The Horrid History of 3 Indian Boarding Schools in Michigan

Indian Boarding Schools were specifically designed to destroy American Indian cultures, languages, and spirituality. Once enrolled, students had to accept the white culture, speak only English, and embrace and practice Christianity. 

It was thought that reservation schools were not sufficiently separated from native life influences. Assimilationists believe that off-reservation boarding schools are the best option for transforming Indian youngsters into members of white society. The aim for Col. Richard Henry Pratt was total integration. In 1879, he founded the Carlisle Indian School, the most well-known off-reservation residential school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in an abandoned army barracks.

Pratt was the single most influential individual in Indian education throughout his 25-year tenure as Headmaster of the institution. “Kill the Indian, save the man”, was Pratt’s slogan. Pratt felt that off-reservation schools created in white areas would be able to accomplish this. As a result, the United States funded and operated  367 boarding schools in 29 states to assimilate Indigenous children.

History of Indian Boarding Schools in Michigan

 Mount Pleasant Indian School
Mount Pleasant Indian School – Library of Congress

The Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School at Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, was founded by the United States Congress in 1891, based on Pratt’s concept. This provided funds for establishing off-reservation boarding schools and vocational training centers to “educate” Native American youngsters.

Native American children from around Michigan and those from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and New York attended the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School. The campus included 37 buildings on 320 acres of land with an average enrolment of 300 American Indian children in grades K-8 every year. From 1893 through 1934, the school was in operation.

In Michigan, there was two other Indian boarding school; Holy Name of Jesus Indian Mission in Baraga and Holy Childhood Boarding School in Harbor Springs.

american indian boarding schools haunt many – Orientation Day For New Students As Young As Five

Indian Child
Indian Child – Libary of Congress

Children as young as five years old arrived by automobile, rail, or wagon and were instantly labeled “dirty Indians.” They were stripped and cleaned by being doused and scrubbed with alcohol, kerosene, or even the insecticide DDT.

Long hair, which was prized for its cultural and spiritual importance, was shorn. Personal items like medicine bags, beading, family pictures, and so on were taken and never returned. To educate students on “sameness, regularity, and order,” students were given uniforms of low-quality, unpleasant materials.

The kids were renamed by school authorities, who gave them ordinary English first and last names. For the students, it was a humiliating and terrible event. They could no longer speak their languages, even with each other. In addition, they were expected to give up their family’s spiritual practices and attend only Christian churches. The strict orders of their teachers ran their lives, and it often included grueling chores and stiff punishments.

Indian Boarding School Curriculum 

Sewing Class at Indian Boarding Schools
Sewing Class – Library of Congress

The rigorous and regimented program was centered on vocational training and religious instruction. English, carpentry, farming, sewing/tailoring, laundry, housekeeping, and basic first aid classes were available. Students were taught how to adapt to and integrate into “white culture” as part of their education. Rumors of severe mistreatment endured by pupils, as recounted by residents, circulate the area.

Before Assimilation at Indian School

Before Shot of Indian Boarding Schools
Portrait of Wounded Yellow Robe, Henry Standing Bear, and Timber Yellow Robe, all in Native Dress

Furthermore, infectious illness was common in society and frequently swept through schools. This was due to a lack of knowledge about the causes and prevention, insufficient cleanliness, insufficient money for meals, overcrowded circumstances, and pupils with low resistance.

After Assimilation at Indian School

Students at Indian Boarding Schools
Portrait of Timber Yellow Robe, Henry Standing Bear, and Wounded Yellow Robe n.d. Photographs of American Indians and Other Subjects the 1840s-1960s

The federal orders for obligatory schooling were put into effect with a strict interpretation of how to implement it. This included invading Indian families’ homes to snap up the children. This was incredibly distressing for individuals who resided in rural parts of the Great Lakes Region, far apart from American culture. A child’s separation from home and boarding school attendance would endure for years.

There Were No Summers Off For Students

Indian Boarding Schools
Chaple Services – Library of Congress

Students and parents were frequently told that students would be permitted to come home for visits, but when summer break arrived, the trips were repeatedly refused. Students worked as day laborers during the summer, and their earnings were used to support the schools.

The effort put on students attending American Indian Boarding Schools exacerbated the consequences of hunger, loneliness, and inadequate living circumstances. Young kids were forced to do massive amounts of laundry or work on dairy farms without adequate equipment. Young boys had to run dangerous machinery while girls pressed garments with scorching irons. In 1935, a Bureau of Indian Affairs employee stated that the American Indian Boarding School system consisted of “penal institutions-where little children [are] sentenced to hard labor for a term of years for the crime of being born of their mothers.”

Aftermath  & Legacy of the Indian Boarding Schools

The U.S. government has yet to recognize its participation in the operation of American Indian boarding schools. However, American Indian groups and organizations are spearheading the “Journey for Forgiveness.” Over the last ten years, “Journey for Forgiveness” marches have been held at each former American Indian boarding school to raise awareness and begin the process of healing American Indian people, families, and communities affected by the boarding school era.

The National Day of Remembrance for Indian Boarding Schools, also known as Orange Shirt Day, was held on September 30, 2021. It commemorates survivors and honors those who did not return home.

Also, on Orange Shirt Day, the Department of the Interior announced that it would begin tribal consultations as the next step of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, a comprehensive review of the troubled legacy of federal boarding school policies. In addition, Secretary Haaland directs the Department to prepare a report detailing available historical records, emphasizing cemeteries or potential burial sites, relating to the federal boarding school program in preparation for future site work.

Canadian Boarding Schools

Dozens of Ojibwa First Nation people and others gathered in Detroit in June 2021 at Belle Isle to remember the lives of hundreds of native children who never returned home from what the Canadian government referred to as “residential schools.”

Resources and Education

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Sources and More Reading

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