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Years after their culture was erased in boarding schools, Michigan Anishinaabe work to reclaim it

Michigan Native American Tribe Members
photo courtesy
/
Matthew Dae Smith/ The Lansing State Journal
Community Education Services worker Ray Cadotte, left, and Research Center Coordinator Anita Heard of the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways museum in Mount Pleasant.

For more than a century, the federal government and religious organizations took Native American children from their homes and placed them in boarding schools.

The institutions were meant to assimilate them into European-American culture and remove ties to their tribes. The children also faced rampant abuse, tough discipline, and little care.

Michigan was home to three of these boarding schools.

Now that they’re closed, many local Anishinaabe people are hoping to transform one of the former school sites.

WKAR's Megan Schellong spoke with Lansing State Journal reporter Krystal Nurse, who reported on their efforts.

Interview Highlights

On how Native American culture was erased at boarding schools

They were abused right from the get-go. As soon as they got in, they were told “you can't speak your language, you cannot practice your culture and you must cut your hair.” And hair is very, very sacred for Native Americans. And so, part of that was just they have to speak English. They have to be Catholic or Protestant. And they have to basically abide by these Euro-American ways. And it speaks to today with it being many Native Americans consider boarding schools as a form of genocide because their culture was just ripped away from them.

On whether tribes in Michigan are expecting to find remains of children

For right now they're focused on doing a survey of the grounds and doing a survey of both the cemetery that's near Canyon Creek to see what is out there. They do have names of 225 lost souls from the Mount Pleasant boarding school, but they don't know exactly if there are unmarked graves. They're not going to be conclusive to say yes, there are unmarked graves, but they're not going to say, no, there aren't unmarked graves. They're going to wait until this survey gives them a bit more information about what is out there because it's just unknown of what is out there.

On how the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe plans to repurpose the school

So with this boarding school site, they've done a lot of surveys through both Mount Pleasant community, the Saginaw Chippewa tribe community, and then also other tribes too, to inquire: "What is it that we should do with this site?" Some of their survey results say it should become a museum, others say it should become a cultural center to basically reclaim what was lost there and put back into Native American culture. And the purpose of the school was to teach culture, so they want to put that purpose back into the land.

Interview Transcript

Megan Schellong: This is Morning Edition on WKAR.

For more than a century, the federal government and religious organizations took Native American children from their homes and placed them in boarding schools.

The institutions were meant to assimilate them into European-American culture and remove their ties to their tribes. The children also faced rampant abuse, tough discipline, and little care.

Michigan was home to three of these boarding schools.

Now that they’re closed, many local Anishinaabe people are hoping to transform one of the former school sites.

Lansing State Journal reporter Krystal Nurse reported on their efforts, and she joins me now.

Krystal, thanks for being here.

Krystal Nurse: Thank you for having me.

Schellong: So, you spoke with some of the people who attended these boarding schools not only here in Michigan, but also in Canada. What are some of the things that they told you that they had to endure in a typical day?

Nurse: As for the local survivor, here in Lansing, Mary Lee, a lot of the stories that she says were just extremely heartbreaking to hear.

She didn't experience it directly. But she heard from her siblings, she has 17 other siblings that went to boarding schools.

There's one instance where her brother saw a kid who tried to escape the boarding school, he did, but the kid’s body was found on Lake Michigan.

And anytime a kid tried to escape the boarding school, once they were found, the police would take them back to Holy Childhood and they'd be tortured.

And so that's a pretty heavy roundup of what happened at the boarding schools with many of the kids there attending who were Native American.

Schellong: These children suffered not only from abuse but also from cultural erasure. In what ways was their culture taken away?

Nurse: They were abused right from the get-go. As soon as they got in, they were told “you can't speak your language, you cannot practice your culture and you must cut your hair.”

And hair is very, very sacred for Native Americans.

And so, part of that was just, they have to speak English. They have to be Catholic or Protestant.

And they have to basically abide by these Euro-American ways.

And it speaks to today with it being many Native Americans consider boarding schools as a form of genocide because their culture was just ripped away from them.

Schellong: You mention that at these boarding schools, the children had to convert to a new religion, they couldn't speak their own native languages. How are the people who went through that coping with the trauma?

Nurse: For many of them, it was, especially for getting survivors, that was a difficult task in and of itself. For Mary Lee. In her instance, I was supposed to meet with several other people in her family, but they were still traumatized by it, and they weren't ready to come forward and relive that trauma, which I fully respected.

And I had to basically ask her and like for many people, it's just something that like, that just goes straight to their core because it's trauma that they experienced as little kids.

And they grew up having this abuse, whether it be physical, emotional, mental, or sexual abuse, it just would happen year, after year, after year.

Schellong: Krystal, now you write in the article that there were remains of thousands of children that were found in unmarked graves at some of the sites of the boarding schools in Canada.

Is this something that tribes in Michigan are expecting or preparing to find here in the state?

Nurse: It is inconclusive right now.

For right now they're focused on doing a survey of the grounds and doing a survey of both the cemetery that's near Canyon Creek to see what is out there.

They do have names of 225 lost souls from the Mount Pleasant boarding school, but they don't know exactly if there are unmarked graves.

They're not going to be conclusive to say yes, there are unmarked graves, but they're not going to say, no, there aren't unmarked graves.

They're going to wait until this survey gives them a bit more information about what is out there because it's just unknown of what is out there.

Schellong: So we’re talking about Mount Pleasant and that was home to Michigan’s largest boarding school. What is the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe there hoping to make out of this place that has such a dark history?

Nurse: So with this boarding school site, they've done a lot of surveys through both Mount Pleasant community, the Saginaw Chippewa tribe community, and then also other tribes too, to inquire: "What is it that we should do with this site?"

Some of their survey results say it should become a museum, others say it should become a cultural center to basically reclaim what was lost there and put back into Native American culture.

And the purpose of the school was to teach culture, so they want to put that purpose back into the land.

And basically, a lot of it right now is drilled down to one, doing the survey of the grounds. And then two, to also to address the safety of the buildings and the environmental aspects of the buildings. Some buildings have asbestos, some buildings have lead paint, so they have to address many of those environmental concerns.

Schellong: So, they’re looking to make some upgrades to the buildings. Do you know of any plans for reparations in the works either on the federal level or here in Michigan on the state level for the people who attended these boarding schools?

Nurse: At least with the federal government, Secretary Deb Haaland, who's from the Laguna Pueblo tribe, she is out from New Mexico, she leads the Department of Interior.

And after Canada's discovery of the lost souls, she instructed the department to do a full review of every single boarding school that did start in America to come back to her by April 1st of this year about what is there, what happened there.

But as far as what's going to happen afterward, that has not been publicized yet.

But she just wants to get some information out there right now, I don't know if that information will lead to reparations, or what it will do.

But she at least wants to gather a lot of information about this to push forward to at least get some sort of federal acknowledgment of these boarding schools and the trauma that they had on many Native Americans.

Schellong: Krystal Nurse is the diversity and inclusion reporter at the Lansing State Journal.

Krystal, thanks for your time.

Nurse: Thank you for having me.

This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Music: Qi,Ki and Chi (indigenous peoples) by Ketsa is licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Megan Schellong is the local host and producer for Morning Edition on WKAR.
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