GARNET, Mich. (WJMN) – Michigan has a rich presence and history of indigenous tribes and their cultures. However, much of that history is full of pain and trauma, this includes the past of residential Indian boarding schools.
The U.S. government established Indian boarding schools in the late 19th century. The duration of Indian boarding schools ran from 1860 until the late 1900s. Thousands of indigenous children were taken from their homes during this time period. There were three Indian boarding schools in Michigan: Holy Name of Jesus Indian Mission in Baraga, Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School, and Holy Childhood in Harbor Springs.
One of the survivors of Holy Childhood is Linda Raye Cobe. Cobe was born in 1958 and grew up in Watersmeet, Mich. Indigenous blood runs deep in her veins: her father Ojibwe (Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa), and her mother Oneida (Wisconsin).
“There was a lot of alcoholism in the family. We were very poor, tarp paper shacks, no running water, or electricity, an outhouse,” said Cobe.
She grew up with her two older brothers and two younger sisters. Some of her earliest memories were with them, running barefoot through the woods and playing in nearby creeks and rivers.
“We didn’t have any toys, no trucks, no dolls, no bikes. Nothing like that. But we were always in the woods, so we made and found our own toys. Bows and arrows and rocks and wood and whatever we could find to make. We were playing in the water and picking apples and berries and things like that running around and just having fun being kids.”
When Cobe was five years old, that’s when everything changed.
“I remember the priest coming, I don’t know if it was a priest or a brother because there were a couple of different ones that would come and round us all up like towards the end of summer. I guess all of us would try and run out, scatter into the woods and try to hide behind trees and everything,” explained Cobe. “They would just wait there until we came out, and sometimes I guess they had bags of candy trying to entice us with that to get us into the car. But I remember the adults being around and not interfering, but it was like a time where the family was gathered but they were putting up any, holding us back, just kind of accepting the fact that we were going to be leaving.”
Cobe was taken to Holy Childhood and spent one year there, but the experiences she endured there will impact her for the rest of her life.
“For the longest time, the night times were the worst for me because that’s when everyone would start crying for their parents. And you were manhandled: shoved, grabbed, yanked, shoved. You were slapped a lot like cuffed to the back of the head or backhanded in the mouth or slapped in the face or worse. It was really run like a military boot camp, the nuns were so strict and everything had to be perfect. It felt like you were in a prison and there was no contact from home. Our parents didn’t have the money to come see us anyway but they made us write home and they would tell us exactly what to write: ‘Dear mom and dad, we like it here, the nuns are so nice to us.'”
Indigenous children at Holy Childhood and at hundreds of other Indian boarding schools across the nation were stripped of their culture and heritage.
“Going to boarding school, they didn’t indoctrinate us like this is how you’re going to be a little white kid. They didn’t have to do that because the whole daily routine was structured so that this is how Europeans live and clean and eat. This is how they dress, and what they learn, which was a totally different upbringing than what we would have gotten at home. My dad was fluent in Objibway he could speak many languages but that was his first language.”
Cobe left Holy Childhood in 1965 and returned home to her father and brothers in Watersmeet. The following summer, Social Services took Cobe and her sister. They were placed into foster homes and adopted by white families in Baraga.
“That family I was with was always degrading about my father and my mother, ‘Oh he’s just a drunk, your mother’s a tramp.’ They really didn’t want me to have anything to do with my relatives. I think my father might have [come] to see us maybe two, or three times during that whole time I was living with them. So my mom and dad pretty much gave up their rights to us they didn’t have the money, the resources to get their kids back. The family I was with, though, our adoptive dad was a bad alcoholic and he started abusing my sister and [me].”
Cobe eventually graduated from high school, got married, and had four kids. During all of this, Cobe was struggling with her self-identity.
“It’s like I didn’t have a purpose here, that no one cared or loved me. And the way I’ve been treated all of my life was even more proof that maybe what everyone was saying was true. Like the nuns ‘You’re nothing but a stinky, dirty, good-for-nothing Indian. And just the way they treated you like you were less than human. And we were just kids, just little kids. And I guess that’s where a lot of the pain is, is that our childhood was stolen and you’ll never get that back.”
As she got older, she returned to the reservation in Watersmeet to learn more about the indigenous culture that she lost so many years ago.
“I couldn’t speak the language I didn’t know the customs so you feel like you don’t fit in. You don’t fit in the white world because they look at you and they know ‘Oh there’s an Indian woman.’ But you don’t know what that means So when you go back to the reservation then and they look at you and they say ‘Why don’t you know your culture?’ and so you feel like you don’t fit in there. It’s like where do I fit in? why are we here? and who are you? But those answers are coming. The more I learn about my culture the more I feel like I’m getting my identity back, and now I can use my education to bring about awareness and help other victims of abuse.”
Holy Childhood closed in 1983. Cobe is now 63 years old living in Garnet with her husband and their dog. Although she still experiences intergenerational trauma to this day, she finds strength in being the voice for her ancestors and other victims of abuse.
“We’re so resilient that our ancestors are still here walking with us and showing us the way, and bringing us back home.”
Back in 2015, Cobe self-published an autobiography titled “Red, White, and Blues.” To purchase the book, please contact Linda Cobe at (906) 595-7365.