Under the shadow of history: Abandoned Native American boarding school brings to light one tribe’s struggles

On the outside of one of the American Indian Industrial Boarding School buildings stands a door with a missing knob looking into a room with many opened white cabinets and dishovelved drawers. (Taylor Ballek | Photo Editor) Marcella Hadden, public relations manager at the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe did a walk through of the American Indian Industrial Boarding School on Feb. 25, 2011. Pictured above is an old wheelchair in the basement of one of the school buildings. (Marcella Hadden | Courtesy Photo) In the back of one of the dormatory buildings, stairs lead up to a back door with an old bent circulating water sign. (Taylor Ballek | Photo Editor)A rusted door at a building near the dormiciles. (Taylor Ballek | Photo Editor)Craig Gravette, a member of the Saginaw Chippewas Tribe studying the site’s environmental impact, embraces a metal link on the brick wall that was used to chain the children up during the day where they were left for hours and would engrave their initials on the wall. (Taylor Ballek | Photo Editor) On Crawford Street lies the historic site of the American Indian Industrial Boarding School that was in operation from 1893-1934. Native American childeren were either forcibly taken from their homes or sent here under the idea that they would be getting an education. Over 200 children died and were burried on this land. (Taylor Ballek | Photo Editor) Taylor Ballek | Photo Editor 

Marcella Hadden, public relations of the Saginaw Chippewas Tribe reflects on an old picture of the American Indian Industrial Boarding School, and Craig Graveratte, member of the Saginaw Chippewas Tribe, listens to Hadden speak about the children in the photo in 1893, one being Craig’s grandmother.Marcella Hadden, public relations manager at the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe did a walk through of the American Indian Industrial Boarding School on Feb. 25, 2011.  Shown are two child-size sinks pictured in one of the school’s dormatory buildings in a bathroom. (Marcella Hadden | Courtesy Photo) The first of 11 buildings that would make up the Mount Pleasant American Indian Industrial Boarding School, cornerstone was placed October 18, 1892 in front of a crowd of over 2,000 people from Michigan. (Taylor Ballek | Photo Editor) Alice Littlefield Collection Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways | Courtesy

“Opening Day” titles this photo of the childeren’s first day of school at the American Indian Industrial Boarding School that opened June 30, 1893 - June 6, 1934 with an average enrollment of 300 students per year.A driveway leads up to an old brick garage apart of what was once the Mount Pleasant American Indian Industrial Boarding School taken on Oct. 11, 2013. (Taylor Ballek | Photo Editor) In the back of one of the dormatory buildings, stairs lead up to a back door with an old bent circulating water sign. (Taylor Ballek | Photo Editor) Above reads a sign on the gym doors “Unless you wear gym shoes, please KEEP OFF,” as Craig Gravette, a Saginaw Chippewas Indian Tribe member studying the site’s environmental impact, walks by in the reflection of the gym window. (Taylor Ballek | Photo Editor) Charmaine Shawana, a member of the tribal council and MIIBS committee member walks down the sidewalk leading from the main boarding school building towards the covered pond that was once operational as a reflection pond. (Taylor Ballek | Photo Editor)
As he stepped cautiously through the overgrown grass, ominously glancing at the crumbling brick and dilapidated buildings that once housed his ancestors, Craig Graveratte began to understand the tragedy behind his turbulent upbringing.

“Now that I know about this, I can begin to forgive my grandma for what she did,” he said. “The 4 a.m. beatings were part of her way of life. With my children, that cycle is broken. With the tribe acquiring the land, that healing process has begun.”

On one of the buildings, iron rings still hang in the sunlight four feet off the ground. The names of students are desperately etched into the brick as they were chained to them, to suffer the punishment of the elements.

The Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School (MIIBS) wasn’t like other schools. Taken forcibly from their homes, from 1893 to 1934, Native American children were made to work in the fields and were stripped of their customs and language.

Graveratte’s mother will not set foot on the boarding school property. His grandmother wanted the building destroyed, but some hope to preserve the area to continue building awareness for a time in America’s history largely forgotten.

“I would like to see some type of museum built to bring back the history,” said Graveratte, a Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe member studying the site’s environmental impact. “We could use it as a teaching tool, so people can see how they lived.”

Because of little documentation, there is no way to determine what form of abuses took place during the boarding school’s time in operation. All the tribal council and family of the remaining survivors have are stories from the past.

Graveratte said knowing about the American Indian Boarding School era, and the abuses committed in the schools, allowed him to begin to forgive his grandmother for neglect as he grew up.

“Once I started learning more and more, I made the connection with my family,” he said. “As a community, we’re still really divided about what to do with it. When we look at a lot of our modern-day problems, this is a lot of why.”

The school closed in 1934, but the remnants of the attack on their culture that took place there still haunt members of the tribe. Sold to the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe in 2010 by the city of Mount Pleasant for $1, the tribe has formed a committee to decide how to develop MIIBS.

“Our family survived it,” said Charmaine Shawana, a member of the tribal council and MIIBS committee. “That’s our story. That’s where we come from. We’re remarkable because we survived it. They tried to assimilate us, but they couldn’t.”

About 200 undocumented deaths might have taken place while the school was open, Shawana said. Only five were recorded during the 41 years the school was open. She said many students died when they were being sent back home due to illness from consumption, malnutrition or tuberculosis.

“The school didn’t want that negative image,” she said. “If a child seemed like it was about to die, they’d send them home. But most wouldn’t make it there to see their parents.”

‘The Eighth Fire’ and the future of MIIBS

“There was once talk of a prophecy, that a people would have to hide their religion,” said Chief of the Tribal Council, Steve Pego.

With what has been taught by generations since the boarding school era, he hopes to educate today’s children about the past to rebuild a culture that was lost.

“Our children will learn the religion and culture,” Pego said. “The kids are growing up into it. There’s a new generation where that void that was missing can be fulfilled. Now they can be proud of who they are.”

Referring to the new generation of Native American children, learning their traditional language and customs from birth, Shawana called the youngsters “The Eighth Fire,” for the last stage of religious enlightenment in her tribe’s spiritual teachings.

“Many in our communities believe that we had a prophecy that our people will be reborn,” she said. “Children are learning the language, and all the things my parents and grandparents lost. We are very resilient. We have survived.”

Shawana was optimistic the Native American community finally has the resources to begin rebuilding their culture and society, and begin the path out of the shadows of the boarding school’s ominous buildings.

“We have the resources to finally be able to deal with these issues, to study and put together solutions,” she said. “Perhaps in the past, we had unmet needs.”

The MIIBS Committee is tasked to figure out what to do with the property. CMU archaeology students began studying at a field school on the property last summer, taking soil samples and searching for students’ remains.

The tribe owns 13 acres surrounding the school, including The Mission Creek Cemetery on Bamber Street, where at least two students are buried in aging, marked graves.

One of the deceased was 12 years old. Another died at two. No names are accompanied with those numbers, leaving more questions than answers.

“This is a very important story, but no one knows,” said Skylar Wekwert, an anthropology senior who took part in an archeological study on the site last summer. “They just swept it under the rug. It was incredible that our society doesn’t know these things happened.”

On the MIIBS committee, Wekwert is hoping to get the property registered federally as a historical site. She said this could provide federally funding for development, which may expand the property to where more remains could be buried.

“We need to get the areas some protection so they can’t be affected,” Wekwert said. “We don’t know where artifacts or remains may be. The more people (who) are in on this project, the more we can protect. We just need to have awareness.”

While the committee and Tribal Operations as a whole have struggled to gain funding, the buildings sit as a reminder of the tribe’s past, and a continued challenge to move on.

“The tribe has been suffering lately,” Shawana said. “The gaming industry has not been very good. We’re trying to do what we can for the future.”

Generations continue to rebuild

Explaining substance abuse and domestic violence is common among Native Americans today, Graveratte attributed his people’s problems to the boarding school era’s destruction of the American Indian family.

“I was never held or hugged,” he said of his parents and grandparents. “They tried to hide their way of life or act out.”

Graveratte said his mother was hardly around as he grew up. He worried the tenuous relationship between his mother and grandmother was fueled by the abuses the elder suffered at the boarding school.

“Many have likened it to the Holocaust,” Shawana said. “This is America’s dirty little secret. No one in town knows what those buildings are for. It’s a generational trauma. Our families are still suffering years later.”

Shawana’s grandmother was taken to a boarding school in Kansas. She said her mother quickly joined the military, and moved the family around the country.

But the trauma from the boarding school era always had an effect on Shawana’s upbringing.

“My mother didn’t know how to protect, comfort or educate,” she said. “That really bothered me. When those children were removed from their families, no one was there to comfort and hold them either.”

Pego said he worked with several Native Americans in the area suffering from substance abuse and addiction. He said the widespread substance abuse is often due to the missing culture the boarding school era removed.

“I’ve been working with people who have problems,” Pego said. “They don’t know why they’re drinking. That culture is missing. They replace it with alcohol and drugs. I try to make them whole again. Maybe there is a reason they’re having problems.”

Pego also referred to domestic violence, especially toward women in the Native American community, as another problem born out of the boarding schools. This directly contradicts Pego’s cultural heritage.

“The girls were beaten and raped,” he said. “It hits me. Our culture has always respected women. Woman put us on this Earth, and our culture never wanted to hurt her.”

Pacifying the first Americans

Located minutes from CMU’s campus on Crawford Road, the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School once forcibly housed up to 300 students per year from 1893 to 1934.

Unwillingly taken from their homes, Native American children were indoctrinated into non-native culture and stripped of their customs and language. The project was started by Lt. Richard Pratt of the United States Army.

In the early stages of boarding schools across the U.S., the initiative began as a social experiment on Apache war prisoners at an abandoned army post in Pennsylvania.

After his first boarding school was considered a success, Pratt received further funding from Congress to branch out, causing the boarding school era to take full form by the 1900s, with at least 25 schools in up to 15 states.

“Originally, these schools were built to assimilate our people, and turn them into farmers,” Shawana said.

While boys were taught to become farmers and welders, the girls were taught to be cooks and maids. They were further assimilated to wear military-style uniforms and kept to a strict regiment of menial labor.

Malnutrition and abuse was rampant in the schools, Shawana said. In 1928, the Meriam Report, officially known as “The Problem with Indian Administration,” began to chip away at government support for the boarding school initiatives.

Commissioned by the Institute for Government Research, the report criticized the poor conditions on reservations and in the boarding schools themselves.

“It was just a total failure,” Shawana said. “The government found out that a lot of kids were sick and dying. When they returned home they were often shunned by their communities.”

The Mount Pleasant boarding school, along with others across the nation, was subsequently closed in 1934.

From there it became the Michigan Home and Training School, institutionalizing men and boys suffering from mental illness. It was renamed the Mount Pleasant State Home in 1946, and, after extensive renovations in the 1970s, it was called the Mount Pleasant Regional Center for Developmental Disabilities.

Made to be more home-like and less like an institution, the facility was active until budget troubles caused it to shut down in 2009.

In 2010, the city of Mount Pleasant acquired the property and offered it to the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe for $1, and Tribal Operations made its first site visit.

The long-awaited return

Native elders have said the faces of deceased students have mysteriously appeared to them in the dirty and broken windows of the school. Ancestral spirits have also been seen in the aging bark of a large pair of trees near the entrance.

“We always look at the windows because we think we can see the little kids,” Graveratte said.

To the tribe members willing to visit the broken, desolate buildings, the ominous rooms and halls still have their own stories to tell.

Paint might be chipping off the walls, and ceilings droop under years of water damage, but under a heavy coat of dust and years of indifference, the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School still holds a deep connection with the history and identity of the first Americans.

“When we first came back, it was disheartening that we were walking on the same ground as our ancestors had walked on and suffered traumatic experiences,” Graveratte said “There was a heavy feeling when we first entered those buildings.”



  1. Warren Petoskey says:

    My grandfather, his sister, were taken to this school before being sent on to Carlisle. Two uncles and two aunties attended Mt. Pleasant. One auntie told me the story about the “hairy man” who was named by the young girls as the man who sexually abused them in their beds. Later this “hairy man” was identified as one of the maintenance men on grounds. Occasionally, my father was a day student and he is in one of the historical pictures. I know what these experiences did to our family. I have worked over fifteen years to bring information and historical references concerning the Mt. Pleasant boarding school. I was one of the first presenters invited to the Saginaw Chippewa Seventh Generation Project to speak concerning the boarding schools. I was one of the presenters in the video/documentary “Indian Schools: A Survivor’s Story” and my music is featured in the video/documentary “Our Fires Still Burn.” I have written two books. One is out of print. It was titled “Civilizing the Indigenous.” The other is still available at and is titled “Dancing My Dream.”

    • Mr. Petoskey:
      Have you considered a second edit and having your first book that you say is an ‘out-of-print’ book newly printed:
      “Civilizing the Indigenous” [second edition].
      It would certainly have a local and an international audience.
      Is it possible for you to make this a consideration?
      Kind regards,
      Michigan-born student of Indigenous Studies.

  2. Stephen Colmant says:

    Many people believe that the Indian boarding school era ended in the late 1920s. Indian boarding schools continued to grow throughout the 1940s and 50s and doubled in the 1960s. In 1973, the BIA operated 200 schools in 17 states. 60,000 children were attending boarding schools. Some of the most notorious boarding schools operated in this recent time like Concho boarding school in Oklahoma. Today there are 11,500 American Indian children who live in an Indian boarding school dormitory. This includes 56 boarding schools, 14 peripheral dormitories, and 7 Off-Reservation Indian Boarding Schools: ND, SD, OK, CA, OR. About half of them take kids as young as 6-years-old. These numbers can be verified through the Bureau of Indian Education. Many if not most of the children in these programs are high-needs kids who come from struggling families. Indian boarding schools today are often a dumping ground for these high-needs or at-risk kids. While the conditions of Indian boarding schools are much better today than what they were a hundred years ago, these kids still suffer the effects of cultural abuse and institutionalization in understaffed, under-funded dormitories, often a very long way from home. Another historical event and resource that I would like to bring to your attention are the recent events that have occurred in Canada with residential school survivors. The Aboriginal Healing Foundation manages $400 million for healing programs throughout Canada. See Will we ever make similar progress in the United States? I hope so.

  3. michmediaperson says:

    Adrian did a great job on this story
    HOWEVER, Adrian didn’t tell the whole story.

    The Liberals in Washington DC started this around 1890-1892 and passed the bill for this school. It’s on Wikipedia.

    Why did Liberals in Washington ever get involved in this?
    Since 1890, liberals have screwed up the school systems.
    Look at the public school system today especially in urban cities like Detroit and Chicago. The kids aren’t learning.

    The moral of this story is for the Federal Government to stay out of education.

    I don’t know why Native Americans and other minorities listen to liberal Democrats. Liberals have been their biggest enemy. Slavery, Jim Crow laws for blacks.

    Wikipedia about Thomas Jefferson, father of the Democratic Party and Andrew Jackson, another big liberal Democrat. Read how poorly they treated Native Americans. They forced them west.

    Perhaps, Adrian, in your series, you could talk about the Liberal Democrats and Native Americans in the 19th Century.

    • You have very flawed logic. Ideology changes over time, as well as public context and discourse. Your attempts to paint what you label “Liberal Democrats” (in the 1800s!!!) as racist oppressors ignore vast swaths of history and entire groups of people (notably opposing political ideologies and evolution of politics over time). It’s very well known and widely publicized knowledge about the role Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, etc. etc. in history but without your big fat LABELS to somehow make it a polarized and partisan debate. You completely ignore the agonizing points of the article and jump right into making it a current hot button issue. WTF is with these nut jobs?

  4. Daisyann ( Bailey ) Kendall says:

    I to in my heart would like to see those builings restored,it is a patrt of our History, if we can spend thousands yo bring back n bury what they say is our ansesters we shoild be able ta spend the mony to restore those buildings,n the grounds as close to what it alway has been, I also have two anties who went ta scool there n my granfather worked over there all his grown up life, I remember as a child going over there at times with my mom n seeing him driving this big truck the back was coverd with a big army colored tarp n the back was open, kind’a like a coverd wagon.
    so my heart longs ta see that place restored that would be the perfect place for a museum, proly would get more buisness than zebawing where there at

  5. Mt.Pleasant says:

    Who is this white woman in the video and the family she’s speaks of surviving the boarding school horrors.
    People from the reservation out east of town “says” her family and herself was born over there Germany. Thee others she speaks of were never involved during the boarding school era. This woman speaks hogwash according to relatives.

    None of this woman family never experienced the boarding school days, other than self-serving statements & made up boarding school records they filled out in the late 1990′s.

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