Ottawa man recalls life at Mt Pleasant Indian Industrial School

By Patricia Ecker
Mount Pleasant, Michigan (AP) 8-08

John Crampton, a member of the Little River Band of Ottawa, still remembers the days when he attended the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial School at age 6. Eighty-three years later, as he walked the grounds of the former school, he reminisced about his childhood.

“That was the big boys’ dormitory,” Crampton said. “Over there was a deer pen. The buildings for the teachers and staff was over there.”

The Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial School operated from 1893 to 1933. The school, at peak enrollment, had about 150 girls and 175 boys from the Chippewa, Ottawa and Potawatomi tribes, according to documents at the Mount Pleasant Center.

An excerpt from an Oct. 1, 1889 report from the Commissioner of Indian Affairs shows what the U.S. government’s mind-set was like at the time: “The Indians must conform to the ‘white man’s ways,’ peaceably if they will, forcibly if they must,” the report stated.

The removal of Native American children from their families and communities was the U.S. government’s intentional plan to assimilate the Indians into white Euro-American society during the period between 1880 and 1920s, according to Alice Littlefield’s research on the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Boarding Schools, “Theories of Resistance and Social Reproductions.”

Crampton pointed to the boarded-up brick buildings still standing on what is now the Mount Pleasant Center. “The sidewalk is still here,” he said. “I imagine these trees were here when I was here.

“The girls were on the other side of the school from the boys. We had an ice house, a stable, a gym, and I learned how to swim in the creek just north of here,” he said.

Crampton has fond memories of friends, regular meals and clean clothes. “If it wasn’t for this school, I would’ve starved to death. I liked the uniforms. They were warm.”

Crampton said he learned how to cut hair at the school, attended church and learned the three Rs.

Thousands of American Indian children from Michigan and other states attended the federally run school, according to the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways documents.

Saginaw Chippewa Tribe member Carole Tally said both her parents were sent to the school. “It was a very depressing time for the family,” she said. “They just came in and took the kids.”

In the community of her mother, Nellie Ashmun, people were scared when they saw white people coming around because they thought they would be taken away.

“My dad, he had to be sent away” as a young child, Tally said. “He had negative feelings about his (boarding school) experience. He used to be a basket maker, and they wouldn’t let him do it anymore.”

In 1991, Crampton and about 12 other elders, who attended the Mount Pleasant school, discussed their experiences at a reunion organized by Paul Johnson of the Michigan Education Association.

Johnson facilitated a recorded discussion with the elders from Ojibwa, Chippewa, Ottawa and Potawatomi communities about their experiences living at the school.

Johnson facilitated a recorded discussion with the elders from Ojibwa, Chippewa, Ottawa and Potawatomi communities about their experiences living at the school.

Albert Spruce was 9 when he went to the Indian school. On the tape, he said he was Chippewa and graduated from the school in 1929.

“I liked the school,” Spruce said. “I liked the environment with water and plumbing. We didn’t have this up north. And we had a good balanced diet.”

Several elders including Gertrude King, Lillian Nagake Shorten and Elizabeth Johnson Cummings said they liked the school. The former students said discipline was firm, but learning it has helped them with their lives.

“Most of these people here weren’t lazy because they learned to work there,” Spruce said.

According to official documents at Ziibiwing, “The establishment of the school in 1893 and its closing in 1933 were the result of shifts in federal Indian policy changes in education, philosophy and changes in the U.S. economy.”

About 50 boys and girls enrolled in the school when it closed were labeled orphaned and housed in dormitories and sent to public schools, according to the Isabella County newspaper. In January 1934, the transfer of the school was complete and the facility became a state hospital.

The state designated the original Indian Industrial School Chapel and Indian Cemetery as historical landmarks in 1987.

The Indian boarding school era historically has been blamed for the decimation of Native American culture and their disconnection with tradition, heritage, and most especially, the languages of Native American people.

“In 1926, they made Indians citizens,” Crampton said. “But it didn’t make any difference to me. I was still an Indian.”