Chain of sorrow
The legacy of Indian boarding schools, and the documentary that attempts to heal still-open wounds
Published: September 21, 2011
Edith Young sat on a stage and dabbed her eyes with a tissue, shoulders shaking as she struggled to keep her composure. Even now, at 80 years old, the memories of a childhood spent in a boarding school for Native Americans are still too raw and painful to bear.
But she and others are speaking out publicly about how these schools — which the U.S. government once compelled Indian children to attend — have affected not just the students and their offspring, but her people as a whole.
Last Friday night, before taking to the stage, she sat in a darkened theater with an audience hundreds, watching the premiere of a documentary titled The Indian Schools, The Survivors Story.
She is one of those survivors.
But there was a time when she'd hoped that wouldn't be the case.
Following the documentary's initial public showing at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Young and others involved with the film took questions from the audience.
During that Q&A, she talked about something that she'd previously discussed with only a few others in the "talking circle" she attends each week, where she and others in search of spiritual healing engage in a kind of group therapy.
Desperately unhappy at the school she attended in Seattle, which was run by the Catholic Church, the descendant of Alaskan natives figured death was preferable to continuing to endure the humiliation and pain that were part of her boarding school life.
In the film, she recalled having been slapped hard across the face by a nun for having the temerity to ask why the class was being taught that Columbus had discovered America when the continent was already populated by Indians long before he arrived.
At other times, as punishment for one infraction or another, she would be forced to kneel on a bag of dried kidney beans. The pain, she said, was excruciating, and left her with knees she describes as looking like "Brillo pads."
It all reached the point where she didn't want to go on living. So she would sneak into the bathroom at night, open the window, and let the cold air wash over her bare chest. She'd already had pneumonia two or three times before, and was hoping one more bout might finally kill her.
"Let me die, is what I felt," she told the audience of invited guests.
Instead, she lived to tell her story to Detroit-area residents Fay Givens and Kay McGowan, twin sisters of Choctaw-Cherokee heritage who have long been advocates for the rights of this country's first inhabitants.
Givens is director of American Indian Services Inc., a nonprofit service agency for Native Americans in Lincoln Park. McGowan, who holds a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from Wayne State, is a professor at Eastern Michigan University. Both have worked with the United Nations in an attempt to strengthen the rights of indigenous people in countries throughout the world.
The film that they've made is an extension of that activism. It provides an unflinching look at a long, dark chapter in American history that, in one way or another, has touched the lives of nearly every Indian family yet remains virtually unknown to the rest of the nation.
Where trauma was 'normal'
The purpose behind the documentary, they say, is twofold: revealing, and healing.
In part, they want to shed light on a piece of history that has been largely covered up. Doing so is necessary, they say, so that the nation at large can better understand one cause of the pain and problems that continue to afflict Native Americans. But it is their own people, too, who need to be made aware, because many of those who actually attended these schools went through their lives without ever talking about it. Like war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress, they kept painful memories buried, sometimes for decades. Many, it seems, never told their own children that they'd been forced to attend these schools — one of which operated in Mt. Pleasant until the early 1930s.
But not talking about problems doesn't make them go away. Instead, they are often passed down, from parent to child. Raised in an environment void of affection and filled with harsh treatment, those who went to these boarding schools never learned how to be proper parents, and their offspring suffered as a result, explains McGowan.
She wrote about this chain of sorrows in the introduction to the book Dancing My Dream, written by Warren Petoskey, an Odawa Indian born and raised in Michigan. At least seven members of his family, he says, attended boarding schools. Several of them were sent to the Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial School.
"Survivors of the boarding schools have a high tolerance for trauma because it was a way of life in their formative years; violence became a 'normal' experience," McGowan writes. "The sheer brutality of taking young children from their families has left a deep wound in Indian country.
"Because of their high level of tolerance for trauma and deviance, victims of boarding school syndrome are likely to be re-victimized in their lifetime — sometimes many times over."
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