Stolen: Native American Children and Lands

by Karyn Pomerantz, 1-14-2023

Stolen indigenous lands, stolen and enslaved people, stolen resources, and stolen elections mark US domestic and global history. Democratic and Republican Administrations have conducted wars and assassinations to annex foreign territories (Hawaii and Puerto Rico among others), oppose imperial competitors (Germany, Russia, and China), and remove pro-socialist governments (Congo and Chile among many others). Beneath its patriotic and racist calls to arms is a rapacious grab for for profits  (https://multiracialunity.org/2018/02/02/as-u-s-imperialism-declines-we-must-fight-racism-and-nationalism/).

The US ruling class unleashed one of the worst genocides against the Indigenous inhabitants of the US territories beginning in the 16th Century. When the settler colonialists arrived, there were 5-15 million Native Americans; by the late 19th Century, only 238,000 remained. Because of 1,500 wars, massacres, the Indian Removal Act that pushed 60,000 people on the Trail of Tears into reservations, 230 treaties that seized Native land, and diseases like smallpox left untreated, rich white landowners and their government grabbed 99% of tribal lands to build their wealth.

Over one-third of the people on the reservations suffer extreme poverty as well as high rates of crime, police murders, suicide, and diseases, including high rates of Covid. To add insult to injury, crimes committed by non-residents can only be prosecuted by federal agents, not by reservation residents. In 2011, only 35% of rapes were prosecuted.

Outside of the wars and massacres, the government implements policies to systematically destroy families by stealing Native children, creating extreme emotional distress among the tribes and profitable opportunities for landowners. This article focuses on US policies in the separation of Native American children from their homes and communities.

Child Separations: Residential Schools

Residential schools and adoptions aimed to “take the savage out of the child” and erase Native culture and community identity. The US government realized that family destruction was more cost-effective than outright killing. The head of the infamous Carlisle Indian School said in 1892:

“A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him and save the man (https://www.theindigenousfoundation.org/articles/us-residential-schools).”

Beginning in the 1870s, the US placed the first residential schools in areas where there were more Native uprisings. Federal agencies, churches, and local governments snatched children from their homes without parental consent and forced them into dormitories and classrooms where they learned “white,” capitalist values. Residential schools trained students to be passive and numb from the trauma of separation. The schools cut their hair, dressed them in coarse shirts and pants, and forbade them from speaking their original languages. Punishments were severe, and abuse and sexual violence were rampant; 1000s of children died from malnutrition, infections, and abuse. By 1925, there were 350 schools imprisoning 60,000 kids; many lost their Native language and the ability to talk to their families. Residential school kids learned to be maids or low-skilled workers to prevent them from competing with white workers for skilled jobs.

“Early assimilation policies were to steal Native American land,” says Christy Abeyta, Superintendent at the Santa Fe Indian School.  “If we can assimilate these Native Americans into the dominant culture then they have no need for reservations, they’re going to migrate into urban areas and there will be no need to maintain tribal lands, because they would have lost their culture, the language, all ties to what they held so sacred…and that was the land (https://www.pbsutah.org/pbs-utah-productions/shows/unspoken/).”

Child Separations: Transracial Adoptions

Spurred by the antiracist movements of the 1970s and concerns with costs, the government banned these schools and turned to forced adoptions as a cheaper alternative. During this time, 25% of Native women were sterilized as were many white, black, and Latin women. Government case workers grabbed children without parental consent and placed them with white families. There were no attempts to choose relatives or tribal families since the goal was to assimilate Native children into white society. In one example, a case worker did ask for permission – permission to take a Native American woman’s unborn child.

Tribal residents live in very communal, co-operative communities with less individualism than other groups. Removing their children is a significant community trauma. The child experiences feelings of abandonment typical with adoptees (why did my parents give me up?), alienation, and often bullying when placed in neighborhoods without any other Native or non-white kids.

These experiences of family destruction occur in other marginalized groups, such as Haitian and other asylum seekers, Palestinians in the Israeli occupied territories whose kids are routinely murdered and imprisoned; Argentinian dissidents whose babies were stolen and sold by the fascists in the 1980s, and migrant asylum seekers whose kids are detained and separated from their relatives.

The US also separates families. The Children’s “Protection” Service (CPS) agencies routinely charge poor black families with neglect that often initiates foster care placements. Black children run twice the chance of entering foster care than white children. While black children comprise almost 14% of the population, they comprise 23% of those in foster care and remain there 9 months longer. Poverty and racism drive these outcomes. Poverty makes it difficult to house, educate, feed, clothe, supervise, and provide childcare. Instead of providing the material resources to eliminate such poverty, the state seizes their kids. As Dorothy Roberts argues in her books, Shattered Bonds and Torn Apart, funds for the foster care system should be used for cash assistance, housing, and medical care for poor families:

CPS workers interpret conditions of poverty, including lack of food, insecure housing, and inadequate medical and mental health care, “as evidence of parental unfitness.” And instead of government agencies providing families resources, they “brandish a terrifying weapon” by threatening to take their children away.   … To the contrary, abolition (of foster care) means imagining ways of meeting families’ needs and preventing family violence that do not inflict the damage caused by tearing families apart (https://imprintnews.org/child-welfare-2/dorothy-roberts-new-book-calls-for-foster-care-abolition/64727).”

Root Causes of Family Destruction

Follow the money. On the surface, adoptions can be safe for the child, but adoptions are big businesses with children bought like other commodities.  Foster care is certainly cheaper than improving incomes and living conditions. Family destruction among Indigenous people also allows business to profit by seizing land and its resources. Removing the next generation of children eliminates their claims on land and resources, such as the rich uranium and oil deposits on Osage land in Oklahoma. Since Indian lands are only leased to tribes in a “trust,” the government can give the land to corporations, such as oil companies (Exxon-Mobil), to build pipelines or extract resources (Standing Rock), or dump toxins like uranium by-products that poisoned Navaho water. Indian lands and black neighborhoods have a disproportionate number of toxic dumps.

Racist Myths

Racism justifies these policies. The standard propaganda delivered through movies, TV, history books, and news portray Native Americans as “savages:” warlike, stupid, barbaric, unscientific, and drunk. In their book, “All the Real Indians Died Off” and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker cite evidence to debunk these stereotypes. Contrary to common ideas that they live off taxpayers, the Indian Health Service is only funded at 60% of the need and receives $5000 less than other federally funded health centers. Opposing the myth that indigenous people are unscientific, the authors describe the advances natives made in transportation with roads and canoes, and in agriculture and astronomy.

Native Americans Are Not Passive Victims: History and Multiracial Rebellions

Seventeenth Century US rulers considered enslaving Native Americans but realized they could easily escape since they knew the land. Indentured white servants proved too limited in number to serve as free labor. The colonial plantation owners chose  to steal African men and women instead. There were many examples of intermarriage and friendships among the groups which the new rulers destroyed. They murdered anyone who continued to marry and socialize with others and bribed white workers with slightly higher wages and superior social status (https://multiracialunity.org/2016/05/22/the-road-not-taken-by-lerone-bennett/).

Black, Native, and white workers rebelled. They partnered in numerous rebellions on board pirate ships and in wars against the colonists. Some Native Americans and escaped black slaves later joined together to establish free communities in Florida, becoming the Seminoles (https://multiracialunity.org/2020/01/01/a-historic-bond-between-fugitive-slaves-and-native-americans-the-story-of-the-seminoles/).

Occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs office

The American Indian Movement (AIM) fought militantly in the 1970s, ultimately seizing the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, DC, occupying Alcatraz Island, and fighting an FBI invasion at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation to demand their land and an end to the imprisonment and murders of Native activists. More recently, Native and non-Native people united and occupied land at Standing Rock for weeks during frigid temperatures to stop an oil pipeline.

Standing Rock

Strategies for Child Welfare

In 1978, the US Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act, ICWA, to stop forced adoptions of Native kids. The Supreme Court will hear a challenge from conservative politicians arguing that the law is race-based while ICWA supporters argue that Native Americans are a political group, not a “race.”

Activist black and Native parents have organized to oppose racist foster care and child “welfare” policies. These advocates demand that adoptions only occur when the birth parents request them, or if they are dead or fully incapacitated. They recommend that adoptive parents be relatives or community members.

If children are adopted, especially if they are old enough to have memories, they need to learn to appreciate their origins and visit their communities if possible. Children in transcultural adoptions benefit from multiracial friendships, schools, and neighborhoods where they can be viewed as part of a diverse community rather than experience exclusion and “otherness.” People can overcome the stereotypes and separation of Native and other marginalized communities by building multiracial struggles, neighborhoods, schools, and trusting relationships.

Class Unifies Us – Not Our Genes or Other Identities

Culture and trauma are not genetic but are passed down from generation to generation as the result of lived and shared experiences. The government and racist social scientists of the 19th Century measured drops of black blood to determine “race” and the use of “blood quantum” to ascertain the amount of Indian blood (e.g., “full breed”). The Bureau of Indian Affairs used “blood quantum” to determine land allotments and other benefits, giving larger parcels to families with higher levels of “Indian blood.”

The governing class also uses nationalism to divide us by promoting allegiance to a country or a sovereign tribe. The concepts of race, nations, and sovereignty serve to divide people into racial or tribal categories that are entirely social creations, not biological entities. All workers are part of ONE human race. There is more variation of DNA within “racial groups” than between such groups.

Class is what distinguishes people in the real world, not tribes, nations, religions, or gender. Mainstream propaganda tries to convince us that the exploiters in our ethnic communities are our friends, that electing black mayors will reduce police brutality or improve schools. The rich of all cultures exploit their own workers, such as white bosses profiting from the labor of white workers. Some Native tribes also owned slaves and made deals with colonial powers. In many colonized parts of the world, local rulers pocket millions from the imperialists, exemplified by Mobutu in the Congo.

As one Native American activist, Liko Martin, said to supporters at Alcatraz Island:

“(You need to) continue to support our resistance, [and] make every effort to raise your level of consciousness. … The land is still here and so are the indigenous people. … We are one world, one people—we should gather around the same fire and protect the same water. We are one heart, one breath, one life (https://www.vogue.com/article/unthanksgiving-day-alcatraz-50th-anniversary-2019).”

In the long run, children and families can thrive when Native American, black, immigrant, and white workers recognize that we are one working class with common needs and desires. Only then can we unite against capitalism’s drive to accumulate wealth through seizing land and resources, and establish a society where resources are collectively owned and distributed according to need.

More resources:

Born of Lakes and Plains, Mixed-Descent People and the Making of the American West by Anne Hyde (book)

Indigenous Continent by Pekka Hämäläinen (book)

Indigenous History of the US by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (book)

“All the Real Indians Have Died” and 20 Other Myths of Native Americans byRoxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (book)

Shattered Bonds and Torn Apart, by Dorothy Roberts on family separation among black families and alternatives to foster care (books)

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung, a memoir of her Korean birth family and her adoptive white one (book)

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, by David Grann (book and upcoming movie)

Blood Memory (film on Indigenous adoptions), https://bloodmemorydoc.com at Kanopy.com for free with a library card or for purchase

US Stole Thousands of Native American Children, https://www.vox.com/2019/10/14/20913408/us-stole-thousands-of-native-american-children.

End of the Line: The Women of Standing Rock, film on Standing Rock, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6101736/

Reel Injun directed by Neil Diamond, Native Americans in film, streaming

Dawnland, film on IPWA and adoptions, $20 to rent, dawnland.org/buy

A HISTORIC BOND BETWEEN FUGITIVE SLAVES AND NATIVE AMERICANS – THE STORY OF THE SEMINOLES

The-messed-up-truth-about-American-Indian-reservations, https://www.grunge.com/228469/the-messed-up-truth-about-american-indian-reservations/

Genocide

Genocide_of_indigenous_peoples#United_States_colonization_of_indigenous_territories, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genocide_of_indigenous_peoples#United_States_colonization_of_indigenous_territories

https://www.worldfuturefund.org/Reports/Genocide/genocide.html

https://study.com/learn/lesson/native-american-genocide-history.html


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