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Native American boarding schools have nearly killed Michigan's native language

The original language of Michigan is dying in the state.

Anishinaabemowin was the language of the Great Lakes for millennia—spoken by the Chippewa/Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi tribes—known as the Anishinabek.

One of the biggest impacts on the language, that affected generations of families, was Native American boarding schools.

The last fluent speakers are dying off

Eighty-year old Marcella Keller is a member of the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians. She was raised traditionally by her parents who knew how to fish, gather, live off the land, and turn wild plants into medicine.

Keller has lived in Cross Village her whole life. It’s about 20 miles south of the Mackinac Bridge and sits on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan.

“Just a beautiful place where the Indians lived up in here,” she says. “Everybody spoke [the language growing up]... I was one of the fluent speakers.”

Keller is only one of an estimated three people in this area with the Little Traverse Bay Band that are still fluent in Anishinaabemowin, and those numbers are dropping.

Listen to her speak the language below:

Keller says she used to have some people she could talk to in her native language, but says “all the Indians that spoke it are dying off. They never taught it to their kids.”

One of the biggest reasons why they didn’t teach it, was because of Native American boarding schools.

Holy Childhood

Twenty miles south of Cross Village is Harbor Springs.

In the summer, the harbor is filled with yachts and downtown is marked with boutique shops.  At the end of Main Street stands a church, and that church led one of the longest-running Native American boarding schools in the nation. It was called Holy Childhood.

Eric Hemenway, director of archives and records for the Little Traverse Bay Band, says the Odawa actually helped build the mission school in 1829.

He says back then, “lessons were taught in Anishinaabemowin -- the kids were encouraged to speak Anishinaabemowin.”

But fast forward 60 years, and things at Holy Childhood looked much different.

Around the late 1880s the federal government stepped in to control Native American education. They created assimilation policies that looked to wipe out native languages and culture, and that effort continued for decades.

Deleta Gasco Smith works for the Little Traverse Bay Band. She attended Holy Childhood for three years of elementary school.

"When we were in the school we were actually completely forbidden to speak the language and if we were caught the punishment was swift and it was severe."

“When we were in the school we were actually completely forbidden to speak the language, and if we were caught, the punishment was swift and it was severe,” Gasco Smith says.

Gasco Smith’s father was fluent in Anishinaabemowin, but he was careful not to teach his daughter the language. Gasco Smith says her dad went to the same boarding school and knew she would be beaten for speaking Anishinaabemowin.

“That’s how we almost lost our language, is because they quit speaking it,” Gasco Smith says.

“They wouldn’t let us speak it either because they knew that we had to go there and what would happen if we spoke the language when we were there.”

Boarding schools aim was to ‘take the Indian out of the Indian’

From the 1880s through the 1920s, Native American children in the U.S. were often forced to leave their families and attend boarding schools.

Some—like Holy Childhood—were run by the Catholic Church. Others were run by the government, like a school in Mt. Pleasantthat operated until the mid 1930s. Either way, the mission was the same.

Sister Susan Gardner is with the diocese of Gaylord.

“The overall mission of the boarding school was to acculturate the Native Americans into the American culture,” she says. “They didn’t want them to have anything as far as their Native American spirituality, language customs, anything. They wanted to take the Indian out of the Indian.”

Assimilation mandates faded around 1930, but Holy Childhood still operated for another 50 years and continued to punish students who spoke their native language.

Physical abuse at Holy Childhood

Physical and emotional abuse were common. 

Yvonne Keshick is a member of the Little Traverse Bay Band and went to Holy Childhood for eight years. She says there was a racial element to the abuse from the nuns. 

"[The nuns] showed preference, a direct preference to lighter-complected kids. The darker you were, the worse you were treated."

“They showed preference, a direct preference to lighter-complected kids,” she says.

Keshick says those kids got special treatment, and didn’t get beaten and adds, “The darker you were, the worse you were treated.”

Keshick says she was beaten almost every single day. If she got a math problem wrong, the nun would grab her by the head and use her face to erase the math problems on the chalk board.

“I have less hair on this side of my head because the nun was right-handed, so she would reach out and grab me on the left side of my head and drag me around, and then use my face and head as the dust eraser,” Keshick says.

Sexual abuse at Holy Childhood

In the 1960s and early 70s, there was sexual abuse happening at Holy Childhood.

Fred Kiogima is a member of the Little Traverse Bay Band.

“You could hear the beatings going on. You could hear other things going on in that room that as a child, first grade through eighth grade, you had no right in society to hear those things going on the other side of the room, or in the next bed over,” Kiogima says.

"You had no right in society to hear those things going on the other side of the room, or in the next bed over."

Kiogima boarded at Holy Childhood when a nun at the school was sexually abusing some of the boys.

“It’s like the nuns had their certain key people that they would pick out,” he says. “Those were the ones that -- the boys' group on our side of the house -- we knew who was either having sex with that nun or was making out with her, or doing whatever. Because they got the best treatment. They got the best clothes. They got more food. They got longer TV hours. They didn’t get beat.”

Church apologizes

Sister Susan Gardner is the director of the Native American Apostolate for the Diocese of Gaylord and previously worked with First Nations tribes in Canada.

She says these stories don’t surprise her because she’s heard so many similar stories from indigenous people across North America.

“I feel badly that this has happened. I do whatever I can to heal them individually, or on a whole, but I certainly don’t’ deny anything that happened to them,” Gardner says.

This year, Gardner prompted the Bishop of Gaylord to send a letter to the Little Traverse Bay Band to issue the first apology from the church for what happened at Holy Childhood.

Gardner is now leading healing circles. It’s a way for people to openly share their thoughts and feelings about what happened at the boarding school.

Former Holy Childhood student Deleta Gasco Smith is also helping lead these healing circles.

“This letter from the church, and them reaching out, is a very big step,” Gasco Smith says. “It’s like we are going full circle and they want to be a part of the healing process, so that is a good thing.”

But she says the boarding schools played a huge role in the loss of Anishinaabemowin, and when language is lost, so is the connection to the remaining ceremonies and traditions of the Anishinabek. 

"When you lose that language, you lose your culture completely."

“When you lose that language, you lose your culture completely,” Gasco Smith says. “Because it is those songs, it is those prayers, and everything that we do in our language that connect us -- not just with each other, and with our community -- but also with everything around us.”

To learn about what tribes in Michigan are doing to bring the language back, listen to Pt. II of this story.

Support for arts & cultural reporting on Michigan Radio comes in part from a grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the arts.  

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