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UPDATE: Indian boarding school survivors hope new bill will heal, bring justice

The legislation encourages the Michigan Board of Education to include the boarding schools’ histories in state curriculum.
Published: Feb. 17, 2022 at 7:43 PM EST
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LANSING, Mich. (WLUC) - Indian boarding school survivors in Michigan are hopeful that a newly introduced bill will bring attention to the history of boarding schools and help find justice for the survivors.

“It was a haunting experience that really impacted my life in so many ways,” said Linda Raye Cobe, Lac Vieux Desert Tribe member. “And the loss of my culture has taken years to relearn.”

Survivors of Indian boarding schools say the history of abuse and cultural erasure cannot be forgotten. They’re hoping to not only teach others about what happened but seek justice for those who suffered in these institutions, including those who didn’t make it home.

That’s why State Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, a Sault Tribe member, and State Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, who represents the eastern U.P., introduced new legislation this week.

“We felt that this issue is very important, having many of the tribal community, sovereign nations, in my district, in Upper Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. It was the right thing to do on my part in the Senate to move this issue forward,” said Schmidt.

Schmidt and Irwin’s proposal would encourage the State Board of Education to include the history of Indian boarding schools in Michigan’s recommended curriculum standards for eighth through twelfth-grade students.

“Michigan’s Indian boarding schools were created to destroy tribal culture and erase Native languages,” Irwin said in a news release. “Michigan’s dark history of violence against tribal communities should be taught in our schools, especially the story of Indian boarding schools. These schools forcibly removed children and trained them to reject and participate in the destruction of their own communities.”

The investigation into Indian Boarding Schools in the United States gained momentum after last year’s discovery of mass unmarked graves on the grounds of two boarding schools in Canada.

Soon after, U.S Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary, announced the Federal Boarding School Initiative.

Survivors agree that acknowledgment of these schools in the U.S. is long overdue.

There are three sites in Michigan that are identified as former Indian Boarding Schools: Holy Childhood Boarding School in Harbor Springs, Indian Industrial Boarding School in Mt. Pleasant, and the Holy Name of Jesus Indian Mission in Baraga.

Holy Childhood in Harbor Springs operated under the U.S. government from the 1800s through the 1980s. The school is notorious for its reports of abuse and the disturbance of unmarked graves in the late 1800s, as the Diocese of Gaylord acknowledges in its own statement on the history of the school.

Survivors of Holy Childhood were in Lansing Wednesday to share their stories and show support for the new bill.

: Sens. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, and Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, and survivors of the...
: Sens. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, and Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, and survivors of the Harbor Springs Holy Childhood Indian Boarding School and their families.(Senator Schmidt's Office)

“I am here, not only to speak out for everybody who has no idea what happened to us in that place,” said Kim Fyke, a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe who attended Holy Childhood from 1970 to 1974. “I am also here for those that will not speak to you today, cannot speak to you today, still have nightmares... I’m also here for those buried under the ground.”

Fyke has memories as a child of finding a bone in her dorm room bed at the school with her name written on it and an ominous message that read, “The devil is going to get you.”

She said there are few who will speak openly about their experiences.

“There’s only a handful of us that are willing to talk,” Fyke said. “The others have it buried so deep...and they don’t want to bring it to the surface.”

Those who do speak, however, hope that their experiences will not only teach others, but will bring healing to the survivors.

“The reason I am very proud to be here today is to speak my story and to share my experience...and I think it’s important to teach the true history of our state, of our country,” Cobe said. “And I’m doing this for all the survivors and descendants that were sent there.”

Cobe spent her first grade at Holy Childhood. She and her cousins were “rounded up” and taken to the school far from home where she said they endured abuse and were cut off from family.

“I was five years old at the time when they came and got myself and my family, my cousins,” Cobe said. “We were taken from our parents and they didn’t have any say whether we went or not...and the hardest part was the loneliness, being broken up from family... and the mistreatment by the nuns.”

Cobe’s experience of being forcibly separated from family and placed in a boarding school far from home began early in U.S. history, with the Indian Civilization Act of 1819, described by Secretary Haaland in her announcement of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative.

The goal, as Haaland cites, was to “culturally assimilate Indigenous children by forcibly relocating them from their families and communities to distant residential facilities where their American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian identities, languages, and beliefs were to be forcibly suppressed.”

As survivors attest, this forced suppression often surpassed “education.”

A third former attendee of Holy Childhood, Marilyn St. Onge-Wakefield of the Sault Tribe attended from first to seventh grade. She recalls being force-fed raisins (her most hated food), being beaten with a paddle, and the sudden disappearance of a classmate overnight.

St. Onge remembers waking up to a nun screaming at a classmate named Debbie, who had started her period. Because the girl had never been taught about menstruation, she did not know what to do and instead of helping her, St. Onge-Wakefield said the girl was verbally abused until she “melted down.”

“The next day, all of the girls were talking about Debbie,” St. Onge-Wakefield said. “The next day...her beds had no blankets on it. She was gone...We were told she went home. We don’t know that... I don’t know what happened to her, but I want to find her. And I haven’t been able to locate her.”

These are just a handful of “so many stories.”

“I was gonna go to my grave with these stories,” St. Onge-Wakefield said. “I didn’t want to share them because I went through a life of hell. And my bottom line was for these children, the ones that were buried. Because I thought that was it. I can carry on with what went on with me, but these children can’t...and they deserve justice, these babies.”

Sens. Irwin and Schmidt say education is the perfect way to begin seeking that justice and acknowledging that history.

“We need to acknowledge the wrongs that went on,” Schmidt said. “And allow the survivors to tell their story.”

Sen. Schmidt said that with bipartisan support, he hopes the Senate Education Policy Committee will take up the bill soon so that it can eventually move to the House.

Last published: Feb 17, 2022 8:57:56 PM

State Sen. Wayne Schmidt on Wednesday introduced legislation that seeks to raise awareness about the history of Indian boarding schools in Michigan and encourages the State Board of Education to include the material in statewide curriculum standards.

“As a survivor of the Holy Childhood Indian boarding school, and as ‘Anishinaabe Mukwa Dodem,’ on behalf of my family and community, I would like to emphasize the importance of this legislation to all the survivors,” said Benedict Hinmon, whose spirit name is “Kushmuncie” (Kingfisher) and who is an elder within the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians living in Petoskey. “The devastating effects of boarding schools cannot be erased or forgotten. Those of us who survived continue to rebuild our lives each and every day. Every child matters!”

The bill was introduced during “Mukwa Giizis,” the Bear Moon month. Bears represent medicine and healing in the Native American culture, and tribal stakeholders identified this as an appropriate month to move forward on this important issue.

“I am the last generation of my family to attend an Indian boarding school, which was located in Harbor Springs,” said Meridith Kennedy of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, living in Alanson.

“Ten years ago, I recovered the remains of my ancestors from the grounds of the same school my father and I went to — and more of my ancestors were found in 2020. For the families of Indian boarding school survivors, this is part of our modern history and shapes who we are. This legislation offers the opportunity for healing and making our great nations stronger by acknowledging the past and moving forward in a good way.”

Senate Bill 876 would encourage the State Board of Education to include the history regarding Indian boarding schools in the state’s recommended curriculum standards for eighth through 12th-grade students. Many schools in Michigan teach according to these standards. While these standards contain aspects of Native American history, proponents of the legislation say they are not strong enough.

“It is important to recognize the fact that Indian boarding schools did exist in our state — even as recent as the mid-1980s,” said Schmidt, R-Traverse City. “Working with tribal leaders, educators, and Indian boarding school survivors and their families, we introduced this legislation so we do not forget, nor repeat, this dark part of our state and nation’s history.”

Sen. Jeff Irwin, who is a member of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians, and the lead co-sponsor of the legislation, agreed and added that the treatment of Native American families and children should not be overlooked in the state’s history books.

“Michigan’s Indian boarding schools were created to destroy tribal culture and erase Native languages,” said Irwin, D-Ann Arbor. “Michigan’s dark history of violence against tribal communities should be taught in our schools, especially the story of Indian boarding schools. These schools forcibly removed children and trained them to reject and participate in the destruction of their own communities.”

SB 876 has been referred to the Senate Committee on Education and Career Readiness.

We’ll have more on this story Friday, including further details from indigenous boarding school survivors. Check back here to learn more about their experiences.

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