MT. PLEASANT, Mich. (WOOD) — The recent discovery of an unmarked mass grave at an indigenous boarding school in Canada is sparking renewed efforts to conduct searches for remains at similar schools in Michigan.
Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools throughout North America starting in the 1800s and lasting until the late 20th century in some areas. Michigan had three such schools, but their history is not one often shared.
“Those schools where all these multiple atrocities happened to our people, they just get forgotten about until something big happens,” said James Bud Day, who is the director of language and culture for the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians — more commonly known as the Gun Lake Tribe.
Vigils — like one at Ah-Nab-Awen Park in Grand Rapids Thursday — are one way that Native Americans are calling on local and federal governments to provide answers about children who never returned home.
The boarding schools opened with good intentions: to educate indigenous children in their own language. But the objective changed in the late 1880s when the federal government took over. In Mt. Pleasant, an indigenous boarding school’s motto was “Save the man, kill the Indian.” The programs crushed native cultures.
Day has heard firsthand accounts of how families would get a knock at the door and then their children would be taken away.
“They (the school) would come throughout the night, they would come throughout the day,” Day said.
At school, the children were forced to speak English, end their cultural practices and cut their hair.
“When they would take those things that would built a young person, a Native American and provide them with that backbone that strength, it was easy for them to break,” Day said. “It was definitely systematic.”
There are accounts of physical and sexual abuse by those running the schools. Some children didn’t survive. More than 200 bodies of children were found at the school in Canada.
“They (the United States government) hoped to break us, hoped to break our spirit, to take away our fight,” Day said. “And sometimes they succeeded to where when they came for that last little one, it wasn’t even a fight anymore: ‘Here, you took everything else. Might as well take this one, too.'”
Those who made it home brought trauma with them. Day said what happened at the schools is the root of many issues affecting Native Americans today, including alcohol abuse.
According to the of the Michigan History Center, most of the schools closed in the 1920s, but Holy Childhood in Harbor Springs was open until 1983. Indian Industrial Boarding School in Mt. Pleasant closed in 1934. The Holy Name of Jesus Indian Mission in the Upper Peninsula closed in 1954.
But the trauma continues to be passed down.
“They don’t really realize why grandma doesn’t want to hug me or grandpa won’t say he loves me,” Day said of today’s Native American children.
No mass graves have been found at any boarding school sites in Michigan, but there also haven’t been any searches. Day and others feel the least the government can do is start looking for the children who never returned home.
“They don’t have a voice anymore, so we as a native people need to be that voice and not only do we need to be that voice, but we need to have that voice be heard,” Day said.
The Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe is celebrating the 87th anniversary of the Mt. Pleasant boarding school closing in with a virtual healing ceremony on from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Friday.