The Indian Schools, and America's Genocide

Photos are from 2004-2005, scanned from 35mm prints.

I lived up north in Mount Pleasant, Michigan for five years during college, and mostly whiled away my autumns in the dreary, never-ending lucubrations of scholarly pursuit, in a dull farm town that offered little in the way of exploration. Sure, there was the Borden Condensery downtown, but it was supposedly watched like a hawk by the cops. And there were about 10 miles of steam tunnels under the university, but that was easier said than done.

I always knew the Mount Pleasant State Home & Training School for the developmentally disabled existed at the edge of town, but I didn't immediately realize that its campus contained several older, boarded-up buildings that were originally known as the "Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School." I could get there by walking up the railroad tracks from my student shack, and I would gradually learn that despite its alluring grounds and appearance, this institution was one of the most vile, horrible, and ominous places I would ever explore.

A quick historical outline of the town is offered in the Historical Gazetteer of the United States by Paul T. Hellmann, which puts things in perspective. The first Indian reservation in Mount Pleasant was established in 1855 it says, but it was disbanded (for whatever reason) in 1872. Both Central Michigan University, and the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School (MIIBS) were established here by 1892, and the flourishing town became the seat of Isabella County in 1860.

The place where Mount Pleasant is located was originally called Ziibiwing by the local tribes; the word, as I translate it, means "next to the river," which of course refers to the Chippewa River. The Indian reservation was reestablished in the 1930s, Hellman notes; the astute reader will pick up on the fact that the years of the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School's operation roughly coincide with the years that there was no formally established reservation in Mount Pleasant. 

This complex, as well as hundreds of others like it across the nation, was where Native American children were indoctrinated into Euro-American culture (i.e.: brainwashed). According to the Michigan historical marker on the school, it was established in 1891, erected in 1892, and opened in 1893 for 300 students. A cornerstone on the building indicated that it also burned down in 1899, and was rebuilt.

Despite the supposedly benevolent mission of the institution, in practicality it functioned as yet another instrument of the systematic culture assassination that nearly annihilated the native people of this continent during American expansion, as well as a ready source of unpaid child labor.

Unless we begin to account for the sinister aspects of our nation's legacy such as aboriginal genocide, we can never be the nation of morals that we purport ourselves to be according to the grand words that our noble Constitution is couched upon. The governments of Canada and Australia have officially apologized for how their boarding schools have abused the aboriginal peoples of their countries and they have even offered some reparations. The U.S. government however has yet to even acknowledge any wrongdoing on its part.

But the best thing we can do to make amends for a dark past is simply to acknowledge it, admit that what was done in our name was wrong, and to share these stories with others; the more awareness there is of the past, the less will be the likelihood that it will be repeated. These skeletons in our closet will begin to go away once we stop denying that they exist.

The Indian boarding schools came about in the late 19th century when Americans "grew tired of the ongoing costs" of waging constant war against Indians on the frontier, so the U.S. government looked for alternatives. As Thomas Morgan, Commissioner of Indian Affairs put it, "We must either fight indians, feed them, or else educate them." Captain Pratt of the 10th Cavalry "Buffalo Soldiers" went on to found the first Indian boarding school in Pennsylvania, and was known for coining the phrase "Kill the Indian in him, and save the man."

Anishinaabe (Ojibwa, Ottawa, Potawatomi, etc.) children were taken from their impoverished parents on Michigan's reservations and placed here in this boarding school under the premise that they would get an education that would help lift them out of poverty (a poverty which of course was created by the reservations that the U.S. government had placed them on in the first place). But there were conditions. Instead of merely helping these children to learn to function in the new "white man's" world, it forced them to abandon their ancestral roots and become "whites" themselves.

This was the Girls' Dormitory of the old Indian School, and according to the Sanborn map it was the twin of an identical Boys' Dormitory on the opposite side of the school. Apparently that one burned down or something because it was replaced with a bigger modern dorm in 1940.

Upon being admitted to the school, children were held down while their hair was cut short, their traditional clothing and possessions were stripped from them and thrown away, they were "washed" in kerosene, and they were given "white" names, and clothed in uniforms. Siblings were separated, and they were punished if caught speaking in their native tongue, or if they communicated with their parents. They were taught that their belief systems and cultural ways were wrong and backward, and that their parents were savages.

Because the punishments were often brutal and designed to break their spirit, many tried to escape. And as with any similar custodial institution in the 20th century, there was also rampant physical and sexual abuse by the staff. In the meantime they were schooled in academics, trained in vocational skills, and rented out as seasonal laborers on local farms.


Edith Young, an Alaskan native woman who survived an Indian school in Seattle, recalled a nun slapping her in the face for asking why the class was being taught that Columbus discovered America, "when the continent was already populated by Indians long before he arrived."

Punishments for other infractions were numerous; one included being "forced to kneel on a bag of dried kidney beans," which was excruciatingly painful and left her knees "looking like Brillo pads." Eventually the tortures sapped Young's will to live, and she attempted suicide. Other children reported punishments to usually include beatings, or not being allowed to eat.

The sanitary conditions, and quality of the food here were both questionable, despite the school's premise of taking the children away from their tribes to a "better" way of life. Many children found the life here so bad that they attempted to escape the institution, and many were successful in running all the way back to the Upper Peninsula. Some hopped aboard freight trains that rode on the same tracks that I walked from my apartment, and some even sneaked onto ferry boats. The most common reason cited in the article for fleeing the school was not poor treatment, but homesickness.

A very good article in the Metro Times by Curt Guyette a few years ago talks about a recent documentary called The Indian Schools, The Survivors Story, and the book Dancing My Dream, written by Warren Petoskey, a local Odawa whose family attended the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial School. "Adult Indians were deemed a lost cause," the article stated, and the only way for the children to be "civilized," was to remove them from the influence of their parents at a very young age so that they could more easily be brainwashed. This thought was evidenced in a report by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1886:
However excellent the day school may be, whatever the qualifications of the teacher, or however superior the facilities for instruction for the few short hours spent in the day school is, to a great extent, offset by the habits, scenes and surroundings at home—if a mere place to eat and live in can be called home. Only by complete isolation of the Indian child from his savage antecedents can he be satisfactorily educated...

And as it turns out, the purpose of said "education" wasn't really to help native children to achieve in white society—the schools groomed them only for roles of subservience. Instead of being given schooling that could lead to becoming doctors or lawyers, they were trained to be domestic servants, seamstresses, bakers and farmhands. The schools were also run like military boot camps, where the children were marched and drilled constantly.

"At the heart of this treatment was mainstream white society's belief that they had nothing to learn from the traditional knowledge possessed by Indians," that whites viewed themselves as superior to Indians, explains Professor Kay McGowan, one of the documentary's producers.

There is a video on YouTube showing some interviews with survivors who were in the documentary:

According to some of the speakers in the video, the children in the Mount Pleasant school were not all necessarily from the local tribes or reservations; the federal Indian school system was designed to split families and tribespeople apart, to isolate them from their own kind. For instance, our school in Michigan may have contained Seminoles sent from Florida, while Ojibwe from Michigan may have been sent to a school in Kansas. This was presumably done to dispel any bonds of community within the school, and to discourage organized resistance among inmates, or attempts at escape.

There were those in the native community who opposed the boarding schools, and some who grudgingly conceded that sending children off to "learn the white man's ways" was probably better than enduring the poverty and hardship that they faced on the reservation at the time. Traditional elders clearly saw that the schools were designed to strip Indians of everything that made them Indian, and must be avoided; some parents taught their children that "owls, bears, and white men would harm them," which led many of them to flee from a white person on sight.

Other parents realized that the life of poverty and limitation their children would face by staying on the reservation was just as much the creation of the white man as was the boarding school, so they felt that sending them off to maybe have a chance to earn a better social standing was preferable, if still unbearable. Even in this case the child often had to be tricked into going to the school, or they would run away and hide in the woods.

One boy mentioned in the article recalled being pushed into a truck with a wire cage on it filled with other kids bound for the same school in the southwest. Many children probably never forgave their parents for being sent to the schools. Warren Petoskey said that likewise many parents often sang their child's death song as they were taken away, because they knew that after attending the boarding school "they would never be the same again."

The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs still operated more than 200 schools in 17 states by the 1970s, still populated by children forcibly removed from Indian parents. Although conditions at the schools were supposedly less harsh after 1928 when a report by the Meriam Commission drew public attention to the reality of the Indian Schools, "nightmarish abuses continued," according to the article. Attendance at Indian schools was made voluntary instead of compulsory under the law in 1975. Some of the Bureau of Indian Affairs schools still remained in operation in 2011 when the article was written.

Indian boarding schools have had long-lasting negative effects on their students, including high rates of suicide, mental illness, child abuse and family breakdown, studies have shown. Survivors of Indian boarding schools who go on to become parents themselves end up raising children who are emotionally stunted from having been exposed to the psychological defects of their scarred parents.

Many of the problems, such as alcoholism, promiscuity, emotional detachment, and violent tempers are passed down from parent to child, to grandchild. This is typical of families where the parents grew up while institutionalized; "They had no role models from which to learn, and having never been the recipients of affection, they are unable to give it themselves," McGowan said.

According to some of the survivors interviewed in the article, there were still families that hid their children when strangers came to the door, "so deeply ingrained was the fear that someone would show up from the government, looking for their kids."

One woman recalled driving past the boarding school with her mother, who then told a story from when she was a student there about a friend who had been raped by a staff member, and died while trying to give herself an abortion. The woman also described how eerily her mother spoke of a cemetery for the school's children, "tucked back in a nearby wooded area."

The boarding school's campus contained a school building, a chapel, an athletic building, a vocational building, an administration building, and a couple of what I presumed were staff houses. I was only able to get into a few of the buildings; this one had been the superintendent's house at one time.

I found that the back door was open, so I went in. 

I advanced slowly and observantly, scanning for motion-sensors, finding none. The building did still have power, judging by the hum coming from the burned-out fluorescent lights. There was also an active fire panel.

This building had likely been converted to other uses in recent years, and had probably not been the superintendent's residence for a long time.

A lot of original woodwork was still intact, even if they did slap those ugly removable tiles on the ceiling.

I went back outside, and resuming my usual air of complete nonchalance, spent about an hour meandering the manicured grounds taking exterior shots, scouting for ways in, and gauging the level of surveillance, all while maintaining the innocent guise of an photography student.

The nearby in-use buildings had people milling around them, and I understood that this was not the place to do anything daring, because for all intents and purposes I was messing around at what still basically amounted to a state prison when I was there in 2004. Taking photos of in-use psychiatric facilities is against the law in and of itself, so I made sure to stay amongst these older vacant buildings.

But the climate I found on this abandoned side of the campus was surprisingly welcoming; no security cameras or leering tattlers—instead some kids were playing in the leaves out front, and people walked about enjoying the evening air. It was also soon abundantly clear that there were active steam tunnels running under the sidewalks of this complex, meaning that the state still cared to save these old buildings from decay. Heat emanated from the lids.

What I found mildly creepy about the outside of the vocational building was one wall that had a heavy chain bolted to it, and around that were about a hundred names crudely scratched into the brick, almost as if naughty kids had been shackled up here as punishment. Considering the dark past of this institution, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if that were the case.

This building is labeled as a "Commissary" on the Sanborn maps, and there used to be another smaller warehouse shown sitting next to it. So it seems it most likely wasn't a vocational building after all, as I had originally thought.

Not all former residents of this school had only negative things to say about it. Many of the children at Mount Pleasant were picked up as orphans anyway, and had no family from which to be separated. An old Ottawa named John Crampton said in an article that he had "fond memories of friends, regular meals and clean clothes." “If it hadn't been for the school, he said, "I would’'ve starved to death."

Most former residents of the school do not talk about their memories however, and do not openly admit to having been a student here. Most of them have never spoken of the things they saw or endured at this school, and have taken the stories to their graves. It is common for survivors to be in denial; they may have been abused so badly that their brain has repressed the memories, or changed them into a sort of fiction, a story that they claim happened to "a friend" they knew at the school, instead of admitting that it actually happened to they themselves.

By 1933 the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School closed for business. A link on Central Michigan University's Clarke Historical Library website gives another good analysis of the school. It said that in the wake of the Meriam Commission's heavily critical findings, national emphasis was shifted to educating Native Americans on their own reservations. This lead many off-reservation schools to close in the early 1930s—such as the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School.

The Meriam Report achieved an especially effective impact when the popular magazine Good Housekeeping published a series of articles based on the findings of the report. The public outrage generated when people saw the poor treatment of the children shamed President Hoover's administration into taking action to improve the archaic Indian schools, and funding for them was nearly doubled by 1933, although it did little to really help things.

The institution reopened in 1934, not as an Indian school, but as the Mount Pleasant State Home & Training School for the developmentally disabled, in order to help ease the overcrowding at the Lapeer State Home. It was typical of such institutions in that the residents of higher functionality and IQ were allowed to participate in vocational training and farming labor like the Indian children had, while the lower-functioning residents with Down Syndrome, etc., were basically kept warehoused in buildings full of hundreds of cribs, where they never received any programming or exercise at all.

This house-like building had a sign on it that said "Cottage 2." It is labelled as a "Girls' Dormitory" on both Sanborn maps of the facility. It was clean inside like the other ones, though there were the hoof prints of a few graffiti, but I found a couple errant beer cans on the floor. This building contained classroom space, and had been well cleaned out, but some chairs remained, as did these fancy window shades.

According to there were no teachers at the Mount Pleasant State Home, nor apparently any educational programming here at all until the 1960s, when it was mandated by law. Living conditions for residents were sub-par by today's standards, and the institution essentially served only as a place to warehouse masses of unwanted humans. In the 1970s the institution was extensively renovated, and it was renamed the "Mount Pleasant Regional Center for Developmental Disabilities."

The renovations, and changes in programming focused on making the facility less institutional and more homelike, but the nationwide movement was already underway to care for developmental disabilities in outside community group homes, as opposed to large institutions. As a result the number of residents dropped off, and admissions slowed down until the state decided to close the Mount Pleasant Center.

One February day, and I found an entrance on the school / chapel / auditorium building. It was the most impressive I had been in yet.

The weather was positively soggy; the snow was up to my knees and the air was grey with light fog. Gigantic icicles hung from the eaves of the chapel building, reaching all the way to the ground.

When I stepped inside, I was instantly engulfed in sweltering heat, causing me to peel some layers of clothing. Apparently this is where all the steam heat was going; the basement door was left open and a massive draft of hot air rushed up through it into the building from the old pipes.

I was happy to finally see the interior of the auditorium with its tall, arched chapel windows. The unique building was in great shape, the stage still bore curtains, and the ceiling was decorative stamped tin.

It began to flurry yet again, piling on top of the sloppy snow that already had accumulated from this never-ending winter. I sat quietly in the auditorium balcony watching through the old wavy glass of a tall, narrow window as the flakes swirled outside. It was so silent that I could hear the building creak when the wind blew. I must have sat there for an hour like that, just letting my mind wander, leaving behind the rigors of academe and the drudgery of the long Michigan dark age.

At the time, I knew very little of this institution's sordid history. But, insulated within the privilege of college life, it was an excellent feeling to be the only soul present in this lonely building without a sign of life anywhere around me. For that one hour it was my own little world. 

This was my final semester of college, and in the early summer as it wound down to the end, I took as many opportunities as I could to go out here and spend time escaping. Eventually all the buildings were sealed back up, but I was always content to just sit outside and enjoy the sun and mellow spring air.

Once I sat under a tree and did my homework, and another time during finals week I laid in the grass near the empty pond and took a nap in the warm sun. It's my belief that everyone should have a place of their own to escape was pretty ironic that I thought of this place as my escape, when it was seen only as something to escape from by so many residents of its past. was nice enough to include images of two Sanborn maps of this institution, dating from 1931 and 1951. They show that there used to be a lot more buildings on campus than are standing today. For instance, there used to be a laundry building, dining hall, a powerhouse, and an infirmary building on the south end of the campus near the superintendent's house, shown on both maps. There was also a line of houses running along the north edge of campus that are now all gone, and a dairy farm on the western extent, where the c.1950s-era Mount Pleasant Center buildings now stand.

In the 1950s, newer buildings were erected on the grounds and by the 2000s it was housing some of Michigan's criminally insane while the new Center for Forensic Psychology was being built south of Ann Arbor to replace the old Ypsilanti State Hospital. These older buildings from the Indian School days remain on the eastern end of the campus, boarded up but still beautiful, despite their insidious past.

The last resident left the Mount Pleasant Center in September 2009, and the facility was officially closed down in February 2010. An article in the Mount Pleasant paper The Morning Sun features photos from inside the buildings of the modern half of the center from that time. Demolition of those 1950s-era buildings began in 2013.

Other buildings on the Indian school campus included the gymnasium, which was still being used:

I peeked my head in one day as some basketball game was being played.

Here's a bit of old-timey goodness—a boot-scraper:

When's the last time you saw one of those? It looks like it was handmade on site by a blacksmith.

Did these steps used to go to the long-demolished Hospital Building? According to, the only hospital located in Mount Pleasant at that time was the infirmary here at the school, so it served the outside community as well as the inmates of the institution.

There were at least two mid-century ranch houses scattered along the southeastern corner of the property that appeared to have been still lived in when I first started going here. I assumed they were built as residences of school officials?

This was the old fountain in the former pond in front of the main school building:

As you can see there are quite a few very large, mature trees on this campus.

The pond was one of my favorite places to sit and relax.

So was the old stone bridge.

The webpage about the school featured an old postcard photo I had never seen before, showing not only the old hospital building, but also this stone bridge in the foreground:

Photo from
According to the official City of Mount Pleasant website, two parcels of the former Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School campus came under the ownership of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe in 2011, and include these buildings as well as a cemetery (which I didn't know existed until I did the research for this post).

Thousands attended the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School from various Great Lakes area tribes from 1893 to 1934, and there were at least 200 (documented) deaths at the school. The Saginaw Chippewa tribe bought the school in hopes of renovating it and turning it into a cultural learning center and place of healing, as opposed to a place of torturous old memories of oppression. They also had Central Michigan University begin a plan of archaeological study of the site to help reconstruct the lost stories of its residents.

Historical Gazetteer of the United States, by Paul T. Hellmann, p. 553
American Indian Boarding Schools, An Exploration of Global Ethnic & Cultural Cleansing, by the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways