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What were Indian Boarding Schools?

Indian boarding schools were created for children from tribal communities. These schools existed throughout the United States and Canada. Some of these schools were near tribal land, but others were far from tribal populations. Although Indian boarding schools were sometimes operated by different churches, they still followed laws of the United States government.

Who Created the Schools?

In the 1800s, the United States wanted Indigenous people to be more like white settlers. Laws were made to force this change.  Many non-native people thought natives were “uncivilized.” They thought it was the duty of the United States to make natives “civilized.” One of these laws was to force native children to go to boarding schools.  Boarding schools were a drastic change to native families and communities.

What Happened at the Schools?

Native kids as young as six years old would attend these schools. Some kids were allowed to go home at the end of the day, while others lived at the schools, often for years. Many schools were hundreds of miles away from their families, sometimes in a different state. Once at the school, they were not allowed to speak their native language or practice their culture or native religion.  If a child was caught speaking their language or practicing their tradition, he or she was punished by beatings, given extra chores or not allowed to visit family.  Children wore uniforms, had their hair cut (both boys and girls) and any personal items were taken away from them. In many schools, children had to attend church, sometimes two or three times a day. Many children experienced emotional, physical and mental abuse at the schools, sometimes lasting many years.

Not all native children had bad experiences at these schools. Many learned to do art, play sports and make friends. Some of the schools provided a more stable environment. Michigan had three boarding schools in Baraga, Harbor Springs and Mount Pleasant. Harbor Springs was the last to close its doors in 1983. Many native people in Michigan who attended the boarding schools are still part of those communities today.

Black and white photo of approximately 40 young students posing for a group photo on the steps of a brick building. Embedded caption reads: "These may have been the 'day students' - the children who went to the school but did not board there. Day students and boarders usually had very different experiences. The fair-haired children pictured were still Odawa, just of mixed heritage."
Holy Childhood students, mid-1900s [LTBB Odawa Repatriation, Archives and Records].

Dig Deeper

Listen to this interview between Stateside on Michigan Radio and Eric Hemenway, Director of Repatriation, Archives, and Records for Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians to learn more about the history of Indian Boarding Schools in Michigan. [MEDIA NEEDED - provided link is just a placeholder]

The word State in blue, the word Side in green.