'Civilizing' Native Alaska: Federal Support of Mission Schools, 1885-1906.

“Civilizing” Native Alaska: Federal Support of Mission Schools, 1885-1906. 

January, 1991. Prepared for the National Education Association..  Washington, D.C.

by Father Michael Oleksa


            Although precedent for Federal support of sectarian schools can be found as early as 1776, cooperation between the government and Christian churches as a general principle of Indian Policy was not widely accepted until the 1870’s, the decade following the Alaska Purchase.  As national Indian policy shifted from extermination to relocation to assimilation after the Civil War, Alaska was spared the trauma of violence, warfare and relocation that had characterized federal relations with indigenous peoples in the “lower 48,” but it became therefore, the primary testing ground for the new, seemingly more humane assimilationist policy which was to be executed by federally supported missionaries, whose twin goals were to educate and baptize the indigenous people of Alaska.

            The program was widely resented among literate, bilingual Tlingits and Aleuts who had accepted Eastern Orthodox Christianity during the Russian colonial period, and had been educated in both Russian and their native tongue.   They were thus able to protest the violation of their civil and religious rights in letters and petitions to the Alaskan Territorial officials, the Imperial Russian Ambassador, and the President of the United States himself.  Decades after the policy of support had been officially abandoned, however, Orthodox individuals and communities in Alaska were still subjected to discrimination and outright persecution. 


Federal Education Policy Prior to 1870

            National interest in “civilizing” the Indians surfaced as early as 1776, when the Continental Congress approved a resolution affirming that “friendly commerce between the people of the United Colonies and the Indians, and the propagation of the gospel, and the cultivation of civil arts among the latter, may produce many and inestimable advantages for both.”  Congress also directed officials living among the various tribes to find suitable places for ministers and teachers to reside.  During the Washington administration, the suggestion that the government should appoint missionaries to live among the Indians and be supplied with the necessary tools for introducing agriculture received a favorable response.  The president asked Congress for funds to support Indian Agents to live among the various friendly tribes and encourage them to take up farming, but rejected the idea that these should be evangelists.  [Prucha, AIP, p 214]

            During the Jacksonian era, all attempts to civilize were abandoned in favor of relocation.  The tribes that had, in fact, made the most progress toward assimilation were the very ones forced to leave their ancestral homes in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi and resettle in “Indian Territory,” modern Oklahoma.  The literate and articulate Cherokee, not unlike the Aleuts a half century later, protested the violation of their treaty rights, and actually won a significant appeal to the United States Supreme Court, which the administration, nevertheless, refused to enforce.  [Worcester v. Georgia, 1832 in Satz, AIPJE, p 47-49]

            While coveting the Indians’ land, intruders were in constant conflict with both the Indians and the federal authorities charged with defending Indian treat rights.  State governments, on the other hand, insisted that their sovereignty extended to Indian lands, and denied federal jurisdiction.   The Jackson administration believed the only solution was removal of the Indians to a remote region where their sovereignty could be practically maintained, rather than create a sovereign Indian political entity within the several states, and, (especially with runaway slaves a constant issue), find itself in continuous conflict with state authorities, slave owners and squatters.  Consequently, federal Indian policy focused on removal until the 1849 goldrush demonstrated that this, too, had become impractical.  The issue of slavery dominated the next decade, so that it was not until after the Civil War that the country could seriously attend to the Indian problem.


Indian Policy Reform, 1867-87

            The Bureau of Indian Affairs, initially established by the Secretary of War in 1824, was transferred to the Department of the Interior in 1849.  [Prucha DUSIP, p 80].  The Army, however, continued for decades to demand the return of the Indian Office to its jurisdiction.  Considering the Indians a military problem, the army also argued that it could more efficiently execute policy directives than the cumbersome, underpaid and often incompetent agencies.  Indeed, serving far from the centers of society, poorly paid and poorly supervised, politically appointed agents were notoriously corrupt and inefficient by the time General Grant was elected president.  But civilian philanthropists and humanitarians opposed returning the Indian office to the jurisdiction of the army, fearing that military control would inflict further injustices on Native Americans.  The House of Representatives, anxious to participate in the formation of federal Indian Policy, regularly supported the army’s position, while the Senate, managing Indian affairs through its treat-ratifying powers, sought more popular alternatives.  [Priest, USS, p17].

            The Episcopal Church had proposed that a commission of citizens be appointed to formulate a new federal Indian policy in 1862, but Congress did not appropriate funds for such an undertaking until 1869, when nine men were allotted $25,000 to constitute the Board of Indian Commissioners.  While this body would deliberate, however, the Grant administration proceeded with changes of its own, seeking to find a way to provide Indian Office with decent, dedicated agents without surrendering to the army’s demands.  Several Senators had suggested that religious leaders be invited to participate in the 1867 Indian Peace Commission, established by Congress to conclude peace with hostile Plains tribes and persuade them to relocate to reservations.  Only the Society of Friends, the Quakers, enthusiastically welcomed this opportunity to influence federal policy.  This enticed President Grant to experiment with placing several Indian agencies under Quaker direction in 1869.  [Priest, p 29].  Most denominations were initially reluctant to follow suit, partially because of the essentially political nature of the Indian situation, partially because they lacked confidence in the government’s ability to “educate and civilize” but primarily because they doubted that the government would sustain such a policy for more than a few years.  The Churches, too, lacked the funds and personnel for such a task, and their constituencies were not particularly interested in Indian affairs.

            The outcome of the Quaker experiment sufficiently impressed the White House that on December 5, 1870, President Grant reported to Congress


“The act of Congress reducing the Army renders army officers ineligible for civil positions.  Indian agencies, being civil offices, I determined to give all the agencies to such religious denominations as had heretofore established missionaries among the Indians, and perhaps to some other denominations who would undertake the work….as missionary work.  The societies selected are allowed to name their own agents, subject to the approval of the Executive and are expected to watch over them and aid them as missionaries to Christianize and civilize the Indian.”  [Prucha, DUSIP, p135].


            The first report of the Board of Indian Commissioners supported this policy, advising that removal to reservations should be accelerated so that the process of civilizing and Christianizing might also be expedited.


“Schools should be established and teachers employed by the government to introduce the English language in every tribe…. The teachers employed should be nominated by some religious body having a mission nearest to the location of the school.  The establishment of Christian missions should be encouraged, and their schools fostered.  The pupils should at least receive the rations and clothing they would get if remaining with their families…”  [Prucha, DUSIP, p 133].


            By 1872, these recommendations had been implemented on the majority of reservations, as the Commissioner of Indian Affairs reported to Congress:


“The Hicksite Friends have in their charg 6 agencies with 6,598 Indians; Orthodox Friends, 10 agencies, with 17,724 Indians; Baptists, 5 agencies with 40,800 Indians; Presbyterians, 9 agencies with 38,069 Indians; Christians, 2 agencies with 8,287 Indians; Methodists, 14 agencies, with 54,473 Indians; Dutch Reformed, 5 agencies with 8,118 Indians; Congregationalists, 3 agencies with 14,476 Indians; Episcopalians, 8 agencies with 26,929 Indians; Unitarians, 2 agencies with 3,800 Indians; Lutherans 1 agency with 273 Indians.”  [Ibid. p 143].


            Problems inevitably erupted with this arrangement.  The Lutherans, for example, felt neglected and protested their tiny portion of the large Indian mission field, complaining to the government in 1875,


“We ask and believe that you will and can give us an agency now, as well as in the future.  If there is no vacancy at present, it would not take long to make one.  We are not asking that you do any more for us than you have done for other churches.  You have assigned agencies to others without their sending missionaries to the tribe, and can do so in our case, if you desire.  On the authority of the Lutheran Church, we insist on an agency being assigned to us.” [Priest, USS, p 32].



            Alaska, however, was so exotic and remote, any denominations which were not included in its division into spheres of influence hardly noticed – with one notable exception.  The Russian Orthodox Church, active in the region since 1784, had established churches and schools at Kodiak, Sitka, Unalaska, Atka, Nushagak, Russian Mission, and the Pribilof Islands, and later at Killisnoo, Juneau, Nutchek, Belkovsky, St. Michael, Chuathbaluk, and Afognak.  Had the original policy of assigning agencies to the Church already serving the area been applied in the Alaskan case, the entire southern half of the territory would have been allotted to the Orthodox, but instead their education program was ignored.  Precisely due to the predictable problems that this provoked, a substantial published record of inter-denominational conflicts, dividing families and communities survives, primarily from the American Orthodox Messenger, which followed Alaskan events closely from its New York editorial office.  On one side were American Protestant missionaries, funded and supported by the US federal government, consistent with policies established a decade before the Rev. Dr. Sheldon Jackson, Presbyterian minister, was appointed federal Commissioner of Education for Alaska in 1885, a post he held for twenty-three years.  The established policy these federal/mission schools were charged to execute included the exclusive conversion of Native Alaskans to Protestant Christianity.  Fluency and literacy in English were synonymous with civilization.  On the other side were Native Alaskan and Slavic Orthodox clergy, most of them receiving some funds from the Orthodox Missionary Society in Russia, dedicated to fostering literacy in Alaskan Native Languages, Russian and, after the transfer of Alaska, English, as well.  Multilingualism and literacy in several languages were the marks of citizenship.


The Orthodox Schools

            The first Alaskan schools were founded by Orthodox lay monks who taught the “four R’s,” (reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic, and religion).  Saint Herman, assisted by several Aleuts, operated an orphanage and school on Spruce Island, near Kodiak, for over twenty years, beginning in about 1816.  Hieromonk Gideon founded a bilingual school at Kodiak even earlier, teaching over a hundred Creole and Native students to read and write in their indigenous Alutiiq tongue, as well as in Russian.  As the colony gradually expanded, schools were established in major settlements and a curriculum was developed to prepare Natives to assume responsibility for the more important leadership positions within Russian America Company, which bore the costs for this educational effort.

            The principal architect of Aleut bilingual education in Alaska was Saint Innocent (Father John Veniaminov).  Shortly after his arrival in Unalaska in 1824, Father John began his collaboration with the Aleut chief, Ivan Pan’kov, to devise a suitable writing system for the Fox Island dialect, and to translate Holy Scripture into Unangan, as the local language was called by its speakers.  Within three years