The View From the Orphanage

View_From_The-OrphanageLast night we were honored to be invited by our Abenaki brothers and sisters to drum as part of the opening ceremony at an all city meeting. The event was a  Neighborhood Planning Assemblies meeting called to discuss the proposed development of a large lakefront parcel of land presently owned by a local nonprofit educational institution. The current proposal would place about 700 housing units on prime recreational open space, and is drawing considerable opposition even before the land sells.

Prior to being “owned” by the nonprofit, the building and grounds had been a large orphanage owned and administered by a major religious order. Over its nearly 100 years in operation, the orphanage built an almost incomprehensible history of abuse. During the 1980’s I was part of the legal team that represented about 80 adults who had been victimized at the orphanage as children. Over three years a colleague and I listened to the stories of these courageous people, and supported them as best we were able, as they faced an angry public. Sadly, their court cases were dismissed due to an expired statute of limitations. Back then, few people in the community believed their terrifying stories of abuse. As in many communities, that would change. Later, a few former residents of the orphanage received large settlements from the church.

Four or five years ago, when the nonprofit bought the land and buildings, they asked me to come and work with the distressed spirits of the place. With the aid of many other people, we were able to bring a modicum of ease to the spirits. Part of the agreement with the spirits was that the staff of the institution would pay attention to their needs and concerns. Sadly, that proved not to be a priority for the nonprofit and the spirits were soon abandoned.

Last night, as I listed to panelists, and persons from the community, share their concerns about the proposed development, I thought about these things. Several Abenaki spoke to their love of, and stewardship responsibilities to, the land, and their fears that development would further degrade the lake and nearby wetlands. I was reminded that a disproportionate number of the children at the orphanage had been Native. Although one panelist had presented a brief history of the post settler occupation of the land, including the legal issues that arose concerning the orphanage, there was no direct reference to the horrific abuse that had taken place there.

I found myself facing a conundrum. My policy is not to speak about the work I do, yet to refuse to speak would do a disservice to those who had suffered so greatly at the orphanage. Thus I found myself very briefly addressing the gathering, simply reminding them that we must not forget, however we, as a community, might wish to, the terrible suffering that took place on that land. To forget would dishonor the spirits of those who survived, and those who did not.

After the meeting I was chatting with a few people when one of the would-be developers came up and began speaking with one of the folks in our small circle. His comment, loaded with dismissal, was, “I do not need to go to church on Sunday. Being here was like attending church.” There was great irony in that comment. For us Native people, as well as for many others in the room, the land is our church. Also, the essential back-story to our discussion is the unimaginable violence perpetrated in the name of the church, violence that seems likely to be next turned against the land.

Looking back over my time with the survivors of the orphanage, I am reminded of how often they spoke of their love of the open woods, and fields that surround the orphanage. That land was their sanctuary, a place to feel close to the Creator and to momentarily escape beatings, rapes, and solitary confinement. For many of them, as for many of the community members who attended last night’s meeting, the land was, and remains holy.

9 thoughts on “The View From the Orphanage

  1. Wow. That was a powerful story. I’m impressed by your courage in breaking your personal vow to support the dignity of those spirits. Is there any other way to help them? I’m also wondering about the new residents who might inhabit this land and the effect these angered spirits may have on their health and happiness.

    1. I’m not sure what might be done at this point. I believe the community must remember what happened there, not only for the spirits but also for the flesh and blood survivors, many of whom still live here. As to whomever might by those houses, I genuinely wish them well. I would not want to live there, although the views will be outstanding. I imagine the spirits will be more distressed and saddened than angry. Most of the very angry ones seem to have moved on.

      1. Me, too. It seems a very slow process, one that needs much nurturance. This is difficult for folks in today’s world – too much focus for too long. Yet if we are to heal, we must spend the time.

      2. Yes, healing is such a shared experience. I guess every little helps. Every obstacle over come by the survivors will hopefully bring some closure and release for those spirits who suffered similarly. When they are strong enough, I guess it would help for them to visit the site and offer what they have achieved.

      3. Many of the survivors have visited the orphanage. Visits are challenging as so often they bring up painful memories. Still, they have done so much to bring both accountability and healing to the community.

  2. I am very pained to read this description Michael- and I am touched by your sensitivity yet again, to see how gently you construe every aspect of a place, person and situation. In this colossal human cacophony we are inundated by greed and lust from all quarters, of all hues and shades. Seeing your posts, brings me to the realization how much is wrong even in the Western, the seemingly civilized world, that goes around ordering the whole world in its own image. Is there a surprise that the circle of misfortunes never end, the cycles never break, because people do not acknowledge the divine souls that are present in every form that exists? I wish you more strength.

    1. Thank you! Prateeksha. May we both have strength and ease in our lives. It is odd to live in the West, hearing always of how great we are, yet daily seeing the pain we inflict on others around the world, and here at home. I often think that if all Westerners had to travel and spend time with people in non-Western countries we would all be better off. Then my friends travel and continue to see the world through Western eyes. Maybe that is simply human nature, in which case we are in trouble. Well, we are indeed in trouble, and we keep moving forward as best we are individually and collectively able. Holding a vision of a healed world remains so important, even as we are inundated with other, more destructive images and visions. But, of course, you already know this.

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