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Community Perspective

My lived experience at a boarding school in Wrangell

Many things were said of Wrangell Institute — many bad words but not in my storied experience.

In 1950, I was sent to the Wrangell Institute when I was 8 years old. Prior to Wrangell, I had gone to first grade in the villages of Kokrines, Galena and Nenana but never completed a full year of school due to the family trapline and seasonal moving about as part of a nomadic lifestyle. Finally, my first year at the Wrangell Institute, I got through first grade.

Lately, I have been seeing a lot of perplexing information regarding boarding schools of years past and I gave it some thought as to which is true. Many of Wrangell’s students came from all over Alaska, and countless students spoke their Native language. While many of us did not, I learned bits of other languages. I have personally heard stories of students getting punished for speaking their Native language when I know for a fact that some of them did not speak their Native language to begin with. More notably, I did not see anyone get punished for talking in their language. No one.

In the early 1950s, some students with bad character were given a choice to go into a correctional facility or go to Wrangell. Those who chose Wrangell were some rough students whose only regard were themselves, so when they did bad things, as a result, the whole dormitory suffered the consequences. I remember my whole dormitory being put on restriction due to these bad guys. Superintendent W.S. Watkins put a stop to those type of guys showing up in Wrangell. I know, personally, some of these guys ended up in federal prison at McNeil Island.

Wrangell’s correctional measures varied per offensive behavior. For example, the strapline was more humiliating than any physical harm of being struck with a belt. I know some of the boys who ran the strapline for bad behavior, and they weren’t hurt. Two guys that ran the line were laughing when it was over. From my experience being there, I never saw anyone who had to take all of their clothes for that run. Not one while I was there.

I know of older boys who got caught smoking cigarettes. Four guys had to walk around a pool table to receive three punishing swats with a broom stick. One amusing wrongdoer had a Life Magazine tucked inside his pants to absorb the broomstick swats. Jayne Mansfield was on the magazine cover, and the attending audience of other students sure got a kick out of that scene with only faint smiles; no tears shed by the wrongdoer. If fellow students just obeyed the school’s rules and had done good things, then all went smoothly.

Back in the early 1950s, a lot of the Alaska Native Wrangell students were orphans without a home to go to, come to find out. I arrived there when I was 8 and I did not return home to my mother and stepfather in Nenana until I was 11 years old, soon to be 12 years old within a months’ time. The Wrangell Institute was a must-go for me because my family lived way out in the woods, trapping for a living, and I had no school close by, which was common in those days. I graduated eighth grade in Wrangell. I was there for a very long time.

In looking back to my boarding school years, the Wrangell Institute was good for me academically. I learned extracurriculars like dance, was on the student council, and I had an excellent basketball coach and teacher, John H. Simpson. Coach Simpson understood us Native boys, and I learned a lot of lifetime skills by participating in as many school functions as possible. Another great teacher was J. Lester Minner. I was tested in the seventh grade to see how I was doing in school academically , and I achieved a score equivalent to the 11th- to 12th-grade level. So, you see, I did learn and Wrangell definitely was good for me. While I had the best teachers, I survived restriction several times that I deserved because I was very mischievous, along with being a creative adventurer. I never did bad stuff though.

To sum my lived experience at the Wrangell Institute, my life there was very positive and was not full of false stories as declared in some written stories I had read. The best and most positive aspect of Wrangell Institute is this: I have acquired very good, lasting friendships from all over Alaska.

Mickey Allen of Fairbanks is a former diesel technology teacher at Hutchison High School and a lifelong Alaska. 

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