Indigenous people 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 proud member of the Nokomis Cultural Heritage Center, walked into the center’s weekly language night about six years ago to reconnect with his roots, a wish he carried on from his late father.
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 president, a fluent speaker originally from Manitoulin Island. The island contains Wikwemikong, which is unceded territory, meaning that it 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.
Ostrander and others testify Dokum is a talented teacher.
He easily breaks 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, different from what a singular “a” produces.
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, and he likes to play off seasonal and topical subjects for discussion. Around this time, Halloween is front and center.
“You learn a lot quicker when you’re the instructor as well, because you’re taking in a lot of feedback,” Dokum said.
Even 10 years ago, Ostrander said, these sorts of classes that help people learn or reconnect with their ancestry weren’t as common. But now, there’s an urgency.
Indigenous culture has been a topic of mainstream discussion and increased scrutiny recently. After the remains of 215 Indigenous children were unearthed at the site of a Canadian boarding school in British Columbia, more studies have commenced on the widespread trend of Native children being taken from their homes and forced into boarding schools with the explicit motivation of erasing their culture. More bodies have been found.
The US Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, a Pueblo of Laguna, ordered a comprehensive review of boarding schools that follow a similar pattern.
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.
In reality, 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.
Under a federal review, many are waiting for the same mass graves to be discovered in the US, as they were 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.
A Cruel History
Most likely, any Indigenous person knows someone who went to these boarding schools, whether that information has been uncovered yet or not.
Payment’s grandmother’s first cousin was forcibly taken from the house and boarded at the Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School, one of three Indigenous boarding schools in Michigan.
There, she was beaten and abused.
Her grandmother worked for three years selling crops to afford a lawyer and sent constant notes to the school, demanding her child back.
Finally, the school relented. In agreeing to release her, administrators called her “fat” and broke her arm as they 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 even 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, something that Payment’s grandmother had never even spoken about.
“It’s a terrible story, because they broke her arm on the way out,” 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, meaning that people whose family relatives were stolen to these boarding camps might battle new demons. Native Americans already have the highest suicide rates and alcoholism rates of any demographic in the country.
Payment encourages everyone to lean on their faith as these mass atrocities are revealed and relived.
The last boarding schools for Indigenous people in the US did not close until 1996.
Bringing Back the Language at Home
Andrea Pierce, a member of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, feels her language and culture were stolen from her.
Her grandparents are boarding school survivors. Her grandmother, who has since died, recalled to her how children would be punished for speaking the language by being forced to kneel on hard, bristled brushes for hours at a time.
Boarding schools essentially beat the language out of children, Pierce said. Her grandmother at the house would sometimes utter a few phrases, but it was mainly used to mask a trivial request like “pass the Jello” from the young children like Pierce, who didn’t understand what was being said. The distinct purpose of her usage was to conceal the language, not pass it down.
“They did it kind of quietly, like they were getting away with something,” Pierce said.
Now, at 57 years old, Pierce is attempting to recapture her language by taking weekly Zoom classes offered through her tribe and North Central Michigan College. She lives downstate, away from any large settlements of her people, and doesn’t work in a context where she can use it every day.
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. In everyday contexts, she’s passing down the spoken word, whether while ordering food or while watching her grandson play basketball.
“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 taken by the detail and vividness of the language.
“I love that it describes every little thing,” Pierce said. “It’s amazing to me.”
Whereas 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, it’s been their first introduction to the culture and language.
If not for online classes, Pierce said she’d have to drive some three hours north to take hers, a roundtrip that likely is unfeasible. But because of online classes, she’s been able to attend every week.
The Nokomis Center is also looking to expand its options, not only inviting new members via Zoom but offering lessons in local schools. These partnerships, which could come as early as next year, will help keep Indigenous culture alive in Michigan.
In the meantime, language classes aren’t all that’s keeping the culture vibrant. The center observes sacred rituals and events simply cultivated to bring the community together, like potlucks.
“I myself, I like to cook, so I might bring a meal,” Dokum said.
His specialties are chili, stew, and Native fried bread.
Ostrander is optimistic. He remembers conversations from the last few years of his father’s life, where his father would somberly reflect on never learning the language of his people.
These generations aren’t lost, Ostrander is quick to note. But why previous generations suffered is all the more reason to proudly carry on tradition today.
“Before my dad passed away we talked a lot about it, and he says he wished he probably 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.”