Earlier this year, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Pope Francis to apologize for the role the Catholic Church played in harming his country’s indigenous communities. He suggested that in order to help Canadians “move forward on a real reconciliation,” the Church needed to be more honest and contrite about the schools that the church ran for members of First Nations.
Like the Anglican Church and various other entities, the Catholic Church has actually acknowledged its role in these schools both in the US and in Canada—which were billed as vehicles for greater integration but were too often places where children were forced to leave their culture and language behind, as well as places where abuse ran rampant. But a half century after these schools shuttered their doors, it has become virtually impossible for any conversation about improving conditions in Native communities to take place without first talking about the boarding schools.
The 2 million Natives in the US have the highest rate of poverty of any racial group—almost twice the national average. They have higher rates of suicide and higher rates of crime, alcoholism, gang membership, and sexual abuse as well. And if you spend any time in Indian territory asking about these issues, boarding schools will come up in the first three sentences. If you dig a little deeper, though, you will find that many Indians willingly sent their children to these schools. And many of the graduates learned the kind of skills that they needed to live and work in the world outside their community—skills that their peers never did learn.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Native leaders were often torn about the best approach to dealing with their white neighbors—sometimes attempting to forge treaties in order to maintain control of their territory (despite the government’s very poor record of honoring such agreements), other times choosing outward defiance in the face of relentless pressure to shrink their power and landbase. But no matter which policy they were pursuing, many Indian leaders concluded it would be useful for their children to be educated in the ways of their neighbors.
Sometimes, they even sent their children (as young as seven or eight) to live in a white household for several years. While the practice may seem strange (or even barbaric) to modern ears, the new book Indians in the Family, by Dawn Peterson, shines an important light on this subject. Peterson suggests first that this practice was not as odd as it might seem from our vantage point, given that tribes regularly incorporated captured outsiders into their own communities.
In the fall of 1790, a Seneca chief named Cornplanter traveled to Philadelphia to meet with federal officials there, including George Washington. In addition to complaining about the way they had been treated by some white settlers and a request for assistance from the US government, the Seneca delegation also asked that Washington personally take care of nine Seneca boys. Washington refused—offering instead to send a teacher to the Senecas—but the boys were subsequently taken in by some Philadelphia Quakers.
As Peterson writes, “Cornplanter surmised that children living under the roofs of the president and prominent U.S. citizens might secure a diplomatic relationship with the United States what would help to ensure his own nation’s survival.” The Senecas wanted the boys to learn to read and write in the same way that the Quakers educated their own children: “The acquisition of English language and literacy skills promised to create Native-born intermediaries who could free Seneca communities from their reliance upon paid white interpreters . . . empowering them against fraudulent treaties peddled by predatory whites.”
All too often, though, the hosts for these young (mostly) boys did not see this kind of education as their goal. Rather they offered instruction in manual labor and agrarian enterprises, with the idea that, to become civilized, peaceful members of the new nation, the young Indians would have to become farmers. In many instances, it seemed that the education the Indians wanted for their children and the one they actually received were at odds.
Federal officials were also divided on this question. In 1796, a group of missionaries reported that white society would never fully embrace Native children. A boy might “acquire some knowledge, and is taught some ornamental, and perhaps useful accomplishments; but the degrading memorials of his inferiority, which are continually before his eyes, remind him of the manners and habits of his own country, where he was once free and equal to his associates. He sighs to return to his friends; but there he meets with bitter mortification.” The notion that the Indian raised in a white home would be stuck forever between these two worlds is a familiar one.
But there were plenty of whites who thought a policy of integration would work. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson, Peterson writes, argued that “incorporating Indians into the Euro-American household economy would actually save them from extinction.” Like many prominent men of his time, Jefferson worried that Indians were not having enough children, perhaps because of their circumstances. Indian women had to survive “through a certain part of every year on the gleanings of the forest, that is they experience famine once a year. . . . [As with] all animals, if the female be badly fed, or not fed at all, her young perish.”
Despite his crude comparison, Jefferson saw Indians as fundamentally different from blacks and deemed their enslavement an “inhuman practice.” One could speculate on the reasons for this—perhaps because Jefferson was more likely to encounter blacks as slaves and Indians as free autonomous individuals, he assumed that this was their natural state, but regardless, he came to think that Indians could essentially be trained to be just like white people.
It was also the case, though, that Indians themselves became involved in the slave trade. (Perhaps it was inconceivable to Jefferson and others who thought as he did that Indians could be both slaveholders and enslaved.) How did this happen? As Peterson notes, “beginning in the mid 1700s, it became common for British, Scottish and French traders to marry the matrilineal relatives of prominent chiefs, an arrangement that secured transatlantic commercial alliances through the bonds of kinship.” While the children of these unions were technically Choctaw because the tribe was based on matrilineal descent, these children inherited the property of their fathers—including land and slaves.
But it was also through these practices of adoption that Indian children learned their place in “racial hierarchies.” While these children were never treated exactly like biological children, they were also rarely subject to the kind of treatment that blacks were.
James McDonald, the son of a prominent Choctaw woman who had been sent to live with a white family, eventually became a leader in his tribe and used his people’s ownership of slaves as a kind of argument that his people’s sovereignty should be respected: “He made individual rights to human property the utmost signifier of self-determination.”
Perhaps the most prominent adopter of an Indian child was Andrew Jackson, who discovered an Indian infant in the arms of his dead mother after his troops destroyed a Creek village, killing as many as 200 Indians. As Peterson writes, “the battle delivered him an infant Indian boy to send home as a present for his young white son.” Naming the boy Lyncoya, Jackson describes feeling an “unusual sympathy” for the child.
Peterson describes the way Jackson could at once be responsible for destroying the child’s family and community—later, as president, he would sign the notorious Indian Removal Act of 1830—and also see himself as rescuing the child, “the last of his race.” Becoming a part of Jackson’s household could help to move him from “savagery” to “civilization.” But Jackson’s plans for the boy seem to evolve as his military plans did, “from promoting the young man’s political and intellectual promise to, in the words of [one biographer] desiring that he should follow some mechanical employment.” Within the course of a few years, Jackson went from trying to secure his adopted son’s admission to a military academy to getting him a job as an apprentice to a saddle maker. While still in his teens, he died of tuberculosis.
As national policy was reoriented away from assimilation and reconciliation with Indian nations, the Indians who had lived for years in the homes of whites became more and more vocal. “Through their extended tenures within the United States these indigenous leaders knew a great deal about U.S. society and had accrued significant allies within it as well as within other Indian nations,” Peterson writes, “all of which allowed them to build an international movement against removal. In fact, the more Southern whites worked to dismantle the assimilatory initiatives that had supported the politics of adoption over the previous three decades, the more they found themselves facing an increasingly organized opposition to relocation policies.”
For several decades starting in the middle of the18th century, the practice of sending Indian children to live with white families was a “strategy of survival,” according to Peterson. Though the adoptive children were not ultimately successful in staving off the conquest of their lands, it is hard to imagine that things might somehow have worked better had Indians simply remained separate and begun a policy of armed conflict sooner.
But what are we to make of this legacy today? Certainly there are themes that remain relevant. There is, for instance, a persistent romanticizing of American Indian life before the arrival of European settlers. The image of Indians as noble hunter-gatherers whose families and communities are fundamentally and naturally different from (and superior to) ours remains potent even among (and perhaps especially among) our most enlightened élites.
In her recent novel, Quiet Until the Thaw, Alexandra Fuller (a British-born writer who grew up in Africa but has lived for some years in the US) has this to say about one of the poorest and most destitute reservations in America: “It’s an essential place. Essential, meaning there is nothing more that can be taken away, removed or forgotten. Essential, meaning there remains only what is absolutely necessary. Essential, meaning it doesn’t get more real than this.”
For Peterson, parallels between earlier mistreatment of Indians and modern policies are everywhere. “Throughout the twentieth century and into the present century,” she charges, “American Indian families have faced ongoing struggles to protect their children from U.S. adoption and fostering practices. State and federal agencies continue to undermine both the familial and national rights of indigenous people by transferring children away from their Native kin and tribal communities, to wealthier—and most often white—families, despite existing laws aimed to protect Indian families and nations from precisely these kinds of predatory practices.”
While it’s true that during the middle of the 20th century some social workers were removing Indian children from homes simply because they were extremely poor, today the truth is much more complicated. In a misguided effort to be culturally sensitive, Indian children have been left in abusive homes and communities that have failed to protect them from predatory adults. Tribes have demanded that children who have the tiniest drop of Indian blood in them be left in the care of neglectful Indian adults even if there are loving, stable white (or black or Hispanic) families willing to take them in.
And on some reservations, the abuse is rampant and horrifying. Thomas Sullivan, the former regional administrator of the Administration for Children and Families overseeing the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation in North Dakota, issued 13 different “mandated reports” about the problems of child abuse there. These reports were mandated not because his superiors asked him for his input—indeed, he had been instructed not to speak publicly about these matters. Rather, the reports are mandated because teachers, psychologists, and others who work with vulnerable populations are required by law to report abuses. Here’s a sample from Sullivan’s last one:
The Tribal Elder who observed two little boys engaging in anal sex in her yard did call police immediately. No one in law enforcement took her statement. She tried to tell her story at the February 27, 2013 Hearing but she was shushed by the US Attorney, the BIA leadership and all of those on the platform. The US Attorney did say publicly that he would speak to her privately after the Hearing concluded. He did not. Nor did anyone from his office take her statement. How did these actions protect children?
One day later, on February 28, 2013, these same two boys were observed by two little girls engaging in oral sex on a Spirit Lake school bus. The little girls reported this to the bus driver, their teachers and the school principal.
All of these responsible people kept quiet about this incident. None filed a Form 960 as required. How do these actions protect children? On March 14, 2013 law enforcement went to the home of these two boys because one of them tried to sexually assault a three year old female neighbor who is developmentally delayed.
Police were called last summer when adults and very young children observed a 15 year old boy having intercourse with a 10 year old girl on the steps of the church in St. Michaels at mid-day. No one responded to the call.
Thanks to the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, the government is forced to apply a different standard when determining whether an Indian child can be removed from a home. While some leaders claim that this would be a violation of tribal sovereignty, it should be clear that leaving children in such circumstances is a flagrant violation of their civil rights.
A century ago, when paternalistic American leaders approved a policy of taking Indian children from their homes purely for the sake of assimilation, they clearly did not have the best interests of the children—and their parents—in mind, even when the children were taken in by families and not sent to boarding schools. Some of the children were offered an education or skills, but they were not treated as full-fledged members of the families who assumed their care.
Today, American leaders are neglecting their duties again, though in a very different way. Timothy Sandefur is vice president for litigation at the Goldwater Institute, which is working to get ICWA declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. He explains his objection: “If you have the right blood cells in your veins, then ICWA applies a separate and substandard set of rules that makes it harder to protect you from abuse and neglect.” Sound familiar?