Today, the site of the Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School is marked by seven deteriorating buildings. Despite boarded windows, broken glass, and crumbling brick, the buildings remain - standing to give testimony of what went on inside those walls and honor the lives of the children who perished there.
Just over 86 years ago, the now empty 320 acres that make up the site would have been filled with hundreds of Native American children taken from their families in an attempt to assimilate them into white culture.
What exactly went on inside those walls? What did those children endure? Where are the 227 children who perished there buried?
To answer these questions and more, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan and Dr. Sarah Surface-Evans, associate professor of anthropology at Central Michigan University, are working to build a picture of what life would have been like at the Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School and rehabilitate the grounds.
A HISTORICAL PROJECT BEGINS
This project began 10 years ago, in October of 2010, when Gov. Jennifer Granholm passed Public Act 208.
“It extended an offer from the state of Michigan for property associated with the former Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School campus,” explains Shannon Martin, director of the Ziibiwing Center in Mt. Pleasant. “So, over 300 acres would be deeded to the city for $1, and eight acres would be deeded to the tribe for $1.”
Shannon Martin, director of the Ziibiwing Center in Mt. Pleasant
Martin explains that the tribe and the city were each given six months to consider the offer. The tribal council wanted to hear from the community and arranged a group to conduct a feasibility study, which led to the tribe’s acceptance of the offer in April 2011.
“From that point forward, the feasibility working group was encouraged to continue working on this project and that committee was sanctioned into a formal Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School committee tasked with completing a more in-depth feasibility study, which included an evaluation of the land, structural analysis of the buildings, and working with the community to rehabilitate the site,” she says.
Surface-Evans began field work in 2012.
THE SOLEMN HISTORY SURFACES
When Surface-Evans began doing field work in 2012, there was a high degree of uncertainty around what – if anything – would be found. Though the Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School closed in 1934 after being in operation since 1893, the site then operated as the Mt. Pleasant branch of the Michigan Home and Training School until 2009 to house those with developmental disabilities.
In 2011, Surface-Evans attended an action-planning meeting to discuss what was needed and the future of the site.
According to official records, the Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School had an enrollment of about 300 students per year, ages K-8, during its operation from 1893-1934.
“One of the goals was to research the history of the boarding school and the children who went there. Another goal was to educate the public and tribal members about the history. The final goal was to revitalize the property as a place of empowerment for the tribe,” Surface-Evans says. “It was at that point in 2011 that we came up with a plan to do some archaeology. In particular, we had to know if anything was left or if it was all destroyed between 1934-2009.”
In 2012, an archaeological survey and geophysical analysis was conducted.
Dr. Sarah Surface-Evans, associate professor of anthropology at Central Michigan University“What we were able to determine was that all of the buildings that had been removed were buried within their context. The GPR (ground-penetrating radar) allowed us to find those building foundations and we could go do extra investigation in the foundations of those buildings,” says Surface-Evans. “That involved some excavation and mapping. We also mapped the buildings that were standing.”
The seven buildings that remain standing are the classroom and chapel building, gymnasium, woodshop/blacksmith shop, a small house (the superintendent’s home), a post-boarding-school-era boys’ dorm, and two girls’ dorms.
Over the years, excavations were also conducted on several buildings that are no longer standing, including a gazebo, a teacher’s cottage, and a laundry building that burned down under mysterious circumstances.
“Working from the mandate we had from the tribe, we were most interested in finding those things the students would have had and used on a day-to-day basis. Of course, we found brick and debris; but, in terms of interesting things, we found a toothbrush left behind in the laundry building. The toothbrush is important because it symbolizes the harsh work the students were forced to do,” Surface-Evans explains. “It wasn’t in the laundry building because it was someone’s actual toothbrush. It was there because it was used for scrubbing the floors, scrubbing laundry, basically doing menial work.”
One item that’s frequently found is buttons. While this find may seem small, it has a storied history.
“The interesting story behind the buttons is again through oral history,” says Surface-Evans. “The students would talk about using buttons as currency. So, they would discretely remove buttons from their clothing, as many as they could, and use them to barter and trade for things.”
This oral history is backed up, Surface-Evans says, by letters from Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School Superintendent Robert Cochran, who wrote to the federal government asking for more money for clothes because the buttons were always gone and he didn’t know where they were going.
A display in the Ziibiwing Center
Surface-Evans says some of the artifacts discovered were shown in a 2014 exhibit at the Ziibiwing Center called, “Debwewin Truth: The Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School Experience”.
However, artifacts haven’t been the only findings of this project. Countless hours devoted to scouring historical documents, photos, and listening to oral history have revealed other findings as well, including the discovery that there were at least 227 children who died at the school, says Martin.
“For the most part, for the majority of them, we don’t know where their final resting places are,” she adds.
A display in the Ziibiwing Center
This finding contradicts the school’s official records, which show five deaths, says Surface-Evans, adding that photos from the era also depict a different reality than the records.
“The official record is that the kids are K-8, but if you look at photos they look younger and were kept there into adulthood,” says Surface-Evans.
William Johnson, curator of the Ziibiwing CenterMartin says the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan worked with the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS), providing a list of the 227 children, to file a submission with the UN. According the NABS website, other tribes across the nation also participated in this submission to “call on the United States to provide a full accounting of American Indian and Alaska Native children who were taken into government custody under the U.S. Boarding School Policy and whose fate and whereabouts remain unknown”.
Martin, along with William Johnson, curator of the Ziibiwing Center, both had family who attended the boarding school.
“The amazing emotional roller coaster when we begin to learn more about the history of the boarding school era and what that meant for our mothers and our fathers and our grandmothers and our aunties to be assimilated into the white culture, to lose their language and their culture – as we learn about it, those difficulties affect us in our daily lives,” says Johnson. “A lot of times it’s difficult to work on the project, but we have a solemn duty to make that history known and to use it to educate others.”
PRESERVATION EFFORTS RECEIVE RECOGNITION
In 2016, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan, along with Central Michigan University’s Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work, as well as the City of Mt. Pleasant received the Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation.
In 2016, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan, along with others involved in preserving the Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School site received the Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation.
Additionally, the school was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2018.
“Dr. Sarah and some of her students in the field schools were integral to the process of getting the site on the national register of historic places,” says Martin.
Surface-Evans says the application was sent in in 2015, after about five years of gathering information the tribe and research teams had collected.
The Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2018.
“It took about 3 from there for it to become official,” she says. “The reason we went through that work is because once that is listed on the national register, it gives the tribe the opportunity to apply for grants to rehabilitate the buildings so eventually it can be developed in the way that the tribe feels is appropriate.”
TRIBE LOOKS TO THE FUTURE
How exactly the site will be developed is still a matter of discussion, as it is yet unknown how many of the seven standing buildings could be revitalized.
Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School operated between 1893-1934
“What the tribe agreed to when accepting the land was knowing the buildings were blighted. In addition to that, the buildings are environmentally hazardous. The mitigation to strip them down and make them environmentally sound will take millions of dollars,” explains Martin. “There’s a financial burden that was accepted with the conveyance. The rehabilitation won’t happen overnight.”
One of the most recent developments in the future of the land was a memorandum of agreement between the City of Mt. Pleasant and the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan that was signed in November, since the land is shared.
“The city has development concerns and the tribe has preservation concerns. So, we try to meet in the middle,” says Johnson.
However, one of the tribe’s most pressing concerns at the moment is keeping people who are harming the property off of it.
“Unfortunately, we have urban explorers and ghost hunters who wreak havoc on the property,” says Johnson.
Despite posted signs, trespassers, ghost hunters, and urban explorers are still wreaking havoc on the site of the Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School.
For Surface-Evans, the destruction of the property is heartbreaking for several reasons.
“They’re disrespectful in terms of what the children went through,” she says. “In terms of preservation, they expose the buildings to the elements. Rain and snow get in. Animals get in. It just makes restoring the buildings that much harder in the future.”
While a National Parks Service Tribal Heritage Grant will allow the tribe to install lighting and security around two buildings, it will only do so much to keep trespassers off the property.
As the tribe continues to plan the future of this historical site, they are seeking input from other tribes as well.
The Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan hopes to flip the script on the site of the Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School with an opportunity for cultural and language revitalization there.
“It’s not just a Saginaw Chippewa history. This school took children from the state of New York, Ontario, Iowa, Wisconsin, and placed them in the school. So, it’s an inter-tribal connection to the school,” says Martin. “It’s our hope that we can generate more inter-tribal support to create and re-envision that place to serve more tribes.
Martin says the tribe would like to preserve at least one to three of the buildings, if possible. Some ideas that have been put forth so far include a physical memorial for the children who attended or perished at the school, as well as an art and language center, or an interpretive center that describes the history and truth about the boarding school era and would be open to the public.
“The end goal is raising more awareness about this era of time, which has been absent from most historical narratives in this country,” says Martin. “The community would like to see a flipping of the script on the site and an opportunity for cultural and language revitalization on the site.”
At this time, the tribe asks the community to respect that the site is not open to the public and requests that its history be respected. If you would like to donate to this project or learn more about it, reach out to William Johnson or Shannon Martin at the Ziibiwing Center.