Norther Express Weekly
They came for the children
The Holy Childhood School of Jesus was demolished last fall, but former students say they’ll never forget their formative years at the Indian boarding school. This is the final story of a series that has focused on the school’s legacy.
The Holy Childhood School of Jesus was established by Catholic nuns with the mission of helping impoverished Indian children and raising them in the Roman Catholic faith. But it was just one of scores of boarding schools established by religious groups or the U.S. government that took in tens of thousands of Indian children in a misguided social experiment.
The Harbor Springs school, founded in 1829, was one of the earliest Indian boarding schools in the country. Like thousands of Indian children across the country, the students began boarding school life at the age of six or seven and returned home at the age of 14. Holy Childhood closed in 1983 due to low enrollment, money problems, and staff shortages.
The question is, why boarding schools?
The church’s mission was obvious—to help children, some of them from deeply troubled homes, and to raise them as Christians, be it Episcopalian, Methodist or Catholic. The government’s motives had more to do with “civilizing” the savage man. The third reason is economic. University of Michigan doctoral student Veronica Pasfield contends that off-reservation boarding schools and federal policies worked synergistically to seize or control a tribe’s property and other assets. Such rich resources were desperately needed by a post-Civil War economy at a time when the country was swiftly industrializing, she said.
The Holy Childhood School in Harbor Springs was founded in the early 19th century in a tiny log cabin, decades earlier than the first off-reservation government school of 1879.
The government boarding school model was created by Army Captain Richard H. Pratt, who is known for his famous phrase: “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”
At that time, many people — except for the most hardened Indian haters — felt that it was better to educate rather than kill the remaining 290,000 Indians who had survived the Indian wars. The pre-invasion population was estimated between 12.5 million to 18.5 million, according to books by Russell Thornton and Henry F. Dobyns, wrote Ward Churchill in Kill the Indian, Save the Man.
Reformers had pinned their hopes on molding the children, who would then return to the reservation to lead their tribe out of their “savage” life. Policy makers believed the education route was also more cost-effective. Carl Schurz, commissioner of Indian Affairs, estimated in 1881 that it cost about $1 million to kill an Indian in warfare versus $1,200 to educate an Indian in boarding school for eight years, wrote Cleveland State University Professor David Wallace Adams in his book, Education for Extinction.
Captain Pratt believed the only way to truly assimilate an Indian into white society was to completely remove the children from their families, send them to a boarding school, and not allow them to go home from the ages of 7 to 14. (This policy was later changed to allow children to go home for summer vacations.)
The government worked closely with the churches, which were hired as agents to manage the tribes’ economic affairs. These same churches often opened boarding schools and closely followed the policies and philosophies of the government schools. By 1900, there
were 153 government and private boarding schools in the country, attended by nearly 18,000 children, according to the Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs.
MAKING INDIANS ‘WHITE’
The goal of these schools was to mold an Indian child into a white person both in appearance and mindset. Students would be punished for doing or saying anything “Indian.” Before Holy Childhood was demolished last fall, visitors could still see the barber chair where students would get their long braids cut off. Yet Holy Childhood did make accommodations — prayer books were translated into the Native American language for students to use.
The curriculum taught the basics, but also Christian beliefs and the moral imperative of becoming an American consumer, Adams wrote. And Indians were clearly not “consumers” in the late 1800s. They lived communally and traditionally, and that was a problem in a capitalistic society, wrote Wallace, who quoted John Oberly, superintendent of Indian schools.
Indian schools needed to wean students from “the degrading communism of the tribal reservation system” and to imbue him “with the exalting egotism of American civilization, so that he will say, ‘I’ instead of ‘We,’ and ‘This is mine,’ instead of ‘This is ours,’” Oberly argued in 1888.
The other advantage of having Indians embrace the idea of becoming citizens of the United States was more subtle: they would no longer think of themselves as members of sovereign nations with the power to deny the United States the natural resources and land it needed to recover from the Civil War and to grow into an industrialized power, said Pasfield, a Bay Mills tribal member,
“In the setting of what was essentially a prison for children in most schools, these institutions would separate very young Indian children from their understanding of their basic human rights, as well as their political identity,” Pasfield said. “The government’s interest in the welfare of post-Indian-war, post-plague, hungry Indian kids was secondary. History is very clear that much more was at stake.
“After the Civil War, the U.S. economy was in a shambles. The country was divided between North and South. As the country started to industrialize and waves of poor immigrants flooded American shores at the end of the 1800s, there was a tremendous need for lumber, metals, and land—all plentiful within tribal holdings. Federal and local politicians and policy makers worked together to find ways to take tribal assets. Boarding schools were at least as much about separating Indian kids from their understanding of their political and legal rights as they were about cultural assimilation to white ways.”
Indians on the Bay Mills reservation lost their most valuable land to speculators and the Methodist and Catholic denominations, which were assigned to work as the tribe’s agents, Pasfield said.
“The tribe ended up quite literally with a swamp. People were sick and dying there, and the government wouldn’t enforce our treaty rights. Our people weren’t allowed to fish unless they bought a $20 fishing license — an impossible amount to pay in the Depression.”
BOARDING SCHOOL LIFE
At government boarding schools, Indian children wore uniforms and marched on command. Because government schools had miniscule budgets, the food was meager and disease rampant. The death rate of Indian children in the government boarding schools was as high or higher than some of the more notorious Nazi concentration camps—and not for a single decade, but for four to five decades, according to the book, Kill the Indian, Save the Man by Ward Churchill.
Youngsters entered school at the age of seven and walked into a culture of strict rules and rote learning. Holy Childhood boarding students didn’t have to wear a uniform, but each was assigned a number. Despite the strict atmosphere, almost all remember the fun times of taking long walks, sledding, and ice skating. Some students say they gained a solid education and that the school saved their lives — one man told a reporter he was dropped off at the school at the age of seven, never to see his parents again, and owes his life to the nuns.
Yet others remember a current of fear in the school and getting berated as “heathens” and “worthless savages.” Still others recall physical and/or sexual abuse. (See previous articles in this series in the archives of the Northern Express features at http://www.northernexpress.com.)
The Gaylord Diocese, which now oversees the Holy Childhood parish, forwards complaints about the Holy Childhood nuns to the School Sisters of Notre Dame to investigate since it ran the school. Because the Diocese of Gaylord was not established until 1971, alleged occurrences prior to that time are given to the Diocese of Grand Rapids, wrote Diocese spokeswoman Candace Neff in an email.
Adams theorizes, but has no proof, that abuse was more pervasive in the Christian boarding schools than the government-run schools.
“That surprises people when I say that, but the reason is that in the federal system, there was a bureaucratized process for protesting certain behaviors and conducting investigations. That did not exist in the Catholic system. Oddly enough, I think it was easier to get away with it in the Catholic rather than the federal schools.”
Many parents saw the schools as key to their economic survival and were grateful for the boarding school. Others felt coerced. If they refused to send their child, they’d lose government rations or be required to put their children into foster care. Runaways were punished severely. Each time a child ran away from the Mount Pleasant Indian Boarding School, for example, they were forced to repeat their grade, Pasfield said.
“My great uncle was 18 when he ran away from Mt. Pleasant Indian school for the last time. The school didn’t go beyond the eighth grade. Though he was old enough to vote and enlist in the service, they sent the Grand Rapids police after him to bring him back.”
Yvonne Walker Keshick, a former Holy Childhood student, encourages former students to obtain their school records, which can be done by contacting the Gaylord Catholic Diocese.
Keshick is compiling a family history and asked the Diocese of her deceased father, Levi Walker, at least four years ago. She is still waiting for a response. She believes family members should have access to school records.
Captain Pratt believed in preparing students for a work life by hiring them out to families in the summertime. Experiences varied widely, depending on the boarding school. Some learned a lifelong skill. Adams wrote that the work program helped white people accept Indians into the community. But other students were exploited, forced to work at starvation wages, or to learn useless skills, Adams wrote.
“Some of these kids were being taught skills that were worthless in the new economy, such as how to be blacksmiths after the Model T was taking over,” Pasfield said.
“Keep in mind that while white children were learning skills that could lead to middle class or white collar jobs, Indians were being taught to be underclass laborers-gardeners, nannies and laundresses. You have to ask how this made any sense. Who in a remote reservation community is going to have money to hire these nannies and gardeners?”
Students at Holy Childhood had jobs to do each day, but they weren’t hired out to the community. Chores were neither excessive nor cruel except when meted out as punishment, Keshick said.
“Everybody worked. Each person had a job from fifth through eighth grade, and each had a child to take care of. Mondays we did sewing. Saturdays were the hardest with laundry and ironing. The girls all did the domestic duties — peeling potatoes or cutting up carrots and celery for soup. It wasn’t hard.”
Sammy Toineeta, who co-founded the Indian Boarding School Healing Project, said she had a daily ironing quota to meet at the age of 8 at the St. Joseph’s boarding school in Chamberlain, South Dakota.
In 1923, the government commissioned a survey of government boarding schools to see how students fared after attending a boarding school. Had they learned employable skills? Were they self-sufficient? Did they return to the reservation to preach the good tidings of the white society? The answer of the landmark Meriam Report was a resounding no.
“An overwhelming majority of the Indians are poor, even extremely poor, and they are not adjusted to the economic and social system of the dominant white civilization,” the report authors wrote.
One inherent problem was the schools’ reliance on rote learning, unquestioning obedience and “training” for drudgery jobs. It squelched all “initiative and independence in students” — necessary skills to succeed as an adult, Adams wrote.
Over the ensuing decades, most of the off-reservation boarding schools closed. Private boarding schools and at least two government boarding schools remain, but community members were finally allowed some control in the 1960s. The curriculum now includes Indian music, language and traditional stories. Ironically, some Indians learn for the first time what it means to be an Indian, Adams said.
In an interview with the Express, Adams said he attempted to give a balanced treatment in his book of the boarding school experience. He remains disturbed, however, by the inhumanity of taking very small children from their parents by force.
“It was a terribly traumatic time for children. There were dormitories where children cried themselves to sleep and wet the bed. The other part is the cultural arrogance thing. The institutions were based on the concept that Indians were savages and schools symbolized civilization. Indians had to abandon their culture, the ways of their parents for the white man’s way.
“On their own, minority groups become bi-cultural. People are able to build something on to their existing self, rather than erasing what they bring to the table. This thing of carting kids off the reservation, miles away from school—I think they would have done much better, in the long run, to keep the schools on the reservation.”
Former boarding school students are encouraged to check out boardingschoolhealingproject.org.