This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Boarding schools and the Indian Child Welfare Act

Erica Littlewolf works with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Central States with the Indigenous Vision Center (IVC). 

Photo: A group of graduates from a boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Boarding schools removed Native American children from their homes and families. 

In my work, I spend a lot of time thinking about things in popular media that the majority of people don’t realize are offensive. For example, the Washington Redskins football team or the real meaning of Thanksgiving.

Recently, a story about a Native American child that was taken from a white family made national news, even showing up in places like People magazine and NBC News. Lexi, a six year old, had lived with the Page family in California for four years. Because she was part Choctaw, her birth family used the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) to ask that she be returned to her family in Oklahoma.

News stories about this event made the tribe look horrible and emphasized questions like, Why are they taking this kid from the only family she’s known? It felt like the media was not neutral. It appears that there’s a complete lack of understanding and appreciation for the importance of cultural connection to a person’s identity and sense of self. Pictures of Summer Page, the foster mother, were very dramatic and headlines used language like “child taken” and “parents devastated.”

According to the story, Lexi’s birth parents gave up custody, but through the Indian Child Welfare Act, the extended family can petition for the child to stay with the tribe, and her uncle had petitioned to get custody. Her extended family had also been fighting to bring her home to Oklahoma.

In contrast to this story, I thought about the coverage of historic boarding schools, where children were taken from Native families and sometimes never returned.

The boarding schools were mandated by the government (in both Canada and the United States) and usually run by Christian churches to, “Kill the Indian, save the man” and assimilate Native kids into American society. By 1973, 60,000 American Indian children were estimated to have been in boarding schools. Mennonites were teachers at some of the already established boarding schools, and they also ran boarding schools in Canada and the U.S. In the U.S., Mennonites operated three boarding schools and a day school in Kykotsmovi, Arizona.

I’ve heard so many stories about the boarding schools. Stories of children arriving and having their hair cut off. They were given “white clothes,” and all their cultural items and other clothing was taken. In many places, they were scrubbed down with harsh soap and separated from other kids from their tribe so that they couldn’t speak their language.

I have heard stories of children speaking their Native language; the teacher would prick their tongue with a needle as a form of discipline. The students would return home during the summer. Often they had forgotten some of their language and were different from their tribe and found it hard to be around their own people.

At the same time, many of them were being sexually and physically abused at the boarding schools. This started with kids as young as four years old. A lot of kids died while at boarding school and sometimes their parents would never find out how or when they had died.

There were many long term costs associated with the boarding schools, including: death, loss of language, loss of culture and loss of family structures. Children in boarding schools didn’t get to observe their own parents and learn how to be a parent in boarding schools. Now, for parents who attended boarding schools, it’s hard to have an emotional connection with their children. As a result of the abuse at boarding schools and the subsequent trauma that developed, Native communities are facing high levels of addiction and suicide.

This is why the Indian Child Welfare act came to be, because so many children were being taken out of their homes. They had to create a law that said that you couldn’t do this.

It’s interesting that this law rarely gets challenged or reported in regard to Native kids still being taken out of their homes through the foster care system, but you have one white family that is on the non-winning side of ICWA and it makes national news. Not the fact that in South Dakota 700 or so Native children are being taken out of their homes through foster care every year.

Some of the takeaway here is that when you see Native people and they are facing problems like addiction or when you read stories about the “unfair” impacts of ICWA, you have to understand that these are results of years of boarding school and generational trauma.

It is imperative that people take time to educate themselves about this history. Canada just hosted a truth and reconciliation process around residential schools. I would encourage everyone to educate themselves about boarding schools and their widespread impacts. Even doing a simple google search for Native American boarding schools will yield many results.


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