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Sokaogon Chippewa starts difficult task of identifying children forced to attend boarding schools

Sokaogon Chippewa Tribal workers review and digitize boarding school records at Marquette University.
Sokaogon Chippewa Community
Sokaogon Chippewa Tribal workers review and digitize boarding school records at Marquette University.

Some day, the Sokaogon Chippewa Community hopes to have a full list of all Tribal children forcibly taken to Indian boarding schools in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Compiling that list – and providing answers for current Tribal members – could take years. But it now at least has a start.

As part of an attempt to force the assimilation of Native children into white culture, the United States government operated or supported 408 boarding schools, largely in the last decades of the 1800s and first decades of the 1900s.

At least ten of those schools were in Wisconsin.

U.S. Department of the Interior

But records of the schools – and what became of the children who attended them – are shoddy and haphazard.

According to Michael LaRonge, the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Sokaogon Chippewa Community, children who attended the schools “were [often] not considered ‘Native enough’ to fit back into the community and they weren’t, essentially, ‘white enough’ to fit into society outside of some subservient roles.”

As such, many faded from history.

Now, the Tribe has started the long process of trying to identify all Tribal children who attended boarding schools.

It recently digitized the records of Wisconsin’s Catholic boarding schools. Those files were housed at Marquette University.

LaRonge and volunteers still must painstakingly find, review, and sort the records of other church-operated and federally-operated schools, searching for Sokaogon children.

“There’s a lot of lost people, basically,” LaRonge said. “This is just one group, the boarding school children are one group that might be possible to reidentify their locations.”

LaRonge anticipates the project will uncover some somber results.

“The writing’s on the wall. I think it’s pretty clear, based on what happened in already in Canada, that we are going to identify unmarked gravesites at some of these boarding schools and then have to deal with, do you move any of those individuals? Can you identify them by person?”

In May 2021, scientists found what they believed to be about 200 unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in Canada. The discovery prompted more investigations at Canadian schools, many of which identified possible unmarked graves.

In 2022, a U.S. Department of the Interior report made an initial finding of at least 53 marked and unmarked burial sites at school locations. That number will likely rise as more data is uncovered.

That report, however, stopped short of identifying the thousands and thousands of individual children who attended the schools.

“It left the Tribes to kind of fill in that gap,” LaRonge said. “That’s a pretty big gap.”

Nonetheless, Sokaogon Chippewa Tribal leaders decided to try to identify their own members who attended boarding schools.

That identification may be a first step toward addressing trauma passed through the generations.

“This might be one avenue to help Tribal members address some things that they didn’t understand was a result of this stuff, that their families went through back in the day,” LaRonge said. “It’s a path forward, but it’s a path forward to some sad news.”

Ben worked as the Special Topics Correspondent at WXPR from September 2019 until November 2021. He now contributes occasionally to WXPR. During his full-time employment, his main focus was reporting on environment and natural resources issues in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula as part of The Stream, a weekly series.
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