Listen to the story at kmxt.org
Two Alaska Native girls who died more than 100 years ago at a boarding school in Pennsylvania – including one from Kodiak Island – will return home. Earlier this summer, the U.S. Army began the process of returning the remains of eight Indigenous children from the school to their families across the country.
According to records, after her mother died, in 1901, 13-year-old Anastasia Ashouwak was taken from an orphanage on Woody Island – in the Kodiak archipelago – and sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.
Alutiiq Museum executive director April Laktonen Counceller says Ashouwak was part of a group of Alaska Native children sent to the school.
“There were 11 students that went on that journey,” said Counceller. “There’s records of their steamship travel, and the remainder of their travel once they hit the West Coast was by train.”
Indian boarding schools like Carlisle stripped Indigenous children of their culture and notoriously had poor conditions.
Just last summer, the Department of the Interior announced it would be looking into the “troubled legacy” of Indian boarding schools in light of the discovery of 215 graves near a boarding school in Canada. It released its first report on the schools in May.
Ashouwak spent the next three years at the school before dying of tuberculosis at the age of 16.
She was buried alongside other children in the school’s cemetery. For more than a century she remained buried under a headstone inscribed with the name Anastasia Achwack.
Counceller says records indicate that Ashouwak was Sugpiaq/Alutiiq and had ties to the former village of Kaguyak on the southern tip of Kodiak Island, which was washed away in the tsunami in 1964. Her family then moved to the village of Old Harbor, where many people still share her last name.
Cassey Rowland is an Alutiiq artist from Kodiak and one of Ashouwak’s descendants. Her father, Ted Ashouwak, who is from Old Harbor but now lives in Maine, is Ashouwak’s great-nephew and closest living relation. Rowland says she never heard about the boarding schools from village elders when she was growing up.
“They just didn’t talk about it, it was just too painful for them,” she said.
Rowland has a daughter the same age as when Ashouwak left Kodiak Island for the Carlisle School, and she’s been honest with her daughter about what happened at Carlisle and other schools like it.
“We’ve been learning about the Indian boarding schools before we even learned about our ancestors being a part of it, and she’s been asking questions and I’ve been telling her the whole truth, I’m not the type of parent that’s going to hide away,” Rowland said.
Rowland and her daughter flew to Pennsylvania earlier in July where they gathered with other members of their family as Ashouwak’s grave was dug up in preparation for her reburial in Alaska. Members of the Alutiiq museum and a Russian Orthodox priest from Kodiak also joined the family.
Rowland said she brought paint to decorate the box that will carry the remains of Ashouwak home – she planned to incorporate Alutiiq and Russian Orthodox designs for the casket.
“And then the bright colors of the island just to bring her home – lots of bright greens and blues, oranges, pinks, so, just trying to make it look like a little girl,” she said.
In June, the Alutiiq Museum repatriated the remains of four Alutiiq ancestors through the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA.
Counceller said Ashouwak’s return to Kodiak is different; the U.S. Army oversees the cemetery at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. It’s in the process of returning the remains of children who can be identified to their communities.
The Alutiiq Museum knows of another girl from Kodiak buried at Carlisle, and hopes to bring her home next summer, Counceller said.
When Ashouwak returns to Kodiak, Counceller said she’ll receive services at the local Russian Orthodox church in the city of Kodiak and an Alutiiq ceremony at the museum. The Alutiiq Dancers – including Rowland’s daughter – also will perform. Ashouwak and her family will then be flown to the village of Old Harbor for a graveside service followed by a potluck.
Counceller says there’s a sense of relief among the community that Ashouwak will finally return home.
“As many of us Native people know we’re kind of all related around the island so, although this is one individual, it’s a moment for all Alutiiq people to think about how important this kind of work is,” she said.
Rowland says a part of her will also be at peace when Anastasia is finally alongside members of her ancestors in Old Harbor.
“She’s gonna be where she is wanted. We need her home. And she’s gonna feel that, we believe. Her spirit will finally be at rest,” said Rowland.
Rowland says she’ll be processing why it took so long for Ashouwak to return to Old Harbor for the rest of her life.