GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — “Kill the Indian in him and save the man”: It’s a quote credited to one of the pioneers of the boarding schools that stripped Native American children of their culture and forced them to assimilate into the white lifestyle.
The horrors of the schools — including verbal, physical and sexual abuse and the loss of identity — are common knowledge across Indigenous communities but are widely unknown outside of those circles.
James Bud Day, the language and culture director for the Gun Lake Tribe, estimates every single tribe across the country has been affected by boarding schools in some way.
“I think you would be hard-pressed to find a community where boarding school (trauma) was not a part of their story,” Day told News 8.
Even now, 40 years after the country’s last Indigenous boarding school closed its doors, the trauma remains and is passed down generation to generation.
“It has traumatized me my whole life. It still does,” Reynaldo Mejia, who attended Holy Childhood School of Jesus in Harbor Springs, told News 8.
Only now in the 21st century has the U.S. government committed to learning the full story of the boarding schools. Tribes across the country have been inspired by civil rights movements, fighting for representation, to tell their story and maybe for some semblance of justice. But is justice possible?
PRATT, CARLISLE AND THE “AMERICAN LIFESTYLE”
After serving in the Civil War, Capt. Richard H. Pratt fought in the “Indian Wars,” working on behalf of the U.S. Army as a go-between with Native Americans and translators. Pratt rose in the ranks and was eventually placed in charge of Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida, where he oversaw natives that were taken in as prisoners of war for clashing with the American military.
Unlike President Andrew Jackson — who signed the Indian Removal Act and forced hundreds of thousands of people out of their historic homelands — Pratt believed that Native Americans could become “law-abiding citizens” and adjust to a new way of life, the “American” way of life. But to do that, natives would have to give up their culture and fully embrace this new lifestyle. Hence his coined phrase, “Kill the Indian in him and save the man.”
In his time at Fort Marion, Pratt made a noted effort to treat his prisoners “humanely,” providing more freedoms than most and stressing education and training courses. In 1879, he took that practice and founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where he could put his motto to a new practice, using the same tactics he used in a prison for adults in a school for children.
While it was only open for 39 years, Carlisle left a major scar on the Indigenous community. Carlisle took in thousands of children from more than 140 Native American tribes. The school was pitched as an opportunity for native children to learn English and be in a better position to fight for the tribe’s interests in the future.
We now know there was another side of that coin. Pratt and his staff at Carlisle used strict techniques to strip the children of their cultural identity: cutting their hair, giving them new names, forcing them to speak English instead of their native tongue and forcing them to convert to Christianity. The schools were also built around discipline and routine, using corporal punishment, manual labor and even solitary confinement to demand cooperation and eventually assimilation. Pratt’s practices eventually became the standard at similar boarding schools across the country.
PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER
Demands to learn more about Indigenous boarding schools spiked in May 2021 after a ground survey found the remains of 215 children buried at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Canada. Tribes across Canada and the U.S. called for investigations — not only to figure out exactly what happened but also to confirm what they already believe: Kamloops wasn’t the only school hiding remains.
It’s accepted fact in Indigenous communities: As children were separated from their families at the boarding schools, verbal, physical and sexual abuse were common. At least one school survivor confirmed to News 8 that students knew kids who “had disappeared.”
But the history shared within Native American families is rarely taught in American history classes.
By June 2021, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland — the first Native American to hold that post — announced a new initiative to investigate and detail the sordid history of U.S. federal boarding schools. Michigan’s Department of Civil Rights has launched its own investigation on Michigan’s boarding schools. A spokesperson for the MDCR told News 8 that the report is expected to be released in early 2024.
The DOI’s first report was released in April. Investigators found that the federal government operated 408 Indian boarding schools across 37 states between 1819 and 1969. Investigators found five schools in Michigan — two more than were previously known. The analysis does not include privately-run schools.
Three boarding schools were widely known across Michigan: The Baraga Chippewa Boarding & Day School in Baraga, which operated from 1884 to 1902; Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School in Mount Pleasant, which operated from 1893 to 1934; and Holy Childhood School of Jesus in Harbor Springs.
Holy Childhood first opened in 1829 but closed after a few years. However, the school was reopened in the 1880s and remained open until 1986, making it the final Indigenous boarding school in the country to close — though in the final three years, it operated as a day school only, not a boarding school.
The two new findings include the Mackinac Mission School, which operated on Mackinac Island from 1823 to 1837; and Otchippewa Day & Orphan Boarding School, which operated from 1883 to 1888 in Schoolcraft County.
Of the 408 federal boarding schools across the country, DOI investigators were able to confirm human remains were found at 53 schools. They expect that number to increase. Marked remains were found at 33 schools, six burial sites were completely unmarked and 14 had some combination of marked or unmarked graves.
Nineteen schools were analyzed before the DOI’s initial report was published in April. That analysis found more than 500 students died in those 19 schools alone.
For now, the agency does not plan to publicly identify which grounds have remains to “protect against well-documented grave-robbing, vandalism, and other disturbances to Indian burial sites.”
The DOI report did not indicate whether any remains were found at Michigan schools. But if you ask just about anyone in the Indigenous community, they say they know where the bodies are buried. They talk about the trauma so many of members of their tribes withstood and still wrestle with.
EVERYONE HAS THEIR OWN STORY
Meredith Kennedy is a member of the Little Traverse Band Bands of Odawa Indians. At 41 years old, she’s a mother of six and the executive director of Miigwech, Inc., a community-focused nonprofit in Harbor Springs. She also attended Holy Childhood.
Kennedy was a mainstay at the school in her early years. She attended day care there and was enrolled at Holy Childhood as a day student — meaning she didn’t live at the school — from preschool through the first grade, when it finally closed. Kennedy said she doesn’t have any specific bad memories from Holy Childhood, but as an adult has been able to look back and tie certain problems in her family and her upbringing to boarding school trauma.
“All of the Indian kids who lived in Harbor Springs or the surrounding area always went to Holy Childhood, and I honestly think it was out of fear,” Kennedy told News 8. “I don’t talk a lot to my dad or my mom about the choices that they made because it’s really hard for them. But I know some of the things that my dad saw at school because I have a healing circle with many of his (schoolmates).”
Kennedy is a fourth-generation boarding school student, meaning at least one of her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents attended an Indigenous boarding school. She believes her parents willingly enrolled her at Holy Childhood because they were afraid of the potential alternative: that she would be taken against her will and brought to a school that limited family contact.
Mary Lee, Reynaldo Mejia’s sister, has plenty of bad memories. She attended Holy Childhood in the 1970s as a child and said she was consistently berated and abused by leaders at the school. Lee believes it was because she wrote letters to her mother to describe what was happening.
“(Even one of the sisters) said, ‘Why do they treat you so badly?’ And then I found out it was because of the letters that I was writing to my mom,” Lee told News 8. “I was telling them what they were doing. They cut my hair, kicking me, slapping me, elbowing me, leaving me in the (expletive) graveyard in the middle of the (expletive) night.”
It’s trauma that Lee is still working through.
“You don’t understand what we went through. I’m trying to put it in the past and here it comes again. Here it comes back up, more (expletive) nightmares again,” Lee said through tears.
Lee found out until years later that the school never delivered her letters.
Mejia attended Holy Childhood from first through sixth grade in the 1960s. Mejia, who was raised Catholic, entered Holy Childhood wanting to become a priest. By the time he left, that dream was long gone.
“I went through all the movements, stuff like that. And then I realized that the people in the black robes are bad,” Mejia said. “It wasn’t the brothers or the priest. It was the nuns. They are the ones that were physically and mentally abusive to us.”
Mejia said he was abused regularly and that several nuns routinely preyed on young boys.
“(A group mother) would take boys into her room at night when everybody was sleeping and have sex and then let them go early in the morning,” he said. “I forgive them because that’s what God wants us to do, to forgive everybody. But still, it’s the principle of the matter. Even to this day, I will never trust the Catholic Church.”
The trauma that started more than a century ago is still being felt across the native community. Linda Woods, a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa & Chippewa Indians, didn’t attend a boarding school, but her mother did. While at Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School, Woods’ mother developed a sore on her knee. After poor care from the staff at the school, she eventually had to be sent to Ann Arbor to have part of her leg amputated.
After school, Woods’ mom struggled with alcoholism for many years. She believes her mother’s upbringing hurt her to the point that she couldn’t be a loving parent.
“I grew up thinking she didn’t love me, and I felt her anger growing up. (I left) home as soon as I could,” Woods told News 8. “After my retirement, I began to reflect about my mother’s boarding school experience and realized she was traumatized while she was in boarding school but could not tell me. Many of our people could not speak of their experience in boarding school, especially if it was horrific. And there are many horrific stories.”
Woods had her own battle with alcoholism but has now been sober for more than 50 years. She said the healing process takes time and passes through generations.
“My belief is as I heal, (my mother) is healing and my children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren heal. It is our turn to tell our story now,” Woods said.
Kennedy said she knows many people who have had to work through their trauma to try to stop the cycle of abuse from affecting the next generation.
“(Through these boarding schools,) our parents were taught that discipline is shame. It’s physical, emotional, sexual abuse. And because no one was taught how to parent in our (tribal) ways, about love,” Kennedy said. “I do a lot of talking circles with elders who were at the boarding school as day students and as boarders and that has really affected me. You learn how as a younger generation, how grateful you are that you have had so many awesome Anishinaabe come before you to make it, so you don’t have those same stories.”
AN OPEN SECRET
Mejia said he knows that there were human remains at Holy Childhood. How? He helped move them.
“(A monk) asked (a nun) if there was anybody that would help him dig up graves and move them. And nobody wanted to because they were scared of handling the bones, the skeletons,” Mejia said. “I was excited. I said, ‘I’ll do it.’ And we dug up bones around the church. Kids bones to baby bones, stuff like that. They didn’t have no names or nothing. There were no markers, no nothing. They were just around the church, and we relocated them and stuff. … I remember doing that very clearly.”
Whether those remains belonged to Native American schoolchildren or parishioners at the church tied to the school has not been established. Mejia believes they were the remains of boarding school students.
He remembers instances when kids suddenly disappeared. According him, students were told that classmates had “ran away.”
“There were a few kids that disappeared and stuff like that. They said they either ran away or this or that. But theoretically speaking we knew better. We just couldn’t prove it,” Mejia said.
The church has since confirmed that there were human remains on the church grounds, including unmarked graves that were disturbed. The Diocese of Gaylord released a statement in August 2021 to say it would work with the DOI on its investigation.
“The Diocese of Gaylord is aware of painful past events at Holy Childhood of Jesus, including the disturbance of unmarked graves in the 1890s. Matters relating to the parish’s graveyard and cemetery have since been handled in collaboration with the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, particularly during an extensive renovation to the church and grounds in the late 1990s and onward,” the statement read.
Human remains have also been confirmed at the Mount Pleasant school, but the exact number remains unsettled.
According to a June 2022 report from the Traverse City Record-Eagle, federal agencies have recognized five deaths of Indigenous students at Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial School. However, researchers from the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinaabe Culture & Lifeways in Mount Pleasant claim they have evidence of 227 deaths at the school that were not recorded in the school’s archive.
The city of Mount Pleasant and the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan have plans to use ground-penetrating radar to conduct a virtual survey without disturbing any potential remains.
WILL THERE BE JUSTICE?
There’s no timetable on when the DOI will wrap up its federal investigation. But even if all of the facts are public and the minute details confirmed, could it ever make up for the trauma and abuse that so many Native Americans have suffered?
Many are happy to see the DOI’s report and for the federal government to finally acknowledge their role in this story. But they say it shouldn’t stop there.
“Words are important but they aren’t action. Action is where we get justice. It’s where we feel loved and we feel cared about. We feel heard and seen,” Joshua Hudson of the Washington state-based Native Organizers Alliance told News 8. “(American philosopher) Dr. Cornel West says that justice is what loves looks like in public. So what could be done? We need to have more conversations about this. This needs to be a part of our core curriculum. This shouldn’t be news to adults.”
James Bud Day, of the Gun Lake Tribe, considers the investigation a part of the process toward closure, not justice.
“I think ultimately communities are really wanting closure. And sometimes that can be more desired than justice itself. Because I think at this point a lot of the hope for justice has already been relinquished and thrown out the window,” Day said. “At this point, what’s left for a lot of communities is closure and the finality of it.”
Woods questions whether the DOI can handle the investigation responsibly.
“Trusting the government with our healing is not something we will get over easily,” Woods said. “To provide closure to our people, tribal nations need to be heard. Provide some semblance of justice by maybe building centers where we can learn our language, our culture, our own way of healing without the government interfering or overseeing how we operate.”
— This is Part 4 of a Sunday Series dedicated to Native American Heritage Month. You can read the other articles in the series here.