Actress Kateri Walker trying to save old Native
American boarding school
HARBOR SPRINGS, Mich. —
A former student of a
shuttered Indian boarding school has launched an 11th-hour effort to
save it from the wrecking ball.
Kateri Walker asked
Catholic officials for a one-year delay in demolition of the
building that for decades housed the Holy Childhood of Jesus Christ
school in Harbor Springs.
Walker didn’t know about
the plan to raze the school until she returned home to Michigan this
summer and attended a closing ceremony there. She came to Michigan
with documentary maker Randy Vasquez to help film footage for “The
Thick Dark Fog: Healing from American Indian Boarding Schools,”
scheduled for completion next summer. The boarding school closing
ceremony is part of that footage.
A one-year reprieve
would give her time to raise money and put together an organization
to save and restore the structure that once housed the largest
Indian mission school in the United States. Demolition is scheduled
to begin in early September.
Bea Law, legislative
leader for the Little Traverse Band of Odawa Indians, and former
tribal Chairman Gerald Chingwa accompanied Walker to a recent
two-hour meeting with Catholic officials. She also had resolutions
of support from the Little Traverse Band and the Grand Traverse Band
of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.
Walker has yet to
persuade Catholic officials to delay demolition. Bishop Patrick
Cooney at the Diocese of Gaylord is out of town until next week.
Diocese spokeswoman Candace Neff said the demolition is still on
are ongoing as (to) how our mutual goal for continued healing and
reconciliation might be realized,” Neff said.
Holy Childhood is one of
the last self-contained Indian boarding schools in the nation, said
Walker, a member of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe based in Mount
The original Holy
Childhood of Jesus School opened in 1829 with 25 boarders and 13 day
students. It was expanded in 1885 into a three-story frame building.
A brick structure was
built in 1913, with an addition in 1928, serving first- through
eighth-grades. By the time the boarding school closed in 1983,
nearly 3,600 children had stayed there and even more were enrolled
as day students.
Walker hopes to raise
funds from a variety of Native American, federal and private sources
to turn the old school into a healing, cultural and public education
center for “all Americans,” she said.
She also envisions it as
a national monument to remind current and future generations of the
treatment of American Indians during the period of European
settlement from about 1880 and continuing into the 20th century.
Many historians and
American Indians believe federal assimilation policies put in place
then destroyed Indian family structures and have affected
generations. The boarding schools and federal laws that prohibited
Native Americans from practicing their spiritual traditions were
major tools of assimilation. The policy allowed the federal
government to forcibly take Indian children from their families and
strip them of native language, culture and traditions.
Walker, 44, attended
Holy Childhood for six years, as did her father before her and five
of her siblings. Both her “monsters” and her memories are in that
building, she said.
That’s why she was moved
to tears at the closing ceremony when, she said, Cooney apologized
publicly to Native Americans hurt by their boarding school
experience and asked for their forgiveness. She felt validated, she
said, and the question blossomed in her mind: “Why does the school
have to be removed?”
“How wonderful it would
be to turn that around and transform it into a place of beauty and
healing,” she said.
Walker also envisions a
native foods restaurant, distribution of mass-media public
information films and other materials, as well as counseling and
other healing programs.
Neff said in a written
response to Record-Eagle questions that the decision to demolish the
three-story building is the result of a three-year visioning process
with parishioners, community leaders and organizations and Native
Americans. A structural study determined the building had too many
architectural and mechanical problems for a cost-effective
renovation. Plans call for a new building to serve the parish and
community — including a parish hall, faith formation rooms and
meeting rooms, along with a memorial to the site’s history.
“We share the sorrow of
those who struggle with difficult memories and pray that they find
healing,” Neff said. “We also rejoice with those who have wonderful
memories of the school, the education they received and those in the
community who have been served over the years by having a place to
Walker organized a
powwow and sunrise ceremony in a park across from the church and
school on Sunday. It turned out to be the same day as a church
picnic, and resulted in talks between her, other Native Americans
and church officials and members.
This week she’s
scheduled to meet with the Catholic parish’s Indian elders.
“When I was a little
girl, I wanted to be a role model,” Walker said. “I used to fight
stereotypes. Now I realize we just need to stand up and re-identify
Loraine Anderson writes
for Traverse City (Mich.) Record-Eagle.