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

The Last Orphans of Holy Cross

Mary Annette Pember

She and Della Mae joined the huge crowd of other Native children, engulfed by the grinding routine of orphanage life. Their lives followed a pattern of following orders without question for fear of beatings and other punishment at the hands of the nuns.

“We soon learned to be quiet and do what we were told,” she said.

The nuns put her to work in the garden where she pulled weeds all day long. The remainder of her time was spent caring for Della Mae and protecting her from the other children who liked to tease the little girl until she cried.

Although there were hundreds of children at the orphanage, Oseira has few memories of individuals. She and Della Mae were outsiders and always on guard against the other children.  Although they shared Native ethnicity with the other students, she and her sister they knew nothing of their culture or language.

“We were the only ones who stayed at the mission year round and the other kids thought we were pets to the nuns,” she recalls.

The reality couldn’t have been farther from the truth. She and Della Mae were forced to remain at the school because their parents were unable to care for them. The other students returned to their homes during the summer months, retaining some connection with family, Native culture and language.

When the others would secretly whisper to each other in their Native languages, she felt a terrible loneliness and longing for a heritage that she would never know.

There were signs everywhere in the mission forbidding use of indigenous language. For Oseira, the signs carried a double message of shame, shame over being Eskimo and shame over not knowing her heritage.

“I learned that being Eskimo was like being garbage in the nuns eyes,” she said.

The nuns were constantly on guard against any intrusion of Native culture among the children, preventing contact between them and the villagers of nearby Holy Cross.

“We were so isolated from the outside world,” Oseira recalls.

Boys at the Holy Cross Mission were typically punished for trying to run away by having their heads shaved, Oseira said. (Library of Congress)She and Della Mae would never learn the identity of their mother’s tribe. According to Oseira’s birth certificate, her mother was born in the village of Egagik on the Alaskan Peninsula on the edge of Bristol Bay. She was adopted and raised by a non-Native family and was given the name, Ruth Virginia Morris. According to information from the Alaskan Native Heritage Center, there are at least two tribes living near Egagik including the Yupic and Alugtiiq Nations.

Oseira has no childhood recollection of her mother with the exception of a painful memory that emerged with a whiff of seal oil later in life.  During Oseira’s last visit as a young woman to her mother’s home in Seattle, she recalls her mother eating food dipped in seal oil. “She told me that when I was a baby she got mad at my father and dropped me in hot seal oil,” Oseira said.

The smell of the oil brought back the pain of the burn.  Although she had always longed for family and hoped to develop a relationship with her mother, she never contacted her again.

Her non-Native father, Jack Norris, visited his daughters three times during their years at the orphanage. “We were always so excited to see him, thinking he would take us with him,” Oseira said.

But he never did. After walking him to the little airstrip, she and Della Mae would be silent during their 2-mile trek back to the orphanage.

“Adults never explained anything to us, especially the nuns; we were just shoved around,” she said.

Her days at the orphanage were an endless routine of hard work and a few hours of school during the winter months. Life was run with military precision, each task performed with factory like efficiency as the children were marched everywhere in rows of two. The nuns punished the children violently for even the smallest infraction.

“I think they enjoyed beating us. They used rulers, sticks, whatever they could get their hands on,” she recalls.

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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
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
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
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
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!"

Kathleen Reed
Kathleen Reed
Submitted by Kathleen Reed on
Misunderstanding This article uses an image from a Russian Orthodox Church, also called "Holy Cross"--a frequently used name--but the Roman Catholics split off from the Orthodox about a thousand years ago. They are not the same Church, though we all hope for reunion, which will bring reforms.

Kathleen Reed
Kathleen Reed
Submitted by Kathleen Reed on
Misunderstanding This article uses an image from a Russian Orthodox Church, also called "Holy Cross"--a frequently used name--but the Roman Catholics split off from the Orthodox about a thousand years ago. They are not the same Church, though we all hope for reunion, which will bring reforms.