Chain of sorrow

The legacy of Indian boarding schools, and the documentary that attempts to heal still-open wounds

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Edith Young sat on a stage and dabbed her eyes with a tissue, shoulders shaking as she struggled to keep her composure. Even now, at 80 years old, the memories of a childhood spent in a boarding school for Native Americans are still too raw and painful to bear.

But she and others are speaking out publicly about how these schools  — which the U.S. government once compelled Indian children to attend — have affected not just the students and their offspring, but her people as a whole.

Last Friday night, before taking to the stage, she sat in a darkened theater with an audience hundreds, watching the premiere of a documentary titled The Indian Schools, The Survivors Story.

She is one of those survivors. 

But there was a time when she'd hoped that wouldn't be the case.

Following the documentary's initial public showing at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Young and others involved with the film took questions from the audience.

During that Q&A, she talked about something that she'd previously discussed with only a few others in the "talking circle" she attends each week, where she and others in search of spiritual healing engage in a kind of group therapy.

Desperately unhappy at the school she attended in Seattle, which was run by the Catholic Church, the descendant of Alaskan natives figured death was preferable to continuing to endure the humiliation and pain that were part of her boarding school life. 

In the film, she recalled having been slapped hard across the face by a nun for having the temerity to ask why the class was being taught that Columbus had discovered America when the continent was already populated by Indians long before he arrived.

At other times, as punishment for one infraction or another, she would be forced to kneel on a bag of dried kidney beans. The pain, she said, was excruciating, and left her with knees she describes as looking like "Brillo pads."

It all reached the point where she didn't want to go on living. So she would sneak into the bathroom at night, open the window, and let the cold air wash over her bare chest. She'd already had pneumonia two or three times before, and was hoping one more bout might finally kill her.

"Let me die, is what I felt," she told the audience of invited guests.

Instead, she lived to tell her story to Detroit-area residents Fay Givens and Kay McGowan, twin sisters of Choctaw-Cherokee heritage who have long been advocates for the rights of this country's first inhabitants.

Givens is director of American Indian Services Inc., a nonprofit service agency for Native Americans in Lincoln Park. McGowan, who holds a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from Wayne State, is a professor at Eastern Michigan University. Both have worked with the United Nations in an attempt to strengthen the rights of indigenous people in countries throughout the world.

The film that they've made is an extension of that activism. It provides an unflinching look at a long, dark chapter in American history that, in one way or another, has touched the lives of nearly every Indian family yet remains virtually unknown to the rest of the nation.

Where trauma was 'normal'

The purpose behind the documentary, they say, is twofold: revealing, and healing.

In part, they want to shed light on a piece of history that has been largely covered up. Doing so is necessary, they say, so that the nation at large can better understand one cause of the pain and problems that continue to afflict Native Americans. But it is their own people, too, who need to be made aware, because many of those who actually attended these schools went through their lives without ever talking about it. Like war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress, they kept painful memories buried, sometimes for decades. Many, it seems, never told their own children that they'd been forced to attend these schools — one of which operated in Mt. Pleasant until the early 1930s.

But not talking about problems doesn't make them go away. Instead, they are often passed down, from parent to child. Raised in an environment void of affection and filled with harsh treatment, those who went to these boarding schools never learned how to be proper parents, and their offspring suffered as a result, explains McGowan. 

She wrote about this chain of sorrows in the introduction to the book Dancing My Dream, written by Warren Petoskey, an Odawa Indian born and raised in Michigan. At least seven members of his family, he says, attended boarding schools. Several of them were sent to the Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial School.

 "Survivors of the boarding schools have a high tolerance for trauma because it was a way of life in their formative years; violence became a 'normal' experience," McGowan writes. "The sheer brutality of taking young children from their families has left a deep wound in Indian country.

"Because of their high level of tolerance for trauma and deviance, victims of boarding school syndrome are likely to be re-victimized in their lifetime — sometimes many times over."

The result, she says, is "intergenerational trauma." 

McGowan and Givens know firsthand about the reticence of boarding school survivors to disclose their experiences. They didn't learn that one of their great-grandmothers had been sent to the nation's first Indian boarding school — at Carlisle, Pa. — until accidentally finding her name in the school's records while doing research. As it turns out, she attended the school with Petoskey's grandfather. 

In his book, Petoskey talks about the difficult relationship he had with his own father, and the problems that caused for him early on in his life. In a very real sense, what McGowan describes as the value in his book is the same that she and her sister hope will be the result of their documentary:

 "Warren Petoskey's work — the telling of his personal story — is an attempt to put the issue on the table; to break the cycle of pain and dysfunction. The revelation of his own pain and suffering will encourage other native people to come forward and hopefully, non-native people will gain a measure of understanding, which will result in a more human approach to dealing with Indians."

They want to help reveal what happened, and in those revelations, help the healing process. 

The wounds are deep and longstanding.

'Kill the Indian ... save the man'

In 1879, a U.S. Army captain by the name of Richard H. Pratt opened this country's first official Indian boarding school in the town of Carlisle, Pa. A former Indian fighter, Pratt had also been in charge of a group of Plains Indians being held as prisoners of war in Florida during the early 1870s.

The school at Carlisle was a former Army barracks, and Pratt transferred his military experience to the teaching of Indian children. It would become the model for schools across the country that followed.

Pratt articulated his philosophy this way:

 "A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. 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."

At the time it was considered an enlightened attitude. These were, after all, a conquered people America's white settlers had been at war with for hundreds of years, and the prevailing view was that these people remained "savages" that needed to be civilized.

Adult Indians were deemed a lost cause. They were too set in their ways. And for the children to be "civilized," it was determined that they had to be removed from the influence of their parents. Simply providing them an education at reservation schools wasn't enough. That attitude was reflected in an 1886 report produced by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs:

"However excellent the day school may be, whatever the qualifications of the teacher, or however superior the facilities for instruction for the few short hours spent in the day school is, to a great extent, offset by the habits, scenes and surroundings at home — if a mere place to eat and live in can be called home. Only by complete isolation of the Indian child from his savage antecedents can he be satisfactorily educated. ..."

The intent was to annihilate the culture of Native Americans by stripping their children of all connections to the past. The approach quickly caught on as it was adopted as the official policy of the U.S. government. By 1890, there were more than 190 such schools across the country, according to a research paper written by Stephen A. Colmant, a psychotherapist who worked with Native Americans.

It is noted in various historical accounts that, in some cases, conditions on reservations were so harsh, and life there so impoverished, that some willingly allowed their children to be taken away in the hopes that their lives would be bettered. 

However, there is also ample evidence that the resistance of parents to the forced removal of their children was widespread and often intense. 

"They very specifically targeted Native nations that were the most recently hostile," Tsianina Lomawaima, head of the American Indian Studies program at the University of Arizona, told NPR in a 2008 interview. "There was a very conscious effort to recruit the children of leaders, and this was also explicit, essentially to hold those children hostage. The idea was that it would be much easier to keep those communities pacified with their children held in a school somewhere far away."

As noted in a U.S. Park Service history of Alcatraz Island, 19 Hopi men from Arizona were imprisoned there in 1895 after refusing to relinquish their children:

"Their crimes were unique in the 140-year history of incarceration on the Rock: they wouldn't farm in the ways the federal government instructed them, and they opposed the forced removal and education of their children in government boarding schools. Both 'offenses' were part of widespread Indian resistance to U.S. policies designed to erase each tribe's language and religion."

"It was cultural genocide," says McGowan. "And it's part of the background that all indigenous Americans share."

The sisters say they still hear stories of families that would hide their children if a stranger came to the door, so deeply ingrained was the fear that someone would show up from the government, looking for their kids.

Perhaps the only depiction of America's Indian boarding schools provided by the mass media came in the 1951 biopic Jim Thorpe — All–American, about one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century who got his start in sports playing football for the famed coach "Pop" Warner in the early 1900s. But in that movie, the boarding school is a relatively cheerful and friendly place. There is another movie, however, that accurately captures the trauma caused by the forcible removal of children from their homes. It is a 2001 Australian film titled Rabbit Proof Fence, which tells the story of three aboriginal girls who escaped from a boarding school and embarked on a harrowing journey in an attempt to make their way home.

"The Canadians and the Australians both copied what the Americans did," says McGowan.

Education was not a priority at these schools. Forced assimilation was.

Native language, religion and customs were all forbidden. Any attempts to break that mandate were met with swift, often harsh punishment.

Beyond that, the schools were used as a training ground to teach the children to be subservient to whites. They learned to be domestic servants, seamstresses, bakers and farmhands.

"They weren't being educated to become doctors and lawyers," says Givens. "They were being prepared to take a place on society's lowest rung." 

"The purpose wasn't academic achievement," adds McGowan. "It was about teaching obedience, passivity, uniformity. It was about teaching native children that they were inferior to whites. It was about preparing them to be servants for white America."

It all came at a tremendous cost to the children themselves, some of them taken from their parents when as young as 4 years old. 

"Instead of being raised in warm, loving, supporting homes, they were brought up in emotionally void institutions."

It has been argued, in some cases even by Indians themselves, that the schools provided children with what wasn't often available on impoverished reservations: security in the form of food and warm clothing.

But even when that was true, the price paid in return was often devastating.

'Civilizing the native'

The conditions were documented in a highly critical report produced for the government in 1928 by a commission that was headed by Lewis Meriam, a lawyer with expertise in matters of governmental management. "In nearly every boarding school one will find children of 10, 11, and 12 spending four hours a day in more or less heavy industrial work — dairy, kitchen work, laundry, shop," the Meriam Commission reported. "The work is bad for children of this age, especially children not physically well nourished; most of it is in no sense educational since the operations are large-scale and bear little relation to either home or industrial life outside; and it is admittedly unsatisfactory even from the point of view of getting the work done. At present the half-day plan is felt to be necessary, not because it can be defended on health or educational grounds, for it cannot, but because the small amount of money allowed for food and clothes makes it necessary to use child labor."

Although funded with taxpayer money, the vast majority of the schools were run by various church denominations. Payments were kept to a minimum, and, as Meriam's report suggested, the children's diets often suffered as a result.

In a history of the Mt. Pleasant School created for the Clarke Historical Museum at Central Michigan University, there is mention of a song that students there used to sing:


Six o'clock in the morning,

Our breakfast comes around

A bowl of mush and molasses

Was enough to knock you down

Our coffee's like tobacco juice

Our bread is hard and stale

And that's the way they treat you

At Mt. Pleasant Indian Jail.


Making the schools even more oppressive was the fact that they were run as if they were military boot camps.

Again, from the Meriam report:

"Nearly every boarding school visited furnished disquieting illustrations of failure to understand the underlying principles of human behavior. Punishments of the most harmful sort are bestowed in sheer ignorance ... If there were any real knowledge of how human beings are developed through their behavior, we should not have at the Indian boarding schools the mass movements from dormitory to dining room, from dining room to classroom, from classroom back again ... we should hardly have children from the largest to the smallest of both sexes lined up in military formation. ..."

A harsh physical regimen and military style drills were frequently part of the program as well.

In a 2000 study published by Cornell University and the First Nations Development Institute, psychotherapist Colmant noted that, although the Meriam report's findings were "extremely critical," the enrollment at Indian boarding schools "grew throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Enrollment in BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] even doubled in the 1960s. In 1973, the BIA operated more than 200 schools in 17 states. Of the approximately 200,000 school-age native children, 35,000 were in BIA boarding schools and 24,000 were housed in BIA dormitories while attending public schools."

Although conditions at the schools reportedly grew less harsh after Meriam's report drew public attention to the widespread problems, nightmarish abuses continued.

In1969, a report titled "Indian Education: A National Tragedy, a National Challenge" (produced by a special Senate subcommittee chaired by Sen. Ted Kennedy) found a host of ongoing problems:

"When asked to name the most important things the schools should do for their students, only about one-tenth of the teachers mentioned academic achievement as an important goal. Apparently, many of the teachers still see their role as that of 'civilizing the native.' BIA administrators believe that the Indians can choose only between total 'Indianess' — whatever that is — and complete assimilation into the dominant society. Thus, the goal of the BIA education appears to direct students toward migration into a city while at the same time it fails to prepare students academically, socially, psychologically, or vocationally for urban life. As a result, many return to the reservation disillusioned, to spend the rest of their lives in economic and intellectual stagnation."

The school environments were found to be "sterile, impersonal and rigid, with a major emphasis on discipline and punishment, which is deeply represented by the students."

According to a report produced by the Boarding School Healing Project — a coalition of groups looking at the issue of reparations — sexual, physical and emotional abuse "was rampant" at these schools. The same report notes that, in 1987, "the FBI found that one teacher at a BIA-run Hopi day school in Arizona ... had sexually abused over 142 boys. ..."

Citing a wide variety of research, Colmant concluded that the historical case studies he examined — which included personal interviews, autobiographies, archival letters and tape recordings — offered clear insight into the "nature of boarding school life. Those descriptions, he wrote, "include intense loneliness and despair felt on being separated from family, children's struggles to avoid severe abuse at the hands of staff and other students, the effects of losing the ability to speak one's native language and the exploitation of children as cheap labor to sustain the institution. ..."

"Numerous studies have shown that Indian boarding schools have long-lasting negative effects on students, including high rates of suicide, mental illness, child abuse and family breakdown."

At the heart of this treatment was mainstream white society's belief that they had nothing to learn from the traditional knowledge possessed by Indians, explains McGowan.

In the forward to Petoskey's book, she writes, "This was the epitome of arrogance."

It is an arrogance, she observes, that extracted a heavy toll:

"The assault on Indian children was not only an assault on their bodies, but also on their language, religion, lifeways and even physical appearance. It was an assault on the Indian family and on Indian culture, on a complete way of life that the United States hoped to destroy."

It wasn't until the late 1970s that Congress, in a reaction to protests from radical Indian-rights groups, passed the Indian Child Welfare Act, which addressed the widespread practice of forcibly transferring the care and custody of Indian children to non-Indians. That, and the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, passed in 1975, effectively curtailed the forced removal of Indian children from their homes.

From that point on, attending these schools, some of which are still in operation, became a matter of choice.

A constant presence

For the people sitting around a table in a conference room at American Indian Services in Lincoln Park every Thursday, the issue of Indian boarding schools isn't some remote piece of history. The emotional fallout from these schools is a constant presence in their lives. 

For some, it is the experience of having been students themselves that has brought them to this "talking circle" that began meeting about five years ago. For others, it is the fact that they are the children or grandchildren of boarding school survivors.

In all, some 40 people "come and go," says Givens.

One recent Thursday the Metro Times was invited to be a part of the group, to listen to stories and ask questions. Also joining in were Petoskey and his wife, Barbara, who made the journey downstate from their home in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. 

The fact that they knew a reporter would be sitting in prompted some to stay away. 

"They can be media-shy," says Roxanna Jones, a 65-year-old Walpole Island Chippewa who lives in Ecorse.

Even when the media isn't around, there are those who come but don't say much.

"There are people who have been so abused, they won't ever discuss it," explains Jones.

Petoskey, 66, who sometimes counsels survivors and their families, adds that others can only talk about their troubles "in the third person. They say, 'This happened to a friend,' because they can't bring themselves to say that it really happened to them."

Over time, though, such reticence often gives way to a willingness to open up. The atmosphere here is conducive to that.

"It's like going to an AA meeting," says Dave Benninger, a 61-year-old Ojibwa. 

The children and grandchildren of survivors talk about the lack of affection from their elders. McGowan explains that is the almost-inevitable outcome for families where the parents grew up in institutional settings having never been truly parented. They had no role models from which to learn, and having never been the recipients of affection, they are unable to give it themselves.

Alcoholism and physical abuse are common themes heard around this talking circle.

Sometimes statements are made without much elaboration. "My dad was pretty rough," says the son of one boarding school survivor. Leather straps and fists provided harsh discipline. Another talks about the scars on his father's back, scars that came from being repeatedly flailed with a leather strap.

At one point during the conversation Edith Young has to gather herself.

"You don't know how hard this is to talk about," she says. "It wears you out."

Even so, they continue the conversation, which turns to issues of persistent, deep-seated anger, and its countermeasure — forgiveness.

Petoskey and Young sit at opposite ends of the table. Their views on the issue are equally divergent.

Young's anger — toward the nuns who humiliated and mistreated her, and for the government that put her in that place — has not waned over the decades.

"I still have hatred in me," she confesses. "It is embedded in me."

Petoskey — describing the beatings administered to him by an alcoholic father, and of his own deep troubles with alcohol as a young man — steers the conversation toward the spiritual. In his book he talks about having asked what he refers to as The Creator, to provide him with the advance knowledge of woman he should marry. He reveals that the reply came to him as a vision in a dream. He lost sight of that vision for a time, got married and divorced. But once he returned to what he refers to as the "Red Road,"  — meaning the seeking of a truly spiritual path — he found Barbara, the woman who first appeared to him in a dream years earlier. 

It is that kind of spirituality— the being in touch with an unseen source of wisdom — that so many of his people have lost as a result of the cultural genocide they've been subjected to. 

It wasn't just the boarding schools that brought this about. From the time Columbus landed in the New World, the assault on Indians, their culture and their religious ways has been relentless. Their sacred lands taken, the people murdered, the women raped and, at times, subjected to forced sterilizations, the deprivation of reservation life, the scourge of alcohol — all these had combined to cause his people to lose so much.

No loss though, has been more profound or deeply felt than the loss of their native religions, contends Petoskey. Without the spirituality that was key to every aspect of Native life, he says, the people are truly lost.

In order to re-find themselves, he says, a sort of spiritual healing must take place. Part of that healing process, he insists, must include forgiving. Hold onto the hatred and anger and it will only eat away at you, and eventually consume you.

Young isn't quite buying that line.

"I still hate," she says, her round face taking on a hardness that makes it seem as if it's carved from brown granite.

Along one wall in the room where they meet are signs from various companies that have appropriated the images of these Native people as a marketing tool. There are signs for Indian motorcycles and Chippewa Boots and Red Indian motor oil. It is the commodification of a people who didn't even have a concept of private property until the colonists arrived and started putting up fences.

The realization of just how much was stolen from these people begins to set in. It wasn't just their land, or even their way of life. What was taken was their sense of self, leaving them spiritually wounded. 

And it was done, in no small part, by taking their children. Capt. Pratt knew what he was talking about when he referred to the conquering of a people by trying to kill what lived inside of them.

It was the killing of how they related to the world — both physical and spiritual.

Toward the end of the meeting, Young wonders aloud why it is that she is still in this world.

"We're here because the world needs us to be here," asserts Petoskey, "We're here because the world needs to hear our story."

Because of that, he says, "our people will do what they need to in order to heal."

About that, there is no dispute. 'What we are doing is trying to heal all the brokenness," says Petoskey,

Over the course of more than two hours, tears are shed, jokes are made, deeply personal stories are told.

"I'm very proud to be here," says Young. "I'm going to be going home stronger."

'We needed to get this done'

Kay McGowan and Fay Givens didn't have a clue what they were getting themselves into when they decided to make their documentary about Indian boarding schools. They just knew that it had to be done.

As time marches on, these people from a culture that cherished storytelling were losing those who could tell the rest of us firsthand what happened at these schools.

"We saw these survivors getting older, and realized that we needed to get this done," says Givens.

That was two years ago. But any delusion that it was going to be a relatively simple task disappeared once they did their first interview.

"We thought it would be easy, that we could just kick this thing out," says McGowan.

Then they began filming. 

"We hadn't anticipated how emotional this was going to be for all of us," says McGowan. "We quickly found out that there wasn't going to be anything easy about it."

The emotional pain is now there for the world to see.

There's nothing fancy about the 45-minute documentary they made. Aside from some historical photographs, and footage of the now-abandoned school in Mt. Pleasant, it is simply a film that shows a small group of people telling their stories.

But it had a profound effect on the people who showed up at the Arab American Museum last week to watch it. When the film ended and the lights came up, some in the audience were openly weeping.

What tugged at their hearts was a compendium of dark stories. 

Warren Petoskey related a story told to him by one of his aunties, who revealed to him that, as a young girl in a boarding school, a man they called the "hairy one" would slip into their dormitory in the dark of night and molest them. When they told school officials, the attacks were written off as the workings of the overactive imaginations of adolescents going though puberty.

Later on her life, he says, that aunt turned to prostitution — not an uncommon occurrence — because she had learned in boarding school that providing sexual favors could bring rewards.

Gloria King talked about a trip she'd made with her mother to the boarding school in Mt. Pleasant. She recounted a story told by her mother, who talked about a friend who had been impregnated and then died after attempting to give herself an abortion. 

She told of driving with her mother past the school she attended, and described the eerie way in which her mother mentioned a cemetery for the school's children tucked back in a nearby wooded area.

At another point, King recalls a time when a friend asked about her mother's parenting skills.

"I just laughed out loud," she says. "My mother didn't have any parenting skills. She went to an Indian boarding school."

Some of the stories involved institutions other than boarding schools designed strictly for Indians. Bob Roche, an Apache from Cleveland, where he is now the director of the American Indian Education Center, doesn't remember his parents at all. He spent his youth bouncing between foster homes and large, institutional boys homes. 

There was abuse at every stop, he says.

As a result, he was always trying to escape. And when he'd get caught, the beatings administered by grown men to a teenager unusually small for his age would be horrible. He gives a dry laugh as he's looking into the camera talking about being in an elevator that is stopped between floors so that the pummeling could be administered out of sight off others. Then he catches himself: "It wasn't so funny when it was happening." 

Afterward, he confessed to having stayed outside while the film was being shown. Still plagued by long lapses of memory regarding his childhood, he says that he still doesn't feel emotionally ready to deal with the film.

In the film, Roxanna Jones, a 65-year-old Chippewa. describes the beatings with leather straps, sometimes with the girls being laid across a bed three abreast. 

And then, choking back tears, she talks of an even greater pain — the guilt she bears in knowing that aspects of her own troubled childhood have affected her own children. 

Afterward, while up on stage for the question-and-answer segment, she tells of the time she tried to kill herself by taking an overdose of pills. What saved her, she says, is the fact that the drugs took effect more quickly than she anticipated, and she realized that she wasn't going to have time to finish writing the "F.U." letter she intended to compose as a final anger-filled farewell.

So she called an ambulance. Afterward, she spent some time in a mental institution.

The pain of that time is written across her face. But when she and the others on the stage are done sharing their experiences, adding to what was depicted in the movie just shown, the audience responds with a combination of intense empathy for them, and outrage over the knowledge of what they endured. 

Timothy Connors, a circuit court judge in Washtenaw County, stepped to the microphone to say the film needed to be shown in law schools and to judges so that they would have a better understanding of the immense emotional baggage being carried by many Americans in trouble with the law.

Toward the end of the evening, Petoskey spoke of the scars so many of his people bear. Scars both physical and emotional. 

"Scars that will be there until the day we die."

Bringing this dark history to light, he says, may not remove those scars, but it will help ease the pain.

"Here today," he says, "we are doing the work of recovery and reconciliation."

Now that the documentary is finished, Givens and McGowan are already looking for ways to make sure it is seen. There are plans to have it offered for sale at Indian museums around the country. They are also talking with people in anthropology departments and schools of social work at various universities to see that it is shown to students. Already, they've been invited to make presentations in at least two other cities.

But there is hope that the impact will grow even broader. It is as if a stone heavy with sorrow has been dropped into the pond of American culture. The only question now is how far the ripples will spread.

In Canada, the government has officially apologized for what it did to its native people by forcing the children into boarding schools. Offering more than just words, it has also established a fund to help provide some compensation to the survivors.

Here in the United States, there's not even been an apology, let alone any effort to provide compensation.

But official acknowledgement of the harm the long history of boarding schools caused is also a necessary part off the healing process. So is wider recognition by the American people of what was done in their name.

To that end, for all the victims in that theater last Friday, one small step was taken in that direction.

A woman from the audience stood at the mic, telling them how deeply she was touched by their pain: "I'm not a government, but I am very sorry."

It is a start.

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