Film event holds open forum about Saginaw Chippewa mistreatment

Adam Niemi/Staff Photographer People watch "The Thick Dark Fog," a film about the impact of Native American boarding schools that fractured families and communities. The Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe is using the film to narrate its own struggle to overcome the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial School's effects on its community.

Mount Pleasant residents had the chance to see a film documenting the history and abuses of Native American boarding schools and the affects still prevalent today.

"The Thick Dark Fog" was shown at the Ziibiwing Center, 6650 E. Broadway Road, Monday evening and at 1:30 p.m. in the Bovee University Center Auditorium.

Attendees had the chance to hear personal accounts of families that have been deeply affected by the schools in an open forum.

Judy Pamp, Ziibiwing Center assistant director, referred to the tribe’s history of dealing with the U.S. including the formation of reservations, massacres of tribes and ongoing alcoholism. The forum is a sign of progress as the tribe continues a relatively new step forward in reconciling a past that drove many members of the tribe into drugs, alcohol and suicide. Pamp said the past two generations have been quiet about discussing the issues that have depressed the tribal community but in the past decade or so a younger generation has started to address them.

“Repeated trauma after trauma after trauma, we were always in survival mode,” Pamp said. “We don’t have to be in survival mode anymore.”

The film focused on the assimilation efforts by the U.S. to “civilize” Native Americans with American culture, was shown to about 25 people in a Ziibiwing Center conference room.

After the movie, the question-and-answer session brought some tribal members to tears about the personal effects they and their families have felt as a result of the Mount Pleasant Industrial Boarding School’s attempt at stripping the Saginaw Chippewa tribe of its culture.

Tribal members said the abuses at the school included physical beatings, mental and emotional hardships and teachers pushed a curriculum that convinced young Native American students that their culture was inferior, which the tribe still struggles with today.

“American Indian Boarding Schools,” a book published by the Ziibiwing Center, said the American Indian Boarding School’s superintendent, Estelle Reel, believed Native Americans and other non-white races were inferior in their mental and physical abilities.

Pamp said her grandmother, Mabel Turner, forbade her family to speak Anishnabe because she was taught by the Mount Pleasant Industrial Boarding School not to practice her culture.

“What a terrible thing to deny your family their birth right,” she said.

Pamp overheard a conversation between her sister and her grandmother and recalled what Turner told her sister.

“I can’t change how you look, but at least I can make you sound more American,” Pamp said, quoting her grandmother Turner.

Paul Walker, treasurer for the Saginaw Chippewa tribe, said his family has been strained as a result of inter-generational trauma caused by abuses the culture endured in the boarding school. His grandfather attended the Mount Pleasant Industrial Boarding School. His father also went to a boarding school.

“That broke down our family,” Walker said. “They didn’t show love. They didn’t show the things a child needs to grow up. My relationship with my children is strained. I didn’t know how to be a parent to my kids. I don’t talk to my children every day. Sometimes I go for weeks without talking to them.”

Ray Cadotte, Ziibiwing Center visitor service representative, burned sage in a seashell to help ease the emotions of some in the audience, who broke in tears. He allowed everybody a chance in the room to wave the smoke about their face, a medicinal ritual to soothe the soul. Pamp said the topic of the forum, the inter-generational trauma the tribe is striving to overcome, is a “wound of the soul.”

Pamp said the fissures within families caused by the trauma have led many tribal members to treat the pain with drugs and alcohol, leading to many deaths among the tribe's youth.

“My 10-year-old son and I were at the table one morning and he said, ‘Mom, I wonder who’s gonna die today,’” Pamp said. “I had to take a moment and breathe deep so I wouldn’t start to cry. I looked at him and said, ‘I’m so afraid for you guys.’”


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