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Chilocco - Today and Yesterday
Actress Kateri Walker Tries to Save Old Native American Boarding School

These are the words I've been saying about Chilocco, but no one seems to hear me.  I guess I'm not a beautiful, young starlett.

Kateri Walker with documentary-maker Randy Vasquez who is filming “The Thick Dark Fog: Healing From the American Indian Boarding Schools.”                   Record-Eagle/Jan-Michael Stump

Loraine Anderson - Traverse City Record-Eagle
Sep 21, 2007

Actress Kateri Walker trying to save old Native American boarding school


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 schedule.

“However, conversations 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 Pleasant.

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 gather.”

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 ourselves.”

Loraine Anderson writes for Traverse City (Mich.) Record-Eagle.

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