Three in 10 Native children were taken from their families
Under legislation introduced in Congress recently, the United States would officially own up for the first time to its attempt to eradicate Indigenous culture through its policy of forcibly separating Native children from their parents and “civilizing” them in Christian boarding schools.
The legislation (H.R. 8420 and S. 4752), introduced in the House by Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico (D) on Sept. 29, would establish the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policy and would explicitly state that the result of the boarding school policy was “cultural genocide.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) sponsored the bill in the upper chamber.
Haaland – an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna, who also has Jemez Pueblo heritage – called the bill the first step toward healing the trauma inflicted on generations of American Indians and Alaskan Natives, who endured spiritual, physical, psychological and sexual abuse at more than 350 boarding schools.
“Native people are resilient and strong,” Haaland said in a news release. “But the painful and traumatic history of genocide and forced assimilation by the federal government lives on in our communities, and our people have never been able to fully heal. I know not many people are aware of the history of Indian boarding schools, and I know it’s not taught in schools – but our country must do better to acknowledge our real history and push for truth and reconciliation.”
Football great and legendary Olympic champion Jim Thorpe may be the best-known product of these schools, which were attended by hundreds of thousands of kids. Haaland’s own grandparents were snatched from their homes as children and forced into Indian boarding schools. They lost touch with their tribes for years.
The widespread removal of Native children from their families was unearthed in the 1960s, when a New York-based attorney named Bertram Hirsch was sent to North Dakota to assist with a kinship dispute case on behalf of the Spirit Lake Tribe. Hirsch’s research on the matter would expose that between 25 and 35% of all American Indian children had been placed in adoptive homes, foster homes or institutions, and that 90% of those kids were being raised by white people.
In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Indian Child Welfare Act, which established that tribes can and must act as parents for their children, just as states do with non-Native children, when biological parents cannot. The law also requires that preference be given to tribal communities when children must be removed from their homes.
But Native children are still in foster care at a rate twice what their proportion of the population would predict. The disproportionality index for Native children in foster care is 2.67, according to National Center for Juvenile Justice, well above the index of 1.66 for Black children. The disproportionate number of Native children in care is fueled by huge index rates in a handful of states including Minnesota (15.8), Wisconsin (6) and South Dakota (4.7).
Child advocates greeted news of the proposed healing project enthusiastically.
“The rate of adverse childhood experiences within tribal populations is disproportionately high, and so are the rates of Native children in state foster care systems,” said Sarah Kastelic, executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, adding that the commission’s work could provide “a platform to create meaningful solutions that will effectively address historic and intergenerational trauma.”
The commission would investigate, document and acknowledge past injustices resulting from the boarding school policy, which endured for about a century up through the 1960s. Children were taken from their parents when they were as young as 5.
The commission will develop recommendations for Congress to aid in the healing of the historical and intergenerational trauma and provide a forum for victims to speak about how the policy affected their lives.