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Man recalls time at Indian School in 1920s

Monday, August 4, 2008 3:00 AM EDT


John Crampton, member of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, still remembers the days when he attended the Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial School at age 6.

Eighty-three years later, as he walked the grounds of the former school, he reminisced about the fond memories of his childhood.

"That was the big boy's dormitory," Crampton said. "Over there was a deer pen.

"The buildings for the teachers and staff was over there."
The Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial School was in operation from 1893 to 1933.

An excerpt from an Oct. 1, 1889 report from the Commissioner of Indian Affairs shows what the U.S. government's mindset was like at the time: "The Indians must conform to the ?white man's ways,' peaceably if they will, forcibly if they must," the report stated.

The removal of Native American children from their families and communities was the U.S. government's intentional plan to assimilate the Indians into white Euro-American society during the period between 1880 and 1920s, according to Alice Littlefield's research on the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Boarding Schools: "Theories of Resistance and Social Reproductions."

Crampton pointed to and explained about the old, boarded-up, brick buildings that still stand on property of what is now the Mt. Pleasant Center.

"The sidewalk is still here," Crampton said. "I imagine these trees were here when I was here.

"The girls were on the other side of the school from the boys. We had an ice house, a stable, a gym, and I learned how to swim in the creek just north of here," he said.

Crampton has fond memories of having friends, being fed regularly and wearing clean clothes.

"If it wasn't for this school, I would've starved to death," Crampton said. "I liked the uniforms.

"They were warm."

Tens of thousands of Native children from Michigan and other states attended the federally run school in Mt. Pleasant, according to the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways documents.

Saginaw Chippewa Tribal member Carole Tally said both her parents were sent to the Indian school in Mt. Pleasant.

"It was a very depressing time for the family," Tally said. "They just came in, and took the kids."

She said in the community of her mother, Nellie Ashmun, they were scared when they saw white people coming around because they thought, "They're coming to take them away."

"My dad, he had to be sent away (as a young child)," Tally said. "He had negative feelings about his (boarding school) experience.

"He used to be a basket maker, and they wouldn't let him do it anymore."

Tally said she asked her father, Homer Willis, if he knew how to "speak Indian."

"He said, no, we weren't allowed to speak it."

In 1991, Crampton and about 12 other elders, who attended the Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial School, gathered for a reunion to talk about their experiences which were facilitated by Paul Johnson of the Michigan Education Association.

On the recording, Johnson facilitated a shared discussion with the elders from Ojibwa, Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi communities about their experiences living at the school.

Anita Heard, research center coordinator, said she has heard stories of boarding school students who came from poor families or left with family members who could not care for the children.

Albert Spruce was 9 years old when he went to the Indian school. On the tape, he said he was Chippewa and he graduated from the school in 1929.

"I liked the school," Spruce said. "I liked the environment with water and plumbing.

"We didn't have this up north. And we had a good balanced diet," he said.

Several elders including, Gertrude King, Lillian Nagake Shorten, and Elizabeth Johnson Cummings said that they liked the school.

The former students said that discipline was firm, but that learning it has helped them with their lives.

"Most of these people here, weren't lazy because they learned to work there," Spruce said.

Crampton's wife, Anna, said her husband recalls his times at the school among the best in his whole life.

"We used to march into Mt. Pleasant church every Sunday," Crampton

said. "If the weather was real bad, we wouldn't go."

The school, at peak enrollment, had about 150 girls and 175 boys representing the Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi tribes, Mt. Pleasant Center history documents said.

Crampton said he learned how to cut hair at the school, along with learning "the three Rs."

"In 1926, they made Indians citizens," Crampton said. "But it didn't make any difference to me, I was still an Indian."

According to official documents at Ziibiwing, "The establishment of the school in 1893 and it's closing in 1933 were the result of shifts in federal Indian policy changes in education, philosophy and changes in the U. S. economy."

The Indian boarding school era historically has been blamed for the decimation of Native American culture and their disconnection with tradition, heritage, and most especially, the languages of Native American people.

About 50 boys and girls in attendance at the school when it closed were labeled orphaned and housed in dormitories and placed into public schools, according to the Isabella County newspaper.

In January of 1934, the transfer of the Mt. Pleasant Indian school was complete and the facility became a state hospital, according to the Isabella County newspaper.

The original Indian Industrial School Chapel and Indian Cemetery were designated as historical landmarks in 1987, by the State of Michigan Historical Commission.

In June, the Canadian Prime Minister apologized to the Indigenous population who were taken from their homes and placed in boarding schools where many were abused during the country's official attempt to "kill the Indian in the child."
http://www.themorningsun.com/articles/2008/08/04/local/20080804-archive5.txt