By: Kim Metcalfe
The Alaska education system prior to statehood was a dual, segregated school system, in which Alaska Natives went to state or federally run schools, and white children went to locally run schools.*
Native schools in remote Alaskan villages went only through the 8th grade. At this point, Native children had the choice of traveling hundreds and even thousands of miles to a boarding school, or ending their education. If their family agreed to send them to a boarding school, the child would be away from home for nine months.
The “Molly Hootch case”
The “Molly Hootch case” forced the State of Alaska to fund local schools through 12th grade; the settlement ended one part of a legacy of officially enforced assimilation.
Forty years on, many Alaskans have never heard of Molly Hootch, the woman whose name is synonymous with a lawsuit that changed the way students in rural Alaska schools are educated.
In a 2016 article, Charles Wohlforth, a columnist with the Anchorage Daily News, said Molly Hootch’s name, “…came to designate the most consequential lawsuit in Alaska history to reverse assimilation policy over Alaska Natives….”
The case was later renamed after Molly dropped out of school, and its official name is “Tobeluk v. Lind,” named after a later plaintiff, Anna Tobeluk, and defendant Marshall Lind, then state commissioner of education.
Bruce Twomley, an attorney who worked for Alaska Legal Services in the early 1970s, was co-counsel for the plaintiffs with attorney Stephen Cotton on the Molly Hootch case. During a recent Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) lecture, Twomley recounted the case.
The old system “was costly and failed to educate. It disrupted family and village life,” Twomley said. He cited studies that have been done documenting the trauma caused by the boarding school system.
Reaching and implementing a settlement
Twomley and Cotton were successful in reaching a settlement that was finalized in September, 1976. The consent decree was contingent on passage of a bond proposal by the voters of the state, which was successful after an advertising campaign by the Alaska Federation of Natives and a lot of grassroots campaigning to get out the vote.
Powerful Alaska Native senators of the time, Senator John Sackett and Senator Frank Ferguson, were also central to success of the effort to obtain funding. The consent decree included funding for construction or renovation of schools in 126 villages.
Key terms of the settlement included a Statement of Agreed Facts and a detailed list of the remedies that the State was required to implement.
History trying to repeat itself
The topic was settled over 40 years ago, but talk of sending village children to regional boarding schools resurfaced recently, suggested by Governor Mike Dunleavy when he was running for office.
After outcry from various Native groups, Dunleavy backed off the idea, but it brought back memories of the trauma it caused generations of Natives who were forced to leave their homes and families during their formative years.
The Molly Hootch case is a fascinating look at the history of rural education in Alaska. Links to Bruce Twomley’s SHI presentation, the consent decree, and articles relating to the Molly Hootch decision are listed below:
Bruce Twomley’s presentation at the Sealaska Heritage Institute lecture series can be seen here (a video will start automatically):
The consent decree, “Tobeluk v. Lind,” can be found here:
A scholarly article documenting the specifics of the case by attorney Stephen E. Cotton of the Harvard Center for Law and Education (Twomley’s co-counsel), can be found here:
To do a deep dive into the Molly Hootch case, check out this information on the Alaskool site:
To find out more about who Molly Hootch is, check out this Alaska Daily News article by Charles Wohlforth:
And for a political analysis of the damage Republicans (including Alaska Governor Dunleavy) have done to education and how the writer believes it has hurt the GOP, check out this recent New York Times article:
Kim Metcalfe is Alaska’s former Democratic National Committeewoman. She also served for ten years as chair of the Juneau Democrats (now known as the Tongass Democrats). She is a retired union business agent for the Alaska State Employees Association/AFSCME Local 52 and a lifelong Alaskan.
* The consent decree for Tobeluk v. Lind (link above) has an excellent description of the origins and effects of this dual system under the “Statement of Agreed Facts“. It is very readable and highly recommended. – Editor
Editor’s Note: How it Happened is an occasional series dedicated to providing our readers with the history of issues important to Alaskans. Facts matter, and we’ll do our best to get them right for you. If you see a factual error, please contact Mary at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll look into it, and if we agree, we’ll post a correction.