Remains of the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School complex, Mount Pleasant, Mich. | Laina G. Stebbins
Updated, 6:11 a.m., 10/2/21
A bill introduced Thursday by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) would create a special commission for the federal government to uncover, document and begin to heal intergenerational trauma for Native people caused by so-called Indian boarding schools across the country.
As the Advance previously reported, Michigan’s not-so-distant past includes the legacy of three such federal schools. In Harbor Springs, Mount Pleasant and Assinins, Native children were taken from their families, stripped of their culture, forced to assimilate into white society and often subjected to abuse over the course of a century.
A federal investigation ordered by U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland — the country’s first Native American cabinet secretary — also is underway to document the effects of the boarding school policy.
Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians Tribal Chair Aaron Payment says he believes the Warren legislation will help Haaland’s efforts go even further.
“While Secretary Haaland … has a focused attention and commitment, the legislative side needs to come along. So it’s very fitting that Sen. Warren, [U.S. Reps.] Tom Cole (R-Okla.) and Sharice Davids (D-Kan.) are collaborating,” Payment said.
Cole and Davids, who co-chair the Congressional Native American Caucus, are introducing an identical bill in the U.S. House.
Leora Tadgerson is a Bay Mills Indian Community (BMIC) citizen and the interim director for the Student Equity and Engagement Center at Northern Michigan University. She is working on a traveling exhibit to share stories from Native survivors and their loved ones to educate Michiganders about the boarding schools.
She also is in communication with the U.S. Department of the Interior about Haaland’s investigation. Taderson said that as of Friday morning, the investigation is currently at the “initial stage of digitizing” records, but some institutions including the Harbor Springs boarding school are attempting to suppress records by reason of student confidentiality.
“If [Warren’s bill] is done correctly, this could mean real action towards authentic truth, healing and reconciliation for Indigenous individuals and communities as a whole,” Tadgerson said, adding that she hopes the work stemming from the bill is funded adequately.
Payment noted that many disproportionately negative outcomes for Native communities, like higher unemployment rates and lower educational attainment, can be directly linked back to intergenerational and historical trauma.
“The experience of the boarding schools is at the core of that. The forced assimilation, the tactics that were used,” he said.
The introduction of Warren’s bill — the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the United States Act — coincides with the National Day of Remembrance for victims of U.S. Indian boarding schools on Thursday.
Representatives from 10 of Michigan’s 12 tribes also met with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist that day to share issues from their communities.
Rebecca Richards, chair of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, deferred comment on the legislation to Haaland and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland.
Holly T. Bird, a Traverse City-based Pueblo/Yaqui/Apache attorney and longtime Indigenous activist, told the Advance Friday that she would like Michigan lawmakers to take up state legislation mirroring the congressional bills.
She also said she hopes Warren’s bill will result in a focus on accountability, rather than performative gestures.
“I do want to make sure that the legislation isn’t just about telling stories and documenting, but [that] there’s also a component of accountability to that — because without accountability, there is no justice,” Bird said.
This could include holding the school teachers, priests, nuns and others still alive responsible for their harmful roles in perpetuating the system.
“I’m glad that this forum is being created, and finally recognized in a deep way by the government. … It’s a step in the right direction,” Bird said.
She emphasized that boarding schools were just one element of the country’s genocidal and oppressive treatment of Indigenous peoples, and much more work needs to be done to “right the wrongs.”
Minimally, Payment and Bird said, that means uncovering the remains of Native boarding school victims and returning them to their families in a respectful, culturally sensitive way. Bird said there should be resources in place for survivors and their families to address their traumas as the process pans out.
“I’m not looking for reparations or anything like that. I’m looking for true healing and reconciliation,” Payment said.
But Payment would like to see full federal funding “per the treaty for what we prepaid with 500 million acres of land across the country,” so that Indigenous people will be able to “craft the return of culture and language.”
“That will build resiliency with people. We will be whole again,” he said.
Nathan Wright, founder of the Indigenous water protector group MackinawOde and a citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe, spoke along similar lines. Wright said that in addition to a formal apology by a sitting president, he would like to see the history of Indigenous people taught in all public schools, have all former boarding schools donated to local tribes and receive more land back from the federal government.
“We all have to remember, as terrible as the events were with boarding schools and the generational trauma that exists with Indigenous people, we are still strong and resilient people,” Wright said.
“It is amazing that we even made it this far. And the fact that we recovered so much of our language and culture makes me proud to be Anishinabek.”
Payment says he urges those affected by the process to lean on their tradition and beliefs to guide them through the trauma.
“There will be mass graves. So we need to prepare for this — but it’s a necessary step in the grievance process,” he said.
“I think that it will be traumatizing no matter how it happens, sort of like pulling off the Band-Aid,” Bird added. “But sometimes you need to pull off that band-aid to heal. And hopefully that can be done in a kind and respectful way.”
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