Freedom of Religion Was Already Destroyed in Alaska Public Schools

The Harmful History of Alaska Schools Means They Should Include Native Values However They Can

Disclosure: I am an employee of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough School District, but the following article represents my personal views only, not those of my employer.

It’s been over a week since the news came out that two parents have filed suit against the Ketchikan Gateway Borough School District because of the district’s display and use of Southeast Traditional Tribal Values in schools, particularly the value “Reverence for Our Creator.” At the time, I made a Facebook comment that I kept very simple and focused on the practicality (or rather, the impracticality) of such a lawsuit:

my initial reaction to the news of the lawsuit, posted on Facebook

I knew, however, that I had a lot more to say about this issue, and I wouldn’t be able to limit my commentary to just a couple sentences.

You can read the full text of the parents’ complaint against the school district, but in summary, it charges that the district’s display and use of the Southeast Traditional Tribal Values, which are alleged to state a “religious view” and to endorse a “religious belief,” violate the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Alaska and U.S. constitutions. Here’s the thing, though:

It’s too late. Public schools already deliberately and flagrantly violated the U.S. Constitution and already destroyed students’ freedom of religion in Southeast Alaska.

The very creation of the first American public schools in Alaska was the product of multiple violations of the First Amendment and the principle of the separation of church and state. The first mission schools in Southeast Alaska were established by the Presbyterian Church in the late 1870s and early 1880s. These were not public schools supported by government funding, but they soon would be.

Sheldon Jackson is a foundational figure in Alaska history, and if you’re an Alaskan who’s never heard of him, it’s time to read up! Jackson was a Presbyterian missionary who first came to Alaska in 1877. From then on, he became a self-appointed lobbyist, traveling back and forth from Alaska to the East Coast every year in order to push the United States government to support American missionary efforts in Alaska. He was extraordinarily effective in his work: In the 1884 Alaska Organic Act, there was a provision included—likely directly due to Jackson—that apportioned funds for the education of all children in Alaska “without reference to race.” There were very few white children even living in Alaska at that time, so Jackson had successfully arranged for relatively large amounts of federal money to be spent almost exclusively on schools for Alaska Native children.

There was also a new office established in Alaska—the General Agent of Education—and Sheldon Jackson got himself appointed to the post. Let that sink in for a moment: This man was a missionary in the Presbyterian Church who had been establishing mission schools, and he was also now in charge of overseeing the establishment of public schools and the spending of federal funds on education in Alaska.

At the same time, Jackson is believed to have met in New York City with secretaries from the Baptist, Episcopalian, and Methodist churches to formulate the “Comity Plan” or “Comity Agreement,” in which Protestant churches would avoid wasting funds trying to convert the same groups of Alaska Natives, but would instead agree to break Alaska into regions that they could each focus on missionizing. Professor Stephen Haycox states that the actual meeting between Jackson and the officials from the other churches may have been “apocryphal,” but the result was the same regardless: These churches did target different regions of Alaska, and their missionaries largely did not stray onto each other’s “turf” until decades later.

one approximation of how Alaska was divided between Christian denominations a few years after the Comity Plan was formulated (Unfortunately, I do not know the source of this map and cannot find the creator.)

As General Agent of Education, Jackson openly used public funds in contracts with mission societies to run schools throughout Alaska. In plain terms: Government money was used to build mission schools and hire missionaries as teachers in order to convert and assimilate Alaska Native children.

And while this practice of church and state working hand in hand was widespread at the time as part of the nationwide movement to assimilate Indigenous children, that does not mean that it was universally approved of: Plenty of Americans at the time knew that this was a violation of the U.S. Constitution, and I imagine that most white Americans in the late nineteenth century never would have tolerated a specific Christian denomination running a public school in their own communities. (If anyone can provide a counterexample, please leave a comment below!)

In fact, while government higher-ups tolerated Jackson’s methods for nearly a decade, they eventually put a stop to his contracts with mission societies in 1894 — presumably because they knew such contracts were unconstitutional. Nonetheless, the reality remains that Alaska’s public schools were first established to convert Alaska’s Indigenous peoples to Christianity and assimilate them into American culture, and they continued to serve that purpose for decades. Public education, structured through unconstitutional church-state collusion, was used to systematically target and destroy Indigenous peoples’ traditional beliefs and practices, denying them any semblance of freedom of religion.

I do not intend in this article to detail the often horrific experiences of Native children in the day schools and boarding schools established under this system. There are many other writers, as well as survivors of these schools, who have described those histories much more thoroughly and profoundly, and I could not do justice to those experiences here. One example of recently-produced media that you could use to learn more would be the CBC podcast Kuper Island, and you can also visit https://boardingschoolhealing.org/.

My purpose in sharing this history is to put the concepts of the “separation of church and state” and “freedom of religion” into their proper context as they apply (or rather, have not applied) to Alaska’s schools: The events I described above are not just unfortunate injustices that happened all the way back in the 1880s and 1890s. They set the standard for the education of multiple generations of Alaska Native children, and meant that until quite recently, the dominant and only acceptable cultural lens through which children were supposed to be educated was American Christianity.

In that context, Alaska Native children did not have freedom of religion. The only acceptable values for these children to learn in school were those taught by their Christian teachers. Alaska Native people may sometimes disagree about whether the beliefs and practices of their ancestors should be appropriately called “religion,” but such disagreement may just provide further evidence of how devastating the persecution and destruction of those traditions was, leaving people today without a consensus.

If it is only now, in 2022, that the Ketchikan Gateway Borough School District is endorsing widespread awareness and use of Alaska Native values in its schools, that is small comfort considering all the knowledge and cultural richness that was lost in the past 140 years, stamped out by schools that promoted an establishment of religion and a single dominant culture. Nevertheless, if schools are now using Indigenous values to help educate students and engage them in multiple cultural perspectives, that small progress should be celebrated and further built upon — not set back with a lawsuit.

the Southeast Traditional Tribal Values, developed, adapted, and approved by elders in 2004

The President of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, Chalyee Éesh Richard Peterson, stated in this article that the most contentious value on the list, “reverence for our creator,” could be interpreted by anyone in many different ways, religious or secular. Or, it could simply be ignored. Indeed, I believe the reality in the school district for the past year or more that the values were being used is that teachers had already chosen to ignore it: I heard a lot of talk among fellow teachers about their students following values such as “holding each other up,” “speaking with care,” and “being strong in mind, body, and spirit”—values that are uncontroversial, universally applicable, and relevant for students on a daily basis. I did not hear of any teacher in KGBSD specifically promoting the value “reverence for our creator,” and the legal complaint does not cite any instance of that actually occurring. Instead, the complaint appears to be based merely on the list as a whole being displayed and used in schools, and the fact that “reverence for our creator” is present on that list.

As a high school social studies educator, one of my major goals is to teach students about different belief systems and values from the past and present. Learning about the beliefs and moral compasses of others—whether they stem from Confucianism, Christianity, Islam, or the traditions of Indigenous peoples—should hopefully help young people better understand their fellow human beings, and better determine what they believe themselves. For example, I read a portion of Harold Napoleon’s book Yuuyaraq: The Way of the Human Being with my students so that they can better understand the traditional Yup’ik worldview. In teaching about such concepts, I have never asked or pressured my students to believe in any religious precept. To do so would be incredibly unprofessional, and a potentially fireable offense.

I also talk to my students about the core cultural values described by the Sealaska Heritage Institute: haa aaní (our land), haa latseen (our strength), haa shuká (our ancestors and future generations), and wooch yáx̱ (spiritual and social balance). In asking my students to reflect on and in some cases apply these values in the classroom, I am not promoting a specific, established religion at all, but rather exposing students to a set of values that should help them better understand Indigenous cultures, and that should help create a positive educational environment for all students.

Perhaps, if the history of education and colonization in Alaska had proceeded very, very differently, there would be an established “church” in Southeast Alaska in which people would continue to practice the longtime spiritual traditions of the Lingít (Tlingit), Xaadas (Haida), and Tsm’syen (Tsimshian). As it is, no such religious institution exists. The freedom of religion of multiple generations of Alaska Native peoples was denied to them, in large part through an educational system that was built on flagrant violations of the constitutional separation of church and state. To me, the claim that the presence of non-religious Indigenous values in schools today is a constitutional violation represents a gross mischaracterization of the facts and a terrible historical irony that must only stem from ignorance of Alaska Native peoples and Alaska’s past.

The values Indigenous people in Southeast Alaska have maintained to the present day are positive and profound, and in my experience it is educational and even transformational for students of all backgrounds to learn about them. I, for one, will continue to teach about these values as long as I am an educator, and I do not expect any judge to order me to stop.

Sources

  1. Haycox, Stephen W. Alaska: An American Colony. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002. [Read my review.]
  2. Hinckley, Ted C. The Canoe Rocks: Alaska’s Tlingit and the Euramerican Frontier, 1800–1912. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1996. [Read my review.]
  3. Williams, Maria Sháa Tláa, ed. The Alaska Native Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009. [Nope, I didn’t write a review of this one.]

Please leave a comment below with your thoughts. Gunalchéesh!

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Peter Stanton

I’m a history teacher writing a book on the Tlingit 19th century. Waashdan Ḵwáan. Kichxháanx’ yéi xhat yatee. (American settler in Ketchikan) Tw: @peterstanton