Native American group wants former Catholic board school preserved, not torn down

Petoskey News Review
Monday, August 27, 2007

KRISTINA HUGHES/NEWS-REVIEW Native Americans representing Michigan based tribes gathered during a ceremony to educate the public about a plan to save and restore the old school as a national monument, museum and cultural education center.

HARBOR SPRINGS — The church bells rang, and the hymns floated out the open doors.

Across the road, tribal representatives gathered in the park sharing in the Anishinabemowin language and playing traditional music between Sundays masses at the Holy Childhood Church in Harbor Springs.

The tribal stories and songs were shared hundreds of feet away from the former Holy Childhood School of Jesus — a place where generations of tribal students were denied to express their culture in the guise of assimilation.

For decades the two communities have shared a connection to the school — which faces the wrecking balls in September — erasing a past that some tribal members are beginning to share.

“Holy Childhood is one of the great peaceful last stands for Indians; a movement unto itself. This is an opportunity to re-identify ourselves, renew our languages, renew our cultural ties; and provide a place for all Indian boarding students to pilgrimage to and thus find healing for themselves and their families,” Kateri Walker, a Native American actress and former boarding school student said.

Recently tribal communities have mobilized with Walker to save the historic school. In the eleventh hour, the group is asking the church to stall the demolition and consider a plan for a national monument and center for healing and cultural education.

Walker said the group is not requesting funding for the project. She said funding has not been determined, but the group is looking into grants and tribal sources.

Walker recently gained the support from area tribal councils, including the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians in the form of resolutions. She believes the school can stand for reconciliation and healing for tribal and nonnative communities.

“It’s not a white versus Indian issue or a religions versus spirituality issue. It’s about reclaiming our identity and preserving our history and culture,” Walker said.

Walker shared her draft business plan to preserve the school as a museum and a place for cultural, educational and social programs. The site could house a Native American restaurant featuring organic foods grown locally. Walker also hopes to recruit native American artists to produce culturally sensitive projects and workshops.

But, the Catholic Church has plans and raised funds for a new parish addition at the site. The church considered saving the school during its visioning sessions that began in 2004.

Candace Neff, the communications director for the Gaylord Diocese said there were many opportunities for comment from the community.

“... It was decided that renovating the former school would not adequately provide for the long-term needs of the parish and community and would also be cost prohibitive,” Neff said in an e-mail.

Father Joseph Graff said the school building would cost $8 to $13 million to renovate. The new 2,532 square foot addition will include a parish hall, kitchen, faith formation center with classes and a parish library. There will also be a 2,320 square foot addition serving as a gathering space.

Recently Walker and tribal leaders met with Graff. Catholic Bishop Patrick Cooney could not be reached for comment. Graff said he plans to meet with the bishop in a closed meting about this matter.

“There are so many different dimensions to this. It’s not black and white,” Graff said. “The question of healing and reconciliation is important ... When you look at it from the aspect of the heart it’s difficult.”

Graff said he does not understand why healing can not be accomplished in the new building.

The school is part of the city’s historical tapestry and is an historical state site. Walker believes it is the last intact Indian boarding school in the country.

The boarding school experiences has left a residual impact on tribal communities, with many suffering from transgenerational trauma. By creating a museum people could begin to heal and remember.

Shirley Naganashe-Oldman, a Little Traverse Bay Bands council member who endorsed the plan said it’s about saving history.

“This is more than a building. Harbor Springs used to be known as the Odawa capital of the world. Children came from different bands in Michigan to attend the school. This is their home and for them to demolish it is wiping away our history and wiping away our lives. Rather than destroying it we would like to preserve it, to preserve our history and begin healing,” she said.

But parishioners have mixed feelings about the demolition.

“It’s part of the history of city ... It’s a precious entity to people. Whatever decision they make will be difficult,” Sherry Coveyou, a Harbor Springs resorter said.

George Halter who attends the church supports the parish plan.

“The emotion may be there, but the reality is the building is in bad shape,” Halter, a Harbor Springs resident said.

Carty Finkbeiner, who attends the church as a guest, believes there is an opportunity for healing and compromise.

Finkbeiner, the mayor of Toledo, Ohio, believes its best for the parties to meet and find a way for the parish to grow and for the Native Americans concept to coincide.

“The spirit will be able to bring the parties together to talk and reach what ultimately may be a win-win for both parties,” Finkbeiner said. “I think it’s doable.”

Holy Childhood memories

HARBOR SPRINGS — Sharon and Ivan Wasageshik learned how to survive by denying their culture.

The belief in assimilation was passed on by the nuns, and their parents who feared the repercussions for speaking their native languages.

“Our traditional beliefs were taken away from us,” Ivan, a member of the Grand Traverse Bay Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians and former Holy Childhood of Jesus School boarding school student said.

As adults, the siblings are healing by slowly reclaiming their spirituality and culture.

“Part of my hurting spirit is in the school,” Sharon said.

The Wasawageshiks joined close to 40 members representing Michigan based tribes who gathered in Harbor Springs, Sunday, to support the effort to restore the school as a national monument and cultural education center.

The original Indian school was built in 1829. The Treaty of 1855, removed control of Indian schools from the missionaries and placed it in the hands of the federal government.

But the church continued to be a primary source for education for Michigan tribes. In the 1880s, it was standard practice for Indian children to be sent to boarding schools. At one time Holy Childhood was the largest Indian Mission school in the United States. First- through eighth-grade students attended the school. The boarding school closed in 1983. During its tenure nearly 3,600 children lived at the school.

Ivan, a boarder from 1970 to 1979, has mixed emotions about the school.

“The negatives turned into positives later in life. It helped me with self discipline and self respect,” he said.

Grand Traverse Band member Mona Baker’s family members were students in the 1930s.

“They were coerced into sending their children away,” Baker said. “ ... When I hear stories, I see a vision of my mother as a little girl there.”

Harbor Springs resident Alice King-Yellowbank’s parents attended the school. Her father was silent, but her mother shared fond memories of playing the piano and organ.

But some people recall the discrimination.

Kateri Walker, of the Saginaw Chippewa tribe said she was called a “dirty Indian” and was forced to share dirty bath water.

“They tried to break our spirits,” she said.

She remembers being reprimanded.

“I had to sweep stairs, clean vegetables and was skinning road kill at 6 a.m.,” she said.

Gilbert Stevens, 54, of the Grand Traverse band tries to remember the good times, building forts on Harbor Point and the friendships he established in the 1950s. But it’s difficult to forget.

“It was heart breaking, because I was away from my parents and I dearly loved them,” he said.