A measure in Michigan’s legislature would change the state’s school law to “strongly encourage” Native American boarding school curriculum in Michigan classrooms.
State Senator Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, proposed Senate Bill 876 on Wednesday, which encourages eighth through 12th pupils to learn about boarding institutions in history classrooms.
The law intends to preserve the mostly forgotten history of the schools, where Indigenous children were taken to study English and practice Christianity throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, culminating in the eradication of Native American languages and practices.
The bill establishes schools as organizations with a specific purpose “the cultural assimilation of Indigenous children through the forceful relocation of these children from their families and communities to distant residential facilities where the children’s American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian identities, language, and beliefs were to be forcibly suppressed.” Physical abuse was frequently perpetrated in schools.
In Michigan, at least three schools existed: the Mount Pleasant Industrial Boarding School, which closed in 1934; St. Joseph Orphanage and School in Assinins, north of Baraga County in the Upper Peninsula, which closed in the 1950s; and Holy Childhood of Jesus in Harbor Springs, which closed in the early 1980s, decades after the majority had closed.
Schmidt filed the measure after a 180-member native healing council in Harbor Springs urged him to. Schmidt’s district contains the former Holy Childhood location.
Schmidt was accompanied by many Holy Childhood survivors in the State Capitol to propose the measure. Melissa Moses, of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, is the grandmother of a 4-year-old great-grandson. She is concerned about what would happen if this part of history is not passed on to his generation.
“The more you learn, then the kids are going to say, ‘we can’t do that,’” she said.
Teaching about the schools, according to Linda Cobe of the Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, would emphasize the fact that societal disorders on reservations are the product of generational sadness and resentment originating from family separation.
At the age of seven, Wyman Chippewa, a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, began attending Holy Childhood.
“When you go through that school, you’re abused,” he said Wednesday, fighting back tears. “All you know is abuse, and you don’t understand, ‘Why is this happening to me?’”
Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, chairs the Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee, which will hear the measure.
“This is clearly a dark, tragic part of our history,” Schmidt said. “It’s shameful many of the things that went on, and I think that more and more people recognize that.”
The bill recommends that the state board of education be “strongly encouraged” to guarantee that core history curriculum contains “learning objectives for Indian boarding schools,” just as it does for genocides like the Holocaust or the Armenian Genocide.
Schmidt said Wednesday that he chose to actively encourage the courses in order to minimize red tape and criticism surrounding curricular demands.
As survivors grow older, Kim Fyke of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians expects that the bill will solidify the history of boarding schools in education.
“There’s only a few more years of us elders here to tell you the story,” she said. “Otherwise, it’s just going to be whatever is out there, whatever was left behind. So we’re trying to let you guys know what really happened to us.”