Editor’s note: This is the first in a series to be published by the Herald-Review on Sundays during the month of October on indigenous people and stories of truth, reconciliation and opportunities for unity by the local group, Circle of Healing.
Like a ghost in the weeds, the crumbling foundation of the Vermilion Lake Indian Boarding School dairy barn is the only visible sign of a largely forgotten part of Minnesota history. Members of the Circle of Healing, a Grand Rapids area group of Native and non-Native residents, recently toured the site and the Bois Forte Heritage Center to deepen their understanding about government and church-sponsored boarding schools for Native American children.
Bois Forte Heritage Center Visitor Manager, Martha Anderson, and Dr. Linda LaGarde Grover, University of Minnesota associate professor of Native American Studies, lead the tour. Both Anderson and Grover are members of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe, and both had family members who attended the Indian boarding schools.
Grover told the group that prior to the boarding school era, Ojibwe parents, relatives, and elders taught children the skills and wisdom they needed.
“Beginning in the 1860’s, the United States government took education out of the hands of Native parents and adopted the official policy of ‘kill the Indian, save the man’ - a directive to eradicate traditional language, spirituality, and culture from Native children,” Grover said. “Physical, emotional, sexual, mental, and spiritual abuses were rampant and this treatment resulted in the intergenerational trauma of five generations of Indigenous Native People.”
The Vermilion School was built in 1899 for Bois Forte children and drew youths from other tribes across Minnesota, northwestern Wisconsin, and parts of Canada, Anderson said. Once at the boarding school, children had to give up their language, dress, and customs. Their hair was cut short, and they were made to wear uniforms or dominant culture clothing. Children were severely punished if caught speaking “Indian.”
Diseases such as tuberculosis, measles, pneumonia and influenza were a significant problem at the boarding school. Although an exact number is not known, many children died there. Grover explained that although the purpose of the school was academic and vocational, very little of the children’s time was spent on learning to read, write, or on other studies. The children spent most of their time maintaining the school, cleaning, cooking, tending the fields, and working in the dairy.
The Vermilion School went through a period of growth, housing as many as 120 pupils in 1910. However, administrative difficulties, neglect of the school by the federal government, and opportunities for Indian children to attend public schools eventually led to Vermilion becoming a day school and its closing in 1954.
Grover told the members of the Circle of Healing that the Vermilion Lake School and many like it across the United States have had a profound impact on Native Americans. The boarding schools severely disrupted Indian families, she said, leading to many of the current crises among families and individuals. Efforts to assimilate served to terminate a way of life that had been vital, successful, and healthy for Indigenous Native People for many generations.
“The trauma of the boarding school era plays out in many damaging ways in present day Native lives,” Grover said. “It is intensified by the roots of the trauma often not being known or understood. Today many people, including Native American children, do not know the boarding schools story.”
Due to shame, and an effort to “put their past behind them,” many boarding school survivors have not spoken about their experiences. These experiences left them not knowing how to parent in nurturing ways and many are shamed into silence because of unspeakable abuses, Grover said. Survivors often pass on abusive ways, or spiral into addictive behaviors in an attempt to numb their deep pain.
“Today it’s hard to imagine the experience of taking young children from their families each fall, or for years without contact, nurturing and love,” Grover said. “It’s hard to imagine how it would feel as a parent to learn that instead of education, your children endured physical, sexual, emotional, and psychological abuses. The effect has rippled through communities and has become part of the uncomfortable truth surrounding the legacy of the Indian boarding schools.”
When asked by a member of the Grand Rapids visitor group why people should care about the history of the boarding schools, Grover said, “Building awareness and understanding among all people about the assimilation and termination policies of the United States government is important. People need to understand that we have been victimized but that we are not victims. I am proud of the courage my relatives had who survived the boarding schools. I am proud of their ‘Indianess.’”
Members of the Circle of Healing who attended the Lake Vermilion tour are Alice Moren, Joan Bibeau, Noreen Hautala, Carolyn Eck, Cheri and Terri Stephens, Lois Bendix and Becky LaPlant.
To learn more about the Indian boarding schools, read “From Assimilation to Termination: The Vermilion Lake Indian School,” by Dr. Linda LaGarde Grover. For information about the Circle of Healing, contact Becky LaPlant at email@example.com or 218-327-8764.