At the Mount Pleasant Indian School they took you away from your family, made you stop speaking your native tongue and disciplined you like a soldier. But among the memories of drills and deprivation, graduates also tell unexpected stories of sanctuary and shelter.
This story was published in the January 2002 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
John Crampton pauses at the spot where the flagpole once stood on the grounds of the boarding school where he spent most of his childhood. Nearby, across the grass, is a cluster of boarded-up red brick buildings. They’re all that remains of the Mount Pleasant Indian School, a federal facility where thousands of Michigan’s Native American children lived away from their families during the early decades of the 1900s.
At 83, Crampton’s broad shoulders look like those of a man 20 years younger, and the ponytail hanging down the back of his denim shirt is only partly streaked with gray. It should be a solemn moment: Native American elder returns to the boarding school where, separated from his family, he was stripped of his culture and language and forced to pledge allegiance to the government that made it happen. But those issues didn’t bother the young Crampton, who 70-some years ago stood at attention here at 6 o’clock every morning dressed in school-issued tan knickers. “What was I thinking about?” he says. “Probably about catching frogs or something. I lived it up here.”
The school of Crampton’s memories was one of 25 federal off-reservation boarding schools constructed from Pennsylvania to California between 1879 and1902. While some stories from the Mount Pleasant Indian School’s 41-year history are troubling, many former students share Crampton’s nostalgia. That fact baffles some of today’s younger Native Americans who question how happy memories can be associated with a system that all but wiped out tribal heritage in Michigan and elsewhere in the nation. For some young Indians, searching for the answer has been a journey into their elders’ past.
Fifty-five-year-old Paul Johnson was a Native American student activist at University of Michigan in the 1960s. Back then he was puzzled by how older Indians could have accepted the boarding school creed that Indian culture was innately inferior. “The whole idea was that there was something wrong with being Indian—that I needed to be changed,” he says.
Since then, as Cultural Planner of the Ziibiwing Cultural Society of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe, Johnson has listened to many accounts of former Mount Pleasant students. In 1991, he even moderated a videotaped reunion of school alumni. Along the way, Johnson came to a realization. “To understand those positive experiences you really had to look at the negative environment these kids were coming from,” he says.
In 1893, when the Mount Pleasant school opened, many of Michigan’s Indians lived in dire circumstances. Most of Michigan’s Odawa, Ojibwa and Potawatomi tribes had been forced by a series of government treaties to live in remote areas of the state. Much of what little land they had negotiated was either swindled away or the soil was so poor it couldn’t be farmed. Without access to hunting and foraging grounds, the Native Americans were deprived of traditional means of livelihood, and with few skills to help them survive—let alone thrive—many lived hand to mouth. The children of this poverty grew up surrounded by alcoholism, deprived of health care and living in crude shacks where they faced Michigan’s winters half-starved and half-frozen.
By the 1870s, social reformers and some federal policymakers already recognized that destitution was plaguing Native American tribes. The situation was especially bad in western states. Politicians also came to recognize that it was cheaper to teach Indians skills to support themselves in mainstream society than it was to fight them or support them with endless welfare. Carl Schurz, the Secretary of Interior under President Hayes, ran a disturbing math calculation: to kill an Indian in combat cost nearly $1 million. To educate an Indian for 8 years cost $1,200. Moreover, an employable Indian would relieve the government of its welfare burden.
If educating Native Americans was the answer, the question was, how? An early method, paying missionaries to run schools, eventually proved unsatisfactory in the government’s view because missionaries emphasized saving the soul versus traditional education. In 1855, the government experimented with another solution, piloting an innovative system of Indian day schools in Michigan. In some cases these schools were so good that non-Indian families opted to send their children to them. The day school concept spread to the West, although boarding schools located on the reservation were more common there.
But federal policymakers were soon exasperated with both models. Officials felt that on-reservation schools failed to break the children of cultural patterns that kept them from assimilating into society—everything from language and dress to skipping school for hunting and gathering forays. Secretary of Interior Schurz summed up the problem: “…the children remained exposed to the influence of their more or less savage home surroundings, and the indulgence of their parents, greatly interfered with the regularity of their attendance and with the necessary discipline.”
In the end, it was an Army lieutenant, Richard Henry Pratt, who showed the government how to “civilize” an Indian child. In 1879, Pratt shipped 125 blanket- and moccasin-clad Sioux children to the first federal off-reservation boarding school, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The move came just three years after the children’s tribe helped defeat Custer at the battle of Little Bighorn. In a matter of months, Pratt claimed he had transformed the children into clean-cut, Americanized kids. Carlisle, where Indian children were segregated from their families and culture, forbidden to use their native tongue and instilled with military-style discipline, became the prototypical federal Indian school.
U.S. policymakers might have heralded the Pratt’s school concept, but it was a bitter shock to Michigan Indian parents who’d begun to trust the day school system. By the end of the 19th-century they well understood that if their people wanted to support themselves and keep their land, their children needed education. School was important enough that, in one account, an Indian mother from Petoskey carried her 10-year-old son on her shoulders almost a mile to school until he had recovered from an accident that had broken both of his legs. A good Indian day school provided the three R’s while allowing Indian families to keep their culture and home lives intact.
Indian parents protested desperately when the government closed day schools at the end of the 1880s. Not only had Indian parents come to believe in the school system, they also understood how few options there were for their children. Most families lived in isolated areas, miles from public schools. And even if they lived near a public school, discrimination often made it unbearable. The only real choices for most Northern Michigan Indian families were the Catholic boarding schools in Harbor Springs and the Upper Peninsula, or the much larger Mount Pleasant School.
In the beginning, convincing Indian parents to send their children away wasn’t easy. The same year Mount Pleasant opened, the government made it illegal to take Indian children away to school without the full consent of their parents. Students at the Mount Pleasant Indian school never suffered the horrifying round-ups—tantamount to kidnapping—that occurred earlier in the federal boarding school era. Still, in Mount Pleasant’s early years, Indian parents were clearly pressured into sending their children. An old man who’d worked for the school when he was 17 told The Detroit News in 1934, “I used to go out to get the children, and it was hard, getting them [their parents] to consent to my taking them.”
But education wasn’t the only reason to place a child in Mount Pleasant school. Eventually, both the government and the Indian community came to view the school as a safety net for orphans and children whose parents couldn’t support them, so enrollment grew. During the school’s operation, nearly half of the Indian children in Michigan—approximately 10,000 children—received at least part of their education there.
John Crampton’s story was a typical one. By the time he was born in 1919, his parents were eking out a living on the Elbridge Indian Reserve south of Manistee. The government “put them on sand,” Crampton says, shaking his head. “The Indians starved to death on that land.” The poverty took its toll. Six-year-old John Crampton, sent to the school by state officials because of his dysfunctional home, was a sight to tug heartstrings. He arrived in Mount Pleasant dirty and hungry. One of his first school encounters was with the barber who shaved his head for lice control. Because Crampton was a chronic bed wetter, he and his two little brothers were housed in an upstairs room where all the other bed wetters slept so they could be wakened by the night watchman at 3 a.m. and sent to the latrine.
Yet, for Crampton and many other children like him, the experience was pleasant. “I knew enough when I was 6 years old to come in out of the rain,” Crampton says. “When I came here I ate three meals a day. They kept me in clean clothes. I had my little problems, yeah, but overall it was very positive experience for me.”
By the time Crampton arrived, Mount Pleasant school had come a long way from its crude beginnings in January of 1893 when 13 children were temporarily housed in a downtown Mount Pleasant building. The following summer 125 boys and girls moved into the school’s first building that functioned both as dorm and schoolhouse. Contagious diseases were rampant, and at least one student that first year died of consumption. The sole teacher, Veronica Holliday, an Indian graduate from the Carlisle School, worked with a small staff to teach, nurse and interpret for the students. In the school’s first years the majority of students arrived knowing no English. Evidently, however, the students made rapid progress assimilating because in 1895 Superintendent Andrew Spencer reportedly wrote that the children’s habits of playing alone in hidden spots, roasting a chipmunk or squirrel or lying around a fire chattering in their native tongue had almost disappeared.
From its rough start the school’s enrollment climbed quickly to top out at 350 students, and by the 1920s applicants were being turned away. By then the school’s 350-acre campus centered around 11 sturdy red brick buildings, which included a student-staffed hospital as well as a student-operated power plant. But the largest operation on campus was the farm where the students raised virtually every type of meat and vegetable they ate. Young children attended class all day, while older children worked on the three R’s in the morning and then rotated between manual labor exercises in the afternoon. Boys focused on farm skills and carpentry and girls learned home economics.
Most parents were too poor to visit, so their children saw them only during a short summer break. Older children, however, often didn’t go home even then, as they were generally assigned jobs in the outside community—a program known as “outing” designed to more quickly assimilate the children. From reveille, to marching to classes, to taps in the evening, school activities moved to a military cadence. Even the common punishment for disobedient boys was known as “opening ranks.” The boys were made to line up facing each other and whip their offending peer with their belts as he crawled through their gauntlet on his hands and knees. How hard you whipped, Crampton recalls, depended on whom you were whipping. “You know you aren’t going to hit your brother and if you hit someone hard and he knew it, he was going to get you back,” he says.
Despite the regimented lifestyle, the children developed an esprit de corps. They marched shoulder to shoulder, they traded jokes about “ruggo”—a root vegetable stew that was the school’s signature dish—and they were ardently proud of their brass band and athletic teams. The boys played basketball, football, baseball and ran track, and the girls played basketball and softball. (“Those teams cemented the Indians,” Crampton says.) The school song was set to the tune of the Michigan State University fight song. At the Saturday night dance boys lined up on one side of the gym and girls on the other and if they took to smiling at one another, the crush was called a “longin’.”
For some children, however, none of the activities could disguise the fact that they were separated from their families. Or that underneath its façade the Mount Pleasant Indian School was simply not a normal childhood.
Luella King raised her eight children on tales of how much she detested the Mount Pleasant Indian school. Now deceased, Luella was 8 years old in 1924 when her mother sent her to the school after her father, a logger from Cross Village (near Petoskey), injured his hand in an accident and was unable to work. The choice for King’s parents must have been awful—watch your kids starve or send them away.
But as a child, King didn’t know her mother’s misery. She only knew her own. The school was a cold place, she told her children, and went on to describe performing tortuous military drills on hot days wearing wool skirts, stockings and caps in front of white spectators. “They drilled you like you were in the military,” Kind would tell her daughter Marie Cote. “You had to practice and practice,” King said. At night, King would lie awake hearing the other children cry themselves to sleep.
At the beginning of King’s last year at the school, she and some friends ran away. King’s mother didn’t make her go back. “I lost five years of my childhood at that place,” King told her daughter Marie.
Other Mount Pleasant alumni also speak of childhood scars from their Mount Pleasant experience. In the video of the 1991 Mount Pleasant Indian School reunion moderated by Paul Johnson, then 75-year-old Ambrose Brisson told of frequent beatings. Once, he was forced to crawl on his hands and knees while he was whipped with a rubber hose for sliding down the side of the school’s formal pond. “I got tremors to this day and I blame it on that school for beating the hell out of me,” Brisson said.
Those negative experiences, says Johnson, created strong bonds between classmates. “Taken away from their own families, the kids re-created their own extended families,” he says. “It was a kind of subterfuge.” The students’ world within a world sometimes went so far as boys performing traditional ceremonies in secret, or children whispering to each other in their native tongues.
Close peer relationships also helped create a haven from the world outside Mount Pleasant for children like Brisson who’d come from areas isolated from other Native Americans. “We were living in Marquette and I was the only Indian kid on the block,” he recalled on the tape. “I used to come home bloody all the time.” By contrast, he describes life with his Indian peers as “one happy family.”
Even so, classmate bonds weren’t enough to keep Brisson at the school. He dropped out shortly before graduation and spent many years drifting and working at seasonal jobs. Others, however, went on to graduate from high school. Some attended the Haskell Institute—one of the only Indian boarding schools that went through the 12th grade—and enjoy stable careers. Many former students credit the grounding they received at the Mount Pleasant school for helping them succeed. Eighty-six-year-old Mary Zilz became a businesswoman, first operating a chain of beauty shops and later selling real estate. “You learned discipline and routine, and that’s helped me through my whole life,” she says. Crampton graduated from public high school, served as a sound and light man in World War II, attended Michigan State University and then spent his career as a process chemist for Oldsmobile.
The paths of Brisson, Zilz and Crampton were similar to most Mount Pleasant graduates in the 1920s and early 1930s. In a 1925 report on the fate of his graduates, the school’s superintendent, Robert Cochran, wrote: “…the majority have gone to the city and have secured good jobs with the various automobile companies. Others, unfortunately, have turned out rather poorly, have not married well and have reverted to old conditions and become idlers, worthless to themselves and to everyone else.”
In the end the U.S. government’s decision to close the Mount Pleasant Indian School had nothing to do with whether it was helping the Indians or not. In 1933, with the Depression underway, the government arranged to close the school and turn the facilities over to the Michigan State Hospital Commission—the precursor to the Department of Mental Health. Michigan also took over the education of its Native American children and enrolled them in a public school system reluctant to accommodate them. (Charlotte Groesser, a school teacher near Glen Lake in 1934, recalls that the Indian children enrolled in the Glen Arbor school were expelled for the way their breath smelled after eating leeks—a staple in their spring diet. The children were forced to attend her schoolhouse located farther away.)
In some ways, the closing of the Mount Pleasant School made a harsh impact on the Indian community. Having educated two and sometimes three generations of families, the school had become an Indian institution. The most fortunate students were sent home to attend public schools, but even then many students simply dropped out. Sixty-six of the children were even less fortunate—they were orphans whose only home was the school until the government could place them. Those children stayed on at Mount Pleasant Indian School another year, riding the school bus to the public school in Mount Pleasant, their bag lunches packed by one of the few remaining staff members. By June of 1934 they’d all been swallowed into the state social service system, and what had been the Mount Pleasant Indian School became a facility for the mentally disabled. Now called the Mount Pleasant Center for Development Disabilities, it still operates today.
John Crampton was one of those children with nowhere to go. As a young boy, Crampton recalls he didn’t worry much about the future. But he was deeply disappointed that he missed the opportunity to play varsity athletics for the school “We’d have had a good team,” he says, shaking his head.
Eventually, the government placed Crampton in a children’s home in Muskegon, which he refers to dryly as the “detention center.” Not only was the new school he attended mostly white, he’d lost the freedom to roam the outdoors he’d so enjoyed at Mount Pleasant. “They had a chicken wire fence around the yard,” he said. The final insult came in the spring of his 9th-grade year. The school hired him out to a farmer who needed help with his crops, costing him precious months of schooling and ruling out his chance to graduate. Crampton might have never finished school if he hadn’t later taken a job working on the farm of the superintendent of the local school system. The man enrolled Crampton in the 9th grade—although he was 17 by this time—and Crampton went on to graduate.
Sometime during the 1960s, the Mount Pleasant Center closed all the Indian school’s original buildings except the gymnasium (which the center still uses), and gradually a sprawling modern complex grew up around the campus. Today, all that remains of the school are six boarded-up brick buildings and the cracked cement basin of the formal pond, where the children once stood to salute the flag. Occasionally, Crampton and other alumni return to tour the old buildings and reminisce. As Crampton wanders the grounds, stories spill out of him as easily as if he were reading them from a children’s book. There’s the old baseball field where the boys rolled up strips of stolen blanket to make balls. The hollow of an old tree where they cached the apples they swiped from the orchard down the road. And far to the west end of the campus the now dry creek where the little boys were taught to swim. “They called us the mud crawlers,” Crampton says, a grin spreading across his broad face.
For younger Native Americans, like Paul Johnson, elders’ memories have become the key to understanding how his people came to accept the federal boarding school system. He and other members of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe are hoping to preserve the campus as a testament to its bittersweet history. They’ll have to work fast. While the oldest building has been listed on the State Register of historic buildings since the 1980s, officials at the Mount Pleasant Center are worried that the decaying structures are hazardous and they want them razed.
Johnson predicts that demolishing the buildings would break the hearts of many elders. He sees it as a betrayal of the generation born into poverty, stripped of its culture, and finally deprived of the one institution it had come to trust. “You could make the argument that the government had failed them before. Now it’s failing them again,” he says. T
Elizabeth Edwards is managing editor at Traverse Magazine. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org