From 1893-1934 an American Indian Boarding School operated in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, the city in which I lived for 3 years while I worked in teacher education at Central Michigan University (also located on occupied Anishinabe land in Mount Pleasant, MI). Designed and funded by the United States government, American Indian Boarding Schools worked to systematically eradicate Native American culture from the U.S. through brutality, cultural genocide, and forced assimilation.

Most days I walked in the forested public park across the road from the now-uninhabited boarding school site. As I learned more about the horrific abuses that occurred in and near the places through which I moved, the physical structures of the forest around me began to suggest educational relations and I started to photograph dethere. In a place that carries a history of hideous violence perpetrated under the disguise of education, I found images that embodied the vulnerability and delicacy at the heart of teaching and learning. To my eye, the forest evidenced knowledge, compassion, and authority absent from the terror imposed there. 

I then stepped away from the project and when I returned to the work wanted to alter it to underscore the destructive power of whiteness. By ‘destructive power of whiteness’ I mean the way beliefs and values attached to racism, white supremacy, and settler colonialism have and continue to diminish our stories, places, and the way we live now through the devastation they engender and rationalize. As I worked back into the project, I wanted to make a body of images in which the history of the place photographed informed the editing and appearance of the final images. 

With this in mind, I used the capacities of Photoshop to force the images into a high-key expression. As the vein of information present in each image became more and more narrow, the images lost richness and dimensionality. I hope the images nod toward what happened here. I hope they encourage others to learn more about an often-whitewashed part of American history. I hope they allow a frequently-buried narrative to have and take space and attention while inviting people to consider power, silencing, the ways we envision stories of place, and resilience. 

The images carry layers—the paradox of tender, natural moments (grass touching, a cloud reflected in rippled water, a stone underwater) captured in a place witness to horror then obscured to visually implicate a power at work against this place and its people.

A note on language: I refer to the boarding schools as American Indian Boarding Schools because the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways uses that language to refer to the schools. The Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways is the museum and cultural center of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan, the Native American tribe that owns the site of the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School.

If you are interested in learning more about American Indian Boarding Schools, the Ziibiwing Center offers excellent resources (including reading lists, lesson plans, and a teacher's guide for free download) here.