Diocese of Northern Michigan traveling exhibit shares stories of Indigenous boarding school survivors

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted Mar 14, 2024

The Diocese of Northern Michigan’s racial reconciliation initiative, “Walking Together: Finding Common Ground,” is centered around a traveling exhibit that showcases stories of Indigenous boarding school survivors in Michigan. It includes a recording of Northern Michigan Bishop Rayford Ray formally apologizing for The Episcopal Church’s participation “in the human trafficking of children to place them in orphanages, boarding schools, forced adoption and foster care as an attempt to wipe out Indigenous culture, language, identity, sovereignty and beliefs.” Photo: Walking Together: Finding Common Ground Traveling Exhibit/Facebook

[Episcopal News Service] The Diocese of Northern Michigan has launched a racial reconciliation initiative, “Walking Together: Finding Common Ground,” centered around a traveling exhibit that showcases stories of Indigenous boarding school survivors in Michigan. 

The diocese spans the state’s Upper Peninsula and is based in Marquette, the ancestral and present-day homeland of the Anishinaabe people. Episcopal churches in the diocese are engaging in reconciliation efforts with Indigenous people locally and across the state, many of whom live with intergenerational trauma that can be traced to the United States’ historical attempts to erase their culture through the boarding school system.

The traveling exhibit documents how Indigenous boarding schools’ legacy continues to impact Native American people today. Known survivors are listed on an exhibit panel. When visiting the exhibit, participants can scan a QR code with their smartphones to listen to boarding school survivors tell their stories. Part of the exhibit features pre-existing information that was featured in a 2021 exhibit at Northern Michigan University in Marquette titled “The Seventh Fire: A Decolonizing Experience.”

Robert Hazen, an elder in the Lac Vieux Desert Band, attended the Holy Childhood of Jesus Catholic Church and Indian School in Harbor Springs. He is one of several survivors who shared their stories for the “Walking Together: Finding Common Ground” traveling exhibit:

“It’s part of a healing that’s so much needed in terms of our work with the Indigenous Anishinaabe people here,” Northern Michigan Bishop Rayford Ray told Episcopal News Service. “We’re always looking towards reconciliation, and we have to heal first.”

At least hundreds — possibly as many as tens of thousands — of Indigenous youth are estimated to have died during the 19th and 20th centuries while attending boarding schools, which were designed to assimilate Native Americans into the dominant white culture and erase Indigenous languages and cultures. Many of those boarding schools were operated by Christian churches, including The Episcopal Church, though the Diocese of Northern Michigan’s research did not find any local ties between the church and the schools.

Of the 12 federally recognized Native American tribes based in Michigan, five are in the state’s sparsely populated Upper Peninsula. The diocese’s exhibit includes educational panels explaining the Upper Peninsula’s precolonial history. It also includes videos showing different perspectives on decolonization and Anishinaabe culture, including foodways, education, sovereignty and the issues Indigenous people face living in a colonized world. 

“The traveling exhibit is just one huge aspect of becoming culturally competent through learning authentic history — those one-on-one interviews — that’s huge,” Leora Tadgerson, the diocese’s director of reparations and justice, told ENS. “There are so many different dioceses that are not at that phase yet that we are discussing with colleagues.”

The exhibit formally launched in January at the Niiwin Akeaa Center in Baraga coinciding with but separate from the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community’s winter powwow. About 200 people visited, most of whom were Indigenous. The exhibit was next displayed for one week at the Ojibwa Senior Center in Baraga.

“Our hope with the traveling exhibit is to learn the culture, the traditions and also the pain and suffering that people have had to endure, and the genocide,” Ray said.

In 2018, the diocese received a $30,000 grant from The Episcopal Church’s United Thank Offering to work on the traveling exhibit, which was developed in partnership with the Great Lakes Peace Center, a Rapid River-based nonprofit committed to promoting peace building. The diocese received an additional $28,500 UTO grant in 2022. A family foundation then gave the diocese an additional $100,000 grant to be distributed over the course of five years. Most recently, St. John’s Episcopal Church in Midland in the Diocese of Eastern Michigan awarded the Diocese of Northern Michigan an additional $20,000 grant to continue supporting the exhibit. The diocese also accepts donations through its website to continue funding the exhibit. The money is being used to pay for research resources and equipment needed to physically set up the exhibit.

The legacy of Indigenous boarding schools made international headlines in 2021 with the discovery of a mass grave containing the remains of 215 children at a former boarding school in Canada. Following the discovery, the U.S. Department of Interior announced it was launching a comprehensive review of American boarding school policies dating to 1819. In 2022, a federal report revealed that more than 500 children died over the course of 150 years in Indigenous boarding schools, though Native American scholars estimate the number is closer to 40,000.

The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, a nonprofit based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has identified at least 523 schools that were part of the Indigenous boarding school system — including no less than eight in Michigan. Four of those were in the Upper Peninsula and one was on Mackinac Island between the Upper and Lower peninsulas. Nationwide, at least nine schools by the coalition’s tally were thought to have Episcopal Church connections, though the lack of churchwide records has made it difficult to fully account for the church’s role in the schools. Most of the boarding schools had closed by the mid-20th century or were taken over by Native American tribes.

The Northern Michigan traveling exhibit includes a recording of Ray formally apologizing to the Indigenous tribes in Michigan on behalf of The Episcopal Church and the wider Christian church. In the apology, Ray condemns The Episcopal Church’s participation “in the human trafficking of children to place them in orphanages, boarding schools, forced adoption and foster care as an attempt to wipe out Indigenous culture, language, identity, sovereignty and beliefs.” Ray also expresses his support of repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery, a centuries-old theological and political doctrine used to justify colonization and the oppression of Indigenous people. General Convention passed a resolution officially repudiating the doctrine in 2009. Ray told ENS the Department of Interior is aware of his apology and the exhibit.

Listen to Ray’s apology here.

“For me, as an Episcopalian, what Jesus calls us to do is to dismantle the racism and the white supremacy that is so much part of our way of life here,” Ray said. “We need to continue to make systemic change.”

Tadgerson, a member of the Bay Mills Indian Community and the Wiikwemkoong First Nation, has served as the Diocese of Northern Michigan’s director of diversity, equity and inclusion since 2022. 

“What I love from the perspective of the director’s position, is how the diocese continues — even before I was there — to become culturally competent living in an Indigenous area,” she told ENS.

The 80th General Convention created a fact-finding commission to research The Episcopal Church’s historic role in boarding schools, and Executive Council has a Committee for Indigenous Boarding Schools and Advocacy. The research commission and the advocacy committee met most recently in January at the Mustang Island Conference Center in Port Aransas, Texas, and they plan to meet at least once more before the 81st General Convention takes place June 23-28 in Louisville, Kentucky. Until then, the research commission is drafting a strategic plan to address all points of General Convention’s Indigenous boarding school resolution. At the January meeting, Tadgerson was selected to serve as chair of the advocacy committee.

“There’s a community aspect, that the church is so dedicated toward bridge-building and racial justice and racial equity,” Tadgerson said. “We are doing the same work through different avenues, and when we come together, we have a much larger impact.”

Ray said the “Walking Together: Finding Common Ground” exhibit is also scheduled to be on display at the Province V meeting April 25-27 in South Bend, Indiana. The traveling exhibit will eventually travel throughout the entire state of Michigan. The diocese also accepts local invitations to display the exhibit.

“This work is part of being the Beloved Community,” Ray said. “The Episcopal Church has been called to make supporting Indigenous communities a significant part of its life and missional work around healing and reconciliation. And that’s what Jesus’ role is about, healing and reconciliation.”

In addition to Ray and Tadgerson, traveling exhibit staff members include Kathy Vanden Boogaard, project coordinator; Ariel Gougeon, graphic designer; Mitch Bolo, videographer; Dan Druckey, director and curator of Northern Michigan University’s Beaumier Upper Peninsula Heritage Center, and Lainie Scott, who served as an archival research intern while an undergraduate student in history and Native American studies at Northern Michigan University.

The five federally recognized Native American tribes in the Upper Peninsula are Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians; Keweenaw Bay Indian Community of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians; Hannahville Indian Community of Potawatomi Indians; Bay Mills Indian Community of Anishinaabe Indians; and Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. Altogether, more than 240,000 Indigenous people live in Michigan.

-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service based in northern Indiana. She can be reached at skorkzan@episcopalchurch.org.