- By Levi Rickert and Neely Bardwell
*Trigger Warning* The situations detailed in this story and survivor testimony could be triggering and harmful to some.
PELLSTON, Mich. — On Saturday, 63-year old Bart Gasco recounted his experiences from decades ago at the Holy Childhood of Jesus boarding school in Harbor Springs, Mich.
As he spoke in front of hundreds of people assembled in the gymnasium of Pellston High School, Gasco spoke openly for the very first time about trauma he endured at the northern Michigan boarding school, which was part of the federal government’s policy to assimilate Native American children.
“These are not stories that I have even shared with my own three children,” he said. “Until today.”
Holy Childhood was an Indian boarding school 18 miles from Pellston on the ancestral lands of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of the Odawa Indians. Gasco attended Holy Childhood more than five decades ago with his sister, Regina “Gina” Gasco-Bentley and his brother, Joe, who is now deceased.
Gasco-Bentley, who is now the tribal chairwoman of the Little Traverse Bay Bands, and another sister, Deleta Smith, stood alongside Gasco on Saturday at the second stop of "The Road to Healing" tour put together by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The tour is part of the Interior’s effort to recognize the impacts of the federal Indian boarding school system and chart a path forward to deal with the legacy issues, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) said earlier this year in announcing the tour.
On Saturday, Haaland was among the crowd who heard Gasco’s stories, as was Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland (Bay Mills Indian Community).
At the end of his testimony, Gasco turned over the 10-page document to a representative of the U.S. Department of the Interior to become part of the official record. Native News Online obtained a copy of his testimony via email sent late Saturday night.
In his testimony, Gasco recounted several traumatic memories that plague him still today. These are memories of abuse, mistreatment, and assimilation.
“Another memory I unfortunately get to think about, are my playground memories. We were boys! We of course had it in us to be rough and tumble from time to time, but if I was caught arguing or fighting with a fellow boarder, we were taken inside, split apart and punished. The punishment I most remember for that, I was taken into my sleeping hall, and paddled with a wire hairbrush. And not just a quick pat on the behind for an attention getter…more of a beating than a paddling.”
The goal of Indian boarding schools was to “kill the Indian and save the man.” These schools were not schools, but merely an environment for the federal government’s assimilationist policies. Gasco recalls the moment he realized the truth of the school he attended.
“As I looked around the hall and dining rooms, seeing the other faces I can recall; we all looked similar! We all had dark hair, skin and eyes, and we were all Native children. The goal that we were constantly preached at during the week, is that we were learning how to transition away from being Native American, and we were being taught how to be white.
“We were to never speak in our Native language again, never sing or dance to the music our grandparents had. And so on. I was young enough that I was not versed or taught many of those traditions yet anyway, so unfortunately it was very easy for them to work on the goal of killing the Indian in me and saving the white man.”
Gasco’s complete testimony is being shared below for Native News Online’s readers:
Hello there! My name is Bart Gasco; I am a Catholic boarding school survivor, and this is my story.
Let me take you back to what was supposed to be the happiest and most carefree times in our lives…our childhoods. I will admit, to grow up with a semi-normal attitude and trying to make the most of life, I have blocked so many of those years out. My kindergarten and 1st grade years of life were not those you read about in a fairy tale. They were more like a real-life horror movie; and all being filmed in Harbor Springs, Michigan for me!
I am number 10 of 11 children, but for some reason, only three of us were taken and forced into a boarding school situation.
I came home from school in kindergarten to one of my sisters, a brother of mine, and me…all being loaded into a car, and only one bag for each of us with the absolute, bare minimum to live with. We were driven to the Holy Childhood Boarding School in Harbor Springs, where we would live for who knew how long. Taken from all of our other siblings, and once we arrived, split from the only familiar faces we knew when we were that young. I was five years old, and placed in the sleeping halls with other native boys my age, and from what I can remember, there were approximately 30-40 boys all in one hall, with the beds arranged in rows. We were assigned to the hall with Sister Diane Marie, and her room was up front in the hall, but still attached to keep us under her watch.
We were taught that first thing in the morning, our bed was to be made, military style, and if those corners were not just right, sister Diane Marie would walk by and destroy it. Something that I, as a 5-year-old, worked hard on. Ripped apart, and told to start over. After making our beds in the morning we were instructed to get dressed… but we didn’t dare sit on that freshly made bed, out of fear of a wrinkle or untucking. We were forced to sit on the cold, tiled, hall floors, to do all of our dressing. For some reason that is still unclear to me, we were told that we were not allowed to wear underwear when we went to bed. Just our pajamas. So, you can imagine the cold floor even more so on your bare skin, as a 5-year-old struggles one leg or foot after another.
Not getting dressed fast enough, because as I mentioned… we all know how it can take a 5-year-old sometime… Sister Diane made sure we moved at a faster pace or else the abuse and neglect would begin, even before breakfast.
Once we were down for breakfast, lunch or dinner we stood at attention waiting for others to file in. We definitely were not able to utilize it as a social event. You were there for one reason, and that was to eat, and get done as fast as possible at that.The dining hall was one large room and you would see other groups file in, but you don’t dare get caught looking up, making eye contact or even remotely attempting to talk to anyone else. Sometimes those meal times were the only times during the day that I was allowed to see the faces of my brother and sister. Punishment though for talking and not eating… you get your next meal skipped.
School was every day, Monday through Friday, and of course Sunday School. Although, if you were caught acting up, or a punishment for something, you then got to go to school on Saturday too. On Saturdays, our families were allowed to come visit, and occasionally take us out for a picnic or other family visit in the community. But as mentioned, if you act up, not only did you get the punishment during the event…but your Saturday family day was then withheld from you. I can recall one Saturday that I was not allowed my family time. Sitting by the window I watched my oldest sister come pick up my two siblings that were there with me, and take them for the day. What was it that I did that warranted an extra school day you wonder? I colored my finger nails with a pencil. Something that was so innocent that I think every kid does at some point in their lives… and I was punished for it. Not only that weekend did I miss my family time… but in the moment, I was slapped with a ruler across the hands. And it wasn’t just a quick slap, or even with the flat side of the ruler… It was the sharp edge of it. How many times? One for each finger that had coloring on it! And if I cried, like you would expect a 5-year-old to cry in pain… the counting would start over, and it would be harder this time.
“Suck it up and deal with it!” I was told. “You made this choice and it's because you’re a naughty boy that you’re getting this.This is all your fault.”
Another memory I unfortunately get to think about, are my playground memories. We were boys! We of course had it in us to be rough and tumble from time to time. But if I was caught arguing or fighting with a fellow boarder… we were taken inside, split apart and punished. The Punishment I most remember for that, I was taken into my sleeping hall, and paddled with a Wire Hair Brush. And not just a quick pat on the behind for an attention getter… more of a beating than a paddling. Then as further punishment… the other boy and I were made to scrub three flights of stairs, starting between the rungs on the banister, the steps, and the approaches… and only stopping once we hit the ground floor. The tools used to clean those three flights of stairs… a toothbrush and a bucket.
As I looked around the hall and dining rooms, seeing the other faces I can recall; we all looked similar! We all had dark hair, skin and eyes, and we were all Native children. The goal that we were constantly preached at during the week, is that we were learning how to transition away from being Native American, and we were being taught how to be white. We were to never speak in our native language again, never sing or dance to the music our grandparents had. And so on. I was young enough that I was not versed or taught many of those traditions yet anyway, so unfortunately it was very easy for them to work on the goal of Killing the Indian in me and saving the white man.
Some time has passed, and the end of the school year is approaching. Kids are packing and getting ready to go home for the summer. My sister Regina, my brother Joe, and myself were finally able to go home. But we would soon be returned for another school year. Our mother had received the help she needed in that first year we were gone, but for some reason still did not want us three back in her life or to worry about us during the school year. Taken from home again, and returned to the hands and the mercy of the church.
My total time there was two years.
I share this little glimpse into my life, not to try and relive it, or even to seek the pity of those listening. But as a way to share the light onto this chapter in my life that I thought would never be spoken about. That there would never be many people that even cared. There are two years of my childhood that were supposed to be carefree and I was supposed to be allowed to be a kid… those young, impressionable years instead are dark, and something that I do not wish upon even my worst enemy. To show how these years have been blocked… these are not stories that I have even shared with my own three children, until today. I stand here with the support of my daughter, my wife, and my sister, finally feeling like someone is listening. 50 plus years later, I know that I will never get year 5 and 6 back of my life… but I am hopeful that we might get the love and support that I was missing in my childhood, and we as a nation will come out stronger in spite of the Catholic Church and the horrible things, they were able to do to us.
I share with you today and can stand tall with the help of my family, and say the Catholic white people didn’t get all my spirit!
I am a NATIVE AMERICAN boarding school survivor! Thank you!
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