Home / Politics / Gov't's separation of immigrant children from their parents revives deep pain among American Indians

Gov't's separation of immigrant children from their parents revives deep pain among American Indians

The boarding school effort was a collaboration between the U.S. government and religious organizations, and while the latter were perhaps not as hard-nosed as the military-style approach chosen at Carlisle and other schools, they were nonetheless unrelentingly harsh. About 100 government-run and government-funded boarding schools lasted from the 1870s, when the Army was still actively killing Indians physically, until the 1970s. A readable summary of some the horrors of those schools can be found here. While the language softened over the decades, the continuing rationale of isolating the children from their parents and tribes was summed up in 1886 by Indian School Superintendent John B. Riley:

“However excellent the day school may be, whatever the qualifications of the teacher, or however superior the facilities for instruction of the few short hours spent in the day school is, to a great extent, offset by the habits, scenes and surroundings at home — if a mere place to eat and live in can be called a home. Only by complete isolation of the Indian child from his savage antecedents can he be satisfactorily educated, and the extra expense attendant thereon is more than compensated by the thoroughness of the work.”

The Meriam Report of 1928 noted that children at the boarding schools were malnourished, overworked, brutally punished, and—ironically, given the alleged “civilizing” mission—poorly educated.

The Kennedy Report in 1969 stated:

“When asked to name the most important things the schools should do for their students, only about one-tenth of the teachers mentioned academic achievement as an important goal. Apparently, many of the teachers still see their role as that of “civilizing the native.” BIA administrators believe that Indians can choose only between total “Indianness” —whatever that is — and complete assimilation into the dominant society. Thus, the goal of BIA education appears to direct students toward migration into a city while at the same time it fails to “prepare students academically, socially, physchologically, or vocationally for urban life. As a result, many return to the reservation disillusioned, to spend the rest of their lives in economic and intellectual stagnation.”

“School environment was sterile, impersonal and rigid, with a major emphasis on discipline and punishment, which is deeply resented by the students.”

Small handcuffs for taking children to Haskell Institute, an American Indian boarding school.
Small handcuffs used when abducting American Indian children to take them to the Haskell Institute, one of the government-funded boarding schools. 

Keeping the children away from their parents was essential to the task at hand. The late Floyd Westerman quoted above was taken to a boarding school from the Lake Traverse Reservation at age 10 and spent the rest of his childhood away from his parents and his tribe while his white teachers did all they could to dig out the roots of his heritage. Unsuccessfully in his case. He, like the late Dennis Banks—his Ojibwe classmate at boarding school—became a Native activist.

While most of the boarding schools have long been shuttered, and those that remain are very different than in the old days, hundreds of thousands of Indians today are personally affected by what happened in those schools even if they did not themselves attend boarding school.

In my case, it was my grandmother Simmalikee, who raised me until she died when I was nine, my mother being a young teen when I was born. When my grandmother was nine, she was shipped off to boarding school in South Carolina where everything was done to take away her language and culture for seven years. When she returned home to Florida in 1918, she vowed never again to speak English though she knew it perfectly well, sticking solely to Muscogee (Creek), one of the two Seminole languages. 

Another boarding school abductee was the mother of my friend and colleague Neeta Lind, the Navajo who is Director of Community at Daily Kos. Her mother, the late Flora Sombrero, was taken at age five to the Mormon-run Tuba City Boarding School in the late 1920s. The attack on her culture began right in front of her parents at Inscription House on the Navajo Nation. The kidnappers cut off Flora’s traditional hair bun and threw it on the ground in front of them, placed her in the back of a pick-up with other children and drove away.

Her sister, who was also taken, ran away from the boarding school so often that they took away her shoes. So she ran away barefoot. They finally gave up. She was one of the lucky ones. On more than one occasion, indigenous children at some boarding schools in the United States and so-called residential schools in Canada ran away in winter and froze to death

In an essay a few years ago, Neeta described some of the painful impacts the boarding school had on her mother and how that experience affects her today:

Overwhelming homesickness, having her mouth washed out with soap for accidentally speaking forbidden Navajo, witnessing others endure severe punishment for being incorrigible in some Navajo way and a constant curriculum of You Need to Become White Now. My mom was smart, she learned fast to conform, to survive. She excelled at the school and even skipped grades. […]

In spite of my Navajo grandparents having to give up their children to the government-run boarding schools to have the Indian removed from each child, our extended family miraculously retained its culture. My grandparents plotted to hide half their children from the Bureau of Indian Affairs kidnappers in the deep canyons of Inscription House on the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona. Those kids did not learn English and they kept to the traditional lifestyle of living in hogans without electricity or plumbed water. Shi cheii (the term meaning “my maternal grandfather” in Navajo) was a renowned medicine man. He passed on his hathalie (healing and spiritual) knowledge to his eldest son Robert. I became very close with my Uncle Robert in his last few years. […]

[W]hen my mom was at boarding school, she was advised to marry a white man and not teach her children the Navajo language. She was told this would raise her out of poverty and not hold her children back from advancing in the white world. It was curious that with such a strong cultural background that my mom followed this terrible advice. I think it points to how forceful the directives were from the government and how much of a survival instinct my mom had.

She felt that she was doing the right thing for us.

My colleague Laura Clawson has noted today that the trauma of immigrant children now being separated from their parents by the government will last a lifetime. Indeed, the psychological impact may very well be intergenerational, as it has been for countless American Indians.

While most of those immigrant children presumably will not be separated from their parents for years as many Native children were, the parallels are unsettling. 

Obviously, Peggy Flanagan, the Democratic lieutenant governor candidate in Minnesota who is an enrolled member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, gets it:


As does Deb Haaland, the Democratic candidate for Congress from New Mexico’s 1st District, who is a member of the Laguna Pueblo and will be the first American Indian woman to serve in Congress if she wins the election in November:


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