Territorial School of Fort Yukon

DSCN3308A mission school operated in Fort Yukon even before the United States purchased the Alaska territory from Russia in 1867. I suspect it was built and supported by the Episcopal Church which is still active in our village. The building no longer exists and I have never been able to identify its location.

A territorial school was built in 1913 for the white children and those of mixed heritage. It was a one room schoolhouse with a wood burning stove. Native Alaskan children could not attend that school. Why was that?

The Athabascan children attended a school built for them by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It is clear from the records that it was operational by 1925, and served the community through the 1950’s. Our Alaska state representative Don Young lived here and taught at that school. LIke its predecessor, it was a one room affair with a wood burning stove.

The young Athabascan children were punished for speaking Gwich’in in school. My own students have told me stories about their grandparents having their teeth pulled by teachers for daring to speak their own language (not by Don Young, who has the respect of the community and still maintains a cabin in the village). But, why punish a child for speaking his own language? BIA SAP – destroy the language and you rid yourself of the culture behind it.

DSCN3309

Fort Yukon was a booming place in the mid-30’s so the territorial school built a second floor to house two additional teachers. After a fire struck and completely destroyed that building in 1939, it was rebuilt near the edge of the Yukon River along what used to be the village’s primary residential and commercial center. This is the building you see in the pictures above. The lower floor is constructed of square, hand-hewn logs that have been chinked with heavy ropes of hemp – quite intriguing.

In May of 1949, a terrible flood devastated the village but somehow the new school building survived. Of course, it has since fallen into disrepair. Its lower flooring is rotted and unsafe but somehow the upstairs has fared better. The kids sneak up there to party. The walls are adorned in pornographic graffiti and just about every liquor known to man is represented among the fallen bottles that litter the floor and line the rafters like bottles on display behind a bar.

The photograph above shows the back of the territorial school as it exists today. The dike just out of the picture to the right was built in 1992 to protect the remaining homes that still exist along the waterfront, now called “downtown.” After the 1949 flood, the town was rebuilt at it’s present location on higher ground about a mile from the river and is referred to as uptown. Our present school is there, right on Main Street.

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