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HomeMI HistoryMI HistoryA Time for Reconciliation and Healing

A Time for Reconciliation and Healing

Image Source: Bently Historical Library, University of Michigan 

November is federally recognized as Indigenous Peoples’ Month in the United States – a time that we are to recognize the Native peoples of our land and celebrate the culture, traditions, and customs of their communities. I find this all a bit disingenuous when we confine the acknowledgment of Native peoples to a single month of the year.

Nowhere within this “celebration” do we discuss – out loud – the reconciliation and healing of our Native brothers and sisters for their indescribable sacrifices – both provided and forced – made to shape the western development of the land they have called home for centuries and we have called home for a mere 247 years.

A few of our national leaders make a postured speech or two, but there is a stark absence of genuine conversation or action outside of the Indigenous community regarding reconciliation and healing of centuries of trauma. I see a multitude of tribes – all sovereign nations within our nation – who continue to struggle to be recognized and heard.

Throughout the summer, I worked to connect with several of the 12 federally recognized tribes that call Michigan home. Ironically, in November, I started receiving responses after months of trying. I had little knowledge of the world in which I was about to enter. Reading recorded history does not even begin to scratch the surface of the truths that are starting to emerge.

These initial connections have led me to The Holy Childhood School of Jesus in Harbor Springs and several of its survivors.

Harbor Springs is a beautiful, picturesque town on the north-western shores of the upper lower peninsula on Lake Michigan. If you’ve never been, you should visit. It is home to ski resorts, hiking trails, quaint shops, and some lovely people I personally know. The area in and around Harbor Springs is one of my favorite places in Michigan. It’s also home to one of the 12 federally recognized tribes of Michigan – The Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians.

This beautiful little town is part of a dark chapter in our history, and one we must acknowledge. It was the home of The Holy Childhood School of Jesus operational from the 1880’s to 1984.  It was the first federally funded Indigenous boarding school in Michigan, though it was the second boarding school in Harbor Springs. The first boarding school was named New L’Arbe Croche and opened in 1929. This French-mission school was built in 1829 with the help of the Odawa tribes in the area and taught lessons in Anishinaabemowin. It lasted only a few short years.

In the 1880s, The Holy Childhood Boarding School – run by The Sisters of Notre Dame (even with federal funding) – opened its doors with federal support to “assimilate” Indians into white, Christian culture based on the Carlisle Indian Industrial School model, the first Indigenous boarding school in the United States. Authorized by Congress, Carlisle opened in 1879 in Philadelphia and operated for 30 years. The school’s first superintendent, Captain Henry Pratt, chose an abandoned army barracks as the school building and advocated for the “Americanization” and cultural assimilation of the Indians.  

The purpose of assimilation?

“Kill the Indian and save the man.”

“Kill the Indian” is exactly what they attempted to do. And sometimes they succeeded – literally and figuratively.

The assimilation efforts of our Native peoples did not begin in the 1800s, but around 1790. George Washington (yes, that George Washington) and Henry Knox, the United States Secretary of War and Revolutionary War general (and a founding father), were pioneers in implementing the cultural assimilation of Native Americans in the United States into white, Christian culture. They believed that education was the best method in the process of acculturation of Native peoples.

The belief was that if Native peoples were to learn the customs and values of white United States, they would be able to merge tribal traditions with white American culture and “peacefully” unite society.

Post-Indian Wars, the federal government effectively banned the practice of traditional Indigenous religious ceremonies (so much for freedom of religion). From there, it established the Native American boarding schools, where Native children were mandated to attend. Children were taken from their families at very young ages – often by force – and placed into these schools; some only see their families once per year, others not for years, many never again.  

The profound truths emerging from survivors of these schools reveal a history of abuse – physical, verbal, mental, and sexual.  They were forced to speak English, study standard subjects, attend church, and have their tribal traditions erased. The traumatic experience began with the symbolic act of cutting off their long hair, which holds spiritual significance in the Native culture.  The boys were given short cuts and the girls were given pageboy cuts. It is believed in Native culture that long hair holds knowledge wisdom, power, and resiliency. Cutting the hair was the first step toward “killing the Indian.”

The truths we are about to hear through the words of survivors of Holy Childhood are difficult to hear, but we must listen and hear them. They are descriptions of abuse and torment. They include conversations about those who are lost to this day in unmarked burial grounds, and as I have recently learned – knowingly beneath a paved road in Harbor Springs.

What is important to recognize through this journey is that these truths are truly about reconciliation and healing for our Native brothers and sisters.

Those of us who are ancestors of this white assimilation must pause and not make this reconciliation and healing process about us. It’s not about “white guilt” or “apologizing for being white” that so many jump into. It’s about acknowledging the atrocities that our Native peoples went through at the hands of our ancestors. It’s about hearing their truths. It’s about reconciling the past and helping them heal their generational trauma. It requires a commitment to truth, understanding, and empathy.

It is incumbent upon us to engage in open dialogue, amplify Indigenous voices, and support initiatives that address the systemic challenges perpetuating the trauma. By coming together and respecting the autonomy and resilience of Indigenous communities, we can contribute to a collective journey towards reconciliation, and foster a future of healing and cultural revival – all central tenets of our shared national narrative.  

Throughout a series content, you will read and hear the many truths and conversations directly from survivors of The Holy Childhood School of Jesus in Harbor Springs. These are their words, not mine.  Through podcasts and the written word, we will share and amplify their voices, and their truths, and walk with them along their healing journey into a shared, unified future. 

The Michigan Indian Foundation, Inc. was a private organization made up of wealthy white Michiganders who financially supported The Holy Childhood School of Jesus. The images on these pages are from their Annual Review from 1949-1950 and the language they used to appeal to donors. 

Additionally, their annual “Naming Ceremony” common throughout the 1950s was a gala that named “Honorary Chiefs” to the Odawa tribe and was used to recruit potential donors to the school. It provided an economic boost to the area and was used to promote the lie that the nuns “lovingly devote themselves to the care of Indian children.”  

Acknowledgment of these documents and photos – and what they represent – is part of the reconciliation and healing process. We must recognize and acknowledge the wrongs of the past to heal in the present and move toward a unified future. 

Listen to our Podcast Series Reconciliation and Healing of Michigan’s Indigenous Peoples with Survivors of the Holy Childhood School of Jesus in Harbor Springs. Read the related articles of this series, A Native American Woman’s Journey from Childhood Trauma to Survivor and Truth Teller.

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Tamara Graham
Tamara Graham
With an adventurous spirit and a burning desire to make the world work for all of us, Tamara encourages others to embrace self-love, compassion, empathy, understanding, and an ever important sense of humor. With over 30 years of diverse marketing experience, including a decade in publishing, she brings a fresh and innovative perspective to the industry. Her concept revolves around experiential magazines that captivate both online and in print. Tamara's visionary project, LIVE. LOVE. LOCAL. MICHIGAN™, unveils the wonders of our breathtaking home state, igniting love and admiration among Michiganders for where they live. By fostering this deep connection, she inspires a genuine appreciation and love for where we live!
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