Mary Annette Pember
Old photo of children at St. Mary’s Indian boarding school.

‘The Great Hurt’: Facing the Trauma of Indian Boarding Schools

Mary Annette Pember

“Aww, here we go again, talking about the dang boarding schools!”

This was the first thought Chally Topping-Thompson had when the topic came up in her social work class at St. Scholastica College in Duluth. Topping-Thompson of the Red Cliff Band of Ojibwe had heard hushed talk about the bad times at Indian boarding schools all her life. The talk, however, was for her, part of a long ago past of trouble and hurt. Struggling to raise a child and finish her degree in social work, however, she had more immediate problems of her own. “I thought the history of boarding schools didn’t really have any meaning for me or my generation,” she said.

The course, however, radically changed her perception about the impact of boarding schools on contemporary Native life in general and her own family in particular. She says the class was unlike any other she had attended. Rather than the typical college lectures and assigned readings, students learned parts of a reader’s theater play, The Great Hurt and later performed the play for the public.

The Great Hurt was written by retired artist and St. Scholastica College faculty member Carl Gawboy of the Bois Forte Band of Minnesota Chippewa. It contains eyewitness accounts, both historic and contemporary, of the Indian boarding school experience. Performers read aloud the words of people such as Captain Richard Pratt, credited with founding the governing philosophy of the schools. Pratt famously championed the idea that the schools should “kill the Indian to save the man.”

Topping-Thompson said learning about the history of the schools and reading the play helped her better understand the experiences and actions of her family. Many of her family members were sent to boarding schools which she believes greatly contributed to her grandmother's alcoholosim. Her grandmother, who attended Pipe Stone Indian school, was an alcoholic. She was unable to care for her children, so they were placed in non-Native foster homes. This angered Topping-Thompson, who blamed her Grandmother for being a poor mother.

“After the play, I was able to see and feel the pain of my grandmother’s experience. I came to understand how she never had her own needs met as a child and how this contributed to her being unable to nurture her own children, “ Topping-Thompson said.

Topping-Thompson was assigned to read the words of her Uncle Jim Northrup, a well-known Ojibwe poet and author from the Fond du Lac reservation whose work is included in the play. “I read his story in which he describes how the little boys would cry at night for their mothers in the dormitory. He said the crying would start with one boy, then move in waves through the children in their beds,” she said.

Gawboy wrote the play in 1972 while participating in a graduate internship. “No one wanted to hear about boarding schools back then so I threw the play in a drawer,” he recalls. Nearly forgotten, it languished in his desk for over 35 years.

A few years ago, his wife, Cynthia Donner, coordinator for tribal sites in the St. Scholastica Social Work Program, asked him if he had any suggestions for teaching students about historical trauma and the impact of boarding schools. He shared his long forgotten script with Donner and her colleagues, who immediately realized its value. Gawboy, Donner and Michelle Robertson, assistant professor of social work at St. Scholastica collaborated in updating the script.

The Great Hurt brings history to life for students,” Donner said.

The play also helped social work students gain a greater understanding of how the impact of trauma, such as that experienced at boarding schools, can be passed down through the generations. “Researching the history of the schools and then participating in the play allows students to become directly involved in their own academic inquiry,“ says Donner.

Although the initial goal was to educate students and prepare them for work in the field, Gawboy and instructors in the Social Work Department soon realized that the play had potential that reached far beyond the classroom. They began receiving requests to perform the play in various Native communities in the region.

Native people wanted a way to talk about and process the grief and trauma from the boarding school experience.


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boujoie's picture
Submitted by boujoie on
As I complete my application, preparing to submit it to our Mackinac Band of Chippewa and Ottawa Indians for review, I feel both eager and trepedatious. Eager to finally learn the specific customs & language that were kept from me; trepedatious because I don't know the customs & language that are my birthright. Growing up, hearing Daddy declare "this ole' Indian" of himself kept me curious. but I didn't understand why he wouldn't tell me more -- and why my Grandfather denied, almost until he died, that he wasn't an Indian. Shortly before he passed, after being pressed by my uncle Zane, Grampa said, "we be Anishinaabe". Daddy once told me that Gramma was terrified that her 3 Bourisseau boys would slip into their true language and not only be kicked out of the boarding school, but perhaps disappear forever. Trauma was the name of the game. Daddy began to speak with more authenticity in his latter years. He told us stories of his Grandfather secretly taking him out in the woods and teaching him the ways of the natural and spirit worlds. As he let the energy and form of his beautiful woodcarvings emerge, they displayed his intimate connection with his pieces of wood. After reading this article, I better understand the deep sense of anger I've always felt. I had nothing to pin it on -- and I really worked on it. My early alcoholism ran rampant until I eventually realized it would never be "solved". Only relying on our Higher Power has brought me the peace I craved for so long. With Blessings to us ALL, particularly during this season of Peace, Renewal and Regeneration.

kbearchief's picture
Submitted by kbearchief on
It was not just the separation of the children from their families that caused the 'historical trauma' of the boarding schools. It was the genocide that the schools embraced and forcibly denied Indian children their cultures, traditions, religions, and languages. Further, the Catholic Indian Missions created generations of Native Children who were not only physically, emotionally, verbally, culturally, and spiritually abused; they were sexually abused. All of these things led to a myriad of societal issues such as the cultural identity crisis for those that never learned their language or traditions. The historical abuses children suffered has led to an intergenerational cycle of abuse and contributed to other behavioral issues such as child abuse, domestic violence, elder abuse, alcoholism and drug addiction, suicide and other emotional disorders that are tearing at the fiber of our Indian Communities today. All of these things can be traced back to the Catholic Indian Missions and the BIA Boarding Schools.

sonnyskyhawk's picture
Submitted by sonnyskyhawk on
The near annihilation of our sustenance, the buffalo, our way of life as we knew it and the Boarding School fiasco, were all part and parcel of the U.S. Governments genocidal agenda. We survived it against all odds, and today we are still bearing the residual effects of that trauma, but we continue to move forward and improve our standing. We are a relevant people of this the 21st. Century, and we will not be denied. It has never been part of our DNA to give up, and we never will. Aho.