’s life. The librarian, Rebecca, sent me a plethora of information, including census records from New Hampshire and Alaska, a birth certificate, a certificate of her second marriage, an obituary, and more. Rebecca informed me that she could not find her original marriage certificate because she got married in Alaska in 1929-- thus strengthening my belief that she must have initially set out on a journey to Alaska alone!
On the 1929 Alaska census, Hope was 26 years old, living in Anchorage and married to George Miller, a mining engineer from Pennsylvania. I assume that she had arrived a couple years earlier, at the age of 23, 24 or 25. George was 32 in 1929 and had most likely gone to Alaska to strike gold, since the gold rush began in 1896.
In Hope’s obituary, I learned that she taught at the Eklutna Indian Vocational School. In 1924, the Bureau of Indian Affairs established this school for orphaned children affected by the 1918 Spanish Influenza Epidemic. This epidemic, brought to Alaska by steamships from Seattle and transported through rural villages by dogsled and mail carriers, affected the whole world, but Alaskans suffered more per capita than anywhere else, besides Samoa.
Eklutna School doubled as an orphanage and boarding school. Students were brought from around the territory to stay in a three-story dorm, complete with shops, a hospital and a gymnasium. A fish camp was built and maintained by the school to provide training in subsistence fishing and to help provide food for the children. Courses at the school were mainly vocational training classes. By 1930, 110 students were enrolled at the school, and it lasted for about 20 years.
I read a few studies that analyzed the effects that boarding schools had on Alaska Native kids. From the 1930s until the 1970s (perhaps even later), some families chose to send their kids to English-only boarding schools, with classes taught by white teachers from the lower 48 states. According to these studies, there’s mixed feelings from the participants. Thirty years later, some say that they greatly improved their ability to read and write, as well as other skills that they wouldn’t have developed in a local school. Others stated that they lost their cultural heritage and connection to their community. Unfortunately, there were certain boarding schools where some students suffered abuse, as well.
Interestingly, I’ve had this same conversation with several of my Nepali students who I recently taught at an American school in Kathmandu. Their parents wanted them to attend an English-speaking international school to be able to study at an American or European university, succeed in the world of international business, or develop skills and ideas that are valued in Western cultures. However, in the meantime, they are prevented from developing their mother tongue, connecting to their community-at-large and eventually, achieving greater success in Nepal if they choose to do so. (And some of my students who studied at boarding schools in India suffered abuse, as well.)
While researching Eklutna--both the school and the village--I came across some interviews with elders from the region. A tribal council and staff member named Maria Coleman, who identifies as being part of the Dena’ina ethnicity, shared some history about the Eklutna School:
Then came the boarding school era, a mixed period when some Native individuals got a useful education while others had extremely negative experiences. Alberta joined her voice to this discussion. “The Eklutna school was formerly the Tyonek orphanage,” she said. “It was moved over here in 1922 or ’23. The men in the village helped put the dormitories up, and then they were encouraged to marry the girls as soon as they were sixteen. And so a lot of the girls didn’t finish their education. They went as far as maybe eighth grade. And most of the men in the village didn’t go to the school at all; they just learned what they could from their wives.” Alberta also called out the school superintendent of the time for listing people as Aleuts instead of Dena’ina, encouraging students to marry young, and transferring tribal lands to non-Native interests. “They had a fishing site down by the river, they had farmland, they had chickens, they had a little infirmary where they taught the girls nursing and taking care of sick people. So it was an OK school where kids got a start.”
At the end of her interview, she shared some wisdom and values of her culture that resonated with me: “All we really have is today. No one is above or below. Ties are never severed. Listen to your Elders. Talk from your heart. Be thankful. Be quiet. Share. There are no goodbyes.” I decided to make a small illustration of her words along with the scene of the Eklutna Glacier.
I know that Hope taught elementary children in the Philippines (5th and 6th grade) so I assume she also taught younger children in New Hampshire and Alaska. It’s hard to say how she integrated into Alaskan culture—I’m guessing not very much, since students were required to speak English at the school, and multiculturalism wasn’t really valued in 1930. However, there’s a passage from Hope’s memoir that highlights her dedication towards her students all over the world. I truly believe she arrived in Alaska with the best intentions to offer support and love to orphaned children, and I can only hope that her students felt the same way.
In 1945, she wrote,
Years ago when I was working my first school, I copied in a black note book that I kept for poetry or quotations I liked, a chapter from “A Schoolmaster in the Great City” by Angelo Patri - the chapter, “The Children.” It was beautifully written and inspirational, but the real meaning came to me one afternoon at Santo Tomas, in the first weeks of internment - ‘You think that you have need of me? Know then, oh my children, that I have far more need of you. The burdens of men are heavy and you make them light. The feet of men know not where to go and you show them the way.’ So all my work in my years at Santo Tomas was with the children. I’m sure Hope had flaws like everyone else, and her decision to teach in Alaska might be controversial now, but at the time, I believe it wasn’t. Who’s to say how she influenced her students or how I influence mine.
Soon, I will be going to New Hampshire on a quest to uncover more clues about Hope’s past. I’ll be going to Kathmandu, an environment where I can work without distractions among people I love. I will be going to the Philippines (on an adventure to solve some mysteries!) and hopefully to Australia, to visit some dear friends. But now I’m tempted to go to Alaska, too...
100 years ago, Spanish flu devastated Alaska Native villages: https://www.peninsulaclarion.com/news/100-years-ago-spanish-flu-devastated-alaska-native-villages/
A History of Schooling for Alaska Native People: http://www.ankn.uaf.edu/curriculum/articles/CarolBarnhardt/HistoryofSchooling.html
One Day with the Elders on the Land: http://www.difficultdialoguesuaa.org/images/uploads/Chapter_4.pdf
Railroad station with crowd of people waiting near tracks, Anchorage, Alaska, between 1930 and 1936: https://digitalcollections.lib.washington.edu/digital/collection/alaskawcanada/id/6618/rec/1
School buildings, Eklutna Indian Vocational Industrial School, circa 1930-1936: https://.lib.washington.edu/digital/collection/alaskawcanada/id/6625/rec/1
Students of Eklutna Indian Vocational Industrial School in field near school buildings, circa 1930-1936: https://digitalcollections.lib.washington.edu/digital/collection/alaskawcanada/id/6624/rec/1
Thirty Years Later: The Long-Term Effect of Boarding Schools on Alaska Natives and their Communities: https://iseralaska.org/static/legacy_publication_links/boardingschoolfinal.pdf