The U. S. Supreme Court will soon review whether the adoption of Native American children should be restricted to Indian Parents. It is an important case. It will require members of the court to be well informed about the treatment of Indian children throughout all American history. Indians have been painfully aware of this history. The settlements of Jamestown and New England in the seventeenth century placed Indian children at the center of controversy. In a striking dialogue on peace and war between Captain John Smith and Chief Wahunsenacah (a.k.a. Powhatan), the Indian Chief made the powerful and moving statement: “I have seen the death of my people thrice”. Arguably, he was referring to cultural genocide. The plan was to eradicate “Indianess” through the forceable removal of Indian children from their parents.
Historical Treatment of Indian Children
Christian conversion would gradually “civilize” a savage people. Between 1651 and 1674, the Massachusetts Bay colony established “praying towns.” The goal of praying towns was to convert Indians to Christianity. Colonizers expected Indians to give up their own cultural lifeways, dress, and religion. Instead, it often angered parents whose children were targets of opportunity. Time and time again, the consequences of these actions led to retributive violence against settler communities. In New England Indians struck hundreds of towns. Already viewed as savages, Indians as naturally violent became a stereotype.
Jamestown and New England Compared
The settler-Indian conflict was worse in New England than Jamestown because the two colonies had separate missions. Jamestown, while not devoid of conversion interest, focused on trade and profit. Under the strong influence of the Puritans, religion motivated the New Englanders to use conversion as the means to proselytize and make Indians “safe” or less violent, the very thing that forced removal was causing. A new mechanism for creating the “good Indian” arose later.
Rise of Boarding Schools
Between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries Indian boarding schools emerged. First, organized by Christian missionaries and religious denominations, the schools arose to educate and separate Indian children from their cultural heritage. Missionaries strove to transform Indians into Americans, using Christianity as tool for cultural assimilation. The mission schools were harsh environments, especially for younger children. Conditions worsened as boarding schools increased under federal law.
Between 1819 and 1969, the U.S. operated or supported 408 boarding schools in 37 states or territories, including Alaska and Hawaii. In May of this year, the Department of Interior issued a 106-page report on all Indian boarding schools.
Techniques of Assimilation
According to the report “The Federal Indian boarding school system deployed systematic militarized and identity-alteration methodologies to attempt to transform the identity of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children through education, including but not limited to the following: practices: (1) renaming Indian children from Indian to English names; (2) cutting hair of Indian children; (3) discouraging or preventing the use of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian languages, religions, and cultural practices; and (4) organizing Indian and Native Hawaiian children into units to perform military drills.”
Evidence of Infectious disease, sexual, physical, and mental abuse, especially in church schools is apparent. Researchers have found at least 53 burial sites for children across this system. More site discoveries are expected as research continues. The investigation of tribal schools continues under the direction of the Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland.
Members of the U.S. Supreme Court should take seriously the historic treatment of Indian families in ruling on adoption practices. It would be a travesty if the court now decides to deprive parents and Indian communities of their constitutional rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” once again by allowing strangers to take their children without parental or guardian consent.