In 1889 the U.S. commissioner of Indian Affairs declared, “We must either fight Indians, feed them, or else educate them. To fight them is cruel, to feed them is wasteful, while to educate them is humane, economic and Christian.” He suggested using boarding schools to prepare Indian children to live in American society. At boarding schools, Indian children would be introduced to English, vocational skills and Christianity.
On January 3, 1893, the U.S. government opened an Indian boarding school at Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. It offered a nine-year program, beginning with kindergarten. By 1911 the Mt. Pleasant school had eleven buildings, including dormitories for both the girls and boys.
Although the school grew from an original enrollment of 59 students to more than 300 students a year, it created tension among the Indian community. Some Indian parents opposed sending their children away to learn “the white man’s ways.” However, the poverty and hopelessness of living on reservations led other parents to hope that these boarding schools promised their children a better life. Sometimes, the government took Indian children and forced them to attend the school.
Life at the boarding schools was often a shock. One girl recalled being held down as her hair was cut short. She later explained, “among our people” only “cowards” wore short hair. Another student remembered that attending a boarding school was like being “suddenly dumped” into “another world, helpless, defenseless, bewildered, trying desperately and instinctively to survive it all.”
Students awoke to reveille, dressed in military-style uniforms, marched to class and went to bed with taps. Half the day was spent in class; the other half was spent in vocational training. The students also kept vegetable gardens and apple orchards and cared for livestock. During the summer months, they worked as seasonal laborers on area farms.
English was the school’s official language, and students might have their mouth washed out with soap if they spoke their native Indian language. Students were also encouraged to take a Christian name in place of their Indian name. They had little privacy, sleeping in dormitories with 30 to 40 students in a large room.
Violating the rules led to punishment, which could be harsh. Sometimes students were beaten with a strap or rubber hose. Some endured the school; others ran away.
The Mt. Pleasant Indian School closed in 1933. In exchange for the buildings, the state of Michigan agreed to allow the Indian children to attend public schools.
PHOTO CREDITS: (top) Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University, Mt. Pleasant.
(bottom) Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial School c. 1910. Collins & Wightman c1910, Library of Congress #LC-USZ62-123519
Click for two amazing panoramic photos!
Also check out this set of modern day photos from the Mt. Pleasant State Home by bleeding.patriot on Flickr.
For more great stories on Michigan’s past, look to Michigan History magazine. For more information or a free trial issue, call (800) 366-3703 or visit http://www.michiganhistorymagazine.com/.