Sasha Housley’s father was sent from his childhood home to an Alaska boarding school for Indigenous children, where the youngsters were punished for speaking their own languages or singing tribal songs. 

Housley’s father, who passed away in 2016, rarely talked about his experiences at the Wrangell Institute, operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. 

But her father did recall one time that he and other boys snuck into the school’s basement to sing Alaska Native songs, unnoticed by the school administration.

Housley shared the story Sunday during an afternoon ceremony to memorialize 215 Indigenous children whose bodies have been discovered in unmarked graves on the grounds of a former boarding school for Indigenous children in British Columbia.

“I am my father’s daughter,” Housley said. “I feel the impact of losing our own culture. Learning about those schoolchildren and their suffering made me think about it in a deeper way.”

Children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Canada suffered from hunger and disease as well as physical, emotional and sexual abuse, according to documents and recollections of survivors.

Some of the children were as young as 3 years old.

In Fairbanks Sunday, the mournful song of an Alaska Native singer filled the air as a procession of parents, grandparents and children secured 215 orange banners to the Centennial Bridge, next to the Golden Heart Plaza. The banners will hang along the handrail for nine days, the time given for each child to be memorialized for an hour.

Housley said she planned the memorial on Facebook, after reading about the abuses at the former boarding school. 

People quickly signed up for the event, which included dancing, drumming, singing and speakers. Tanana Chiefs Conference supported the event. 

Participants said they wanted to raise awareness about the suffering of the schoolchildren at Kamloops and about the compulsory education of indigenous children in Canada and the United States that denied the youngsters their families, communities and culture.

Known as Indian Residential Schools, the schools’ stated objective was assimilating Native children into Euro-American culture.

“We stand with Alaska Native people and their families who continue to be impacted by their boarding school experiences,” the Tanana Chiefs Conference said in a prepared statement.

“We encourage Alaskans from all walks of life to learn the truth about the impact of boarding schools and how Indigenous children suffered physical, cultural, spiritual and sexual abuse and neglect,” according to the TCC statement.

From the early 1900s to the 1970s, Alaska Native children were sent from their homes and communities to boarding schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, churches and the state government.

Shirley Holmberg of Fairbanks was among those children. She attended Sunday’s event after learning about it on Facebook. Holmberg said that she did not experience abuse at boarding school, but it was traumatic being taken far from her family and community.

“When I read about what happened to those schoolchildren, I wanted to cry … To think about the families who lost their children, it never goes away,” Holmberg said.

Tanana Chiefs Conference emphasized that the “stories and experiences of children must be witnessed.”

“Today, Alaska Native educators are working in partnership with others to create learning models that lift up our traditions, ceremonies and kinship ties,” TCC said. “We want to empower our young leaders to utilize connections to their Ancestral knowledge, family histories and practices and build solid identities and contribute to their communities.”

Contact political reporter Linda F. Hersey at 459-7575 or follow her at twitter.com/FDNMpolitics.