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Federal investigation reveals what Michigan tribes already knew about abusive boarding schools –

The south side of a gymnasium within the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School. The school was open as part of the federal Indian boarding school system from 1893 through 1934 and had an annual enrollment of about 300 students.
Tribal communities are hoping to see palpable change after the U.S. Department of Interior released the first installment of its’ investigation into the history of federal Indian boarding schools, where Indigenous children, stripped of their cultural identities, endured abuse in the name of assimilation.
Five of the institutions, two more than previously known, operated in Michigan.
“I think what a lot of the states and a lot of the tribal communities and tribal governments want is accountability and justice,” said Bud Day, language and culture director for Gun Lake Tribe in Shelbyville.
The Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, spearheaded by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, addresses the troubled history of Indian Boarding school policies. Volume 1, released in May, laid the groundwork for the department to address the intergenerational trauma felt by Native American communities as a result of these boarding schools.
Children as young as 8 were renamed. Their hair was cut and they were prevented from using their native language, the first volume of the report highlights. Children also suffered physical, emotional or sexual abuse at the hands of those in charge of these institutions.
The newly released information only reaffirmed what many tribal members already knew through stories passed down for generations, said Jamie Stuck, council chairperson for the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi tribe in Fulton. His grandfather was a past Indian boarding school student.
“Just seeing how the effects and trauma carry on through the current generation right now, it’s not surprising as far as what’s indicated in that report,” Stuck said. “I commend Secretary Haaland for this initiative… it’s been a long time coming.”
To further the account and capture first-person stories, Haaland and Bryan Newland, assistant secretary of Indian Affairs and member of the Bay Mills Indian Community in the Upper Peninsula, will visit Pellston, south of Mackinac City, on Aug. 13.
This is the first comprehensive report of its kind from the U.S. government and catalogs an extensive list of federally operated schools, including school profiles and maps.
“If you can’t physically kill a person, what better way to attack them than to try to ruin their structure of living, their traditions, their values, their culture, their family structure,” Stuck said. “In my opinion, it was trying to bring the early demise of our people.”
Day said he thought the investigation would be more expansive, in part due to a delay in the investigation, which was originally set to be released in April.
“I was a little surprised that that took far longer than they initially planned for it to,” Day said. “Obviously, I know they want to be thorough and things of that nature, but it did shock me that it took so long without an update.”
Newland mentioned in the report’s introductory letter to Haaland that the delays were due to closures of federal facilities as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and limited funding.
Day called the investigations initial findings “a bit safe,” but said they solidified a lot of work done previously by grassroots organizations.
“A lot of people were grasping at numbers,” Day said. “It did provide, ‘Hey, this is concrete now’.”
The investigation found that from 1819 to 1969, the federal Indian boarding school system consisted of 408 federal schools across 37 states or then territories. The U.S. government operated them, but “religious institutions,” such as the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, and the Army played roles in day-to-day operations.
Michigan’s schools were primarily in the Northern Lower Peninsula and Upper Peninsula. It was previously publicly known there were only three such boarding schools in the state — the Indian Industrial Boarding School in Mount Pleasant, the Chippewa Boarding and Day School in Baraga and the New L’Arbre Croche Mission School in Harbor Springs.
Newly identified Michigan schools are: The Catholic Otchippewa Boarding School in Schoolcraft County and the Mackinac Mission School on Mackinac Island.
April Lindada, a professor with Northern Michigan University’s Center for Native American Studies, said seeing the boarding schools visualized in this way was a powerful experience for her; she wasn’t aware of how many boarding schools would be found in the Great Lakes region.
Lindada said her class curriculum already examined the history of Indian boarding schools, and she’s appreciative to have new data for the fall semester.
“Our curriculum toolboxes are ever growing with more pertinent and vital information that discusses the history of what has taken place,” Lindada said.
There have been short and long-term consequences of the schools on Native communities, possibly most evident by approximately 53 burial sites found at different institutions across the system.
According to the report, the Interior Department expects those numbers to increase as the investigation continues. The department will not make public specific locations “to protect against well-documented grave-robbing, vandalism, and other disturbances to Indian burial sites.”
Day said lost loved ones are a wound present for decades for Native communities. The discovery of burial sites and, being able to one day name the deceased, would provide “a little bit of finality” and “make people’s spirits whole again,” Day said.
The report identifies next steps in a second volume, aided by a new $7 million investment from Congress.
Newland’s recommendations for the future include producing a list of marked and unmarked burial sites and an approximation of the total amount of federal funding used to support the boarding school system.
He also plans to further investigate the impacts the school system had on Native families.
“This report presents the opportunity for us to reorient federal policies to support the revitalization of Tribal languages and cultural practices to counteract nearly two centuries of federal policies aimed at their destruction,” Newland said.
Although Native communities are grateful for the department’s work, tribal members say it isn’t close to done, and they will continue to raise awareness in their respective tribes.
The August visit, the second stop for Haaland and Newland of a year-long national tour called “The Road to Healing,” will give Native survivors of the school system and their descendants an opportunity to share their experiences. Trauma support will be available on-site.
“We know what we have to do moving forward to break the cycle of these traumas that were created by these institutions,” Stuck said.
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