Pain and resilience: The legacy of Native American boarding schools in Michigan

By: - August 14, 2021 4:07 am

Clockwise: Cyrellius Joseph Petoskey, Robert Hazen and siblings, Ella Rose Petoskey, Robert Hazen, Linda Cobe, and Warren Petoskey with mother Juanita and grandfather Cyrellius | Photos courtesy of Warren Petoskey, Robert Hazen and Linda Cobe, graphic by Laina G. Stebbins

Updated, 12:45 p.m., 8/19/21

In May, a horrific discovery in British Columbia caught the world’s attention: The unmarked gravesites of hundreds of Indigenous children, buried near the boarding school they were forced to attend by their government and the Catholic Church in a mass effort to assimilate them into white culture.

Since then, over 1,300 graves have been found near five Indian residential schools in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. For many non-Native people, these gravesite findings and subsequent apology from the Canadian government marked the first time they had learned about the schools.

The dark and complex legacy of these institutions is not unique to Canada. The United States’ implementation of the residential school system closely mirrors its northern neighbor.

“It’s all come to light in Canada, and it’s like the tip of the iceberg — oh my God, just wait til they start looking here,” said Linda Cobe, who attended a Michigan school in Harbor Springs.

Carlisle Indian School students Samuel High Bear and Guy (Bear Don’t Scare) working at the bakery. This is a posed photo of them loading loaves of bread on a wheelbarrow outside the bakery in Pennsylvania | John N. Choate, 1880-89, Cumberland County Historical Society

But the American government has done far less to acknowledge that history or even mention it in history books. That is, until recently. 

In June, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland ordered a federal investigation into the history to identify all of the schools, uncover the scale of lives lost and look into the consequences of the schools.

Haaland’s investigation seeks to acknowledge the histories in order to help Native people today heal from the collective trauma. As the country’s first Native American cabinet secretary and a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, Haaland has personal ties to the schools, noting she is “a product of these horrific assimilation policies.” Her great-grandfather was sent away to the flagship U.S. Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Penn., usually referred to as the Carlisle school.

“I know that this process will be painful. It won’t undo the heartbreak and loss that so many of us feel,” Haaland said. “But only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we’re all proud to embrace.”

Michigan schools

Michigan is no different from other states that have contributed to this dark chapter of not-so-distant United States history.

“It’s really a lot for Native people to be hearing about these little ones that are buried, but we don’t talk a lot about or even pay attention to the ones that survived and are living today that have to deal with that intergenerational trauma,” said Leora Tadgerson, a Bay Mills Indian Community (BMIC) citizen and the interim director for the Student Equity and Engagement Center* at Northern Michigan University.

In total, 27 U.S. states — including Michigan — were once home to some number of boarding schools, all of which were modeled after the notorious Carlisle school. It opened in 1879, after which the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) began authorizing federally funded schools across the country with its likeness.

“It was their idea to assimilate us into white society. And their motto was, ‘Kill the Indian, save the child,’” said Robert Hazen, a Michigan survivor of a school in Harbor Springs.

That ubiquitous phrase was coined by Army officer Richard H. Pratt, founder of the Carlisle school and a fervent advocate for Native assimilation through “education.”

“A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one … In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man,” Pratt said in 1892.

At the peak of the BIA’s program, 350 residential schools were in operation nationally. More than 200 were still in operation by the 1970s. The BIA did not return a request for comment for this story.

Three of these federal schools existed in Michigan: The Holy Childhood School of Jesus in Harbor Springs; the Old St. Joseph Orphanage and School in Assinins near Baraga in the Upper Peninsula; and the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School in Mount Pleasant.

“It was quite literally more expensive to exterminate Native Americans than to educate them, so they educated them,” Tadgerson said. “Even in ‘Mein Kampf,’ you’ll be able to see that [Adolf] Hitler loved the model we had put out for boarding schools and used them within his genocide acts.”

Hundreds of Anishinaabe children in Michigan were plucked from their tribal communities to attend, often many hours away from their homes. The children’s hair was cut and their clothing replaced for more “white” attire. They were separated from their siblings, given English names and punished for speaking their Indigenous tongue.

Stories of abuse, starvation, unsanitary living spaces and more abound, although some boarding school survivors recall better experiences than others.

Tadgerson, who is working on an exhibit to uplift the voices of boarding school survivors around the state and educate non-Native Michiganders about their experiences, said that many tribal citizens with connections to the schools still struggle with either their first-hand experience there or with their family’s intergenerational trauma caused by it.

“Some folks just quite literally can’t speak about it,” Tadgerson said. “They just blocked it out completely because it was so intense.”

The history of Michigan schools is not widely known. Tribal citizens the Advance interviewed for this story said that many historical accounts — published or otherwise — have inaccuracies. This is a common critique of historical accounts of Indigenous people. As such, this story is based in both Tadgerson’s research and the recollections of Indigenous survivors themselves and their family members.

The first of Michigan’s three federally run boarding schools, the Holy Childhood of Jesus Catholic Church and Indian School in Harbor Springs, initially opened as the small “New L’Arbre Croche” mission in 1829. It later reopened in the 1880s with a new name and larger complex.

The school then ran for 102 consecutive years, largely under the servitude of the School Sisters of Notre Dame — all the way up until 1986, when it finally closed as a boarding school for good. The building was demolished in 2007 and rebuilt as a daycare facility and parish at the same location.

The date that the school finally shuttered is widely reported as 1984. But Meredith Kennedy, who lives in the Harbor Springs area, said she and her peers attended Holy Childhood up until 1986. Through their research, they have concluded that 1984 was the year that federal subsidies to the school stopped.

The next school established was primarily an orphanage, but still adhered to the core mission of white assimilation and religious conversion. The famed Bishop Frederic Baraga built the Old St. Joseph Orphanage and School in 1860 — on a historic complex known as “Assinins,” or “Little Rock,” named after the first Ojibwe Chief Baraga baptized there.

The Catholic mission and its surrounding buildings housed both Ojibwe and immigrant children, with about 950 children at its peak. The Assinins area originally spanned nearly 500 acres north of Baraga and near Keweenaw Bay. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops did not respond to a request for comment.

It was quite literally more expensive to exterminate Native Americans than to educate them, so they educated them.

– Leora Tadgerson

The orphanage and school was first rededicated as a friary in the 1950s, then used by the local Keweenaw Bay Indian Community as a tribal center starting in the late 1960s.

Although the main orphanage was torn down in the early 2000s, and only a small portion of its ruins remain hidden behind trees, a giant shrine to the bishop who built the complex looms large over the Lake Superior bay from a cliff above US-41.

The Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School was the state’s third federal boarding school, established in 1892 — the same year Central Michigan University was also founded in Mount Pleasant.

The complex that grew to nearly a dozen buildings opened the following year for around 300 students annually. Although only five student deaths were officially recorded at the school during its 41 years of operation, local tribal members say the true number is actually around 200. An Indian gravesite lies directly adjacent to the complex.

The 320-acre Mount Pleasant school was converted in 1934 into a home and training institute for the developmentally disabled. The facility officially shuttered in 2009, leaving taped-off empty acres and abandoned, crumbling red brick buildings.

The Advance spoke with several people from three different tribes in Michigan, ages 40 to 76, all of whom have either attended a school or whose close family members did.

These are their stories.

Linda Cobe, 62  | Lac Vieux Desert Band  

From the boarding school nuns in Harbor Springs to her white adoptive parents in Baraga, Linda Cobe always felt that those around her were trying to tear her away from her Indigenous roots.

“I knew I was Native, but I didn’t know what that meant,” said Cobe, who now lives in Naubinway. “I was really trying to find my identity, because my culture was stolen from me from every experience that I’d ever had.”

Linda Cobe photo

Cobe, 62, is Ojibwe/Oneida and a Lac Vieux Desert tribal citizen. She was a month away from turning 6 when the white van came for her in Watersmeet.

Her early childhood was marked with upheaval, living with an abusive family in a home that lacked running water or electricity. But Cobe found that life at the Harbor Springs Holy Childhood School of Jesus was much worse.

“When we got there, it was run like a military boot camp. They were really strict with their discipline and how they dealt out punishment. … At night, you could hear kids crying and sobbing and trying to cry quietly because you’d get in trouble,” Cobe said.

“You know, your family’s broken, your parents are gone. And you’re in Harbor Springs, a strange place.”

One of her most vivid memories was being beaten and kicked by a nun with heavy boots in front of the other children for forgetting to wear a certain dress.

Cobe attended Holy Childhood for just one year, but she said it was filled with harsh discipline, abuse, physical labor and an omnipresent fear of the often-threatening Roman Catholic nuns. Cobe said she had gone from a very traditional lifestyle of living off the land to a strict, military-style routine and very little freedom.

Cobe bounced around after Harbor Springs, feeling even more lost than before, from foster parents to adoptive parents while facing hardships like abuse and family deaths throughout.

It's all come to light in Canada, and it's like the tip of the iceberg — oh my God, just wait til they start looking here.

– Linda Cobe

She only began to get in touch with her culture once she enrolled at Northern Michigan University and studied sociology. Cobe has since fought to form a better connection with her ancestral traditions, as well as continue to work through the after-effects of family trauma compounded by boarding school trauma.

“I spent a lot of my life running. Probably running from myself and running from my past, running from, I don’t know. But the more I was learning about my culture, the more I understood myself and what happened to me … I guess I started recognizing my own strength,” Cobe said.

Cobe became the first person in her family to receive a college degree and eventually wrote an autobiography, called “Red, White & Blues.”

“I’m telling my relatives’ stories [too],” she said. “I went one year [to Holy Childhood]; they had to go years down that hellhole. And their families are broken, and they got into alcoholism, and they’re, they’re lost, you know, in a lot of ways.”

Cobe says she ultimately would like to see survivors given reparations, as well as a formal apology from the Catholic Church.

Robert Hazen, 72 | Lac Vieux Desert Band

It was September 1955, Robert Hazen recalls, when a sheriff and government agent pulled up in a bus to take him and dozens of other children away to the Holy Childhood school in Harbor Springs. He was 6.

“It wasn’t much of a choice. And our parents had nothing to say about it because it was sanctioned by the federal government and the Catholic Church,” said Hazen, 72, an elder of the Lac Vieux Desert Chippewa Tribe.

“They were trying to get the Indian out of us,” Hazen said of Michigan’s three federal boarding schools. “That’s what it was all about … to decimate the Indian culture. They wanted us destroyed.

“And now, we’re just in a self-destruct mode, so if we could get people to talk about it more, we could stop this alcoholism on the res[ervation] and the drug use.”

Hazen said it wasn’t until about five years ago when he was able to fully make peace with his time at the school. He said he often cried himself to sleep and prayed at the chapel that he wouldn’t get beaten by the nuns.

He and his peers attended church once or twice every day, plus three times on Sundays. Punishments for violations like not speaking English included kneeling on hardwood floors and being beaten with whips, rulers, clubs and sticks.

“They will degrade you, shame you, whatever it is, mentally break you down,” Hazen said. “It was very demoralizing. You know, you think you’re less than less than a dog by the time they get done with you.”

Hazen stayed at Holy Childhood for 12 years until eighth grade, after which he was sent to Boysville — a Catholic boys’ boarding school in Clinton — and spent a few years in foster homes. He was later drafted into military service, serving in the Vietnam War for close to a year and was treated for PTSD afterward.

The many years at Holy Childhood, Hazen said, conditioned him to see the world through a lens of anger and hate. It took him many years to push past that.

“I was so mad at God. And I was so full of rage and self-hate. They taught us to hate ourselves, because we are Indians, you know. Self-hatred is a hard thing to overcome,” he said.

They told us, ‘God doesn't love Indians.’ So, we believed them. You know, after 12 years, you’ve got to believe something.

– Robert Hazen

With their Catholic “fire and brimstone” way of teaching, Hazen said the nuns were constantly reminding the Native children that they were going to hell.

“So, why even try once you got out of there? You’re doomed anyhow,” he recalls thinking. “They told us, ‘You might as well forget about it. God doesn’t love Indians.’ So we believed them. You know, after 12 years, you’ve got to believe something.”

Hazen says he finally made peace with his Creator about five years ago, in his late 60s. He also celebrated his 22nd year of sobriety last month.

Now retired, he uses his life experiences as motivation to help other tribal members who may not understand that their struggles are tied to intergenerational trauma. He now holds healing circles for other Ojibwe survivors to face, speak about and come to terms with their own experiences at boarding schools.

“A lot of the Natives in my tribe, they don’t like talking about it. They wish it never happened, but it’s going to be with them the rest of their life, you know,” Hazen said.

Hazen says he wants the federal government and Catholic Church to issue an apology, and for non-Native Michiganders to know the “whole story of what they did to the Native peoples of this land.”

Warren Petoskey, 76 | Waganakising Odawa & Minneconjou Lakotah

After the early death of their father in the late 1880s, Cyrellius and Ella Petoskey were sent to the sprawling Mount Pleasant boarding school and then to the flagship Carlisle school in Pennsylvania.

What they saw and experienced there would reverberate through generations. Warren Petoskey, 76, was told many stories over the years about the schools attended by his grandfather, Cyrellius, and great-aunt, Ella.

Petoskey is an elder of the Waganakising Odawa and Minneconjou Lakotah nations, a member of the Bear Clan and a citizen of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians (LTBB).

Growing up, Petoskey was always acutely aware that he was considered “less than” as a Native person among his white peers. Living with an alcoholic father in Southeast Michigan and dealing with his own issues with alcohol and smoking, Petoskey was far from connected to his Odawa and Lakotah roots.

But his great-aunt Ella planted a seed of hope in him from a young age. Petoskey was 9 years old when Ella asked him to carry the name of her great-grandfather, Biidassige — anglicized as Petoskey — which means “Early Morning Light” or “One Who Brings the Light.” The city of Petoskey in Little Traverse Bay is named after Chief Biidassige.

Ella told her great-nephew that he was destined for great things. 

Petoskey was never enrolled at a boarding school, but he heard stories from Ella and other tribal members about their experiences there.

Ella detailed rampant predatory behavior and sexual abuse, treatment designed to chip away at a child’s Indigenous culture, cardinal punishment and other frightening experiences at Carlisle.

“She told me that when the students arrived, they stripped them of all their Native clothing. They hosed them down with fire hoses. They threw DDT powder on them,” Petoskey said. “… And they were made to go out and watch them as they burned the pile of clothes out in the yard. And that was part of the effort to remove the consciousness of who they were.”

“One tribal man said more people died at Carlisle than came home,” he added.

Ella and Cyrellius only passed through Mount Pleasant on their way to Carlisle, but other family members spent more time there. One of Petoskey’s aunts and two of his uncles were full-time students at the Mount Pleasant school. His father, Warren Frank, was a day boarder there.

Hearing the stories of the schools from Ella — coupled with treating many Native patients in his counseling work who had similar problems as he did — led Petoskey to realize that there was a generational link between trauma and cultural erasure and worse outcomes for their younger generations.

I used to make the statement that ‘normal is a setting on a washing machine.’ We don't, as a people, we don't know what normal is. And it's because of historical trauma, the boarding schools.

– Warren Petoskey

Petoskey says this helped him realize the prophecy told to him by his great-aunt Ella, and he began focusing his career toward helping other tribal members overcome their pain.

In subsequent years, Petoskey became an author, poet, spiritual leader and more. He also founded Dawnland Native Ministries, an outreach program which educates people about boarding schools and helps Indigenous people heal from their collective trauma.

“I used to make the statement that ‘normal is a setting on a washing machine,’” Petoskey said. “We don’t, as a people, we don’t know what normal is. And it’s because of historical trauma, the boarding schools.”

But Petoskey also has hope for the future.

“We have a prophecy among our people that the seventh generation would light the eighth fire — and the seventh generation are people my age. This prophecy is being fulfilled, because there are more and more people that are asking questions. And now, what’s going on in Canada is encouraging a lot more people,” he said.

Dalinda Causley, 70, and Charlee Brissette| Sault Tribe  

Dalinda Causley, 70, had a boarding school experience different from most.

Born in Sault Ste. Marie as a Sault tribal citizen, Causley was subject to a chaotic home life plagued with alcoholism and physical abuse. Being sent away to Harbor Springs in the second grade was largely a reprieve from that upheaval each school year through sixth grade.

Though the school was strict and the conditions were bare bones, Causley found value in the structure and feels grateful that she was able to make something good out of it.

Charlee and Dalinda Brissette | Charlee Brissette photo

It was only about a decade ago when Causley began opening up to her daughter, Charlee Brissette, about the experience.

“I mostly remember the structure, which for me made me feel safe, compared to at home,” Causley said.

“It always gave me something to believe in. … It saved me and my children.”

Causley is not alone in her view of the experience. As a generation whose parents often faced discrimination from good jobs, some Native children viewed the schools as a small reprieve because they could at least be fed regularly.

But Causley acknowledges the uniqueness of her experience at Harbor Springs, and does not dismiss the stories of many others — including her own brother, John — who remember their time at boarding school very differently and still suffer from the pain it caused them.

“Even though she had a positive experience and has positive memories of going to boarding school, she doesn’t discount all of the trauma and all of the negative experiences that other survivors have had, because she knows that that is really important, too,” Brissette told the Advance.

But for her own life, Causley reflects back on the time with gratitude for the strength it gave her to make a better life for her children.

“I would like to see a way of healing begin for the people that are still here, the older people that have been to boarding school that have had these experiences,” Causley said.

“The government has to also take responsibility for their role in this, for sending kids to school and doing this to our people. It’s not just on the boarding schools.”

Meredith Kennedy, 40 | Waganakising Odawa

Meredith Kennedy, 40, was part of the very last generation of Native boarding school attendees in Michigan. 

An educator and activist in the land of Waganakising (known as “land of crooked trees,” also known as the area between Harbor Springs and Cross Village), Kennedy wants others to fully understand the true history of the schools and the trauma they caused her people.

But she wants others to also know the incredible resiliency of Indigenous people.

“My generation is reclaiming our relatives, reclaiming who we are, reclaiming our ceremonies,” Kennedy said. “We finally have body sovereignty, to a point. That is huge.

“And that’s what comes from the historical trauma of my people, is the resiliency to be able to have this conversation.”

Kennedy, a Waganakising Odawa and a LTBB citizen, attended the Harbor Springs school from preschool up until age 7, when Holy Childhood closed. The year was 1986 — just 35 years ago.

Her siblings, aunts, grandma and father had all attended the school, as well. Her great-grandmother was sent to Carlisle. 

Kennedy said she believes the only reason Holy Childhood failed and ultimately shut down was because it stopped getting federal subsidies to “kill the Indian, save the man” in 1984.

“In this quaint little Harbor Springs town of tourists, they don’t want to hear that your house is built with our blood. Like, your freedoms come at a price. And the price we continue to pay is with our grief. 

“Because we’ve already given you children, we’ve already given you our language, we’ve already given you our culture. And you continue to have us pay with that. So your privileges come at a cost in Harbor Springs, and people don’t realize that,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy noted that the boarding school system is just one contributing factor, among many, of collective trauma for Indigenous peoples in North America.

Some of that directly stems from how parents who grew up in boarding schools were modeled cultural norms like affection and discipline. Being raised by the Catholic Church instead of your own parents meant not being shown normal family affection, but rather being accustomed to harsh discipline and strict routines.

“Or you’re being modeled physical abuse and sexual assault, right? That’s what you are learning is love,” Kennedy said. “Because, like, ‘This is how this person shows me they love me. They beat me; they assault me.’”

Because generations of parents grew up without knowing how to be a parent, their children faced worse outcomes including incarceration, alcoholism and drug use — not to mention an often-complicated relationship with religion and their own Native identity.

In this quaint little Harbor Springs town of tourists, they don't want to hear that your house is built with our blood. Like, your freedoms come at a price. And the price we continue to pay is with our grief. Because we've already given you children, we've already given you our language, we've already given you our culture.

– Meredith Kennedy

The experience of being so heavily doused in religion during school took many years for Kennedy to work through herself. She still attended church regularly until about five years ago — “That’s how long it takes to break the cycle,” she said.

Kennedy now does not attend any services and practices her own ceremonies instead.

“I mean, it was a process. Because it’s that unlearning. It’s the same concept of, ‘I’m at a funeral, but we [Natives] sit in the back,’ right? No one tells you to do that. It’s just been modeled for so many years,” she said.

But Kennedy has worked hard in her adult life to heal from the process, now using the experience to fuel her life passions that include “smashing the patriarchy and smashing colonized behaviors.”

“I’m over sadness. I’m over that. I’m beyond that in my healing,” Kennedy said.

“Everybody wants to know our trauma, but people are not celebrating our resiliency. Indigenous people have true resiliency. And we’re bouncing back.”


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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.