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Anishinaabe, Bob Hazen, shares story

Native American man soars with eagles

 Three federal residential schools for Native Americans once operated in Michigan. Bob Hazen shared his experiences in the Harbor Springs facility with the Northern Skies District Conference.

Senior Content Editor

Bob Hazen poem

In May of 2021, the unmarked gravesites of hundreds of indigenous children were found in British Columbia, buried near the boarding school they were forced to attend.

The residential school system, an effort to assimilate Native American children to white culture, was not unique to Canada. The U.S. government implemented a similar program. A total of 27 states, including Michigan, were home to such boarding schools. Three federal facilities existed in Michigan: The Holy Childhood School of Jesus in Harbor Springs; the Old St. Joseph Orphanage and School near Baraga; and the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School in Mt. Pleasant.

The August 16, 2021 edition of Michigan Advance shared a report by Laina G. Stebbins, “Pain and resilience: The legacy of Native American boarding schools in Michigan.” Stebbins quoted Leora Tadgerson, a Bay Mills Indian Community citizen and director of diversity and inclusion at Northern Michigan University. Tadgerson stated, “It was quite literally more expensive to exterminate Native Americans than to educate them, so they educated them.”

Tadgerson also remarked, “It’s really a lot for people to be hearing about these little ones that are buried [in Canada], but we don’t talk a lot about or even pay attention to the ones that survived and are living today that have to deal with that intergenerational trauma.”

The 2021 Northern Skies District Conference held November 6 in Marquette did pay attention as they listened to the story from Bob Hazen, a member of Ewen United Methodist Church and elder of the Lac Vieux Desert Chippewa Tribe.

Hazen, also quoted in the Michigan Advance article, told the district conference his experiences and feelings while growing up in the residential boarding system. When he was five years old, a priest and a sheriff came to his grandmother’s home. They took B0b and eight other children on a bus and then a ferry south to the lower peninsula. He first resided at the Holy Childhood School of Jesus in Harbor Springs, MI, later at Boysville, a Catholic school in Clinton, MI.

Bob best tells the story. These are his words.

In the summer of 1955, I was five years old. A government agent, a Jesuit priest, started coming around my grandfather’s house. We, as a family, were living with them at the time. We, as children, did not know the events that would change our lives forever.

The government and the Catholic Church had a program in place since 1844 that gave them the right to take children away from their homes and place them in orphanages or Catholic schools.

This program was designed to assimilate Indian kids into white society. Their motto was, “kill the Indian, spare the child.” Our elders of the tribe were threatened with jail if they refused to surrender their children.

Bob Hazen in Marquette
Bob Hazen shares the story of his experience at The Holy Childhood School of Jesus in Harbor Springs, MI. Click here to listen to his account. Join this video of the Northern Skies Conference at 1:06:28. Superintendent Scott Harmon introduces Bob.

So, in August, the priest came back with a station wagon and asked us if we wanted to go to town to get ice cream. Who wouldn’t! So, all us kids headed to town with him. But, he told us we had to stop at the church first. He and another priest began baptizing us. Heck, for ice cream, they could pour water on us all day!

When I got home, I told my grandmother what happened, and she told me they were trying to steal my soul. I didn’t know what she meant at the time.

In September, the priest and the sheriff came back. The priest and the sheriff would take us to a reform school with a bus. There were nine of us kids at the time. The other families had to give up their children, as well.

The bus traveled through the Upper Peninsula, picking up kids from different towns and reservations. They took us all on a ferry across the Straits of Mackinaw to Harbor Springs, about 300 miles from our home.

When we got off the bus and saw the nuns for the first time, it scared me. The older boys talked in our Ojibwe language, and the nuns started slapping them around. We were told not to talk in our language, only in English. It was just the beginning of the abuse we were about to experience.

The nuns took us into a big room and told us we would get our hair cut. At the time, I had long hair and really curly. The boys were cut bald, and the girls got page cuts. After they cut our hair, they put white powder on our heads to de-louse us. It was very traumatic for all of us.

They took away our clothes and gave us different ones, even though our parents brought us new clothes.

Wherever we went, we had to walk single file, Indian style. If we talked or whispered, we would get slapped. The older children who talked back were beaten severely.

A lot of the foods we ate or tried to eat we never experienced before. Indian kids never drank milk, and some of us younger ones messed our pants. That called for a spanking. Kids who refused to eat the food were slapped or punched. We had to pray before and after these so-called meals.

There were sexual predators among the nuns. They would pick some good-looking boy or girl and abuse them. I will not tell you the details of my own experience with the nuns. But I will say it was confusing to me. I always wondered if the nuns could be so cruel to us physically, mentally, and sexually, what was their God like?

I spent eight years in that place and two years in another place called Boysville, down by Clinton, MI.

The education I received was second to none. You know those Catholics. The price I paid was devastating to our tribe as a whole. They broke the family bonds and turned everyone into alcoholics.

Where there was love … hate, anger, and rage took their place.

Where there was respect … distrust and resentment took over.

All good feelings were shut off both from parents and elders. Kids vowed to themselves that no one was ever going to hurt them again. Not physically, mentally, or spiritually. The nuns beat us for believing in our Creator and replaced it with their God. It left a wound in our soul that can never be erased.

Self-pity is a feeling I cannot have. It will only destroy people’s ambitions if they choose to dwell in it. As the saying goes, “I felt sorry because I had no shoes until I met a man with no feet.” Treat people the way you would like to be treated. Respect them!

The school taught us to hate ourselves for who we were and what we believed in. They instilled in us great fear and shame that is still prevalent today. When you are traumatized, your be behavior and psychology get stuck at that age. When you come under stress or a difficult situation, you revert back to the age you were when you were first traumatized.

The nuns taught us that being an Indian was bad. We should despise ourselves for who we were. Self-hatred, low self-esteem, and great shame were instilled in us.

While this was happening to the Indian children, the white children were being indoctrinated by television. Cowboy and Indian shows were on every day and night. They heard things like, “Dirty, rotten redskins!” “Dirty, stinking Injuns.” And the only good Indian was a dead Indian. There were about 50 western shows on T.V. each week. What do you suppose happened to a young mind seeing and hearing all the bad things about the Indian people?

A little about my life after being in the Catholic school. In 1964, I came back to Watersmeet (Upper Peninsula) to finish school. Yes, I am a Nimrod. None of my family of seven boys ever graduated from high school. I wanted to be the first one. In 1967, I accomplished that first dream.

In 1968, I was drafted into the army and eventually ended up in Vietnam, where I spent 11 months, 22 days, and 3 hours. It was pretty scary. If a person tells you he wasn’t scared, he wasn’t there.

After Vietnam, I went to Milwaukee, WI, where I went to college to learn blue-collar skills. I became a welder, electrician, diesel mechanic, auto mechanic, and good in hydraulics. The company I worked for built hydraulic cranes. In 1978, I went to Iraq to put a crane together and help build a city there. I was over there when the war with Iran started.

Today, my wife and I live in Bruce Crossing, where I help veterans with forms to get their benefits from the government.

While Indians were being killed by the hundreds on T.V., we were in the Catholic schools being taught that Indians and their ways were bad. It is lucky that there are still Indians today.

Television is a powerful thing. I know that as a fact. When we saw television for the first time, it almost cost me my life. My brother, who was a year older than me, saw some cowboys on T.V. hanging an Indian for stealing a horse. So, we went out to play, and my brother decided to hang me. It was a good thing my older brothers were around to save me, or I wouldn’t be standing here today. I am not making excuses for people. I am just trying to shed light upon the culture back then. It was a perfect storm that put the Native Americans on a path of self-destruction.

When I became the ruler of my world, I figured if God was that mean and I was going to hell, as the nuns always told us, I wanted nothing to do with him. I became an alcoholic at a very young age. I was very abusive to people and resented authority. I wonder how many others went down the same life path I did? How many committed suicide or are now in prison?

I am very lucky to be standing here today, a better man than I was yesterday. I want to thank a lot of people for helping me on my life journey. My God. My wife who stands by me. Pastor Ted and my church members. The VA hospital and A.A. groups I belong to.

The historic trauma I experienced as a child is still with me today. I learned that if I could acknowledge that it happened to us, I could change its hold on me. What I learned was how historical trauma caused me to react very negatively to people, places, and things. I was able to change to be more assertive and more positive in my life as a whole.

For the past 12 years, I have held a wellness group every Thursday at the clinic in Watersmeet. The Child Doctor, the Judge, and the Probation Officer also participate in the group.

When my brother Frank was dying, it was an awesome sight. Bonnie and I observed spirits coming into his room. When one person came into his room, my brother introduced him to Bonnie and me. He took my hand and put it into the spirit’s hand. My brother told us the spirit’s name, but neither Bonnie nor I can remember it. But from that day forward, I believed in God and knew that there is life after this world. I am truly grateful to my brother for showing Bonnie and me that there is more to life than what you see. My brother had over 20 years in the A.A. program. He and I did the 24 hours daily readings together for the last three months of his life.

Now my program is complete. I am complete. My spirit is alive thanks to the A.A. program. But most of all, I thank God for showing me and giving me a new and happy life.

~ For more about Indian boarding schools across the nation, click here.