By Melinda Munson
An archaeological assessment at the municipality’s Garden City RV Park, the site of the former Pius X Mission Boarding School for Indian Children, commenced May 2022. A report was published Sept. 7.
The University of Arizona Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology was contracted by the Municipality of Skagway, in partnership with Skagway Traditional Council (STC), “to conduct an assessment of the cultural significance of Pius X Mission School site, which is slotted for future development,” according to the report.
“It was good for us to work on this together,” said STC President Jaime Bricker. “STC has been working on this since I started on the council 19 years ago.”
Ground penetrating radar was used to rule out the existence of human remains, as have been found at other mission schools. Recently, 15 anomalies suspected to be gravesites of children were located at the nearby Chooutla Residential School in Carcross, Yukon (see page 7).
“…I can guarantee you the council is very happy that there were no bodies found,” said Tribal Administrator Sara Kinjo-Hischer, regarding the Pius X site. She noted the mission owned much more land than the two public blocks surveyed. “This is not conclusive there aren’t any unmarked graves in Skagway.”
Pius X operated from 1931-1959. The establishment was founded by Father Edgar Gallant, a Benedictine priest who started religious work in Alaska in 1918. Andrew Beierly, a STC member and Skagway resident, attended Pius X as a teenager. He said in his interview that Gallant was “like a father to me” and they became friends.
Per the report, Gallant accepted federal funds to aid the school, and constantly fundraised, which included having students craft non-traditional pottery and baskets, make Western style fringed vests, and care for hundreds of chickens to collect eggs to sell. Pupils were not allowed to eat the fresh eggs. Instead, they consumed expired army rations.
“It is unknown what became of Father Gallant’s funds he worked so hard to raise. It is interesting, nonetheless, that he did not pay the sisters their wages for years, was consistently behind on bills, wrote frequently of the dire financial state of the school yet he always had a new car, bought and sold land regularly in Skagway and traveled extensively including Hollywood and Rome (STC notes 2023).”
The Sisters of Saint Ann, based in Victoria, British Columbia, joined Gallant in 1932 to assist with teaching. “Recently, the order recognized its role in cultural suppression and shaming as well as abuse or lack of protection toward students in their care. A large children cemetery was recently discovered in association with one of the Sisters’ schools in British Columbia – Kamloops Indian Residential School (Canadian Religious Conference 2014).”
Students went to Mass one to two times a day and wore matching clothes and hairstyles. They marched in line when they traveled on foot. Sara Cash, STC Cultural Resource Specialist, said the school buildings, rebuilt after a fire in 1945, were prone to flooding and she came across many “references to poor construction.”
While the school admitted non-Native day pupils from the community, the Native students experienced segregation. One example is how they were treated at the movie theater.
Pius X pupils “…generally occupied the balcony of the theater and had to take a weeknight to go to the theater when no white children were present so they would not be blamed for whatever happened inside (1Thornton 2004).”
The Sept. 2023 report contains six interviews with former students or their family members, as many pupils are now deceased.
“The interview process was extremely emotional,” said Bricker. “Families are still making decisions on whether or not they want to talk about these things – whether or not they want to share them with the public.”
Sexual abuse at Pius X is well documented. Priests frequently came through the mission to help teach or on sabbatical. According to the report, “at least two of these visiting priests were on the Anchorage list of abusive priests for assault with attempt to rape and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. One of them served time in federal prison before returning to active ministry. It is now officially confirmed by the Dioceses of Anchorage and Juneau that Father [Francis] Cowgill, who served as principal of the school from 1952 to 1959, was a pedophile. Anonymous sources indicate that there was at least one more priest who abused children, as well as a teacher who was alcoholic and showed pornographic magazines to the children. An anonymous source indicates that when older students learned of the heinous sexual abuses of smaller children, they took them out of the school and temporarily boarded them in a hotel in Skagway.”
There are more accounts of abuse not published in the report, but STC must be careful what it makes public.
“There are other stories that we heard, but we don’t have permission to share,” Kinjo-Hischer said. STC continues to process documents from the archives of the Sisters of St. Ann, some of which are protected under Canadian privacy laws.
While the report may give a glimpse of life at Pius X and rule out graves at today’s Garden City RV Park, it doesn’t ease the Tribe’s pain.
“This report is about a land issue. It’s not what STC has been in search of,” Bricker said. “We have not secured the information to be satisfied. We have missing children.”
According to Bricker, STC has acquired limited enrollment records for Pius X, particularly for the 1930s and 40s. She pointed to a photograph of approximately 70 children. That year’s census,1940, listed the number of mission students at 21.
Bricker hopes STC can reconstruct enrollment records and start building student profiles. She visited Washington D.C. in 2022 to ask the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) and the Department of Justice to add Skagway to the investigative report associated with the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative and help locate boarding school records. While in the capitol, she met Alaska Rep. Mary Peltola and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland.
“The DOI later agreed that Skagway belongs in the report which is supposed to be rectified in the next edition,” Bricker said.
“But where we are hitting another wall with enrollment records is with Bureau of Indian Affairs archives in Washington that say they don’t have them. Or at least don’t have them assembled in an accessible way,” Bricker said. “Not scanned – probably buried in boxes somewhere if they do have them.”
“I am frustrated,” she added. “I am emotional over it. Until we have enrollment record, we have hundreds of missing children.”
1Thornton, Thomas F. 2004. Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park Ethnographic Overview and Assessment. Report prepared for the U.S. Department of Interior National Park Service, Denver Service Station, Colorado.