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‘If we don’t speak now, no one will ever know’

Paul Walker, left, holds a healing staff bearing the names of the children who died at the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School while standing next to survivors of Holy Childhood of Jesus School, a Native American boarding school in Harbor Springs. The survivors, wearing orange shirts, are, from left, Sharon Skutt, Linda Cobe, Kim Fyke, Marilyn Wakefield and Debra Delk.
Moving to heal the dark legacy of Michigan’s Native American boarding schools

Editor’s Note: This article germinated when Encore contributor Robert Weir attended a Native American ceremonial event, “Honoring, Healing, and Remembering,” in Mount Pleasant, on June 6, 2023. That date marked the anniversary of the closing of the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School (MIIBS), which operated from 1893 to 1934. In this article, Weir relates his experiences from throughout the day — sunrise to late afternoon — and what he learned about the untaught history of Indian boarding schools in the United States.


Light from the sun, still below the horizon, casts a warm glow in the morning sky on the western edge of Mount. Pleasant. A slight breeze caresses a solitary sentinel tree. The gold letters of a Michigan historical marker identify this place as “Indian Cemetery,” established by the Methodist Episcopal (Indian) Church in the 1850s. (Editor’s note: The word “Indian” is used in this article only in a historical context. The preferred terms are Native American, Indigenous, or a member of a particular tribe.)

Only a few grave markers, pale white and covered with black lichen, dot the green grass. They date to the mid-1880s and early 1900s. Only one gravestone indicates the burial site of a child. His name is John Thomas. He died at 12 years, 2 months, 20 days.

“He died along with his sister. They were twins. And they had a brother (buried) out there,” says a man, gesturing across the cemetery lawn. “The school didn’t make good records.”

Another man stands in front of a gravestone, solemnly reading the name of the person buried there. He’s wearing the cap of a military veteran.

A man with an aqua-blue pendant on his chest supported by a string of beads around his neck sets up a microphone and portable speaker. Native American flute music soon fills the air.

Others arrive, and soon rows of chairs will be filled by 150 people, including ceremonial leaders.

The man who leads the pipe ceremony blesses the tobacco, lifts a pipe high above his head, and says, “We don’t use bad words here. Nothing but positive love here.” The pipes are passed among the attendees, who have the option to take a puff or not.

Women wearing traditional blouses and ribbon skirts of red, orange, and blue conduct the water ceremony, a tribute to “the life substance that empowers everything in creation.”

Next comes the strawberry ceremony, honoring the healing power of that fruit. “Strawberry plants have runners. Like our community, we have roots and runners that connect each and every one of us and help one another be strong,” the attendees are told.

Such strength and determination have been necessary for Beatrice Menasekwe Jackson. A Michigan resident, she travels the U.S. and Canada — 70,000 miles a year — looking for unmarked graves of children who died in the Indian boarding schools. She has traveled here from the now-closed Kamloops Indian Residential School, in British Columbia, where the bodies of 215 Native American children were found in May 2021.

“We’re praying for the children,” she says. “We say, ‘I’m sorry for what happened to you.’ The Creator, she takes the children home. She takes them by the hand so they know they are loved.”

Michigan’s boarding schools

The ceremonies move from the cemetery to the nearby campus of the former Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School, now owned by the Saginaw Chippewa tribe. The campus covers 320 acres. It once had 37 buildings, but only seven remain. From 1893 to 1934, an average of 300 students in grades kindergarten through eighth grade attended the school annually.

The first Indian boarding school was opened in the U.S. in 1879. Attempts to educate and culturally assimilate Native American children on their own reservations had failed, and U.S. General Richard H. Pratt, a veteran of the Civil War and the Indian Wars, created the first off-reservation Indian boarding school at an abandoned military base near Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The initial enrollment was 147 students, ages 6 to 25, most of whom were transported from their homes west of the Mississippi River. More than 10,000 children would attend this school before it closed in 1918.

“Kill the Indian in him, but save the man” was Pratt’s motto. He designed the boarding school curriculum to instill military regimentation, deprive the children of their heritage, and assimilate them to the laws and lifestyles of European Americans. Similar schools operated in Canada, Australia and New Zealand under the name “residential schools.”

Over the following century, several hundred such schools would operate in 37 U.S. states or territories. The number varies depending on the source: 367, 408 or 523. Many of these schools were operated by religious institutions, primarily Catholic and Episcopalian.

The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS) says that by 1900, 20,000 Indigenous children were housed in the boarding schools. By 1925, that number rose to almost 61,000, or 80 percent of the country’s school-age Native children.

The official number of these schools in Michigan also varies. The Michigan Historical Society says three existed, one each in Baraga, Harbor Springs and Mount Pleasant, while NABS says there were eight, including an orphanage in Baraga, a Catholic boarding school in Schoolcraft County, an orphanage in Marquette, a mission school on Mackinac Island, and a mission house in Omena, on the Leelanau Peninsula.

In 1928, an 847-page report to Congress titled “The Problem of Indian Administration,” issued by the Institute for Government Research Studies (Brookings Institution), revealed many deficiencies of the schools, including that they were crowded beyond capacity and had insufficient food, jail-like punishment, substandard medical care, and an alarming prevalence of tuberculosis, and their operations were supported in part by student labor.

Despite the report’s requests for Congressional funding to improve these conditions and recommendations that these children “attend school in the neighborhood of their homes,” Indian boarding schools continued to operate as they were, with some schools not closing for another half-century.

“The people who administered the school (in Mount Pleasant) saw themselves as altruistic,” says Colleen Wilson-Rood, a sociology professor at Central Michigan University and the University of Michigan-Dearborn, who leads a guided tour of the Indian Industrial Boarding School campus. “They referred to themselves as ‘friends of the Indians,’ preparing the ‘savage children’ for citizenship.

“Some of the children were scooped up and taken from their homes to schools hundreds of miles away. Oftentimes, parents were coerced into giving their children up. They were told they were not caring for their children properly and threatened with jail time and fines.”

Administrators and staff of the school in Mount Pleasant would parade the children, attired in prim-and-proper Eurocentric clothing, into a different local church every Sunday to show off the school’s “good work.”

Stories from survivors

Among the lessons learned by students at the Indian boarding schools were many hard ones.

Children were subject to neglect and physical, verbal, emotional and sexual abuse. They were made to take Christian names. Their hair was cut. And they were taught to “snitch” on each other. Punishment was inflicted by older students on younger students with whips, canes and sticks.

Child labor was part of the curriculum. The girls washed clothes and bedding in the hot basement and were taught to sew and be domestic servants. The boys farmed the fields and were trained to be laborers in the Industrial Revolution.

Many children were not allowed to go home at the end of the school year, but instead were sent to live with non-Native families, where they worked from sunrise to sunset. The money they earned was paid to the school, not to the children.

Four women — all Anishinaabeg elders, known as kwewag in their Ojibwe language — are here at the Honoring, Healing, and Remembering ceremony to speak as survivors of Holy Childhood of Jesus School, in Harbor Springs, one of the last Indian boarding schools in the nation to close. Holy Childhood opened as an Indian boarding school in 1884, and the School Sisters of Notre Dame began serving there in 1886. It ceased operations in 1983, and the building was demolished in 2007.

One of the women, Sharon Skutt, tells the crowd, “We’re not here to tell a story. We speak truth. If we don’t speak now, no one will ever know.”

Skutt attended Holy Childhood from 1967 to 1970, entering at age 11. “We had to wear rollers in our hair every day. My mom didn’t know that, and I didn’t have rollers. Sister Naomi shoved me at one of the girls and said, ‘Get some rollers in this girl’s hair before I chop it off with an axe.’ I was terrified,” Skutt recalls. “I started crying. Sister said, ‘We don’t have crybabies here.’ I would lie in bed, and I would wonder if I was ever going to get out of there.”

Marilyn Wakefield and her six siblings attended Holy Childhood. “We had just one suitcase for three of us girls. My mother made sure we had our pajamas and underclothes and a couple of traditional outfits. On the first day, the nuns took them, and we never saw our clothes again.”

Linda Cobe was 5 when she was taken from her parents and forced to attend what she calls “Unholy Childhood.” “At such a tender age, when you get pulled away from your parents, you know incredible sadness and loneliness. A typical night was everyone crying, crying to go home. You just don’t get over that.”

Kim Fyke is the youngest of 10 siblings, eight of whom attended Holy Childhood. She came there at age 9, in 1970, and left at 14. She speaks of “the helplessness.” “Let’s say somebody stepped out of line. Sister Naomi would come up and backhand her across the head or smack her in the ear or knock her down and kick her. And all you could do was stand there and watch. You couldn’t help because you would be the next one on the chopping block.”

Skutt says it takes courage for the survivors to speak of their childhood trauma. “Many people aren’t ready,” she says. By telling her story, she hopes to inspire others to come forward.

Marie DeLap, who is here as an attendee of the ceremony, could be considered one of those others. She also attended Holy Childhood, from age 9 to 14, from 1966 to 1972. She recalls “finding peace” and “learning empathy” by sneaking out of the school building, racing across the lawn to the school’s church, and hiding among the pews. As an adult, DeLap visited the woman who had been Sister Naomi but was no longer a nun.

“She told me she was 23 when assigned to Holy Childhood even though she really wanted to work with children in Africa. At Holy Childhood, she was not allowed to sleep in the convent with other nuns but had to sleep in the dorm and be with the girls — 60 of us — 24/7, without relief.”

In response to a query by Encore, a spokesperson for the School Sisters of Notre Dame provided a prepared statement that included an apology “for the role we played at Holy Childhood,” an acknowledgment “that some practices at the boarding school may have contributed to diminishing Native American culture,” a commitment “to open dialogue with tribal leaders,” and a belief that “through understanding, comes healing.”

Some survivors, however, say they are not aware of any “open dialogue” initiated by the order.

A reckoning

The black mark on North American history of Indian boarding schools came to the forefront of public consciousness in May 2021 when the remains of 215 indigenous children were found at the former Kamloops Residential School, in British Columbia. Within weeks, another 751 unmarked graves were detected near the former Marieval Residential School, on the Cowesses reserve in Saskatchewan.
Not only did these findings reveal the horrors of these schools, but they also sparked the discovery of such unmarked graves in the U.S.

Government records show that a total of five children died while attending the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School. However, research by the Saginaw Chippewa indicates the actual number was 227 — about five per year that the school was open. Such discrepancies were often a result of the schools sending severely ill children home to die so their deaths would not be a part of the school records, says Wilson-Rood.

Canada began to confront the dark history of the Indian residential schools 13 years before the discoveries at the Kamloops and Marieval schools. In 2008, Canada established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to create “a legal settlement between Residential School Survivors, the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit representatives and the parties responsible for creation and operation of the schools: the federal government and the church bodies.”

The establishment of the commission led to apologies and confessions by the Presbyterian Church of Canada, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Catholic Church, and other religious and social organizations.

On July 25, 2022, a little more than a year after the discoveries at Kamloops and Marieval, Pope Francis visited Canada and issued a historic apology for the Catholic Church’s participation in the residential schools. The Pontiff acknowledged that “children suffered physical, verbal, psychological and spiritual abuse,” that “they were taken away from their homes at a young age,” that “the residential schools were catastrophic,” and that the church’s involvement was a “deplorable evil” and “a disastrous error, incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The U.S. response, however, has been slower.

In 2020, then-U.S. Rep. Debra Haaland (D-N.M.) introduced House Resolution 8420 to establish a Truth and Healing Commission in regard to the Indian boarding schools. That bill was referred to the House Committee on Education and Labor, where it died in committee.

On May 13, 2022, an Associated Press headline stated that the “US (is) grappling with Native American boarding school history.” The article reported that Haaland, now Secretary of the Interior, “is pushing the U.S. government to reckon with its role in Native American boarding schools.”

But on Aug. 11, 2022, the Native American Rights Fund noted that “the federal government and many state governments have never apologized for the use of Indian boarding schools to terminate the cultures, religions, and languages of Indigenous people.”

When Haaland held a “Road to Healing” public hearing in Pellston, Michigan, on Aug. 13, 2022, 22 people commented, including Skutt, Wakefield, Cobe and Fyke.

Jamie Stuck, chairperson of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi and president of the United Tribes of Michigan, expressed gratitude to Haaland for “bringing awareness to this issue.” But he added, “The event felt impersonal” and could have been improved if Haaland had encouraged “collective dialogue” with tribal leaders “to discuss next steps and solutions for the survivors, descendants and impacted communities.”

Almost a year later, in May 2023, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) introduced Senate Bill 1723, the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act. That bill is still under consideration by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

‘We restore ourselves’

At the Honoring, Healing and Remembering event, the emcee announces that the crowd has grown to 550 people. They are congregated on the large lawn in front of what was the boarding school’s main building. The survivors have spoken of the cruelty they experienced. Now it is time to honor and heal.

For the grand entry, dozens of people parade in a line extending several hundred yards. Many carry a placard bearing the name of a student who died while attending this boarding school. Some carry eagle healing staffs or tribal flags. Some wear caps with the embroidered words “Native Veteran.” One carries a Vietnam War POW/MIA flag.

“The tribal nation flags precede the United States flag,” says an announcement over the public address system. It is a reminder that this is a ceremony on tribal land, hosted by Indigenous people who were here long before the European colonists and the U.S. government.

Later, with all attendees observing, two men and two women come to a central point on the lawn. One is Paul Joseph Walker, a member of the Ogitchedaw Warrior Society, a veterans’ organization within the Saginaw Chippewa tribe. Walker is bestowed with a new eagle healing staff with a crimson banner bearing the names of the 227 children who died here. He pledges to help the tribes spiritually connect with these children, a healing endeavor for all.

Amid an eerie quiet, a man and a woman read the names of each deceased child. Only three sounds are heard: the solemn male voice, the solemn female voice, and the reverberation from a single beat of a tom-tom.

During a later presentation, a speaker tells the crowd of plans by the Saginaw Chippewa to convert this former boarding school into a cultural center for both the tribe and the community, in hopes of giving current and future generations the opportunity to reclaim pieces of identity that were lost when relatives and ancestors attended the school.

Four women lay cedar leaves in a narrow line to form a circle on the ceremonial lawn, which will soon be occupied by a dozen Native American women performing the Jingle Dance.

“The Jingle Dance (is) the dance of healing grief, sadness and hurts. This healing medicine is the activation of all the goodness you inherited and carry through your DNA,” a woman emcee tells the crowd. “The celebration will bring that forward for you to walk more confidently, to walk with purpose and intention, to confront and to deal with your multi-generational trauma and the trauma our survivors endured.”

The dancers take evenly spaced positions within the circle. Drummers drum. The dancers dance. The 365 jingle cones on each dress come alive with sound.

“The jingle cones carry the sound of healing water, of ice crystals,” the emcee says. “If you close your eyes, that sound goes right through you. It will go to those places that you are needing healing.”
When the dancers finish, those on the outside of the circle accept the invitation to step over the cedar leaves, enter the circle, and dance to the beat of the tom-tom.

“Dance with joy. Dance hard. Dance,” says the emcee. “When you dance, your body is accepting the medicine you have received, and you’re sending it through every cell in your body.”

She concludes, “We are strong. We are resilient people. We will restore ourselves. This is where this happens.”

Robert M. Weir

Robert is a writer, author, speaker, book editor and authors’ coach. You can see more of his work at robertmweir.com.

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