DETROIT (WXYZ) — Back in June, dozens of Ojibwa First Nations people and others gathered at Belle Isle to honor the lives of hundreds of native children who never came home from what the Canadian government called "residential schools."
“I call it a boarding school because when I was growing up that’s what my mother called it. And she also called it a prison," Dora Hinojosa says.
Her mother was forcibly taken at the age of five to a boarding school in Canada, hours away from her home.
“I can’t imagine somebody pulling my kids off my chest, taking them someplace and I never see them again. I just can’t imagine that pain," she says.
Hundreds of unmarked graves of First Nations children have been discovered in Canada in the past few months. One school in Saskatchewan had the remains of more than 750 children.
“My mother, her parents, my aunt, and my two brothers," all relatives Hinojosa says were placed in these schools throughout Canada, designed to eliminate any trace of their First Nations culture; rituals, hair, dress, even language.
It's a common scenario of what became state-sponsored forced assimilation, says Eric Hemenway, the director of archives and records for The Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. He's studied and collects history from federal boarding schools here in the U.S.
“What I know about the schools in Canada, they are very similar to the schools that operated here in the United States," he tells Action News. "This is not a Canadian story exclusively. It’s a United States story and it’s also a Michigan story.”
At least three similar schools operated in Michigan, including The Holy Childhood boarding school in Harbor Springs, one of the very last in the U.S. to close, in 1983.
“This happened yesterday. I was born in the 1950s," Prof. Brian McKenna of U of M Dearborn tells Action News. He teaches Anthropology and the inter-generational trauma these schools left behind.
“I think one of the key words here is removal," he says. "Removal of history, removal of knowledge, removal of people.”
McKenna points to the systematic and intentional erasure of native culture not just in the boarding schools, but throughout American society in general at the height of these schools' operations.
"What are the Hollywood movies saying? The last of the Apache, the last of the Cochise," he says. "In our minds, the Indians are gone. So the Europeans are thinking there's no such thing as a 'modern Indian,' that would be a contradiction in terms. So in a sense, you have erasure on two sides," he says.
Lita Montgomery, who lives in Detroit, also has family ties to the boarding school abuse in Canada. Her father suffered for years at one of the schools, something she says he doesn't talk about.
“When you come home, you don’t know how to give your love to your kids. You don’t know how to tell them I love you… give them a hug," she says.
Of course the boarding schools also impacted her, indirectly; as they did thousands of children whose parents or grandparents were forced into them. It's the reason she's had to learn much of her culture over the years including the language, which was strictly prohibited at the schools. Violations often led to harsh physical abuse.
“Their intent, trying to make us white people, who we are not," she says. "You cannot make us somebody we are not. We are who we are. And you did nothing but help destroy communities. Own up to it. Take responsibility."
The stories of abuse are rampant; for both First Nations children in Canada and Native American children placed in boarding schools in the U.S.
“My mother told me that they were forced to drink spoiled milk and spoiled food," Hinojosa says.
Hinojosa now lives in metro Detroit. She, her sister Lucy Harrison, and Montgomery joined with a smaller group of Ojibwa last week to return to Belle Isle and visit a memorial they built there in June.
“So what you see here serves as a memorial for these children," Harrison said, looking at the shoreline where dozens of tiny shoes sit. The shoes range in size, meant to represent the little feet that never got to wear them, nor walk through live into adulthood.
Harrison is also an Ojibwa elder.
"Our babies, when they are born, someone in the family usually makes a pair of moccasins for that baby. And as you walk through life, the moccasins get larger, they get another pair. And so it was important to us, we felt very strong in that we needed to leave the shoes," she said.
“A lot has been missed. In terms of the truth of our people and you know, what happened. What happened to us.”
For the first time, the U.S. has a Native American Secretary of the Interior. In June, Deb Haaland introduced the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative. It will look into the lasting and traumatic consequences of native boarding schools in the U.S.; the work will also including collecting records on oversight and procedures, and finding the location of possible student burial sites and the identities of the lives lost there.
“The work is immense. But it has to start," Hemenway said.
A final written report on the investigation's findings is due April 1, 2022.
There were approximately 360 federally-run native boarding schools throughout the U.S., Hemenway says.
Looking to next steps in this federal initiative, he expects more horrors will be found and further investigation will be necessary.
“I think there’s going to be discoveries at the schools of burials and children that never left the school," he says. "One of these schools that is getting a lot of attention right now is the Carlisle Industrial School from Carlisle, Pennsylvania. And some of the tribes who had their children pass at that school are now reclaiming them and re-patriating them and returning them back to the ancestral homelands on the Plains. So that’s happening as we speak.”