Anchorage woman searches for family at former boarding school: ‘The rest of me is still in Pennsylvania’

The caption on this artwork reads Academic Building, Indian School, Carlisle, PA. (Public Domain image from National Archives and Records Administration)
The Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The school was open from 1879 to 1918, and Native children from across the country went to the school to be assimilated into Western culture. (Public Domain image from National Archives and Records Administration)

An Anchorage resident is trying to find her great-aunt, who went to a boarding school for Native children and never returned. 

Mary Kininnook was from Ketchikan. While she wasn’t forcibly taken to boarding school, the government heavily persuaded her parents to send her to one. She never came back.

Kininnook’s family has been looking for her for decades. Kininnook is Eleanor Hadden’s great-aunt, and she said the search for Kininnook started in the 1960s.  

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“My grandmother, probably in 1960, either late ’66, early 1967, and made a comment to my mother kind of in passing,” Hadden said. “My grandmother’s sister Mary had gone to school and died there. And that was basically the entire conversation.”

After Hadden’s mom heard that, she started to research what happened to Kininnook. Her mom first looked at Chemawa Indian School in Oregon, but there was no record of her. 

Then, in the early 1980s, Hadden went on a trip to Pennsylvania. Her mom told her to stop at Carlisle Indian Industrial School to see if there was a record of Kininnook and if she’s buried there. 

Hadden went to the graveyard and looked at the headstones. She didn’t find a headstone with Mary Kininnook’s name on it, but there were a lot of unknown graves.

A whitish gray gravestone with a small cross and the word "unknown"
A gravestone at the Carlisle Indian School marking the grave of an unidentified Native child. (Production still from Al Jazeera’s “Fault Lines”)

Then she went to the archives. There was nothing there, either. There were photos of children, but those didn’t help Hadden because she had no idea what Kininnook looked like as a child.

“That night I called my mother to tell her that we had looked and then we didn’t find her. And we both cried, and it felt like we had lost her even though we never knew her,” Hadden said. “It was just an incredibly sad evening because we thought we might find something. Found nothing.”

Hadden and her mom didn’t give up. They contacted an anthropologist and a historian in Pennsylvania, and they went through records. The researchers found the records messy and incomplete — which is common for records at boarding schools for Native children.

Eventually they found a record of Kininnook — an admission card to the hospital. It had her name, age, birth date and what she was in the hospital for.

“Just below her name, handwritten, it said ‘Died December 28,’” Hadden said.

Kininnok had just turned 14 when she died. She had been away from home since she was nine years old. 

Once more of the school’s records were digitized, they found another. It was a letter written from the school to Kinannook’s father, saying that she wanted to stay one more year at Carlisle.

Kininnook didn’t make it that full year. Hadden said she likely died of tuberculosis six months after that letter was sent. 

It’s been more than 100 years since she died, and Hadden is trying to bring Kininnook home to Alaska. That’s not easy because no one knows where she is buried. 

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School now belongs to the U.S. Army, and Hadden has been working with them to try and find Kininnook’s body. 

A forensic anthropologist who can identify the sex and age of a child by looking at bone structure will look at the unknown graves to see if they can find bones of a 14-year-old girl.

“So they’ll go through, and they’ll do the first one, and examine it. And she’ll take all the measurements and give her conclusion as to whether this is a male or a female or a boy or girl, or undetermined or whatever. And if it doesn’t seem to look like a 14-year-old girl, then they’ll go to the next unknown spot,” Hadden said.

The Army was supposed to do this two summers ago for Hadden’s family, but it was delayed because of the pandemic. The family hasn’t heard from them since.

RELATED: Advocates hope return of Alaska Native boarding school student from Carlisle is first of many

They may not find Kininnook after looking at the unknown graves either. Hadden isn’t sure if there are plans to use ground-penetrating radar to find bodies, like they did at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Canada.

Hadden said that because she doesn’t have family in Ketchikan anymore, the family will need to decide where to lay her to rest if they find her at Carlisle. But it’s hard to make plans when Hadden doesn’t know if they will find her.

She says the boarding schools had a lasting impact on her family — that it damaged their ability to connect with each other. She says that her grandmother, Kininnook’s sister, came home from boarding school and didn’t know how to be motherly. The schools were run military-style and without a lot of affection. 

Hadden said that affected her mom, who wanted her own children to learn how to connect with each other. 

“So it was her desire to make sure that her children knew they were loved, and knew that she was proud of whatever we did,” Hadden said. “We keep saying, break that cycle. Because mom knew she didn’t get the words of love and she wanted to make sure her children got it. So she broke that.”

Hadden thinks she feels connected to Kininnook because they share the same Lingít name – Aankeenaa. 

“The rest of me is still in Pennsylvania,” she said.

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