Boarding School History

Monday, June 22, 2015

Although the purpose of my research trip was to learn more about the life my Chippewa/Ojibwe protagonist would have lived on the reservation, the book’s primary focus will be her boarding school years. So the two times I had the opportunity to visit the grounds of an old Indian boarding school, I took it.

The first opportunity was in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, which was the site of the off-reservation Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School. The entire site was marked with NO TRESPASSING signs, but the man at the desk of the museum on the other side of town told us how to get there and said he didn’t think it would be a problem as long as we didn’t get too close. He also told us that the buildings were unsafe because they were filled with lead and asbestos materials.

The administration must have been concerned about the children’s safety when the school was built in the late 1800s. Fire escapes were prominent on the side of each building, and you can see one at the right in the top picture. But nobody knew about the hazards of lead and asbestos in those days.

Even though I didn’t get to go inside, I did get a feel for the grounds. They reminded me of a small college campus, with multiple brick buildings, trees, and even a fountain (no longer in service).

And before you ask, I wasn’t trying to make the picture look old. Somehow I set my camera to grayscale and didn’t notice it until later.

The second opportunity to visit a boarding school came in Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin. The Tribal Historic Preservation Office had just renovated the former boys’ dormitory into administrative offices, using the original color scheme. (See the second picture.) One room was lined with old pictures of the school. As with Mount Pleasant, the Lac du Flambeau boarding school had also been a multi-structure campus, but this was apparently the only school building that remained.

My story features an off-reservation boarding school, like the one at Mount Pleasant. Lac du Flambeau, on the other hand, was an on-reservation boarding school. Although they had similar set-ups, on-reservation schools catered to students from a single tribe and families had more contact with their children because of the shorter distances. Students often went home for the summer rather than being away for years (as was common at off-reservation schools).
Or at least I had thought the distinction was that simple. But the historian at the Tribal Historic Preservation Office said that the federal government sent students from other tribes and locations to the Lac du Flambeau school and sent children from the Lac du Flambeau reservation elsewhere. Some students even came from Tomah, Wisconsin, which had its own off-reservation boarding school. To us, this shuffling around makes no sense. But the government wanted to break down tribal identities and keep students away from the “uncivilized” lives their families were living. In the government’s misguided logic, it was the perfect response.
But I beg to differ.

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