Home > Uncategorized > Native American family separation was cultural genocide – posted 8/1/2021

Native American family separation was cultural genocide – posted 8/1/2021

Maybe readers have seen those stories about the mass graves of Indian children found at boarding schools in Canada and the United States. The remains of thousands of children have been found around the school sites and more unmarked mass graves keep appearing.

Beyond superficial apologies, the explanations given do not do justice to the scale of the crimes committed.

Native American history, as conventionally told, has big gaps. One gap is the story of how between 1869-1978 the federal government removed hundreds of thousands of Native American children, some as young as five, from their parents. By 1926, 83% of Indian school age children were attending boarding school.

Since Trump’s election in 2016, family separation became a big issue but the problem has very deep, under-appreciated roots in American history. That history has been erased.

After the violent removal of Native Americans from their land by white settlers and the creation of reservations, Native children became subject to a policy that was called “assimilation”. It was actually cultural genocide.

First started by Christian missionaries, boarding schools required Native American children to be educated according to Anglo-American standards. Federal law mandated the education. Nationally, 350 boarding schools came into existence. The schools attempted to divest the children of their Native identities.

As the founder of Carlisle Indian School, the first government-run, off-reservation boarding school for Native Americans, Richard Henry Pratt expressed it, the goal was “kill the Indian, save the man”. He desired to take children at a young age, remove them from family and eradicate Indian culture.

Before starting Carlisle, Pratt, a U.S. Army lieutenant, ran a prison school for Indians in Florida that focused on destroying culture, language and family connection as a means to assimilate Native children into mainstream American life.

The schools gave the children new names. They stripped the children of their clothing and forced them to wear military style uniforms. The schools made the children cut their long hair, forbid them from speaking their Native American languages and prevented them from practicing their religion. The children were physically punished for being caught speaking Native languages.

The schools told the children that what their parents practiced would send them to hell. They were forced to adapt Christianity. The indoctrination was intended to make the children ashamed to be Native Americans.

Pratt also saw family separation as a strategy to control the adults in tribes. In a letter he wrote in 1879 to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Pratt said that he took the children of tribal leaders to the boarding school because their parents “will be restrained by that fact and invited to seek for themselves a better state of civilization”.

The colonialist mentality saw stripping away Native identity as part of the process of bringing Native people from savagery to civilization. A similar process went on in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

There was significant resistance by Native people. Families that refused to cooperate were jailed. The boarding schools discouraged close family proximity and they were typically located far from reservations. Many children tried to escape. If captured they were beaten and whipped. They also were subject to other harsh punishment like solitary confinement.

Why so many children died at the schools remains something of a mystery although it is easy to speculate. Illness and suicide were two reasons. Some who tried to escape died trying. It is impossible to know the numbers.

In June, Interior Secretary Debra Haaland, the nation’s first Native American Cabinet secretary, ordered a federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to recover the histories of the institutions. Secretary Haaland wants the investigation to identify the children who attended and their tribal affiliations. She also wants to find records of cemeteries or burial sites that may contain unidentified human remains.

Haaland herself has a connection to Carlisle Indian School. Her great-grandfather was removed from his family and sent to Carlisle. Haaland said, “I am a product of these horrific assimilationist policies”. In requesting the Initiative, she wrote:

“Survivors of the traumas of boarding school policies carried their memories into adulthood as they became the aunts and uncles, parents and grandparents to subsequent generations…The loss of those who did not return left an enduring need in their families for answers that, in many cases, were never provided.”

There was a culture of pervasive physical and sexual abuse at the schools. It is hard to get a handle on the extent of the abuse because the issue of abuse was not recognized in that era. Stories come from survivor interviews.

Along with the federal government, Christian churches and especially the Catholic Church played an integral role in the boarding schools. Under the Civilization Fund Act, Christian missionaries and other “persons of good moral character” were charged with introducing Native children to “the habits and arts of civilization”.

The Native boarding schools were poorly funded and overcrowded. They were infamous for inadequate food, poor health care and neglect. Infections often would sweep through dirty dorms.

The schools had an Outing program where students were lent to non-Native patrons who exploited them as low-cost labor. Patrons paid the school for the student’s services but they did not pay the students who typically performed domestic or farm work.

Many schools failed to keep accurate records of student deaths. If they were notified at all, parents of those students who died were often notified after the child’s burial. When students died, classmates were sometimes forced to bury the bodies in mass graves.

This history has been hidden. Christine McCleave, the chief executive officer of the Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, estimates that fewer than 10% of the U.S. public knows anything about the history of Indian boarding schools in this country.

I would mention that family separation did not end with the decline of Indian boarding schools. Between 1941-1967, a shockingly high number of American Indian children, as many as one-third, were forcibly removed from their families and were permanently placed in homes with white parents.

Unlike Canada, the United States has failed to create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to consider these matters. Nor has it ever acknowledged or addressed its role in the cultural genocide of Native American children. Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced a bill that would create a Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policy but it died in Congress when it was first introduced. Sen. Warren plans to re-introduce the legislation.

In considering the widely-recognized problems in Native American communities like substance abuse and suicide, the context of cultural genocide and its legacy is typically missed. Traumatic childhood experiences disrupt brain development and can lead to negative health outcomes for adults. We as a society need to stop blaming and start listening. Truth-telling about cultural genocide has barely begun.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. paul2eaglin
    August 1, 2021 at 8:28 pm

    The local newspaper ran articles about current survivors of these monstrous institutions.

    In another article that is not unrelated in terms of institutional complicity, there is also this piece relating to the attitude of the Albany diocese, which typifies many others of the c/c.

    How these institutions are/were regarded as moral leaders is beyond comprehension.

    paul eaglin

    • August 1, 2021 at 9:14 pm

      Thanks Paul. The church link has been particularly undeveloped but I suspect the behavior with Native Americans was quite consistent with sexual abuse in other contexts.

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