By Melinda Munson

Assemblymember Reba Hylton presented a draft resolution to the Civic Affairs Committee Feb. 8 proposing that 12 of the 24 lots at Garden City RV Park, formally known as Blocks 95 and 102, be repatriated to Skagway Traditional Council.

The lots, purchased by the municipality from the Juneau Archdiocese in 2013 for $1.7 million, was the site of the St. Pius X Mission Residential Boarding School for Native Children (1932-1960). 

According to Sara Kinjo-Hischer, tribal administrator for Skagway Traditional Council (STC), a sovereign tribal government, the school was used “for the purpose of exterminating Native culture, language and arts.” 

“Not only were mission and boarding schools in the 1900s used to assimilate Native children to make them ‘civil’ by taking away culture and language of the Indigenous people, the Church also introduced sex offenders into the school system,” Kinjo-Hischer added. “The children who stayed at the school were miles away from the protection of parents and relatives.”

Whether the Catholic Church had a clear title to the land they built their mission on is uncertain. Hylton stated she believed “the municipality purchased it [Pius X] without a clear title.”

Mayor Andrew Cremata expressed the same sentiments.

“I got a message from somebody recently asking who owned the title before, or who owned the property before the Catholic Church,” he said. And I don’t know the answer to that. And, I especially don’t know, because the Catholic Church never had a title. So, I don’t know that the Catholic Church ever owned it. I don’t know who owned it immediately before the Catholic Church, if indeed someone did have a title to it. I do know that for approximately 11,000 years it was the property of the Chilkat Tlingit people.”

To further complicate the title issue, federal law outlines that Native boarding schools which received federal land or funds be returned to the tribe, in some instances.

According to federal code 25 USC 280, …“when no longer used for mission or school purposes said lands shall revert to the Indian owners.”

The tribal government has been researching if 25 USC 280 applies to Pius X.

STC President Jaime Bricker, whose grandfather was brought to Pius X at age four, made the argument to the Skagway Assembly in 2013 that STC may have rights to the mission land. 

“Skagway Traditional Council, at the time that the municipality was looking at purchasing the property from the Catholic Church, approached the municipality and asked them not to move forward,” Bricker said. “And it was my understanding at that time, that there was no clear title to the property. I know that because the title agency was asking Skagway Traditional Council to sign a release to claim, and to my knowledge, that was never done. STC never signed a release to claim.”

Bricker explained why it is so difficult for STC to produce documentation to prove STC could have a legal claim to Garden City.

“Skagway Traditional Council still does not have enrollment records for the 30 years that that school operated, which means that we have no idea how many individuals ended up at the steps of that school, and how many left it, when and how,” she said. “And if that’s not terrifying to folks in Skagway, I feel like it should be. So knowing that STC has worked all this time to find enrollment records and have not been successful, it’s really no surprise that we’ve struggled to this day to find complete information about the property ownership and how it was secured, how it was funded.”

Bricker visited Washington D.C. in November to meet with the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of the Interior, which are helping to secure records for Native boarding schools.

Assemblymembers Dan Henry and Deb Potter expressed support for the resolution, which “directs the borough manager to negotiate with the Tribe and to arrange for the transfer to the Tribe of 12 of the 24 lots that constitute the Property.” The proposal, now sponsored by the entire Civic Affairs Committee, has not yet been added to the assembly agenda.

Assemblymember Sam Bass, in attendance as a private citizen, voiced his disapproval for the resolution. 

“Consider this, at the turn of the 20th Century, the Bureau of Indian Affairs supported 350 boarding schools across the United States, churches, with the support of the federal government, supported hundreds more,” he said. “Should each of these sites be gifted? I don’t think so. Now, if there were, if these were burial sites, if burial sites were found, then that changes the obligation in my mind. But in our situation, there is not a burial site. With that, I do not think we have an obligation to give this land and I think that we should move forward with the original plan of using this property to address our critical housing shortage.”

Hylton said when it comes to Garden City, she wants to take the word “gifting” out of her language. “…we are not gifting anything” she said. “In my eyes, we are returning it to the rightful owners.”

Hylton hopes the decision over the land can be a “non-contentious” process. “We are in a place in history where we get to decide this again, this is a historic decision,” she said.