On November 1, the first day of National Native American Heritage Month, the University of Minnesota made a pledge to Native American students: The university would cover at least 80 percent, and in some cases 100 percent, of tuition for students whose families earn under $125,000 a year.
Called the Native American Promise Tuition Program, the initiative comes 61 years after the university’s Morris campus opened its doors. Since its inception, the University of Minnesota Morris has offered tuition at no cost to Native American students. Unlike the newest program, all Native American students are eligible for free tuition, not just members of the 11 tribal nations in Minnesota.
And at Morris, no-cost tuition for Native American students is not just a promise; it’s the law. Before there was a University of Minnesota Morris, the grounds held a boarding school for Native American children. The tuition waiver is guaranteed by the very land the Morris campus sits upon.
Visitors to the Morris campus can see what’s left standing of the boarding school when they pass the Multi-Ethnic Center, formerly the boy’s dorm. A sign outside the building proclaims, “This building is all that remains of the former Morris Industrial School for Indians.”
While this may be true physically, Native American students at Morris can attest that the memory of history lingers longer than brick and mortar.
At the Morris Industrial School for Indians, Native American children from tribal nations in and around Minnesota were banned from speaking their home language or practicing their cultural traditions. The boarding school remained in operation for over 20 years before converting into an agricultural high school and then, in 1960, a public university.
Across America, the central tenet of Native American boarding schools could be summed up by a motto from military officer Richard Henry Pratt: “Kill the Indian, save the man.” The Morris Industrial School was one of Minnesota’s 16 boarding schools for Native American children. Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict campuses also held boarding schools, run by the Order of St. Benedict.
But unlike at these other universities, more than a quarter of Morris’s current student body is Native American. Morris is the only Native American–serving, nontribal institution in the upper Midwest, and the only one in the country located on the grounds of a former boarding school.
For several years, administration and student leaders have discussed how to better acknowledge the school’s history. In 2018, one student’s research into local newspaper archives uncovered death notices of boarding school students, tied to illnesses including typhoid and diphtheria. The discovery raised the possibility that boarding school students might be buried on the grounds of the Morris campus.
Then, in late May, the Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc First Nations of Canada confirmed that 215 Indigenous children were buried at the former Kamloops Residential School. The discovery thrust boarding-school stories of abuse and forced assimilation into a worldwide spotlight.
Deb Haaland, Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, vowed to address the “intergenerational impact” of this history by announcing a federal investigation into the more than 350 boarding schools once operated by the government. (Haaland, an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna, is the first Native cabinet secretary in U.S. history.)
Haaland’s announcement brings a new sense of urgency for Native American students and Morris alumni, who see this moment as a chance for the university to actively make amends. The student group Circle of Nations Indigenous Association is petitioning the administration to search the school grounds for unmarked graves. A recent surge of supporters propelled the petition to over 30,000 signatures, and it has been steadily gaining traction since its July 2021 launch.
As the school prepares for the federal investigation, the community is grappling with how to respond in the present. How should the history of Morris be remembered? And what does healing look like for American Indian students and alum?
At Morris school, two decades of the ‘white man’s way’
The fourth floor of the campus library holds the university’s archives. There, most of what is known about the Morris Industrial School for American Indians is stored in the form of letters, attendance logs, and government reports.
When visitors or researchers drop in, the archivist Stephen Gross pulls file after file, with records already stapled together. He’s done this numerous times for student and faculty projects: Each file has been extensively categorized with colorful sticky notes left by previous students.
The sticky notes flag documents that seem to give some hint of what Native American students experienced. First-hand accounts from students are rare, because just a few of the letters actually come from the estimated 2,000 students that passed through the boarding school. Most of what’s in the archives was authored by white educators and government officials.
The clearest summary of the boarding school’s history comes from Bert Ahern, a former history professor of Morris. In a 1984 article published in the magazine Minnesota History, titled “Indian Education and Bureaucracy: The School at Morris,” he details the structure of the school as it changed hands through the years.
Ahern describes the nearly 300-acre campus as located on a “wind-swept knoll” in western Minnesota. The Sisters of Mercy, an order of Roman Catholic nuns from Ireland, first opened the Morris Industrial School for Indians in 1887, under the lead of Mother Mary Joseph. The sisters took on both Native American and white orphaned children, mostly girls of middle-school to early-high-school age. Joseph initially received a government contract to teach 12 children; in five years, the number increased to 85 students, along with 15 staff members.
Most of the students at the school came from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, in North Dakota, and were of Ojibwe and Métis descent. (The Metis are a distinct group in Canada with a mixed Indigenous and European background.)
Joseph arrived at the Turtle Mountain reservation during a time of intense poverty and starvation. The bison were disappearing, in part due railroad construction and the military effort to cut off a key food source for Native Americans. The federal government drastically reduced the size of the reservation and neglected to provide aid to the tribe, Gross said.
“The times are really very, very, very desperate,” Gross said of the era. “Part of the pressure to send children to Morris has to do with that poverty and that neglect.”
In Ahern’s account, the food at the boarding school was “above standard” and each child had their own “bed, wash basin, soap, and towels.” Students divided their time at the school between educational studies and “industries”—boys working in the fields with livestock, girls learning to cook, do laundry, and make clothes.
Based on his analysis of records kept by the nuns, Ahern writes that there seemed to be fewer complaints under the Sisters of Mercy than when the federal government operated the school. He found few documented incidents of “disciplinary problems” or students running away.
However, come summer break, Joseph delayed the process of returning children to their homes until she received government reimbursement, in advance, for students’ travel expenses. Ahern writes that Joseph often failed to receive timely reimbursements from the government. This angered students and parents; practically, it also supported the government’s effort to separate Native American children and their parents.
Gross’s research has led him to conclude that Joseph likely did not want to send children home so she would have more time to assimilate them into the industrial school culture.
“The work routine and the academic routine looks an awful lot like the kinds of routines in industrial schools for European immigrant children,” Gross said. “Obviously, she’s not very sensitive to cultural differences, whatsoever.”
The Sisters of Mercy make way for the Office of Indian Affairs
By 1895, the school had 103 students, making it the largest contract Native American school in the state. However, the federal government was preparing to secularize Native American boarding schools and phase out contracts with religious institutions.
Congress began reducing appropriations to such schools, adding to the Sisters of Mercy’s perpetual debt problem. According to Ahern, diminishing funding from the federal government plagued the boarding school throughout the rest of its years.
The federal government cut its contract with the Morris Industrial School in July of 1896. That summer, the remaining 59 students were sent home. By the next year, the Sisters of Mercy had officially sold the school to the Office of Indian Affairs.
With Morris now a government-run boarding school, officials focused on recruiting from tribes in Minnesota—initially from the White Earth Nation, according to Ahern.
Students from the closed St. Paul’s Indian Boarding School—in the town of Clontarf, about 20 miles away—now shifted to Morris, increasing the student body. From 1901 to 1908, the school’s enrollment averaged around 160 students. And for the first time, some of the staff taking care of the children were Native American.
A new era of secular education arrived at Morris, but one still focused on erasing Indigenous culture and language.
“Only English was to be spoken; the curriculum emphasized the value of the white man’s way and at least implicitly the evil of the child’s home,” Ahern writes.
Some students went on “outings,” modeled after the Carlise and Hampton boarding schools on the East Coast. Ahern describes these trips as “a last step toward assimilating the Indian youth into white culture.” On at least two occasions, Morris sent the boys off campus to various jobs, such as working on a farm or a printing office.
The prevailing philosophy in government-run Native American education maintained that women were the “forces for civilization,” according to Ahern. As a result, housekeeping continued to be a central part of the girls’ experience at Morris.
Parents did not always let their children go without a fight. Records show the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe staunchly refused the overtures of one superintendent, when he arrived on the reservation to recruit students.
In a report to Washington D.C., then-superintendent William Johnson wrote, “My requests were all met with ‘no’ and trivial arguments that amount to nothing such as ‘We can take care of our children’ or ‘they might get sick and die’ and ‘they couldn’t get along without them’…I have never anywhere met with the stubborn resistance I had to face with [these] Mille Lacs Indians.”
Delays in returning children to their families persisted under new leadership. Johnson refused to send students home for vacation, worried they would leave for another school.
Johnson faced numerous other complaints. A father from White Earth accused Johnson of raping his two daughters, and an inspector wrote that Johnson had locked a student in the dungeon for “disorderly conduct.” (Johnson was later dismissed.)
Ahern writes that a typhoid epidemic later struck the school, leaving in its wake 37 ill students and the death of one child. As funding from the federal government dwindled each year, the quality of students’ food and clothing decreased. For years, raw sewage was deposited just yards from campus, before the school finally paid to install a sewage system.
After 22 years in operation, the Morris Industrial School closed in 1909. Congress transferred ownership of the school to the state on the condition “that Indian pupils shall at all times be admitted to such school free of charge for tuition and on terms of equality with white pupils.”
The campus later reopened as agricultural high school before becoming the University of Minnesota Morris in 1960.
An intergenerational story
For Hazen Fairbanks, the history of Native American boarding schools is family history.
Fairbanks, 29, grew up in Bemidji, surrounded by family. Under a big blue umbrella in her backyard, she told Sahan Journal that when she thinks of her childhood, her mind goes to spending time at her grandparents’ home on the Leech Lake reservation. She recalled running around barefoot and building little homes in the woods with her cousins.
The erasure of Native American culture has been a thread throughout the generations in her family. Her grandparents, Jack and Jackie Fairbanks, were forced to attend boarding schools as children. Jack went to Red Lake Mission School until eighth grade. He was assigned to a boarding school in Flandreau, South Dakota, where Fairbanks’s grandmother went. But he refused to stay, hopping the train and riding it 270 miles back to the reservation.
Her grandparents deeply valued education; Fairbanks said Jack was one of the first Native men to graduate from Bemidji State University. He worked hard to send his six children to a private Catholic school in Bemidji.
“Even though I struggled in school and it was so hard—and I worked extremely hard for the grades that I had—I was gonna go to college,” Fairbanks said. “That was an expectation.”
But her grandfather’s experience with education carries trauma—family memories that she says remain “so near and close. This is recent history.”
Fairbanks’s great-grandmother, Annie Murry, attended Morris Industrial School for Indians. Fairbanks confirmed this when her family made a trip to the fourth floor of the Briggs Library. There, they found enrollment records with Murry’s name.
The document shows Murry was 10 years old when she attended the boarding school, then operated by the federal government. But that’s about all Fairbanks’ family knows about Murry’s time at Morris.
According to family accounts, Murry said very little about what she experienced at the school; Fairbanks’s grandparents rarely talked about it, either. Her grandmother would make occasional comments about learning to sew and cook at Morris. Her nickname there, she recalled, was “Legs.” Fairbanks’s grandfather didn’t discuss the experience at all.
Fairbanks studied at the University of Minnesota Morris as an undergraduate from 2010 to 2014. At first, Fairbanks said she resisted attending Morris, a school with a sizable Native American student population. “I felt very ashamed; I did not feel proud to be Indigenous,” Fairbanks recalled.
But her family sat her down and told her they couldn’t afford to send her anywhere else.
To her surprise, it was at Morris that Fairbanks said she could unravel the racism she’d internalized at the majority-white public schools in Bemidji. She met other Native American students who were unapologetically proud of their background. Through studying sociology, psychology, and Native American history, she learned the words to describe the oppression her family has faced.
Fairbanks said she and her cousin, who also attended Morris, were able to “really reclaim, potentially, what Annie Murry lost when she was there.”
“When I think about how Morris was a literal site of my family’s cultural and physical genocide, and also the place where I was able to go and for the first time, feel proud of my identity, like, it’s such a weird dynamic,” Fairbanks said. “Something in that feels really divine to me, and also healing.”
Public service and student government were a defining part of her undergrad experience. She spent all four years of college involved at the nonprofit Students Today Leaders Forever. In her last year of school, Fairbanks served as the Morris student body president.
Becca Gercken, a professor in English and Native American and Indigenous Studies, has seen other students encounter similar challenges and opportunities for growth. “Morris is unique. And the thing that is so different about doing this work here is it’s not abstract for anybody, right?” Gercken said. “It’s not just knowledge from a book. We have students here whose ancestors went to that school. And even if they didn’t go to that school, they went to a school like it.”
Gercken has co-taught summer courses where students work with the library’s archival material to create stories about the Morris Industrial School.
“The original school there was designed to destroy any record of Indigenous cultures and peoples and our stories,” Gercken said. “For me, as an Indigenous person, the most meaningful part of my work is that I get the opportunity to teach Native studies,” at this fraught location. “And so to me, it’s the best place in the world for me to be doing this work.”
Living amid history
Across the present-day campus, students see visible signs of Indigenous cultures interwoven with day-to-day campus life.
Inside the Multi-Ethnic Center’s student lounge, students Claudia Iron Hawk and Dylan Young can point to a glossy poster with a flag representing each of the tribal nations that students have come from. The two laugh because the poster is notably missing their own tribes, the Cheyenne River Lakota and Rosebud Sioux.
“My tribe’s flag is in the dining hall,” Iron Hawk said. For Young, the option is there: “For some reason my tribe prints flags with people’s names on them. So if I want to fly ‘This is Dylan,’ I can get it.”
Over the summer, Iron Hawk and Dylan Young offered Sahan Journal an informal tour of the campus. Climbing the stairs to the second floor, the students entered the Native American Student Success Center. On the table were bundles of cedar leaves, sage, and tobacco that Young had assembled to give to the incoming Native American first years.
For Iron Hawk, Morris isn’t the same as a tribal college. But it’s where she’s comfortable and where her family could afford to send her.
“This is where I made my first ribbon skirt,” Iron Hawk said.
Iron Hawk said the realization hits her randomly of what her campus used to be. Simply traversing the school grounds is a different experience for Native American students, and now they have to contend with the news of mass graves in Canada, she said.
“A broader national conversation comes up like with Deb Haaland, and searching the boarding schools—it’s just random,” she said. “You have to face intergenerational trauma that may have affected your family or your community in ways that you’re not used to.”
The archival research performed by a Morris student and faculty member suggests as many as seven Native students from the boarding-school era could be buried on the campus. According to records, when students died at the boarding school, their remains were returned to their parents. But no such documentation exists for these seven students.
As co-chairs of the student group Circle of Nations Indigenous Association, Young and Iron Hawk launched a petition requesting that Morris hire an Indigenous specialist in ground-penetrating radar. According to the petition, the students want the University to search the school for “the unmarked burial sites of the two-to-seven Indian boarding school victims.”
The petition also asks that the school collaborate with tribal nations and the Indigenous campus community during the search.
“We’d rather not wait for the Department of Interior’s federal Indian boarding school investigation, because who knows when that’s going to be done?” Young said. “It’s the university’s moral responsibility to return these children to their homes and to their families. And it should have been done a long time ago.”
It’s not clear where exactly the children could be buried. A letter in the Morris library archives mentions that two of the Sisters of Mercy were buried in the cemetery where “the ground sloped down meeting another slope.” But it provides no further details. Before the religious order withdrew, the nun’s letter continues, Joseph had the bodies of the sisters transferred to a nearby Catholic cemetery in Morris.
The university has not confirmed any unmarked graves on campus, according to Janet Ericksen, the campus’s acting chancellor. “However, we can also not say with certainty that no such cemetery existed,” Ericksen wrote in a June letter to students and staff.
For students in the Circle of Nations Indigenous Association, the question is not whether children remain buried on the Morris campus. They want the administration to proceed with the assumption that they are.
“We think that searching the school would be a huge way of changing the conversation around how the university talks about its history, how it deals with it, how it teaches it,” Young said.
The university turns to tribal nations
In an interview with Sahan Journal, Janet Ericksen said that the school has worked in many ways to acknowledge its history: explaining the origins of the tuition waiver, holding healing ceremonies, and establishing the American Indian studies program and other grant-funded programs.
Speaking to Sahan Journal in her office overlooking campus, Ericksen seemed to support the position of the student group: The search for student remains should happen. It’s just a matter of when. The first step, Ericksen said, is to consult affected tribal nations.
Ericksen said, “I think the decision about whether or not to do ground-penetrating radar cannot be mine. It cannot be the institution’s. It has to be the tribal nations who are most directly affected by this boarding school history, what they want to do, what they decide is the right next step.”
That discussion process has proceeded slowly. Tribes are juggling a plethora of pressing issues, the pandemic first and foremost. There’s also the matter of protocols and jurisdictional rules if remains are discovered, Ericksen said.
“I think that the University of Minnesota Morris has an obligation to keep talking about the history of this site, the history of this place,” Ericksen said. “The more we can learn, I think the more we can move toward healing.”
What the search really costs tribal nations
Tamara St. John, the archivist for the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate of the Lake Traverse Reservation, said the Morris administration and the tribe’s Historic Preservation Office have been in contact about a possible search. St. John said she appreciates that the school is reaching out to affected tribes and has done its own research.
“People usually deny that this was even possible. The fact that they are already in that direction speaks to a good intent,” said St. John, who also represents District 1 in the South Dakota House of Representatives (that is, the far northeast corner of the state).
St. John said she wants the tribal nation to be able to conduct their own investigation at Morris. The Historic Preservation Office has access to archaeologists, drones, and ground-penetrating radar.
The tribe has been working on a separate search of the lands where the Tekakwitha Boarding School once stood, in Sisseton, South Dakota. The process has been expensive, St. John noted: The costs are in the range of $80,000.
“That’s not something we’re capable of absorbing,” she said.
St. John adds that local conditions—tree cover, buildings, soil type—may demand different search methods. St. John anticipates the Historic Preservation Office may need at least five different approaches, including the ground-penetrating radar, to search the Tekakwitha site.
But technology presents just one barrier to coping with the past. “Somebody with the best of interests—they don’t see through the lens that a tribal person might,” St. John said. There’s a difference between studying this history and living it.
“It’s really about empowerment: to take control of telling our stories and not letting other people speak for us,” she said.
The need to know more
Morris faculty say the scarcity of information about what Native American students experienced at the boarding school presents some challenges to initiating a search immediately.
Much of the existing scholarship about boarding schools in North America has been conducted by Indigenous scholars, like Denise Lajimodiere. Her book Stringing Rosaries: The History, the Unforgivable, and the Healing of Northern Plains American Indian Boarding School Survivors documents the stories of those who went to boarding schools. She also works with the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.
She wants to see the federal government and churches look at their own archives to document the history of the boarding schools they ran. Lajimodiere, a member of Turtle Mountain, recalled spending a week at Marquette University, in Milwaukee, researching the boarding schools in Minnesota. On her own, she dug through 35 boxes of records.
“I literally had to sit there and go through these files from the 1800s,” Lajimodiere said. But that doesn’t mean she was able to pinpoint all the Catholic boarding schools in the state.
Since the discovery of the unmarked graves in Canada, she’s gotten calls from reporters all around the world. But the news isn’t actually all that new for members of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. “We’ve been working at this for over a decade,” Lajimodiere said.
After graduating from University of Minnesota Morris, Hazen Fairbanks continues to carry the work forward: As a manager of leadership development at Teach for America, she helps teachers create curriculum about dismantling white supremacy. Fairbanks hopes that a search of Morris can mark the start of a deeper change for the state’s schools.
“The way that this country has been taught to think—through the education system and so many other institutions, collectively—is so violent. And it’s not working, and it’s not sustainable,” Fairbanks said. “There’s a better way to live.”
Jaida Grey Eagle and Tiffany Bui created audio recordings, photographs, and video for this story. Ben Hovland edited and produced the multimedia segments.