Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

Sophia Tetoff is finally home, 126 years after she was sent away.

About 100 of the 400 residents turned out on July 9 for the return of her remains to St. Paul Island, which is located in the Bering Sea 300 miles off mainland Alaska.

"This is a momentous occasion that holds deep meaning for the Aleut community of St. Paul Island,” President Amos Philemonoff, Sr., of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island tribal government, had posted on Facebook a few days earlier.

“Sophia Tetoff’s homecoming is a significant step in addressing the historic wrongs inflicted on our people, recognizing the value of our language and culture, and acknowledging the human rights of our ancestors,” Philemonoff said.

Those historic wrongs include the enslavement and forced labor of the Unangax people, or Aleuts, who were brought to the Pribilof Islands from the Aleutians to harvest fur seals for their pelts. First the Russians, then the U.S. government kept tight control of the Aleuts on St. Paul and St. George, the two inhabited Pribilof islands. Agents dictated who worked, if and when Aleuts could leave their island, and even who could marry whom. For slaughtering seals and processing their furs, workers were paid in housing, clothing, food and small amounts of cash. The commercial harvest ended in 1984.

After Japanese attacks in the region during World War II, Pribilof island residents were evacuated and crowded into internment camps in crumbling abandoned buildings in southeast Alaska where as many as one in ten, mostly elderly and young, died.

For many years, the local school, run by the Russian Orthodox church, only went to the sixth grade. To go to high school, children had to attend boarding schools.

“Our ancestors include stolen children like Sophia who, as a 12-year-old girl, was sent away, alone, to travel by boat and train... 4,000 miles from home. As our entire community welcomes Sophia back to St. Paul, we honor her memory and promise to protect her legacy to the Aleut people and to the state of Alaska," Philemonoff said.

ALEUT REMAINS Lauren Peters (at right) with son Andrew at the cemetery for the former Carlisle Indian Industrial School site in Carlisle, Pennsylvania on June 21, 2021. (Photo by Curt Keester, courtesy of Lauren Peters).

Tetoff’s great great niece, Lauren Peters, said Sophia’s memory hadn’t been handed down in the family. “She found me. Nobody was looking for her. She was disappeared. She was lost,” Peters said.

(Related: Rosebud ancestors buried in emotional ceremony)

Peters is the Alaska Native advisor at Fort Ross Conservancy in California. Fort Ross was the southernmost Russian post in America.

“I talked to all my aunties and I said, ‘has anybody ever heard of Sophia Tetoff?’ And nobody had heard of her,” Peters said. “And it came to be that she wasn't even enrolled in the genealogy in the tribe. She had a sister named Irene and they were stolen at the same time by the Methodists, taken down from St. Paul island to the Jesse Lee home in Unalaska, after her parents died – although they had 13 brothers and sisters that could have taken them in.”

Tetoff left St. Paul in 1901 at the age of 12. After Irene died in Unalaska, “Sophia was sent 4,000 miles away to Carlisle Indian School, which –– I really wish we'd stop calling them schools because she was sent out for most of the time that she was there on these ‘outing’ programs, which is domestic labor. She'd go work for families,” Peters said.

ALEUT REMAINS Aqualina Lestenkova at the casket of Sophia Tetoff, Saints Paul and Peter Russian Orthodox Church, St. Paul, Alaska, July 9, 2021 (Photo by Cara Lestenkof-Mandregan, courtesy of Aqualina Lestenkova).

Some 10,000 Native American children attended Carlisle from 1897 to 1918. It was the first boarding school for Native people and became a role model for schools throughout the United States and Canada. Founder military officer Richard Henry Pratt is known for espousing the “Kill the Indian: Save the Man” approach to assimilation.

From 1902 to 1905, Sophia worked for four different families in New Jersey, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, then “returning sick (with tuberculosis) from the last family she was with, she died a year later in 1906,” Peters said. Tetoff was 17.

The Army War College, which owns the Carlisle facility, is working with tribes to return the remains of the Native American children who died there.

Peters said Sophie’s remains arrived by plane after earlier flights were canceled due to weather. “She made quite the entrance and we had a parade of cars all around the town. The procession stopped in front of the house that she would have lived in and that my mom was born into and then proceeded to the church where she was baptized over a hundred years ago.”

At the Russian Orthodox church, “there wasn't a dry eye in the house,” Peters said. “I mean, it's a powerful thing to bring home a child.”

ALEUT REMAINS

“One could say it was breathtaking because we were able to bring a lost child back home and lay her remains to rest,’ said Father John Kudrin, Unangan. He’s the Russian Orthdox priest for Saints Peter and Paul Church in St. Paul. He led the mass for Sophia Tetoff.

“So we were able to do that for her. And as much pain and hurt as we felt, we also felt our sorrow, sighing and grieving had all fled away when she came back home,” he said.

Kudrin, who is Unangan himself, said, “Throughout all the years of Native children being taken away from their home villages and hometowns and from their tribes, I know that we feel a lot of hate and anger, and we are at times confused about all of that has happened, especially to children as young as Sophia Tetoff when she was taken away.” He encouraged people to work on forgiving, “even though forgiveness doesn't happen overnight.”

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Correction: new information indicates the children in the cover photo do not include Sophia and Irene Tetoff.