Courtesy Kim Oseira
Kim Oseira with her great grandsons Kaiden, 5, and Ethan, 7.

The Last Orphans of Holy Cross

Mary Annette Pember
2/6/14

The memories are coming back to her now in bits and pieces. Sometimes they emerge slowly and sometimes they engulf her bringing a terrible pain she describes as a tsunami wave of hurt.

When this happens she raises her arms up in the air. “I say, dear God in heaven, please help me, and I pray. Prayers keep you in a line of goodness,” said Kim Oseira, Alaskan Native and survivor of the Holy Cross Mission Orphanage in Holy Cross, Alaska. 

The boarding school, located along the Yukon River, over 400 miles from Fairbanks, was officially called an orphanage in church records. Holy Cross Mission was founded in 1880 near the village of Holy Cross, a community of Athabascan and Yupik Eskimos, according to the Holy Cross tribal website. The early mission included a day school, boarding school and church. Today, only a church remains, the Holy Family Catholic Church served by Catholic diocese of Fairbanks.

Oseira, 73, has come forward to tell her story because, she says, “It is time.” Over several hours and multiple interviews she takes us through her childhood years at the Jesuit orphanage, sharing memories that she once thought were “completely blotted out.”

Her history, she says, is the same as so many other Native children who were taken from their families and raised in religious mission boarding schools in Canada and Alaska.

Holy Cross Mission on the Yukon, Alaska, circa 1900-1927. (Library of Congress)

“This [story] is for those who can’t speak up, for those who’ve died or gone off the edge into mental illness or addiction,” she said.

She is sharing the account in hopes that it will help serve as a memorial for those who have been silenced and guide them towards some form of catharsis and healing. And of course she is coming forward for Della Mae, always for Della Mae.

There are few adults in Oseira’s earliest memories. She seemed to be alone even at age five in Nome, Alaska, where she was the primary care giver for her sister, Della Mae, two years younger.

“I was responsible for feeding her, changing her diapers, teaching her how to go potty, everything,” she recalls. Later she learned that her birth parents, non-Native father and  Alaska Native mother, were chronic alcoholics.

Oseira was five years old in 1945 when her mother was sent to a TB sanatorium and suddenly everything changed.

Her memories are returning in a series of vignettes such as the following; she is on a plane and holding tightly onto Della Mae. There is a man wearing a uniform in the plane with them but he ignores them, speaking only to the pilot.

“All I remember is desperately holding onto Della Mae. For some reason we were each wearing new dresses and carrying dolls. We’d never had dolls before. Della Mae wore blue and I wore pink,” she recalls.

Frightened, she looks down at the ground as the plane begins to descend toward a huge, stark white cross. The vision of the cross is a mark, an ominous symbol that fills her with dread.

That feeling of fear dominated her childhood during the next 12 years that she and Della Mae lived at Holy Cross Orphanage.

After the plane lands, the man in the uniform takes the girls to a dirt road and points. “He told us to walk until we came to a building, “ she said.

The man gets back on the plane and she and Della Mae begin to walk the two miles to Holy Cross mission.

Children of the Holy Cross Mission on the Yukon, Alaska, circa 1900-1916. (Library of Congress)“Della Mae cried and cried. I just kept walking not thinking anything, pulling her along and holding onto the doll,” she said.

In Oseira’s memory, the doll represented a small defense against her fear and she clung to it as she approached a small door at the main orphanage building.

The first sight of the nuns, in their long black robes and starched white habits surrounding their faces, frightens them badly. Instinctively she follows the nuns’ orders, cleaning Della Mae who had soiled herself during the long walk.

In her next recollection, the fine dresses are gone replaced by mission uniforms. After searching repeatedly for the beautiful dolls she finds them later at the bottom of the outhouse.

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Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
How many Natives who have been persecuted by religion have adopted the religion that persecuted them? I'm a devout Agnostic, but if I'm going to worship it won't be under the guidance of anyone who has done such horrible things.

Two Bears Growling's picture
Two Bears Growling
Submitted by Two Bears Growling on
I am so sorry for what was done to you Kim. Know in your heart that the Creator can heal that pain in time even if it takes a lifetime. It says in the Christians Bible that at the end of time every tear will dry & all memories of this life will be no more. I hope that is so my friend. Sometimes our pasts are a painful thing even decades later. I know as I have listened to some of our elders older than myself I have seen their tears & the pain they feel even after almost a lifetime of those terrible events suffered at the hands of those some of us were sent to take care & educate us. I also believe that those monsters have a special place in Hell waiting for them. Our Creator is a loving, kind, gentle spirit who can take that pain away in time. Sometimes He sends special people into our lives who show us daily just how special we truly are, loving us, showing us the compassion of He who made us all. Take care my friend & may Man Above send a spirit of kindness your way this very day.

odawak66's picture
odawak66
Submitted by odawak66 on
It took a lot of courage for this woman to share her story. So many are silent because of the degree of trauma they experienced. It has been proven though the more we can talk about it the more we can recover from the residual effects. There is a annual school that is conducted in Albuquerque, NM each year by the Native American Training Institute. The school is designed and conducted by Native people. This will be my sixth year (the school use to be conducted under the name "American Indian Training Institute." The school addresses some of the residuals of historical trauma effectively.

Stands on Hill's picture
Stands on Hill
Submitted by Stands on Hill on
This story made me want to cry. God bless you for stepping forward to share your story. And I hope that it touches and helps others who have gone through the horrors of being taken from family and put into a boarding school where they have had an abusive life. or perhaps even the children/grandchildren of those who have endured such trauma - and will help them understand what that person went through. Cannot understand what is WRONG with people who present themselves as "religious persons" and commit such acts against children! My prayers go out to you - yes, the Creator will come when you call Him - and he will touch and help you. My prayers also for your sister who struggles with the past. May God bless you and your entire family.

marten's picture
marten
Submitted by marten on
I went to Holy Cross Mission, as an orphan. Many people from the Yukon River villages, did. To my knowledge, we never suffered physical abuse at the hands of the sisters, brothers and priests. We were allowed to visit the villagers in Holy Cross once in a while. We were allowed to run in the woods after the school day was over. We did have to work at the woodpile; we worked in the garden. We had different movies to watch. It wasn't a place for so much entertainment. There were all sorts of fun. We were in bunks, and kept warm. We celebrated holidays like Christmas. Above all, we were educated. We were told constantly, that we were equal to other people who happened to be rich. We were equal in the eyes of God. I never forgot this, ever.

marten's picture
marten
Submitted by marten on
I went to Holy Cross Mission as an orphan. We were treated very well considering how poor we were. We were allowed to visit with the Holy Cross villagers, occasionally. We went on holiday trips to the beautiful meadow, by pickup. It was a hard life, but we had 3 meals a day. We were allowed to play in the woods in the hills above us after the school and work day. Most of all, we were told time and time again, that we were/are equal to everyone else. This served many of us very well when we entered the mainstream for a lifetime.

marten's picture
marten
Submitted by marten on
I have to give a more complete report: I did witness abuse on very infrequent basis. The abuse was more mental, than physical. And it was based on the ignorance of the period. Always remember it was the times. And our people had no way of raising their orphans, adequately. So, Holy Cross Mission was a godsend. Our people were dirt-poor. Also, many of us had relatives who could come to visit their children. Even a trip like that was many times more than our families could afford. What was the abuse? Shame, for what we did. We were humiliated in front of our peers. This humiliation stemmed more from ignorance. How were these caucasian people to know that natives had innate intelligence, sensitivity, and vulnerability which were overlooked? After all, these men and women were highly educated in the formal ways. They just didn't realize what Will Rogers meant when he said: "We are all ignorant; except in different ways!"
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