UP group sheds light on state’s history of Native American boarding schools

During Native American History month, the conversation reveals lesser known truths about the state’s relationship with tribal communities.
In an effort to “Americanize” native children, they were forced to cut their hair, abandon their language, and denounce non-Christian beliefs.
Published: Nov. 28, 2022 at 6:31 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 30, 2022 at 6:05 PM EST
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MARQUETTE, Mich. (WLUC) - An Upper Michigan group is working to bring Native American boarding school survivors’ stories to light.

Last year, the U.S. government began investigating these institutions across the country after mass grave sites were discovered on the grounds of former Native American boarding schools in Canada. Three were identified in Michigan – one in Harbor Springs, one in Mt. Pleasant and one in Baraga.

Four years prior to that discovery, however, the Great Lakes Peace Center and the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan were already working to address this subject in Michigan. The Episcopal Diocese approached Kathy Vanden Boogard and Deb Nedeau with the Great Lakes Peace Center to join their Justice and Peace Committee.

As part of the committee’s racial reconciliation efforts, the committee wrote a grant, which included the plans for a project called “Walking Together: Finding Common Ground Traveling Exhibit.”

“The primary goal of the project was to tell the true history of the Anishinaabe people throughout the Upper Peninsula,” Vanden Boogard said, “and then also to set up listening and learning sessions with the tribal communities.”

The project is a collection of audio and video interviews with Native American boarding school survivors.

This led them to Leora Tadgerson, who is now the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan.

“This [project] is less about paying homage to the culture in the language of the Anishinaabe people and more about the genocidal atrocities, right the Native American Experience from a Michigan standpoint,” Tadgerson said.

Tadgerson is a citizen of the Bay Mills and Wiikwemkong First Nations. She has been interviewing native boarding school survivors for a decade.

“These kids were forcibly removed from their families,” Tadgerson said, “and there are children that never made it home. Right, and they are in those graveyards.”

In an effort to “Americanize” native children, they were forced to cut their hair, abandon their language, and denounce non-Christian beliefs. It’s a history which Tadgerson says left lasting scars.

“We have this identity crisis,” said Tadgerson. “When you are an indigenous person living in your homelands and you don’t have your language, you don’t have your teachings, you know the moment that you wake up you realize that you’re colonized.”

She said even now Native culture remains tenuous.

“Here in the Upper Peninsula alone, we have less than five first speakers left,” Tadgerson explained. “So we have a very fragile language in a very fragile, um, cultural set right now.”

Funded by the federal government, Bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan Rayford Ray says about 400 churches operated boarding schools across America, mainly Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal and Quaker.

“And you know, the main focus was to sever indigenous children from their families, from their culture, from their language... so it really was cultural genocide,” Ray said.

Ray said the Episcopal church had at least nine boarding schools in the U.S. He believes now religious organizations are responsible for helping survivors heal.

“I believe that we need to make due on behalf of the Episcopal church for the damage for the hurt that was caused so many years ago and still happening today,” Ray said.

Director of Communications for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Marquette John Fee said they are also working on bringing awareness to their parishes.

“We have an upcoming program called the ‘spring steady day’ that’s widely attended by people across the diocese and the featured speaker will be Father Henry Sands from the Arc Dioceses of Detroit and he is a descendant of Indian boarding schools and his a really good insight into this and I think his talk will be very helpful for us.”

As Tadgerson said, the healing starts with uplifting survivors’ voices.

“Part of that healing process is validation, right validation from the oppressor,” said Tadgerson.

Tadgerson said one more school was recently identified as a former Native American Boarding School in Michigan: the Catholic Otchippewa Boarding School in Schoolcraft County.

For now, work continues to gather stories and teach others. Some Native American Boarding School Survivors are still waiting for a bill they introduced to the state House in February to move forward. It would encourage the State Board of Education to include the history of Indian boarding schools in the state’s recommended curriculum standards for eighth through 12th-grade students.

In addition, one U.P. tribe is working to incorporate indigenous history, language and culture into the public schools in their area. TV6′s Pavlina Osta will have more on that on your TV6 Early News on Tuesday, Nov. 29.