By Laina G. Stebbins, Michigan Advance
A first-of-its-kind federal report published this month on the history of Indian boarding schools signals the “very beginning” of a long national process toward healing deep generational wounds in Michigan and beyond, advocates say.
So-called Indian residential schools — in which thousands of Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in schools with the goal of assimilating them into white culture — were U.S. policy for 150 years. Children were often abused, and many did not return home.
Five such schools once operated in Michigan.
The atrocities committed at those institutions had never before been formally investigated and documented by the federal government until this year.
The 106-page report released May 11 by the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) is the product of a nine-month investigation led by Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Bryan Newland, a citizen of the Bay Mills Indian Community (BMIC) based in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
It is Volume 1 of what the department intends to be a comprehensive investigation and effort to address the dark and complex history of the school policies.
Between 1819 to 1969, the report reads, the federal government operated or supported 408 boarding schools (431 sites) across 37 states. Roughly half were staffed or funded by a religious institution, most commonly the Catholic Church.
More than 1,000 other institutions that may have served to educate Native children were also identified, including day schools, asylums and orphanages.
In addition to Michigan’s three most well known schools, which the Advance has previously reported on — the Holy Childhood School of Jesus in Harbor Springs; the Old St. Joseph Orphanage and School in Assinins (or Baraga Chippewa Boarding and Day School) near Baraga in the Upper Peninsula; and the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School in Mount Pleasant — the DOI report also points to two more that were operational in the state.
The Mackinac Mission School (or Sainte Anne School) was built in 1825 on the southeast side of Mackinac Island. The historic structure still stands today and is located adjacent to the Mission Point Resort. It is one of the earliest buildings constructed on the island.
The mission school was closed in 1837.
Few details beyond these are currently available about the school, likely because it operated much earlier and had lower enrollment than the others.
Even less is known about the fifth Michigan school: The Catholic Otchippewa Boarding School, or Otchippewa Day and Orphan Boarding, in the U.P.’s Schoolcraft County.
It was reportedly established in the late 1880s to primarily serve the L’Anse and Vieux Desert Bands of Chippewa of Lake Superior. It was funded per-pupil by both the federal government and the Catholic Church.
Miskopwaaganikwe Leora Tadgerson is a Bay Mills Indian Community (BMIC) citizen and the director of diversity, equity and inclusion with the Episcapal Diocese of Northern Michigan. As deeply involved in the work of education, reconciliation and healing around Native boarding schools in Michigan as she is, Tadgerson said even she has been able to find very little about the Mackinac and Schoolcraft schools.
“It’s so difficult to research those ones. They closed much earlier on and didn’t have as much capacity for kids … they just weren’t as well known,” Tadgerson told the Advance.
Tadgerson also teaches Indigenous studies at Northern Michigan University with a concentration in the Anishinaabemowin language. As part of her work on a traveling exhibit to uplift the voices of boarding school survivors around the state, she has also not yet come into contact with any relatives of those who attended the Mackinac and Schoolcraft schools.
“They don’t teach us about all that. They hide it for a reason,” said Stacey Ettawageshik, a member of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians (LTBB) and lead advocate for the tribe’s Survivor Outreach Services.
Newland says the department has begun the process of identifying locations of marked and unmarked burial sites at or near school facilities. Burial sites at 53 of the schools have already been found, but the DOI expects to find many more — ultimately, “thousands or tens of thousands” of buried Indigenous children.
“I’m just thinking about all those children that didn’t survive and that didn’t get to come home. We’re going to hear a lot more about it,” Ettawageshik said. “… Just sadness, knowing my ancestors went through that and there’s so much that’s coming out.”
According to an 1883 report from U.S. Interior Secretary Henry M. Teller, the implementation of boarding schools was “a measure that promises to settle in a satisfactory way the ‘Indian problem,’ and answers once for all the question so often asked, ‘What shall we do with the Indians?’”.
The 139-year-old report adds: “If allowed to continue in idleness, [the Indian] will continue in vice and savagery.”
Particularly with Laguna Pueblo tribal citizen Deb Haaland heading the DOI, the federal government’s stance on the matter is quite different as it embarks on a journey toward accountability. Still, Native citizens say the racist and genocidal policies reverberate through generations and their wounds cannot be easily mended.
I’m just thinking about all those children that didn’t survive and that didn’t get to come home. We’re going to hear a lot more about it. … Just sadness, knowing my ancestors went through that and there’s so much that’s coming out.Stacey Ettawageshik, a member of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians (LTBB) and lead advocate for the tribe’s Survivor Outreach Services
The new report is “a continuation of a first step,” Tadgerson said. “Acknowledging that the era existed, first off, for our government, that was huge. Because that validates our experience, our collective experience and those survivors’ experiences.
“… But it’s definitely the very beginning,” she continued. “We need to do a whole lot as a nation.”
Tadgerson hopes that the DOI investigation will go on for “at least” five years.
“I think it’s incredible that the Department of Interior is doing this initiative, and they’re doing it right. They’re being strategic in their process. It’s showing that they have people, Native people, that are invested in this work, and they’re going to do it correctly,” she said.
Haaland first announced the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative last June. With the new report, the investigation has completed its first primary goal of identifying boarding school locations.
Still left to identify are burial sites, along with the names and tribal affiliations of children interred at each location.
The work is being done in collaboration with the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS).
In the report, Newland makes a series of recommendations to Haaland to fulfill the initiative:
- Developing a specific repository of federal records on the boarding school system for the DOI Library
- Identifying living boarding school survivors and documenting their experiences
- Helping to protect and preserve boarding school sites in federal jurisdiction
- Authorizing agencies to disinter or repatriate any remains of Native children
That last effort should be done with direction from their respective tribe, community or family, Newland emphasized.
Echoing that sentiment, Ettawageshik said that the government and state should communicate and work closely with tribes as the process continues to ensure that their departed relatives are treated with respect and dignity.
Tribes should be asked about the best way to move forward and heal, not told what will happen, she said.
“There’s specific things that we do to care for our loved ones and our relatives,” Ettawageshik said. “To give them proper ceremony and burial is extremely important so their spirits can be at rest.”
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