Not So Holy Childhood: a Native Boarding School Student’s Experience

My nephew is doing research on Natives and boarding school. He asked me to give him a bit about my story, which I also share it here.

Not long after turning ten years old, my mother drove us up to Harbor Springs (Michigan) to Holy Childhood School.  Jimmy, my younger brother by two years, and I were going to live at a boarding school. I was scared, but somehow, I managed to hide my fears if only for the sake of my little brother.

Where some of the other kids might have felt they did something wrong and were being sent away because of that, what I remember most was being both sad and angry.

After being shown to the girl’s dormitory and given a bed, that first night was filled with the sounds of many sobbing and crying children. We could hear the boys crying too. The 3rd floor housed all of the sleeping quarters, the boys and girls units separated by a wall and door.

We did a lot of things for fun and recreation. It was an odd mix of having to get up before everyone else to go down to work in the kitchen, the bakery or dining hall, and bundling up to go on hikes through the small village’s deserted side streets. Most of the residents in Harbor Springs were summer people so the nuns would take us through those back roads along Little Traverse Bay, known as The Pointe, or on other roads where the sidewalk was a boardwalk.

Every night, though, no matter what sort of day the kids had recreationally, there were beatings. We could hear the boys getting yelled at, and the sounds of them getting spanked, beaten or harassed by the nuns.

I was afraid of most of the nuns because they were always angry, calling kids names, and never actually encouraging the spiritual or educational growth of any of us.

While I was up there, I came to despise the nuns, even though where I grew up, the nuns and priests seemed like good people. I missed home a lot. I cried myself to sleep because I had felt abandoned. I wondered if Jimmy felt the same way too. I thought about running away on more than one occasion. But I couldn’t leave my baby brother to the vultures.

While us kids were away, our mother had gotten married to the man she was dating. He was to be our step dad for the next five years. I think that was a little stunning also. I felt the pain of exclusion quite keenly, and it felt like a betrayal. It wasn’t that we had to approve naturally, but it felt like we got kicked to the curb for this man our mother loved.

As an adult, I realize that other cultures send their kids to boarding schools too. However, I don’t hear any stories about sexual, physical and verbal abuse.  The stories of abuse by Catholic priests and nuns are still coming out. That is very disappointing to me because as a child, I loved the Catholic Church. I use to go to one by our house, called Sacred Heart. I loved the art, the architecture, and the beauty as much as the sense of a sacred, safe place to go.

I wasn’t physically abused by nuns or priests, though verbally, none of us were supported or made to feel of any value, to our families nor the school and church. Maybe that too is where some of the abuse is, for many of us. Because frankly, it is still a wound that has never entirely healed.

At the end of the school year, when our mom had come to get us, I was so happy to leave that place. By then, though, I had made a personal decision that since my mom dropped us off, she was not going ever to tell me what to do again. In my 10-year-old eyes and mind, I thought she dumped us off on strangers and didn’t deserve to be our mother. Once we were home safe, we begged her not to send us back there, and thankfully, she didn’t. I think I forgave her, just a little bit.

As an adult, I was able to share a little bit of my pain with my mother. I never knew she cried after she dropped us off. I also realized, as an adult, that she was a single mother who was struggling to work her day job, find and keep sitters when she had to work odd shifts, and I also know I was a very independent kid who had a habit of wandering off the path to school, towing my little brother in hand to go on adventures.

Though I am keenly aware of the pangs that little kid felt at being dropped off at boarding school, I also know and feel the love of my mother, and am lucky to have her in life still. She’s a good person and I’m grateful that she was who she at the time, and who she is now as a community elder, mother, and grandmother.

If you’re doing research on Native Americans/First Nations and the Boarding School experience, I recommend reading this 4-part series by Anne Stanton, writing for Northern Express.

Unholy Childhood (part 1 of 4), By Anne Stanton, Northern Express, June 30, 2008

Wounded Souls (part 2 of 4), By Anne Stanton, Northern Express, July 7, 2008

The Legacy of Holy Childhood (part 3 of 4), By Anne Stanton, Northern Express, August 4, 2008

They Came for the Children (final of a 4-part series), By Anne Stanton, Northern Express, August 25, 2008


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