The Last Orphans of Holy Cross
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.
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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