Sadly, Child Separation Is NOT a New Policy

I do not own the copyright/license to the visuals below. They are included not solely for personal gain, but for educational purposes.

Have Americans already forgotten the forced trauma of separating Native American children from their parents?

Native American children were forcibly removed from their parents and put in Indian Boarding Schools. Once there, they were given Anglo-Saxon clothes, haircuts, and names. They were told that their culture was inferior to whites’. This picture downloaded from history.com.

It is painful being a Humanities professor these days. We live with a government that rolls out seemingly ahistorical political policies with little regard for far-reaching consequences. Even more frustrating, no one is telling the naked emperor that America has a plethora of historical examples for whatever disastrous hard, right-wing policies that our current administration lifts from talk radio.

Slavery is not new to human development. However, American slavery was unique in that it was (a.) skin-color based, and (b.) the slaves were told that they were not even human, and language continuously animalized the chattel workforce. Husbands were separated from wives, children from parents, and brothers from sisters as they were sold like common animals in stock yards. The emotional and psychological consequences of 400 years of separation, I believe, still resonates deeply within African American communities.

Still recently, the government separated Native American children from their parents with the hopes of making Native American tribes more like the Anglo-Saxons who conquered their lands. In 1879, U.S. cavalry captain Richard Henry Pratt opened the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. His motto — this is the scariest motto for a school that I have ever read — was “kill the Indian in him and save the man.”

An Indian boarding school. Notice the short hair of the children and the covered feet of the students sitting in front. Picture downloaded from gallery of government boarding schools at www.history.com

These boarding school cut off any contact between parents and children. The children were taught in school that their language and worship were “backwards,” and they were forbidden to speak their parents’ language. Many schools would not allow the children to wear their own, handmade shoes. I once read that one school took the soft moccasins from the children and forced them to clunk around in painful, wooden shoes. There were also such ridiculous things as mandatory haircuts! The young ladies were no longer allowed to wear their pony tails and jewelry, and the young men were given Anglo haircuts. Young women were also subject to sexual violence and rape. Though the students faced verbal abuse, the physical abuse was prevalent and harsh as the teachers and administrators used violence to bring about cooperation from students who may have resisted them. Sadder still, these boarding schools were not kept clean. They were often hot-beds of infestation, tuberculosis, and influenza. Many children simply perished and were buried at the schools. One tribe had to sue for the remains of two little boys who had passed at a school!

By 1940, Native American mothers were deemed “unfit.” The states now had a legal means of removing children from their homes and placing them with white foster parents or in the care of these schools. Even when “fit” relatives were available, the children were taken away. This policy was allowed until 1978 when the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed. It would take another 12 years for Native American children to have a right to their own languages. In 1990, the Native American Languages Act and several other laws were passed.

The ramifications of the Indian boarding school were both immediate and long-lasting. The children who were removed from their parents were traumatized. The children were leased out in the summers, at many of these boarding schools, to work on farms or for wealthy families. It seemingly outfitted them for hard labor in white society. Young women were given classic “finishing school” training in order to learn how to become more like white housewives and help their husbands assimilate better. Because the children were not allowed the language of their parents and grandparents, some Native American languages have now become extinct.

On an upside, some children who attended these schools showed REMARKABLE resistance. Some of the students formed cross-tribal alliances. Other students graduated and helped foster intricate Native American resistances to government intrusion. Some were able to write about their horrific experiences, which helped close some of these assimilation factories.

Today, a few of these institutions remain open, though the curriculum and pedagogical methods have been modified. Sadly, the history of these institutions stands as a constant reminder of racist assumptions about people of color, their “desire” to assimilate white American middle class culture, and how detached policy-makers can be from the common humanity of the people they are supposed to serve.

For more information on these institutions, please visit the page at the History Channel online. As always, if you like this article, clap back at me (Literally, press the little clapping hands at the bottom. Don’t diss me! Keep it positive people) or you could always enroll in one of my classes. This lesson comes from American Literature II.

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LaToya Jefferson-James has a Ph.D. in literature. She specializes in literature of the African Diaspora and cultural criticism.

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