This isn’t the first time the United States split up fam­i­lies

The na­tion has a legacy of sep­a­rat­ing Na­tive Amer­i­can chil­dren, par­ents

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - OUTLOOK - By Mered­ith L. McCoy and Sarah B. Shear

Ev­ery­one liv­ing in the United States does so on in­dige­nous lands. The same goes for Mex­ico and Canada, too.

Na­tive Amer­i­can na­tions pre­date present-day po­lit­i­cal bound­aries. In fact, sev­eral na­tive na­tions have ter­ri­to­ries that over­lap cur­rent bor­ders, and many of the fam­i­lies cur­rently cross­ing the bor­der are from in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties. In Septem­ber 2016, fam­i­lies in de­ten­tion cen­ters run by Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment spoke at least 28 dif­fer­ent in­dige­nous lan­guages.

We see friends, col­leagues and news out­lets de­cry­ing the re­cent fam­ily sep­a­ra­tions at the bor­der as some­thing new in the United States, but his­tory tells us oth­er­wise. Our na­tion has a legacy of split­ting up fam­i­lies that long pre­cedes the cur­rent hu­man rights cri­sis.

In 1824, the U.S. govern­ment es­tab­lished the Bureau of In­dian Af­fairs within the War Depart­ment to ad­min­is­ter an as­sim­i­la­tion­ist school­ing pro­gram that of­fi­cials be­lieved would solve the “In­dian prob­lem.” Be­tween 1869 and the 1970s, in­dige­nous chil­dren at­tended 351 fed­eral schools across 29 states. In 1902, the com­mis­sioner of In­dian Af­fairs, Wil­liam A. Jones, ex­pressed no shame about tak­ing th­ese chil­dren from their homes:

“Th­ese pupils are gath­ered from the cabin, the wick­iup and the tepee. Partly by ca­jol­ery and partly by threats; partly by bribery and partly by fraud; partly by per­sua­sion and partly by force, they are in­duced to leave their homes and their kin­dred to en­ter th­ese schools and take upon them­selves the out­ward sem­blance of civ­i­lized life.”

Upon ar­riv­ing at school, chil­dren were forced to give up their home clothes, cut their hair, speak only English and, in the early ver­sions of the schools, choose English names and prac­tice Chris­tian­ity. Early board­ing schools’ cur­ric­ula de­graded na­tive cul­tures, and chil­dren faced cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment if they spoke their own lan­guages. The schools of­ten lacked ad­e­quate med­i­cal and food sup­plies, re­sult­ing in the deaths of un­told num­bers of in­dige­nous chil­dren. To en­force en­roll­ment, fed­eral agents some­times with­held food from na­tive par­ents who did not send their chil­dren to the govern­ment schools.

“This is not just Na­tive Amer­i­can his­tory; this is Amer­i­can his­tory,” Chris­tine Di­indi­isi McCleave, ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of the Na­tional Na­tive Amer­i­can Board­ing School Heal­ing Coali­tion, told us. “We all need to know the truth about what hap­pened in this coun­try, espe­cially in light of the cur­rent events with chil­dren be­ing taken into cus­tody at the south­ern bor­der. We have to know where we’ve been to know where we’re go­ing.”

Even af­ter the govern­ment stops tak­ing chil­dren from their par­ents, the prac­tice can have con­se­quences that last for a life­time. The Na­tional In­dian Ed­u­ca­tion As­so­ci­a­tion has noted that in­dige­nous fam­i­lies still con­front the in­ter­gen­er­a­tional im­pacts of th­ese poli­cies.

In 1978, Congress passed the In­dian Child Wel­fare Act to fi­nally ad­dress the dev­as­tat­ing num­bers of na­tive chil­dren re­moved from their fam­i­lies and placed out­side their tribal com­mu­ni­ties. Forty years later, how­ever, some states con­tinue to dis­rupt in­dige­nous fam­i­lies — in 2011, for ex­am­ple, na­tive chil­dren were 15 per­cent of South Dakota’s child pop­u­la­tion but more than 50 per­cent of chil­dren in state care.

A re­cent Na­tive Amer­i­can Child Wel­fare As­so­ci­a­tion state­ment notes the par­al­lels be­tween the cur­rent fam­ily sep­a­ra­tions at the bor­der and the his­tory of re­mov­ing in­dige­nous chil­dren from their fam­i­lies by states and pri­vate adop­tion agen­cies.

We heed North­ern Cheyenne el­der Hen­ri­etta Mann’s guid­ance: “This is the home gen­er­a­tions upon gen­er­a­tions of my an­ces­tors first loved and now share with the many who came seek­ing a new life and per­haps sanc­tu­ary, some­times car­ry­ing only hope in their hearts. It is that hope and the great ca­pac­ity we have been given to love one an­other and to re­vere each small grain of soil of this sa­cred land­scape that makes this coun­try good, wel­com­ing, safe and hon­or­able. It is time to stop the tra­jec­tory of yet an­other heart­break­ing road to his­tor­i­cal trauma.”

We join our voices with Hen­ri­etta Mann, NIEA, NICWA, the Na­tive Amer­i­can Rights Fund and the Na­tional Congress of Amer­i­can In­di­ans. We must work to swiftly re­unite fam­i­lies and to heal the pain al­ready caused through th­ese sep­a­ra­tions. In­stead of choos­ing trauma and dis­rup­tion, let us in­stead em­brace love, good­ness and honor, wel­com­ing the fam­i­lies who have trav­eled to us seek­ing safe har­bor.

To add your sup­port, please con­sider calling your rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Congress, do­nat­ing to an or­ga­ni­za­tion that sup­ports sep­a­rated fam­i­lies or vol­un­teer­ing with an ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion like the Texas Civil Rights Project or RAICES Texas. McCoy is a Ph.D. can­di­date in Amer­i­can stud­ies at the Uni­ver­sity of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her great-grand­par­ents at­tended Fort Tot­ten In­dian In­dus­trial School and Wah­peton In­dian School. Shear is an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of social stud­ies ed­u­ca­tion at Penn State Uni­ver­sity-Altoona. Her work fo­cuses on the pre­sen­ta­tions of In­dige­nous peo­ples and na­tions in social stud­ies cur­ricu­lum, in­clud­ing how state stan­dards and text­books nar­rate the his­to­ries of the board­ing schools.


In the 19th and 20th cen­turies, Na­tive Amer­i­can chil­dren were taken from their homes and forced to at­tend as­sim­i­la­tion schools.

Sean Sim­mers / As­so­ci­ated Press

The grave of an Amer­i­can In­dian taken from his fam­ily.

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