Reclaiming My Family's Story: Cultural Trauma and Indigenous Ways of Knowing



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This dissertation project is an Indigenous autoethnographic study of my own family’s story of survival through the Native American boarding school system. The creation of this document is in part an academic exercise, but also an effort to reclaim pieces of my family’s experience that were purposefully silenced and erased from mainstream hegemonic nationalist narratives. The process of extracting the history of both the Holy Childhood School of Jesus and the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School through the collection of texts and oral histories provides insight to how the identity of my family was influenced by my own grandmother’s experience and also serves as a method of ceremony and reclamation. Essentially, this dissertation is my own personal ceremony in reclaiming my family’s histories, stories and culture and a method of healing from generations of cultural genocide and forced assimilation. The central question surrounding my dissertation is: how does a traumatic and culturally suppressing experience such as the Native American boarding school system affect and influence the identity development and understanding of an Anishinaabe individual and their descendants? My goal for this dissertation was to understand not only how the boarding school experience may have affected those who physically attended a Native American boarding school, but how the experience has come to affect the children and grandchildren of those who attended. Additional sub-questions include: How does an Anishinaabe family affected by the boarding school system understand and express their individual and collective identities? Are they proud and/or ashamed of their Native American heritage? Can a process of cultural reclamation begin with the sharing of stories and the collection of oral histories, both pertaining to general Indigenous identification and boarding school experiences? Within these inquiries, I explore the role storytelling and collective memory play in the formation of Indigenous individual and ancestral identity. In order to situate my research object within the context of cultural trauma and Indigenous ways of knowing, I draw upon scholarship from four bodies of research, which include: the institutional history of the Native American boarding school system, cultural trauma, collective memory, and Indigenous research epistemologies through storytelling practices. This dissertation collects and synthesizes the histories of the Holy Childhood School of Jesus and the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School in order to create a narrative of the Michigan Indian boarding school experience that has not been told before. There currently is not any written narrative that concerns the Holy Childhood School of Jesus or Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School and the influences both institutions had on a number of Native American tribes in the state of Michigan. This dissertation works to place the historical boarding school experiences in the context of contemporary familial narratives, experiences and ways of identifying. I describe the method of my dissertation as an “Indigenous auto ethnographic” project because my theoretical framework is grounded in Indigenous research methods and ways of knowing, which exist within, against and beyond mainstream western frameworks. My gathering of evidence consisted of employing both auto ethnographic and oral histories as well as archival work through the examination of texts and materials. During the interview process with my family members, I practiced an Anishinaabe cultural etiquette in which I presented each interviewee with the gift of tobacco and we performed a brief prayer and smudging before the interview process began. The majority of my interviews were conducted in a collective setting in which multiple family members participated all at once. This process is not only a reflection of Indigenous research methods, but it is also a way that I am able to give back to my family and community as an Anishinaabekwe scholar. I would like to acknowledge my tribal community and family members as co-authors of this dissertation.