Archive for the ‘Sheldon Jackson School and College History’ Category

Sheldon Jackson School in the teens, Sitka Alaska

Sheldon Jackson School in the teens, Sitka Alaska

This is a work in progress, and I’d appreciate any comments, additions, or corrections.

This project is supported in part by a grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum and the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendationas expressed in this work do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Founded in 1878, Sitka’s Sheldon Jackson College was the oldest institution of higher learning in Alaska when it closed, abruptly, in 2007. The windows were boarded up, and the already neglected buildings remained unheated and empty as the college board of trustees struggled to address a massive debt. Then, in 2011, the core campus was turned over to Alaska Arts Southeast and its Fine Arts Camp, who are restoring the physical campus, and filling it with arts and cultural education programs.

Along with the physical campus, the Fine Arts Camp soon found they had inherited a deep and complicated history. In addition to the strife surrounding its closure, Sheldon Jackson has a legacy as a Presbyterian mission school of repressing Native language and culture. And yet, many staff and graduates of the high school and the college have strong affection for this place.

The following brief chronology is a start at shedding light on some of the contrasts and contradictions in the school’s history. The early history of the school is especially relevant because Alaska today is the product of the clashes of this crucial era, and the legacy of Sheldon Jackson and his mission.

I’ve tried to footnote information that’s not widely documented. Just about everything about the school from the mid-1920s to the early 1980s comes from Les Yaw’s memoir 60 Years in Sitka.

The Kiks.ádi clan of the Lingit people are the traditional owners of the land that became the Sheldon Jackson campus.1 The Lingit people held all of what is now Southeastern Alaska and parts of British Columbia and Yukon Territory since time immemorial.

At the time the first Europeans came to the North West Coast in the 1770s, there was a major winter village at the foot of Castle Hill (Noow Tlein) (roughly the Sitka Hotel area), with some clan houses atop the hill. There was also a village from the mouth of Indian River to Jamestown Bay.2 There were probably structures here on the campus.

There is an ancient Kiks.ádi story about the unusual, flat-topped rock at one corner of the campus. This story is where Dog Creek (Keitlyátx’i Héeni, Puppies Creek, in Tlingit) gets its name.3

Russians worked their way into Alaska east from Siberia beginning in the 1740s, using forced labor by Indigenous people to kill sea otter for their valuable skins, devastating societies and decimating villages, and wiping out sea otters, as they came east.They established forts in Prince William Sound and on Kodiak Island.

After the 1780s, other nations joined in the maritime fur rush, sending ships to trade with the Indigenous traders on the North West coast for sea otter fur. In the 1790s, Sitka became the central battleground in the fur trade, with British and American ships trading with the Tlingit traders, while the Russians, having destroyed sea otter populations in the Gulf of Alaska, considered Southeastern Alaska to be theirs.

In 1799 Alexander Baranov, the chief of the Russian American Company, negotiated with the Kiks.ádi leaders to allow him to build a fort at Old Sitka. In 1802, a multi-clan alliance of Tlingit destroyed the fort. Kiks.ádi tradition tells that it was an accumulation of insults that led to the fort’s destruction. Economic conflict – that the Russians were taking sea otter from Tlingit waters – was likely also a factor.

It took the Russians two years to return to Sitka from their base at Kodiak. In 1804 the Kiks.ádi had built a new fort at Indian River designed to resist naval bombardment. Due in part to the Kiks.ádi loss of a canoe of gunpowder and the fortuitous presence of the Russian frigate Neva, the Kiks.ádi retreated, and the Russians with the Alutiik, Unangan and other western Alaskan Native people who were working for them, took over the site of Sitka, renaming it New Archangel. The Kiks.ádi (and their spouses and children, who belong to opposite clans) suffered heavy losses in this “survival march,” which was in late October. They lost canoes, houses, and their winter food supply.

While the Russians hung on to Sitka for the next six decades, they relied on constant diplomacy with the Tlingit clans in order to sustain what was essentially an outpost, although they used Sitka as their center of administration for their claims in Alaska. In 1827 Tlingit clans resettled on the north west edge of the Russian fort, still the site of Sitka Indian Village. Both sides benefited from trade, which is probably why Tlingit leaders tolerated and supported the Russians.

Although European diseases, especially smallpox, had a terrible impact, the Tlingit clans did relatively well. The Tlingit controlled all their traditional territory in southeastern Alaska, and trade grew exponentially in the global trade for sea otter and other furs and art works. The Russians depended on Tlingit and Haida traders for food like halibut, venison, potatoes and berries.

In 1867 Russia’s Alaskan claims were transferred to the United States. With U.S. occupation, Sitka went from a somewhat decayed but quiet company town to the American frontier. Alaska became a military district, without law and order, much less any system of civil government. In addition, the fur economy collapsed, and there was a world-wide depression. American traders pushed Tlingit traders out of what activity there was. Alcohol, speculators, merchants, and rough characters poured into the District, but most soon left.

In the first decade Alaska was under the authority of the Army, Civil War veterans who may have contributed to the disorder.4

The Americans brought with them virulent racism, and overwhelming military power. This was the era of the Indian Wars and aggressive westward expansion, the height of Manifest Destiny. In the rest of the United States Native Americans were brutally forced off their lands and onto reservations in the essentially genocidal policies of the U.S. government. In the 1850s the state of California had even been paying a bounty on Indian scalps. In 1869 the U.S.S. Saginaw shelled and destroyed the villages of Kake.

After an initial rush of speculators and entrepreneurs, Sitka, and Alaska, quieted down again. Then in 1874 Wrangell became the frontier, with the Cassiar gold rush. An influx of miners and those hoping to benefit from the gold rush (traders, liquor sellers) flooded to Wrangell, with devastating impact on the Stikine Tlingit clans, who had controlled this important trade route, with a monopoly on much of the interior trade.

In 1877 the Reverend Dr. Sheldon Jackson founded a mission school for girls in Wrangell, recruiting teacher Amanda McFarland, a widow from Oregon. Sheldon Jackson was an ambitious, dynamic Presbyterian minister, founder of scores of churches in the west. He wanted to pioneer Alaska.

In 1877 Alaska still had no government – it was a Military District – then the Army pulled out. Sitka by this time had no industry other than alcohol and some other trade, mineral prospecting, provisioning fishing and seal hunting boats, and a few federal officials, like the Collector of Customs. Alaska was officially under the jurisdiction of the Treasury Department until 1880, when the Navy took over.

In 1878 Sheldon Jackson recruited Reverend John Green Brady and teacher Fannie Kellogg to start a mission school for Native children in Sitka, and they opened the school in April in a former barracks. The school closed in December. Brady quit (but traveled to Washington D.C. to lobby for education for Natives), and Kellog married missionary S. Hall Young, and moved to Wrangell.

In 1879 missionary Alonzo Austin came to Sitka and taught the day school for white and Russian children. In April 1880 Alonzo Austin and his daughter Olinda reopened the mission day school, for Natives.

From 1879 Navy Commander Beardslee, and his successor Captain Glass, of the USS Jamestown, forced Sitka’s Tlingit residents to whitewash and number their houses, and encouraged the rebuilding of the village in new frame style houses. In 1881 Captain Glass forced Native children to go to the Presbyterian school, by giving all the families and children numbers, and fining those whose children do not go to school.

The Presbyterian Native school was in various locations – initially, when it was a day school, it was on the top floor of the Guard House, a large former barracks next to Noow Tlein (Castle Hill). Then, when boys asked to live at the school, they moved to the old Russian hospital building (a similar building to the Russian Bishop’s House, it was located on the site of Pacific High School). It burned down in January of 1882, probably due to the building settling and dislodging the chimney. They moved the school into an old, leaky, drafty shed on the waterfront across the street.5

In 1881 missionary-turned-businessman John Green Brady claimed 160 acres of the present campus, in spite of there being no land laws in effect to make this possible, and donated it for the mission. He may have got it by using Civil War veteran land script he had accumulated.6 Sheldon Jackson was a very good fund raiser. The only sawmill in town was out of order, so Sheldon Jackson bought a cannery building at Old Sitka (from a short-lived cannery operation, one of the first in Alaska, built in 1878). Missionary Alonzo Austin and a willing crew of his students dismantled, hauled, barged, and built the two-story boys dormitory, 50 by 100 feet, in the fall of 1882.7

In 1884 they added a second building, for girls, of 50 by 130 feet, after McFarland’s school in Wrangell burned down. Later they built two hospitals, and the Cottages settlement, with three houses built by 1888.8

The Cottages was a model Christian Native community for former students, located on mission property at the edge of the Sitka Historical Park, on Kelly and Metlakatla Streets. Houses once stood on the east side of Metlakatla Street, where the parking lot is now. While the missonaries’ ideal is to have the families separate from their Native culture, and to live as European-Americans might live in the states, traditions and language continued. Marriages were correct matches in Tlingit protocol. Matriarchs of many of the Cottages families were the Sloan sisters, Kiks.ádi Point House women who became Mrs. Don Cameron, Mrs. Peter Simpson, and Mrs. George Howard (her daughter married Andrew Hope).

In 1884 the President signed Alaska’s Organic Act – finally some civil government (though not much) – and Sheldon Jackson became Alaska’s General Agent for Education, a position created for him. The Act entitled established missions to 640 acres of public land, thus expanding and legitimizing the mission’s land claim,9

In 1884 Sitka’s First Presbyterian Church was founded with 44 Native and 5 White members. In 1889 a white church was formed.

In 1889 the school had the two large dormitory buildings, an Industrial Arts building, a blacksmith shop, a steam laundry, bakery, hospital, and six Model Cottages. They had 186 pupils, but also functioned over the years as an orphanage and hospital, depending on the need.10

Throughout this period, until 1893,11 federal funds were given to missionary schools. Most people in the United States at the time did not see any problem with this. It makes government funds go farther when they can be combined with church funds. American leadership at the time, in government, society and industry, was heavily Protestant. Euro-American settlement and economic development of the west was a national priority. While some were genuinely concerned about the plight of American Indians, all likely understood the benefits of “civilizing” Natives so that they would not be in the way of what most Americans saw as the natural and best use of land and natural resources for settlement, farming and industry – by Euro-Americans.

The 1880s were a period of growth for the school but also political discord in Sitka. With the Organic Act, Alaska had a court system for the first time; many of the early lawsuits were brought against the mission. Some are over the mission’s land claim, and others are over the practice of compelling parents to indenture their children to the school for five years in order to attend. They are brought by the federal employees on behalf of Tlingit parents, and by Russian-American residents.  In 1885 anti-Sheldon Jackson government officials – the “Court House Gang” as Bob DeArmond called them – together with a faction of the white population, Russians, and Tlingit, pushed back against the growing power of the Presbyterians. They brought suit to take the mission site for a court house, and to nullify the student contracts parents were forced to sign. In order to attend the school, parents had to sign over their children for a period of five years. It culminated in the arrest of Sheldon Jackson, then in relatives taking their children out of the school, so that only half remained. The events led Sheldon Jackson to publish A Statement of Facts Concerning the Difficulties at Sitka, Alaska in 1885.

President Grover Cleveland, son of a Presbyterian minister, came into office in March, and in late 1885 the officials were replaced and the mission allowed to continue.

The 1880s were a time of large-scale taking of Native land and resources, as canneries, mines, and other industries, supported by the US government, exploited streams and land that had been controlled by Native clans. Native persons could only be citizens if they were “civilized” as attested to by whites. They could not own property or vote. They had no right to education or civil rights of any kind. They were viewed, and treated in law, as inferior to whites.

Disease took a heavy toll on southeastern Alaskan Natives, exacerbated by the lack of resources brought on by dispossession and disenfranchisement.

Presbyterian missionaries fought in Washington D.C. for government for Alaska and for education for Natives. Education for the missionaries meant stripping Native children of all vestiges of their culture. So even as Jackson and former missionary John Green Brady were labeled “pro-Native” in their time, today they would be seen as racist for their insistence on total assimilation, and low regard for everything Native (other than art and handicraft).

Anglican missionary William Duncan led a Tsimshian community from the model Christian Native village of Metlakatla in Canada to settle in Alaska in 1887. The new settlement was called New Metlakatla, or just Metlakatla. Metlakatla was self-sufficient, with its own industry. While he stood up for his Tsimshian followers against the Canadian government and from exploitation by white businessmen in Alaska, Duncan was autocratic and controlling. In the spring of 1888 several young men from the new settlement went to Sheldon Jackson’s school in Sitka, including Peter Simpson and Edward Marsden, who became leaders in the Presbyterian church.

In 1887 Tillie Paul, a Tlingit missionary, arrived at Sitka with her three young sons, after her husband, also a Tlingit missionary, drowned. (Her oldest son, Samuel, was adopted by the widow of the other missionary who drowned with her husband Louis Paul.) She worked for the school, and, with other missionaries, held Christian meetings in the Village.12

In 1888 the first museum, made of wood to emulate a clan house, was built to house Sheldon Jackson’s vast collection of Native artifacts.

The first decades of the school were filled with incredible physical labor – Alonzo Austin, D. C. McTavish, George Beck, and other missionaries of the first half century were hands-on. They builtd a flume for electricity, and to power a pelton wheel for the carpentry shop. The school was largely self-sufficient as far as food and power. From the very beginning students were the main workforce of the school, doing everything from cooking to cutting wood; but they were led by missionaries who are no shirkers. For a time the school was called the Sitka Industrial and Training School, and part of its mission was to give young men a trade and pride in his work.  This continued into the 1930s, when the students, led by staff, hauled a cast-iron sawmill out of the woods from a mine up Indian River, built a sawmill, and got it running; then it burned down, and they started over.

Missionaries wanted to help Native people, but they saw no value in Native language or culture. Education, hygiene, and Christianity were meant to replace Native culture – which they saw as debased, outdated and inadequate – with Presbyterian culture. Having one’s language and culture demeaned and lost is extremely damaging to a sense of oneself, but this was never recognized by the missionaries; into the 1960s most educators in Alaska saw acculturation as a necessary step for Natives to succeed in higher education.13

Disease, especially tuberculosis and its complications, took a heavy toll on Native people in Alaska, whether or not they are associated with the school, into the 1950s.

Even from the early days, many students and their parents actively chose to go to the school. At the time, the only path to citizenship was to adopt the dominant culture. Speaking and writing English, and learning the protocol of Protestant American culture, was the only route (however limited) to economic opportunity. Native property was taken in a land grab by canneries and other industries. Without citizenship and civil rights, Native people were not allowed to compete on an equal footing. At some point the goal of individual advancement evolved into the goal of advancement for all Native people, leading to the birth of the Alaska Native Brotherhood in 1912.

In 1892 the Native Presbyterian church was built on campus (across from the Sage Building, on the current site of Stratton Library). In 1895 the current Sheldon Jackson museum was built, the first concrete building in Alaska.

In 1897 John Green Brady, who first arrived in Sitka as a missionary, then went into business, became Governor.

By 1899 graduate Peter Simpson returned to Sitka, after founding a sawmill with other young Natives at Gravina. The sawmill burned down in 1904; as Natives, they could not get title to the land to rebuild. Simpson’s family tradition is that this is the source of his lifelong fight for land claims.14

In 1901-02 the school had 131 students.15

In 1904, the “Last Potlatch” was held. Rudolph Walton, one of the first graduates of the school, had by this time also inherited an important position as Kiks.ádi clan leader. While he did not officially participate, he carved important artworks for a host clan. He also intervened as a mediator in a conflict over use of the frog emblem by two clans.

In 1906 a boatbuilding operation began at the Cottages under Peter Simpson. Men who worked with Simpson went on to build dozens of boats in various parts of town. Simpson built a boat for Rudolph Walton, the William. Rudolph Walton, one of the earliest graduates of the school, was a jeweler and carver, who also had a store in the Village.

In 1906 the Davis case is brought. Rudolph Walton’s stepchildren and several other children living in the Village were refused permission to attend the public school (the public school for Natives had been closed) by school board members W. P. Mills and Mrs. George Stowell.16 Rudolph Walton brought suit, with support of former school board member and director of the Presbyterian mission William Kelly. Former missionary Governor John Brady’s wife and others testify on behalf of the children, but the court decided that any Native associations or lifestyle means a person is not “civilized.” They lose the case.

In 1910 the Shepherd Building (industrial arts) is constructed on the spit where the Sage building is now. Then, in 1910- 1911, the current campus is built, and the original large campus buildings are dismantled. School was suspended for the year while the new campus was constructed.

In 1912 the Alaska Native Brotherhood was formed – most founders were graduates of the school. This group is founded to fight for citizenship for Alaska Natives. Their original charter calls for Natives to leave behind the old customs. This was later modified. The ANB was instrumental in Natives acquiring civil rights, and ultimately land claims.

Sheldon Jackson was a grade school only, then in 1917 became a High School, which lasted until 1967.

After the 1920s the younger grades move to Haines House, an orphanage at Haines, Alaska. Students came to Sitka for 5th grade and up.7th and 8th grades were phased out in the 1940s.

In 1926 Tillie Paul Manor (infirmary) was built. In 1928 Houk House was built, to replace the Lottie Hapsgood Practice House, which had burned down. These were purpose built for training girls in domestic skills, which remained part of the program into the 1950s. Older girls would spend a term living in the house and practicing house keeping. From 1913 they had used North Cottage as a practice cottage.17

In 1928 Les Yaw became Superintendent; in 1929 the Sage Building was constructed, to replace the Shepherd Building for vocational training. In 1934 a gymnasium was built, north of Allen Hall. In 1936 the Native and White Presbyterian churches reunited (the white church had split off from the original, integrated, church in 1889). The white church was near the blockhouse and the Pioneer Home, down town. It was later called the Tower Apartments because of its steeple.

In 1934-35 the high school had 71 students, and the grade school had 55.18

In 1936-37 the seiner SJS was built by Peter Simpson and crew at his shop at the Cottages; a commercial fishing boat owned by school, it  was used to generate income, for fishing and hunting for the school, as a mission boat, and to take students to and from their homes in SE Alaska.

In 1941 Princeton Hall was built, by students, school staff, and professional boatbuilders including George Howard and Andrew Hope. She was built at the shop of George and David Howard, the brothers of Hope’s wife Tillie (Howard) Hope. David Howard and Andrew Hope were both graduates of the school. The shop was located next to the current Seafood Producers Coop plant at the north end of the Village. The shop, which was new at the time, had to be extended several feet to accommodate the 63-foot Princeton Hall.

Launched just days before Pearl Harbor, the Princeton Hall and the seiner SJS were requisitioned by the U.S. Navy. The Navy painted the Princeton Hall gray, and mounted a machine gun on the deck. The skipper of the SJS, Dick Nelson, enlisted in the Navy.

The Princeton Hall, a beautiful and seaworthy yacht, was a mission boat. She transported students, and missionaries, to villages, camps, canneries, mines and other settlements.

With the loss of the SJS, Andrew Hope builts the seiner SJS II for the school, launching her in 1943.

Music and musicals were a big part of campus life. In 1947 the Sheldon Jackson High School choir, under the direction of Geraldine Beam, was invited to perform at the Presbyterian General Assembly in Seattle. The choir made the trip on the school boats Princeton Hall and SJS II.

In 1942, the first students stayed on for junior college work; the Junior College officially began in 1944.

In 1946 Mt. Edgecumbe High School, a BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) boarding school, opened in the former Naval Air Station buildings on Japonski Island.

In the early 1950s Tillie Paul Manor (Sheldon Jackson infirmary) was used by the community of Sitka as its hospital until Sitka’s community hospital was completed; many Baby Boomer Sitkans were born there: from 1949-51, a total of 116 babies.

In January of 1952 the college’s first president, Les Yaw, was dismissed. At that time, the Sheldon Jackson School and all of the Alaska churches and missions were controlled by the Board of National Missions in New York City, and their Board of Christian Education, in Philadelphia; the Alaska missionaries had little say. Dismissal of Yaw may have been because the Board of Education wanted a more academic focus. It could also have been a case of personality conflict. The person who made the decision, the head of the Presbyterian Board of Christian Education, Katherine Gladfelter, held that position from 1949 to 1960. The dismissal was divisive for the campus community. Alumni and leaders, including Governor Gruening, wrote letters to the board of Home Missions urging his retention.

In the late 1940s through the 60s Sitka schools fielded some great basketball teams, and games were a big part of Sitka life, with intense rivalries among the three high schools, as well as city league and regional teams. In 1949 Sitka’s ANB team (starring SJ alumni) won the regional Juneau Lions Club Gold Medal Tournament.

In January of 1952 Roland B. Wurster becomes president; in 1955 the Yaw Building (library and classrooms) was completed. In July of 1956 R. Rolland “Army” Armstrong became Sheldon Jackson’s 3rd president.

In 1958 Condit Hall was built as women’s college dorm (Condit was later torn down to make way for the Sweetland Hall.)

In 1959 Sheldon Jackson Junior College is 2/3 Native, 1/3 white; the High School was ¾ Native, ¼ white. In 1961 the school had 37 full time college students.

The next major transition occured in 1966, when Sheldon Jackson Junior College was accredited. In July, Dr. Orin Stratton became president. His model for Sheldon Jackson was Whitworth College, a Presbyterian school in Washington.

In 1966 the Rasmuson Building was built, as the Student Union and cafeteria, also known as the A-frame. In 1965 Kellogg Hall opened as a dorm for women. Later it became Volunteers In Mission apartments.

In 1967 the last high school class graduated.

In the late 1960s Sheldon Jackson added housing for staff with families; in earlier days, most staff were unmarried missionaries. When it became a college, instructors needed advanced degrees, and so there was almost complete turnover. Families who came in the late 1960s and early 1970s include the Roths, the Bovees, the Bonners, the Wilsons, the Schultzes, and the Goffs. The Brauns came to work at the high school, so when it closed Rus Braun went to work at Mt. Edgecumbe High School, but they remained members of the Presbyterian church community. At one point there were 34 children on campus.

In the late 1960s enormous cultural changes roiled the United States, including the Presbyterian Church. The Presbyterian church was actually ahead of the national movement, starting in 1959, when the national church turned to the left, but with different attitudes and disagreements between more traditional church workers and more liberal ones.19

Alaska Methodist University opened in 1960. In the late 1950s and 1960s church and government leaders had a lot of discussion about how to best meet the needs of Alaskans for higher education. The University of Alaska expanded a network of community colleges, including Sitka Community College in 1962. A continuing challenge is the quality and even existence of village schools, with many high school graduates unprepared for college. Students who are prepared for college are heavily recruited by Lower 48 colleges.

Beginning in the late 1950s, by the late 1960s, the Washington Synod took control of Sheldon Jackson and other Alaska missions, from Presbyterian Board of National Missions (BNM), as the church eventually divested themselves of ownership and control of Alaska’s missions and churches. (The Presbyterian church is democratically organized, with churches in an area organized as a Presbytery; three or more Presbyteries are organized as a Synod.) In 1968 the Synod committee decided to close Sheldon Jackson; testimony from staff persuaded them to keep it open.

In 1972 the Presbyterian Church divested itself of ownership of the school. Sheldon Jackson is now independent, though still affiliated with the church. Major financial support only continued for a time, but the college still benefited from national fund raising efforts. The board of advisors became the board of trustees.

From the 1971-72 school year, Sheldon Jackson enjoyed state tuition grants for students, which made tuition costs competitive with the UA system, and saw expanded enrollment. In 1975 300 students, with 205 of those full time, enrolled. Then in 1979 tuition grants were found unconstitutional, which was a severe blow to the school. Enrollment dropped again by the late 1970s. (Also hurt by the loss of tuition grants, Alaska Methodist University closed in 1976, and reopened in 1978 as Alaska Pacific University.)

In the 1970s the Sitka Summer Music Festival, the Sitka Fine Arts Camp and Sitka Little Theater Guild were born on campus and with staff as founders. The aquaculture program, Native studies program, and an AA teachers education program for villages all began. There was also a pilot training program, and school-owned planes, but that ended with a plane crash and fatality in 1975. Elder Hostels used the campus in the summers.

In 1973 Dr. Orin Stratton resigned, due to health; Robert Uddenberg becomes the 5th president into 1974. Then in December 1974 Dr. Merton D. Munn became the interim 6th president until 1977.

In 1974 Stratton Library and the Armstrong administration building were built. In July of 1977 Dr. Hugh Holloway became the 7th president, to 1982. In 1977 and 1986 the college built apartments for married students, at the top of Metlakatla Street. In 1979 Yaw Chapel was built, designed by Taylor Potter, the son-in-law of Les and Caroline Yaw.

In 1980, due to the loss of state tuition grants, the school nearly closed. It only stayed open with a fundraising effort, and a major gift from Jane Newhall.

VIMS or Volunteers In Mission were vital to the operation of the school. Summer work groups took on maintenance and remodeling projects, often contributing materials and supplies. VIMS also filled many staff positions year round. They were also important in mentoring and tutoring students.

In 1982 Dr. Michael Kaelke became the 8th president. He stayed until 1993, the longest-serving president in the history of the college. The school added to its four-year programs and added faculty with advanced degrees.

In 1987 the Hames PE Center was built, named after trustee and donor Lloyd Hames. President Kaelke tried to put Sheldon Jackson on the map with competitive basketball teams, recruiting players from the Lower 48, but it didn’t work.

In 1987 an all-class high school reunion was held, and the Basketball Hall of Fame was inaugurated.

The college’s 9th president, Lawrence Rocheleau, inaugurated in July 1993, died in January 1994, after only six months as president. Rocheleau was an Alaska education star, promoting the Total Quality Management system at Mt. Edgecumbe High School, the former BIA school reopened by the State of Alaska.

In 1994 Dr. Kenneth Cameron became the 10th president, but maintained his dental practice; he shared administrative duties with Provost and Co-president Mary Lou Madden; he is president to 1997.

In 1995 a campaign to save Allen Auditorium was launched, led by the Allen Memorial Preservation Project. They won a major federal grant through Senator Ted Stevens, and won a further economic development grant; they turned the project over to the college. When the college closed, the exterior had been completed but the interior, electrical and mechanical systems were not.

In 1997 Reverend David Meekhof became the 11th president. He serveds to 2000.

At the board of trustees’ annual meeting in January 2000, the president of the board of trustees, Michael Sweetland, proposed closing the college in an orderly way. He was outvoted by a majority of the trustees, and left the board. This lead to a crisis, with closure contemplated. A task force was created with business and other community leaders, to define a vision for the school.

In 2000 to 2002 Sheldon Jackson College had to fight for accreditation, due to financial and administrative issues.20

In 2000 C. Carlyle Haaland was hired as consultant, and became interim president, then president to 2004.

In the 2000s much effort was expended to attract more students; marine studies program, and outdoor leadership program were developed; the Alaska Native Studies Program was revived, but had a rough start, until Dennis Demmert was hired in 2002. Also in the 2000s federal and private grants rebuilt the Rasmuson building, built a child care facility, and rebuilt the campus water, sewage and electric systems.

In 2001 the City of Sitka proposed excavating the front lawn in order to create 40 parking spaces for harbor parking. The school was behind on payments to the city and to many businesses.

In 2001 the college told the Sentinel that the enrollment of 132 was “nearly double year before.”21 Also in 2001, the campus is designated the Sheldon Jackson School National Historic Landmark.

In 2004 Arthur Cleveland became the new president to 2006. Once again, the school nearly closed; it was saved by a loan from a trustee. An ambitious cruise ship dock was proposed for Sage building area, and was dropped after much opposition.

In 2006 the school took out a $4.7 million consolidation loan from Alaska Growth Capital (AGC), after taking out five short term loans totaling $2.5 million22; they subdivided waterfront land for collateral and sold Tillie Paul Manor to pay back the emergency loan from the trustee. In 2006 board of trustees president Dr. David Dobler was named acting president of the college, replacing Arthur Cleveland.

The City and Borough Assembly had approved a $1 million line of credit to Sheldon Jackson, but, on Tuesday, June 26, 2007, they vote not to disburse SJ’s request for $730,000 ofn it.23 The school sought the loan to tide the school over until an expected large class enrolled in the fall. At 3:30 pm on Friday, June 29 Dr. Dobler announced the closing of school to staff that their employment would end in 30 days, and that staff would have to start paying market rates for their housing.

By the end of 2007, Sheldon Jackson lost accreditation, and was sued by AGC over errors in its collateral description;24 Sitka lost a $6 million payroll, and over 100 jobs.

In 2008 Sheldon Jackson College trustees subdivided land, the Assembly voted to assess property tax, and Pacific Towers Properties was hired by the bank to manage the campus. In March, the school received money from AGC to pay employee severance, federal taxes, and debt to the city.

In 2009 Dubuque University, also a Presbyterian Church-affiliated private college, began talks with City and trustees about a relationship with the campus.

In the summer of 2010 Dubuque pulled out, with a critical letter;25 Dr. Dobler resigned and John Holst, former superintendent of Sitka’s public schools, was hired as manager. Property was sold to pay off the debt, which totaled about $10 million.

In February of 2011 the core campus was handed over to Alaska Arts Southeast, the parent of Sitka Fine Arts Camp. The camp had been held at Mt. Edgecumbe High School facilities for several years; in June of 2011, they came home.

2012 was the 100th anniversary of the ANB; Isabella Brady, granddaughter of Peter Simpson, founder of the Sitka Native Education Program, prominent Presbyterian and Kiks.ádi Clan Mother, died at 89.

2012-2014 Fine Arts Camp, Sitka Sound Science Center, the Island Institute, the Sitka Summer Music Festival collaborated on new cultural and science programs centering on education. In 2012 the Sheldon Jackson School and College Oral History Project began, in an effort to preserve and share the history and experiences of staff and students. In 2013 the Alaska Travel Industry Association conference was held on campus, the largest convention ever held in Sitka. The Fine Arts Camp harnessed phenomenal amounts of volunteer skill and labor to do major work on buildings, including historic preservation work on the National Historic Landmark buildings.

1 Goldschmidt and Haas, 198-99.
2 Goldschmidt and Haas, 64.
3 Kaawóotk Ghuwakaan (Harold Jacobs), FaceBook February 8 2013, and Thornton, 100.
4Hinckley, 34
5A. E. Austin, “History of the Mission,” The North Star, Vol. 5, No. 12, Sitka, Alaska; December 1892, in Armstrong, 25-34.
6Hinckley, 59
7 Austin in Armstrong, 25-34
8 Sheldon Jackson, Report on Education in Alaska (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1888), 22, accessed at https://archive.org.
9Sheldon Jackson, A Statement of Facts Concerning the Recent Difficulties at Sitka, Alaska, in 1885 (New York: T. McGill, 1886), accessed at https://archive.org.
10William Kelley, “Sitka Industrial School,” Home Mission Monthly, Vol. 2, No. 3, February 1889, in Armstrong 35-37.
11Beck, 31.
12 Nancy J. Ricketts, ed. R. Dauenhauer, “Matilda Kinnon Paul Tamaree / Kahtahah; Kah-tli-yudt” in Nora Marks Dauenhauer and Richard Dauenhauer, eds., Haa Kusteeyi, Our Culture: Tlingit Life Stories, Classics of Tlingit Oral Literature, Volume 3 (Seattle: University of Washington Press; Juneau, Alaska: Sealaska Heritage Foundation, 1994) 485.
13Armstrong 91/
14 Isabella Brady (grand daughter of Peter Simpson), personal communication
15Beck, 43.
16Hinckley, 354.
17Armstrong, 98.
18Lottie E. Stevenson, “History of Sheldon Jackson High School” The Verstovian Vol. 21, No. 7, April-May 1935, in Armstrong, 66 .
19 Neil Munro, “A Personal Evaluation of Mission in Alaska and Yukon Presbyteries” at http://www.yukonpresbytery.com/history/Interviews/munromemories.htm, 1994. Retrieved March 2013.
20 Sitka Sentinel January 20, 2002 p 1 (referring to vote to close in 2000, and accreditation)
21Sitka Sentinel 9/17/2001, page 1
22 Sitka Sentinel November 8 2007 p 1
23 Sitka Sentinel June 27 2007 p 1
24 Sitka Sentinel November 8 2007 p 1
25 Sitka Sentinel June 10 2010 p 1

Selected Sources

Armstrong, Neal A. “Sheldon Jackson Scenes: A Documentary History of Sheldon Jackson Junior College, 1878-1967.” MS Thesis, George Peabody College for Teachers, 1967.

Beck, Mary Giraudo. Ka.Gun.Da: George James Beck, Alaskan Pioneer Teacher, Missionary, Leader. Ketchikan, Alaska: Rocky Point Publishing, 1999.

Bovee, Dr. Charles. “SJ Historical Summary,” Draft. Unpublished manuscript, author’s collection, 2012.

Brady, Carol Feller. Through the Storm Towards the Sun. Bloomington, Indiana: Author House, 2006.

Crittenden, Edwin B. The Architecture of the Sheldon Jackson College Campus 1887-1990. Sitka, Alaska: Sheldon Jackson College Press, 1991.

Clemens, Janet, Chris Allan, Linda Cook, Heidi Siegel, and Amanda Zeman, edited by Patty Henry. Nomination for Sheldon Jackson School National Historic Landmark, Sitka, Alaska. National Register Number 72000193, designated August 7 2001.

The Daily Sitka Sentinel newspaper, Sitka, Alaska

Dauenhauer, Nora Marks and Richard Dauenhauer, eds. Haa Kusteeyi, Our Culture: Tlingit Life Stories, Classics of Tlingit Oral Literature, Volume 3. Seattle: University of Washington Press; Juneau, Alaska: Sealaska Heritage Foundation, 1994.

Goldschmidt, Walter R. and Theodore H. Haas. Haa Aani, Our Land. Edited and Introduction by Thomas F. Thornton. Seattle: University of Washington Press and Sealaska Heritage Foundation, 1998.

Hinckley, Ted C. Hinckley. Alaskan John G. Brady: Missionary, Businessman, Judge and Governor, 1878-1918. Miami, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1982.

Kan, Sergei. Memory Eternal: Tlingit Culture and Russian Orthodox Christianity through Two Centuries. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1999.

Mayberry, Genevieve. Sheldon Jackson Junior College: An Intimate History. New York: Board of National Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., 1953.

Mitchell, Donald Craig. Sold American: The Story of Alaska Natives and Their Land, 1867-1959. Fairbanks, Alaska: University of Alaska Press, 2003.

Munro, Neil. “A Personal Evaluation of Mission in Alaska and Yukon Presbyteries” at http://www.yukonpresbytery.com/history/Interviews/munromemories.htm, 1994. Retrieved March 2013.

Raibmon, Paige. Authentic Indians: Episodes of Encounter from the Late-Nineteenth-Century Northwest Coast. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2005.

Yaw, W. Leslie. Sixty Years in Sitka. Sitka, Alaska: Sheldon Jackson College Press, 1985.

Before the Transfer to the United States history:

Arndt, Katherine L. and Richard A. Pierce. A Construction History of Sitka, Alaska, as Documented in the Records of the Russian-American Company. Sitka, Alaska: Sitka National Historical Park, National Park Service, 2003.

Dauenhauer, Nora Marks Richard Dauenhauer, and Lydia T. Black, editors. Anóoshi Lingít Aaní Ká / Russians in Tlingit America: The Battles of Sitka, 1802 and 1804. Seattle and London: University of Alaska Press and Juneau, Alaska: Sealaska Heritage Institute, 2008.

Grinev, Andrei Val’terovich. The Tlingit Indians in Russian America, 1741-1867. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

Thornton, Thomas F., ed. Haa Léelk’w Hás Aaní Saax’ú: Our Grandparents’ Names on the Land. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012.

Vinkovetski, Ilya. Russian America: An Overseas Colony of a Continental Empire, 1801-1867. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Video interviews conducted by the Sheldon Jackson School and College Oral History Project:

Date Era
Frank and Ruth Roth 05/03/12 video college
Herb Didrickson 05/17/12 video high school
Charles and Edie Bovee 08/02/12 video college
Gil Truitt 08/16/12 video high school
Marie Laws, Chuck Bovee, Arliss Sturgelewski, Cayrn Coleman, Henrietta Van Maanen, Roger Schmidt 10/13/12 video high school and college
Charles Daniels 12/13/12 video high school
Fred Hope 12/29/12 video high school
Nancy Ricketts 01/01/13 video college
Robert Hoffman 01/24/13 video college
Pat Fager and Kathy Newman 02/02/13 video college
Scott McAdams and Dionne Brady Howard 02/09/13 video college
Henrietta Van Maanen and Elaine Strelow 07/12/13 video college
Chris Bryner 07/23/13 video college
Jack and Judy Ozment 07/31/13 video college
Rus and Marty Braun 08/17/13 video high school
Zoltan Barabas, Tom Climo, Jim DiGennaro, Dan Evans, Suha Tokman 09/13/13 video college
Fel Estrada and Molly Kitka 10/17/13 video high school
Dick and Mary Goff 12/28/13 video college
Bill and Nancy Yaw Davis 01/13/14 video high school and college
Marie Laws, Irene Shuler, Helen Mercado, and Maggie Verney 02/20/14 video high school

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Allen Auditorium, Sheldon Jackson School campus, 1954

Allen Auditorium, Sheldon Jackson School campus, 1954

Here is a video, that I just made in January,  Surprises and Contradictions in the Oral History of Sheldon Jackson School and College.

Over the past two years or so Alice Smith and I have been interviewing people associated with Sheldon Jackson School and College, in an effort to learn more about the institution, and to capture first hand experiences of it. We’ve now conducted nearly two dozen interviews on video, with more than thirty individuals. Most of these have been broadcast on local television.

A copy of all the videos will be archived with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program, and one copy will eventually be available in Sitka at the Stratton building, now part of the Alaska State Museums, when it is restored.

This work began with the urge to understand what happened, when the college failed (in 2007) in such a painful manner that years after it shut down, many people were still hostile towards it. For both Alice and myself, knowing that many good people had literally devoted their lives to the college, it was important to acknowledge their work.

The story is remarkable. Besides the complicated story of how and why so many people gave so much to this place, and why it failed, there is the story of the mission school. Sheldon Jackson was founded as a Presbyterian mission by its namesake, back in 1878. The events surrounding the first decades of the school shaped Alaska as we know it today. Which is kind of interesting.

But the most complicated part of the story is the days as a boarding high school, from 1917 to 1967. It was all Native up until the 1940s, and mostly Native after that. In recent decades there has been a growing awareness of the abuses of boarding schools for Natives, including forcibly removing children from their homes, punishing children for speaking their language and in other ways separating them from their culture, and including physical and even sexual abuse.

Most people, including myself, assumed that Sheldon Jackson was a place of repression and harsh discipline. While the school did not respect, or even see, Native culture, it was a small school, that students had to pay to attend, and it happened to have overall a positive culture. Interviews with students upend the stereotypes. It’s not so much that the school wasn’t racist, but that racism was pervasive in society at the time. We’ve learned that even though this generation who went to high school in the 1940s and 1950s are not complainers, life was not easy for Alaska Natives. Poverty, racism, and premature deaths of family members, in particular from tuberculosis, touched every member of this generation.

I made a short documentary, setting out some of this, which is at Surprises and Contradictions in the Oral History of Sheldon Jackson School and College.




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sheldon jackson campus

The five buildings of the Sheldon Jackson College quadrangle were built in 1911. The school began in 1878 as a Presbyterian mission, and retained its Presbyterian affiliation even as it became an independent four-year college. We came close to losing these buildings, when the college closed in disarray in 2007. (For the story of how they were saved, see the Sitka Fine Arts Campus Website.)

I love these handsome buildings, especially the light-filled spaces of the Richard H. Allen Memorial auditorium building.

But that’s probably not how they were ever seen by the college.

In 1946, the school planned to demolish the Allen building (saving all useful materials), and replace it with a new, two-story, reinforced concrete classroom and administrative building. (1)

Thank God, the Allen building was not replaced. But this may have been because just a year later they had a plan to redo the entire campus.

What was it about these buildings that made the Presbyterians hate them so? The new design would have demolished all five of the central buildings, and put in an oval drive, with an informal arrangement of new one-story classroom buildings. (2) Thank God, that plan was never fulfilled, either. The campus today would have been mere real estate. But that was probably already how the college saw it.

Presbyterians are Calvinists, a particularly stern branch of Christianity. Human nature is hopelessly depraved.

We deal with this deep sense of guilt through work; discipline; modesty; thrift; and fulfilling our civic duty.

Pretty things, booze, makeup, social dancing, and fancy architecture were just not part of the program.

Native culture was also not part of the program of this Native school. This is also manifest in the architecture, which has no trace of anything remotely indigenous.

While they never appreciated what they had, this philosophy also made them lousy fundraisers.  Professor Molly Ahlgren once told me, “They can’t succeed. It’s not who they are.” When they wanted to tear down Allen Hall in 1993, they couldn’t even afford the dump fees.

It also kept them from messing them up with trendy remodels. The buildings were preserved – under layers of plain and functional sheetrock, acoustic tile, and plywood.

In this way, these buildings’ very existence, their fanciful gothic-tudor-craftsman exteriors, and severely plain interiors – express a complex story of Presbyterian faith and works.

1. Verstovian (Sheldon Jackson High School newspaper), February 1946 p 1
2. Edwin Crittenden, The Architecture of the Sheldon Jackson College Campus 1887-1990 (Sitka, Alaska: Sheldon Jackson College Press, 1991) 34

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Sheldon Jackson yearbook page

“Deputation” from the 1967 Alayeksa, the yearbook of the last graduating class of Sheldon Jackson High School

Recently a friend wrote me that Sheldon Jackson School “was first and foremost a boarding school for Native students, and if one looks at the legacy of the boarding school era throughout Indian Country one begins to understand just how devastating an impact that period had on Native communities and their future development. . . . SJ is in many ways the central nerve of this forced assimilation in Alaska . . . “

The school’s legacy is complex, and some students had bad experiences, others had positive ones, and many had both.  Just as everyone’s experience was different, boarding schools were different. Sheldon Jackson was a private school and students had to pay to go there. Many were legacy students, whose parents and even grandparents went there. For students alive today, they were not forced to go to school, but they and their parents were forced to make a terrible choice – if they wanted education, they had to leave their homes, family, culture, and community.

Schools did deep damage to generations, not only in losing cultural practices, but in being told that it was not worth anything, losing their sense of themselves, their culture, parents, language, as worthy. There are also damaging consequences from taking away a person’s sense of power, through forced submission to rules and customs of an alien culture. Boarding schools were engaged in a culture-replacement project, based on the assumption that Native culture and language were not only inferior to Euro-American culture, but that they had to be stamped out in order for Native people to progress.

The really important and difficult thing about mission education is that it was never simply  missionaries forcing Natives to do something. Mission and government schools varied, through time, and for different students. On one end were children taken from their parents against their will. The vast majority, perhaps all Sheldon Jackson students in the 20th century, were there because their parents wanted them to be there.

Native people long ago, just as now, made their own decisions, and had their own reasons for adopting the dominant education and culture, or for making the sacrifice to send a child to Sheldon Jackson. This is hard to understand now, how Native people could have written and spoken about the need to “give up the old ways,” how Native people could have exhibited pride in assimilation. Many parents deliberately did not teach their children their language, in the belief that it would hold them back.  This is what we have to try to understand – the environment of 50 years ago or more, when abandoning one’s language seemed like a good choice; when there were few or no other options. It was not so long ago that being Native was understood as a handicap. There was no sense of how important language is to culture, and how important language and culture, and pride in one’s heritage, are to a healthy sense of who we are. Racial bias was pervasive. The assault on traditional culture was coming from all sides, from the government and popular culture, as well as in education.

When we paint all missions as sites of forced assimilation we ignore the complexities of the past. Sheldon Jackson was successful only because Native parents supported it. For a time in the earliest years, the mission tried to keep children by force, but in the 20th century it was unnecessary. We paint missionaries as villains, we drive a stake through their hearts, and think we are good. Demonizing missionaries only deflects attention from the continuity of past attitudes into the present. Racial bias, stereotypes of Native Americans, and patronizing attitudes did not vanish with the missionaries, even if we’d like to pretend they did.

A few weeks ago I was telling another friend about an interview with an older Native man, who believes that not teaching the children the language was a good decision. My friend gazed at me with sorrow – the kind of look I get from those who regret I don’t accept Jesus as my Savior – as if by listening, and acknowledging this man’s viewpoint – arrived at in part from his traumatic early-life experience – I was in agreement with his position.

The next day, I talked to a graduate of Sheldon Jackson High School in the 1960s, a woman who I knew as politically active, and I was expecting to hear about racist attitudes and harsh discipline. Instead, she told how she attended Sitka High School for a year, before going to Sheldon Jackson, and how there was a “world of difference” – that SJ was “like family.” How at Sitka High, she was a nobody, a “little Native girl.” Some other Native kids identified and were treated as white, and were popular at Sitka High; but for her, there was “so much racism.” At Sheldon Jackson, “life changed.” She was accepted as a Native student. Through her years at Sheldon Jackson, and through church, she has connections, everywhere in Alaska, even where she has no relatives, if there are SJ people from the years she was there.

This was another surprise, but an unintended consequence of segregated education at Sheldon Jackson was – in spite of the suppression of Native language and culture – to foster the identity of this generation as Alaska Natives, across tribal and geographic lines.

Later that same evening, I saw a film, Strangers No More, about a school for the children of immigrant workers in Tel Aviv, Israel. The film followed a handful of children, refugees, some of whom had seen family members murdered in front of them, who had grown up in refugee camps, and had fled to Israel. Again and again, tears came to my eyes, as the the women in the film, a teacher and the principal, took care to help the children through the traumas they had been through, and to help them to succeed in the school. The compassion and caring of these teachers was extraordinary, as was the deep gratitude and love of the students for the teachers, and the affectionate relationships among the children. The children’s faces glowed with love and pride. It was clear that without this school these children would have much diminished chances of success, perhaps even survival. One teacher says, it’s in the Bible – Jews have a duty to help those less fortunate.

Here is a mission school. Were the Tel Aviv teachers sensitive to the cultures of the children? They taught in Hebrew. It’s like SJ in another way: the power relationship is unavoidably uneven. The helper has more power than the student – or even the adults, the parents of the children. They helped the father of one young boy – tired, fearful, weary – by helping him through the process of extending his work visa. This is a great good – but it also reinforces the power relationship, and his helplessness.What does that do to how the son sees himself and his father? Any time the more fortunate help the less, we may be taking away their sense of control, of identity, and reinforcing the very power structure that has led to their problems – the war and evil that’s driven the kids from their homes. When the dominant culture trains kids from others’, we are implicitly putting down their culture. And, making the children outsiders in their own culture.

There are important differences, of course. The teachers at this school could not have taught in the children’s languages if they wanted to, so they had no choice but to teach in Hebrew. Unlike Sheldon Jackson, they did not punish children for speaking their own languages, and were not teaching in the children’s ancestral home place.

But in important respects, this school is much the same. We don’t know whether it works for all children, but for some, just as at Sheldon Jackson, it is life changing. The children leave better off than they were, with a stronger sense of themselves, friends with children from all over the world.

We still believe in the power of education, and in helping others. Public education in America came out of this basically patronizing, missionary impulse to help less fortunate children, and still has this sense behind it, so we need to learn about these more explicitly mission schools. As we go forward we have to consider what it is that is, and  was,  beneficial in these schools, and whether we can minimize the bad. Or, can we imagine an entirely new model, that integrates, and is guided by, students’ culture and language?

How much of the good is due to the individual teachers – like the best teachers at Sheldon Jackson, they genuinely respect the children and their abilities and expect the best from them. These teachers are highly educated themselves, and respect themselves. You can see that a weak teacher, or one with control issues, would be disastrous in this situation.

How much of the success is the fact that for these children, there are no alternatives? So there is no way but up. There must always be this complexity. Perhaps the best thing is for us to be aware of it, and to try to be humble, and motivated by what’s best for the child – and try to be open to what that might be.

A school can be all downside, discipline without love, and politics or doctrine instead of making the child feel safe, appreciated and able to grow, reinforcing a child’s sense that he is a failure. It depends on the individuals, and the culture of the institution. When it works, it is because of a genuine human relationship, and the particular situation, the setting, the times; and it’s a subtle, individual thing. You can imagine one child being ignored, not fitting in, and experiencing humiliation; while next to him, a child whose temperament fits better with the teachers and the culture of the institution thrives.

No doubt this school in Tel Aviv is not perfect, but it’s just as unlikely that Sheldon Jackson was wholly to be condemned. All offer important lessons.

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