Many Indigenous people in Michigan were forced to abandon their language and culture in boarding schools. Wednesday nights in Meridian Township, they’re rediscovering it.

MERIDIAN TOWNSHIP, Mich.—John Ostrander might not have grown up speaking his native tongue, Anishinaabemowin, but his 10-year-old daughter is.

Ostrander, a member of the Nokomis Cultural Heritage Center, walked into the center’s weekly language night about six years ago to reconnect with his roots. Now, he’s the vice president of the organization, and more closely tied than ever to restoring the language and culture of his people. 

His daughter has picked the language up through his interest, watching online classes on Youtube. When she’s outside playing, they communicate over walkie-talkie, through which he’ll ask her in native tongue to come inside for dinner. She can respond in full phrases.

“I have to say she honestly knows more words than I do,” Ostrander said. “But it’s good because it helps to push me at home.”

The classes at Nokomis Cultural Heritage Center are instructed by Aarin Dokum, the center’s president, a fluent speaker originally from Manitoulin Island, Ontario. The island is home to the Wikwemikong Unceded Territory—a region that never bowed to a foreign government. As a result, it’s one of the few places in North America where Anishinaabemowin, or the Ojibwe language, is still spoken fluently in the home and community. Many of the few remaining fluent speakers are from there, including Dokum’s mentor Alphonse Pitawanakwat.

Dokum, 48, is a lifelong journeyer, he said, which is how he came to the Lansing area. Far away from his home, he thought it was important to reconnect with the Anishinaabe people, which is why he joined the Nokomis Center. The Anishinaabe include Native people of several Great Lakes-area tribes. Dokum is an Odawa.

“As the elders started moving on and walking on, I took the responsibility of speaking our language,” Dokum said.

Dokum’s students say he’s a talented teacher, easily breaking down the alphabet used to convey Anishinaabemowin to English speakers. Double vowels and singular vowels have different pronunciations that are consistent throughout the language, irrespective of what precedes or trails them. For example, the double “a” produces a drawn-out “ah” sound.

The language itself if a naturally mellifluous one, with many-syllabled words that ebb and flow together in chorus. Famously, an apple pie translates to “mishiimini-baashkiminasigani-biitoosijigani-bakwezhigan,” because the Ojibwe translation includes root words that describe the pie’s creation.

Dokum’s class is informal, depending in large part on the participation of students in discussions.

“You learn a lot quicker when you’re the instructor as well, because you’re taking in a lot of feedback,” Dokum said.

Even just 10 years ago, said Ostrander, these sorts of classes that help people learn or reconnect with their ancestry weren’t common. But now, there’s an urgency.

‘Kill the Indian, save the child’

In May, after the remains of 215 Indigenous children were unearthed at the site of a Canadian boarding school in British Columbia, more investigations into the practice of taking Native children from their homes and forcing them into boarding schools—with the explicit intention of erasing their culture—were ordered. Since then, more than similar 1,000 graves have been found in Canada.

In June, US Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, a Pueblo of Laguna, ordered a comprehensive review of similar boarding schools throughout the US, and started year-long listening tour to hear the stories from the families impacted by them.

These boarding schools were federally funded and Christianity-based, orbiting around the idea that they could “kill the Indian, save the child”—a motto coined by Richard Pratt, an Army officer who founded the most infamous integration boarding school in the country, the Carlisle boarding school in Pennsylvania.

To accomplish their goals, these schools subjected Native children to cruel punishments and harsh environments designed to exterminate them and their culture. Nuns and staff at the boarding schools beat, molested, and neglected the children. 

Many families in the US are now waiting for the investigation to uncover the kinds of graveyards found in Canada.

“That’s what’s coming. That’s what we know we’re going to identify,” Aaron Payment, chairperson of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians, said. 

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In Michigan, assimilation boarding schools were located primarily in the Northern Lower Peninsula and the Upper Peninsula. It’s likely that any Indigenous person here knows someone who went to one. 

Payment’s grandmother’s first cousin was forcibly taken from her home and boarded at the Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School. There, she was beaten and abused.

Her own grandmother worked for three years selling crops to be able to afford a lawyer, and she sent constant notes to the school demanding her child back.

Finally, the school relented. In agreeing to release her, administrators labeled her “fat” and broke her arm, then discharged her from the academy, Payment said. His relative, who was ebullient and bubbly upon entry in the 1920s, was timid and downtrodden by the time of her exit. She remained that way for the rest of her life.

No one knew she had been taken to a boarding school until after her death, Payment said, when his uncle, a Navy veteran, went to Chicago with a list of names to research. There, he discovered her history.

“It’s a terrible story,” Payment said. “But it’s an empowerment story as well, because my great-great-grandmother would not give up until she got her back.”

As the US takes a closer look at its own violent, cruel history with these boarding schools, Payment is concerned that intergenerational trauma will be stirred up, forcing families to battle new demons. Native Americans already have the highest suicide and alcoholism rates of any demographic in the country.

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Bringing Back the Language

Andrea Pierce’s grandmother used to talk about her fellow students being forced to kneel on hard, bristled bushes for hours at a time at the boarding school she attended. The punishment was ordered when children spoke their native language.

“They did it kind of quietly, like they were getting away with something,” said Pierce, a member of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, who feels her language and culture were stolen from her family.

Boarding schools essentially beat the language out of children, Pierce said. At home, her grandmother would occasionally utter a few phrases, but it was mainly used to mask a trivial request like “pass the Jello” from the young children, who didn’t understand what was being said.

Now, at age 57, Pierce is attempting to recapture her language by taking weekly online classes offered through her tribe and North Central Michigan College in Petoskey.

Pierce fears she might be too late to ever master the language herself. But as a mother and grandmother, she’s hoping that she can pass along its importance to her progeny.

“We were meant to not realize what we’ve lost,” Pierce said. “And I’m glad we’ve realized what we lost and changed it.”

She’s especially taken by the detail and vividness of the language.

“I love that it describes every little thing,” Pierce said. “It’s amazing to me.”

Finding New Ways

While the pandemic interrupted so many relationships, tribes throughout Michigan have used it to come together.

Pierce takes her classes online, and all of the Nokomis Center’s classes stream on Zoom as well. For many, such digital interactions have offered their first introduction to the culture and language.

If not for those classes, Pierce said she’d have to drive some three hours north to take hers, a roundtrip that likely is unfeasible. Now, she attends every week.

The Nokomis Center is also looking to expand its options to local schools. These partnerships, which could come as early as next year, have the goal of helping keep Indigenous culture alive in Michigan.

In the meantime, language classes aren’t all that’s keeping the community connected. The center observes sacred rituals and events simply cultivated to bring people together—like potlucks.

“I myself, I like to cook, so I might bring a meal,” said Dokum.

His specialties are chili, stew, and Native fry bread.

Ostrander is optimistic. He remembers conversations from the last few years of his father’s life, when his father would somberly reflect on never learning the language of his people.

These generations aren’t lost, Ostrander is quick to note. But the knowledge that any ancestors suffered for their traditions is all the more reason to proudly carry on those traditions today.

“Before my dad passed away we talked a lot about it, and he says he wished he would’ve pushed more,” Ostrander said. “But even 10 years ago, there wasn’t a whole lot going on with the language…as opposed to now.”

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