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Arts of Citizenship at the University of Michigan

Native Americans: Missions and Schools

While the story of the loss of native lands left a history of broken promises, Christian missionaries working among Native Americans sought to leave a different legacy. This 1833 letter from Frederick Schmid explained what he wanted most to change about white contact with Native Americans. Missionaries, for the most part, wanted to treat native peoples with respect so that they would find Christian churches more attractive. French Missionary Louis Baroux explained that,

"It is necessary to understand the history of their persecutions, to see face to face, the victims of the white man's double-dealing, to consider well their patience and their saintly resignation, in order to comprehend the sublimity and nobility of these newly made Christian souls." (13-14)

White and Native American Missionaries, circa 1877But first on the agenda of missionaries was conversion. Many of Michigan's Native Americans converted to Christianity during the nineteenth century. Those who converted often participated in missionary efforts themselves, teaching Christianity to other natives. One Native American minister who taught during the 1820s, named Shahwundais but known also as John Sunday, became so famous as to become legendary. This picture (left) shows white and Native American ministers who worked together sometime around 1877.

Missions and schools were intimately related in Michigan. Missionaries ran most Indian schools, and many were located in or very near the church building. This document, written in the 1930s, describes an Indian school in Mount Pleasant that was opened in 1893. Teachers at Indian schools were both Native American and white, but they were all Christian. In earlier decades, before many Native Americans had converted, most teachers were white. These early teachers tended to be inexperienced. Indian schools rarely had enough money to pay their teachers well so experienced teachers could get better jobs elsewhere. Native American teachers, however, could not get jobs elsewhere, so they frequently taught at Indian schools throughout their careers. Resources were short, and students often had no paper or pencils. Often schools were not heated. Nicholas Murray taught at one Indian school and sent this report to the Indian Agent in Detroit. Documents like these help historians understand what teachers thought was important for Native American students in the nineteenth century.

Indian Sunday SchoolBoth native and white students attended Indian schools. The white children were mostly the children of missionaries and a few white settlers who lived around the mission. Some schools had students who lived at the school, mostly Native American children who had been orphaned. In earlier decades, Native American adults also attended schools to learn English and reading and writing. This photograph of one Sunday school (right) shows what students in these schools might have looked like.

While missions and schools treated Native Americans more fairly than government agencies, they also contributed to the decline of Native American languages and culture. For example, at one church, only persons in European dress were allowed to enter the church for Sunday worship. "Talking Indian" was strictly forbidden in both churches and schools. In an interview conducted in the 1970s, Susan Shagonaby, a student at one school recalls being beaten for "talking Indian." After all, the purpose of Missions and schools was to make Native Americans more like whites. These pages, transcribed from an interview with Shagonaby, told about life at an Indian school she attended.

Some Native Americans were unhappy with the affect that missions and schools had on native American culture. Andrew J. Blackbird wrote this in 1897:

"And every one of the little Indian urchins who are now running about in our town can speak to each other quite fluently in the English language; but I am very sorry to add that they have also learned profanity like the white children…."

Native Americans in Michigan converted to Christianity at higher rates than elsewhere in the nation. Because of this, the history of Christian missions and schools has particular importance. Many Native Americans today are still Christian, and so the legacy of Christianity remains significant in Michigan today. Indian schools still exist, although they are now usually run by the tribe, and not by white missionaries. During the 1950s and 1960s many began to teach both English and Native languages and cultures. Today, Indian schools offer a broad curriculum, educating Native American students both in English and tribal languages, and in tribal history and culture as well as white American.

Back to Native American introduction


From Interview with Mrs. Susan Shagonaby, Harbor Springs, Michigan, March 2, 1974

  1. What was your earliest memory then of your early life, some of your schooling and your friends and anything of that nature, things you can actually remember yourself. Where did you start school?
  2. Down here at Holy Childhood, they didn't have no kindergarten.
  3. Could you tell us about the school?
  4. They used to have charts, you know, different charts, and they swing those over you and you get your numbers, and your ABC's and all that, you know.
  5. Now the sister wasn't an Indian was she?
  6. No.
  7. Was she from this area or was she sent in from the Church?
  8. They were all sent in by the church.

* * *

  1. Were they sympathetic to the Indians?
  2. No they were not. They were pretty well always on the uppity.
  3. So that made some problems.
  4. It did, it made a lot of problems.
  5. Did they try to understand the Indian culture and traditions and have you talk about it and tell about it and take pride in it or anything of that nature?
  6. I don't think so. You see, what used to happen is when all of us Indian children got together we talked Indian.
  7. You still talked your Indian language?
  8. We still talked it then. And the Sisters they didn't want nobody to talk Indian. They used to get lickin' for that. They were all out to kill everything there is to do with the Indian life.

* * *

  1. Are there other things that particularly strike you about the school or how you were treated in the school or the people there, did you ever come into contact with the priest, was religion pushed hard?
  2. Ho! Ho! That priest, I'd like to hang him myself! Father Erkins.
  3. Why?
  4. I don't know. Now he was a good priest, what I'm saying is he was a good priest as far as religion was concerned. He taught us to respect religion. And there are times that he was too much over. Now my brother quit there and my father was called in to go over there to talk to the priest, father Erkins. And I quit after a while, 1920 I believe I quit there. Then I went to public school. Well, I got myself messed up with the sisters. I had Sister Cleomina, she was an old teacher, an old German general. And what they done to me was, I'd sit here in my class, and there's older classes on this side and there's middle classes on that side. That's like fifth grade, sixth grade and seventh grade and all that you know. There were about four grades to one room that was supposed to be taught by Sister Cleomina. Well I sat there, and all the children they had this room there to go by, they used to pick pins at me when they went by. And if I made a fuss, I was made to stand in a corner of the room. Well one day she sent me out because what I did, this one girl, she was a white girl, she stuck a pin, jabbed me right across here, so I got ahold of my ink well and I just slammed it at her and I hit her, I ran it on her head and dumped the ink the whole length of her. And I got sent out to stand in the hallway for an hour. But I kept right on going to the cloak room, put on my clothes and my boots and I went home.
  5. You never went back?
  6. I never went back. And then the Sisters used to come over and try to get me. My father told them, you ever come close here, I'm going to use this club on you, I don't care who you are and what you are.

* * *

  1. But you were telling about this first Indian graduate in your day, what was his name?
  2. William Kishigo. And the second Indian that graduated was Madeleine Kishigo.
  3. They were brother and sister?
  4. Yes, they were brother and sister. Then I graduated in 1927.
  5. You were the third and you graduated from Harbor High in 1927?
  6. Yes. Then everybody said at that time, well, if she can make it, what's the matter with us, that we can't make it.
  7. Why didn't more go on? Did the parents not encourage it? Were there too many obstacles?
  8. No, there was too many obstacles on their own. None of the Fisters ever made it.
  9. Did they have to go out and work and earn a living?
  10. No, it wasn't that, I don't know why.
  11. It was easier to get a job than it was to study.
  12. Their brain wasn't that brilliant I guess.
  13. Well, was there a language problem too, or did most of them know English by that time?
  14. By that time, they all know English and everyone was forgetting Indian.
  15. They were bilingual when I was growing up, because they could talk English like we would, but they could talk to each other in Indian.

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