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Painful but not ancient history: Michigan could commission study of Native American boarding schools

Students at the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School appear in a photo circa 1910.
Clarke Historical Library
Wikimedia Commons
Students at the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School appear in a photo circa 1910.

The state could commission a study into a traumatic chapter of Michigan history.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's budget recommendation for the next fiscal year includes $500,000 for research into Native American children forced to attend boarding schools across the state in the 19th and 20th centuries.

If funding is approved by state lawmakers, the project would include preserving records and interviewing survivors of the schools, according to the budget proposal. It would be completed by the end of 2024.

And the Michigan-wide inquiry would be done in conjunction with a federal study into Native American residential schools across the country.

Former students have reported widespread abuse at the schools, where pupils were forced to assimilate to white and Christian culture.

It's not clear what entities the state would contract with to complete the research, but John Johnson, Jr., executive director of Michigan's Department of Civil Rights, says any planning will involve tribal members.

"This history, as painful as it is, is not ancient history," Johnson said. "These are people alive today who were forcibly removed from their mothers, fathers and communities to live in these schools and they were deprived of their loved ones, their culture. And most often they were even forbidden from using their native language."

Erik Rodriguez, public relations director for the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, says the tribe is waiting to learn more about details of the study before taking a position on whether to support the proposal. The discovery of unmarked graves at former residential schools in Canada has drawn attention to the legacy of such institutions across North America, Rodriguez noted.

“I think as they continue to find remains, both in the residential schools in Canada, and maybe throughout the United States, the issue becomes more mainstream (and) people really want to understand ... what this part of history was," Rodriguez said.

The Saginaw Chippewa Tribe now owns the site of a residential school that operated between 1893 and 1934 in Mount Pleasant. Members are weighing plans to repurpose the space, formerly known as the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School. Ideas include a museum and a memorial wall.

Sarah Lehr is a state government reporter for Wisconsin Public Radio.
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