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

Taylor Ballek | Photo Editor A rusted door at a building near the dormiciles.

[wzslider autoplay="true" interval="6000" height="600" transition="'slide'" info="true" lightbox="true"]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.”