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Across the Aisle | Preserving a Painful Piece of Michigan History

Two Michigan senators, a Republican and a Democrat, have introduced a bill that would raise awareness about the history of the state’s Indian boarding schools.

By Joe Rassenfoss  |  January 16, 2024
Wayne Schmidt Michigan
Jeff Irwin Michigan

Beginning in the 19th century, thousands of Native American children suffered forced assimilation into white society in Indian boarding schools set up by the federal government.

Three of those schools were in Michigan. Now two state senators from opposite sides of the aisle are working together to make sure that painful history is never forgotten.

Sen. Wayne Schmidt grew up in northern Michigan and attended school with members of the Grand Traverse band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. “I knew about the Indian boarding schools because of the one (nearby) in Harbor Springs but didn’t think much about it when I was younger.”

Schmidt’s awareness of tribal issues, which expanded through high school and college, deepened thanks to six years in the Michigan House of Representatives, and since 2014, in the state Senate. After meeting with tribal elders during 2021 about the legacy of Indian boarding schools, he realized that “we needed to emphasize the history more.”

The result is SB 876, which encourages the state Board of Education to include the troubled history of Michigan’s Indian boarding schools in its recommended curriculum standards for students in eighth through 12th grades.

Schmidt, a Republican, knew exactly who he wanted for a co-sponsor: Sen. Jeff Irwin. The fact that the Democrat is a member of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians informed the decision, but the two also have a long history of cooperation. “I’ve worked with Jeff on a number of things,” Schmidt says. “And he’s a friend.”

“We’ve collaborated on issues important to tribal communities,” Irwin says. “A few years ago, we were able to change the budget so that the state is now following through on its treaty obligation to provide education to qualified tribal members. And a few years before that, I had a bill about tribal tourism promotion that we worked on.”

The new bill cites the “cultural assimilation of Indigenous children through the forceful relocation of these children from their families and communities to distant residential facilities where the children’s American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian identities, language and beliefs were to be forcibly suppressed.”

‘A Chance to Heal’

Thousands of Native American children were removed from their homes and families and placed in the schools. By 1900, there were 20,000 children in the schools, and by 1925 that number had more than tripled, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.

Students were forbidden to speak their native languages or wear traditional clothing. Abuse and disease were rampant. Many students spent their entire childhood at the schools, not seeing their parents or families for years. The schools continued to operate well into the 20th century.

“We needed to emphasize the history more.”

—Michigan Sen. Wayne Schmidt

“There wasn’t a lot of talk about (Indian schools) in my family when I was young,” Irwin says. “My great-grandmother died when I was very young, so I don’t remember her saying this. But I remember the family always saying that when people would ask her, ‘Why is it you don’t claim your Indian heritage?’ she would say, ‘Well, you can’t tell anyone you’re an Indian, they’ll take your kids.’”

Schmidt sees the proposed bill as “a chance to heal. To make sure that we don’t do something like that again. That a policy of ripping kids away from their families is just wrong. Trying to beat culture out of people is wrong.”

Given the spotlight on school curriculums, it’s natural to wonder if the bill’s language to “encourage” inclusion of the history, rather than “mandate” it, indicates it has been shaped by bipartisan wrangling. The senators aren’t surprised by that perception, but both say that’s not the case.

“I have voted for mandates, I have voted against mandates,” Schmidt says. “But on this one, this is the best way to go. Give educators the flexibility to decide the best way to present it. I come from a family of educators; we’ve hog-tied them a little too much on some things.”

“There’s this other thing that’s true in Michigan,” Irwin says. “An ethic of local control, an ethic of allowing some flexibility in the classroom and at the district level. This approach is better to help meet the students’ needs based on the evaluation of the person who actually knows what the students need, which is not the Legislature.”

Momentum Established

The bill’s bipartisan backing is no guarantee of passage. The senators’ first hope is that it gets a hearing in the Committee on Education and Career Readiness.

“If not, then we’re going to have to go back to the drawing board,” Schmidt says. “But frankly, I’m glad it’s out there getting attention. We hosted a breakfast for the tribal representatives who came down to talk when we introduced the bill. And you could tell, talking with them, that they felt some relief that people recognized there was a need for some healing.”

Meridith Kennedy, a member of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, was the last generation of her family to attend Holy Childhood boarding school in Michigan before it closed in 1983. She spoke to the healing aspect of the bill during its Feb. 16 legislative introduction.

“Ten years ago, I recovered the remains of my ancestors from the grounds of the same school my father and I went to—and more of my ancestors were found in 2020,” Kennedy said. “For the families of Indian boarding school survivors, this is part of our modern history and shapes who we are. This legislation offers the opportunity for healing and making our great nations stronger by acknowledging the past and moving forward in a good way.”

No matter the outcome, Irwin says momentum has been established for other tribal legislation.

“Because of Sen. Schmidt’s leadership, there is a proposal to do a study into this history and make sure any historical resources are protected,” he says. “So regardless of whether the bill passes, we have a chance to fund an effort to propel recognition of the Indian boarding schools.”

Joe Rassenfoss is a Denver-based freelance writer.

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