The legacy of Michigan’s Native boarding schools—and how tribes are reclaiming what was lost
Last month the U.S. Department of Interior announced an investigation into the hundreds of now-closed residential boarding schools across the United States. For more than a century, the federal government forcibly enrolled Native American children in these schools, meant to assimilate them into white culture.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, said that the investigation is a chance “to recover the dark history of these institutions that have haunted our families for too long.” It follows recent revelations in Canada of two mass graves of First Nations children found buried on residential school grounds on opposite sides of the country.
Michigan is not exempt from this history. There were once three federal boarding schools for Native children operating in Michigan: one in Baraga, another in Harbor Springs, and a third in Mount Pleasant.
“The boarding schools started out as part of a larger mission by the federal government to assimilate and ‘civilize’ Native people. It’s part of this larger idea that Natives were savages, heathens, uncivilized,” explained Eric Hemenway, director of archives and records for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians.
For decades, children from his tribe and others around the Great Lakes were sent to the Holy Childhood boarding school in Harbor Springs.
The recent, and horrifying, revelations about the fate of children in Canada’s residential school system have brought renewed attention to America’s own treatment of Native children. The discoveries of mass graves in recent weeks have shocked many people, but they were not news to most Native people, said Netawn Kiogima, a language specialist with the Little Traverse Bay Bands Gijigowi Anishinaabemowin Language Department.
“I already knew about mass graves like those. Those have already been talked about within Native communities, families, and any kind of Native institution,” added Kiogima. “...Native people knew that this has been going on, but it was never mainstream like it is now.”
Hemenway said these discoveries should be a wake-up call for Michigan residents about the traumatic history of colonization.
“It’s loss of life, it’s loss of language, it’s loss of culture, and it’s loss in our own backyard. This isn't a faraway place we have to look to in Canada or Carlisle, it’s Harbor Springs,” he said.
The legacy of the boarding school system is still strongly felt by tribal communities in Michigan today. After they were brought to the schools, Native children were forbidden to speak their own languages and often separated from their families for months at a time. Now, tribes are consciously working to reclaim the traditions that were stolen during an era of forced assimilation.
Both Hemenway and Kiogima have dedicated their lives to preserving their tribe's history and culture. However, the shrinking number of fluent Anishinaabemowin speakers and a lack of reliable historical records pose a substantial threat to that effort. The last fluent speaker in the LTBBOI tribe recently passed away, said Kiogima, adding urgency to the tribe's language reclamation efforts.
“It is so urgent to get not only the language recorded, but we’re trying to get the language to be in daily use again as a daily natural conversation,” said Kiogima.
To do that, the tribe has language classes, both for K-12 students and for the broader community. During the pandemic, Kiogima said, the department turned its attention to building up its online instruction, which will allow its three teachers to reach a much greater number of students.
Preserving the history of the Holy Child boarding school is also a challenging task, but Hemenway said the tribe is doing all it can to make sure this painful chapter in history isn't forgotten. He's collected letters, rosters, and photographs, and, most importantly, he's listened to the stories from elders who are boarding school survivors. Piecing together the history of the school from these various sources requires a delicate touch.
"There are a lot of people went there in the 60s and 70s, and they did not have good experiences. And a lot of kids didn't make it out of Holy Child. You know, they are buried around that school. So it's a very, very sensitive piece of our history, a piece of our story. So it's one thing to collect it. But then how do you tell the story?"
Despite the challenges, Hemenway believes that reckoning with the history of boarding schools in Michigan is essential to healing. Both he and Kiogima hope that a national investigation will include looking for and taking account of any children buried at Holy Childhood. And, at the same time, Hemenway said, it's important to look to the future, as well.
"We are not going to be defined by this victimization…We're resilient, we're bouncing back, we're having language, we're having this stance that we're not going to buckle, and we're going to move forward. So that's, I think, a very key message to drive forward, that this isn't going to define us, but it's part of us."
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Mary Claire Zauel.