Carol A. Hand
I awoke early on the morning of August 28, 2001.  I had a long drive ahead of me to the northern communities where I would be spending six months, an Ojibwe tribal community and the surrounding county where the majority of the population were now the descendants of European immigrants.  My purpose was to study the Indian child welfare system.
The first stop I made was at the tribal social services agency where I met the Ojibwe community member who had agreed to help me meet community members and tribal staff. I will refer to her as Cousin Linda, although that is not her real name. (Because our ages were similar, and because I am also Ojibwe, it seems appropriate to acknowledge that in a sense we were relatives, hence the title “cousin.”) When I arrived at her office, I shared the materials required by my university for “research” studies. After a brief glance, Cousin Linda laughed and said, “You can’t use these to explain what you’re doing. People won’t understand. No one will want to talk to you. Come here — let’s write something that makes more sense. But we have to hurry so we can make it to the elders’ center in time for lunch.”
We did come up with a more community-friendly explanation of what I was doing and the questions I wanted to explore, and headed for the center. That was the beginning of a life-changing experience for me. The stories I gathered during my stay, the various events I witnessed and was part of, and the many things I was given to read, helped me gain a snapshot of the legacy of colonialism for Ojibwe families and communities. It also helped me understand the complex ways in which colonial oppression continues to affect every aspect of Ojibwe people’s lives today.
I realize few people are aware of this history or its continuation. And among those who at least know a little about the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, few understand its importance. Even fewer recognize why the law needs to be strengthened and improved. I am sharing the following stories not only to share the suffering of Ojibwe children, families, and communities in the past, but also to share ideas about what can be done to improve the systems that the U.S. created and imposed under the guise of protecting children from harm.
The stories that follow illustrate the direct consequences of everyday heroism, great inhumanity, simple kindness, and mean-spirited pettiness on the lives of Ojibwe children across at least four generations. Yet the stories also show the tremendous resilience of Ojibwe people and the enduring influence of the culture that enabled them to survive in challenging environments as a distinct people for thousands of years. As you read these stories, I ask you to reflect on a bluntly phrased question. Can the removal of children from their Ojibwe homes and communities throughout history be seen as truly in their best interest, or rather, as a form of cultural genocide? The answers to this question are complex. The stories of Ojibwe people, both those who were taken from their communities and those who were able to remain, highlight the fact that simplistic answers to this question only serve to delay authentic tribally-directed solutions.
The Boarding School Era (1809-1934)
Grandfather Thomas was in his late 70s when I first met him at the tribal elders’ center in 2001. He was tall and stately, with silver hair and a finely-chiseled face. Although his gait was sometimes unsteady, he stayed busy, helping clean up the elders’ dining room after meals, teaching children Ojibwe traditions, and driving community members to various appointments in his car. Over the course of our time together, Grandfather Thomas shared many stories about his life. He shared his old photos and some of the amazing artwork he created, and he took me to meet his son and grandchildren. The stories he shared about his childhood will remain in my memory.
He was 5-years-old when he was kidnaped from his community by missionaries and imprisoned in an institution run by the U.S. government. Although the removal of Native American children from their families by the federal government, under the guise of education, did not become official policy in the U.S. until after the Civil War, it was not a new practice. From the earliest accounts of Spanish and English colonizers, Native American children were a special focus of assimilation policies (Bremner, 1970). Removal by force and kidnapping were sanctioned ways of dealing with the children of people who were viewed as heathens and savages, and who were certainly in the way of the invaders who were only interested in claiming indigenous territory and resources. It was in such a setting that Grandfather Tomas spent his youth. (Boarding schools are discussed in a previous post. )
Grandfather Thomas was among the last generation of Native American children who were placed in boarding schools. During a series of conversations over the course of a year, Grandfather Thomas described his experiences and shared accounts he wrote about those years. His story began when he saw a rare sight – an automobile. When the white strangers in the car motioned for him to get in, Grandfather Thomas climbed in out of curiosity – and so began his long life journey back home.
When I was about five, I was walking along the village road and I was picked up by some missionaries who were driving by. I was frightened – I didn’t know where they were taking me. It was a long ride, and I fell asleep in the car. When I woke up, I was in a strange place far from home. [As he was speaking, he held up his right hand to show me a scar that has been with him since then. Laughing, he explained how he got the scar.] I got this when I first got there for talking Indian. One of the school staff hit my hand so hard with a ruler that it broke the skin and left this scar. I accepted the beating because I wanted to know where to go. I was only asking the boy next to me where the bathroom was. Since I didn’t know any English, I asked in the only language I knew, Ojibwe. One of the teachers hit me with a ruler for talking Indian. (Grandfather Thomas, September 6, 2001)
I wasn’t given a chance to say anything to friends or parents, not knowing at the time it was called kidnaped. It seems the white government had decided that the best thing for Indians was to teach them the white way of life. The method would be to start with young children and teach them English, discipline, and how to be farmers. (Written account shared by Grandfather Thomas)
When I was a little boy, before I was taken away to boarding school, I slept on the floor, wrapped in a blanket by the woodstove. When the missionaries came and took me away to boarding school, they pointed out this very high bed [he gestured with his hands to show how high it was – the upper bunk he was assigned was about 5 ½ feet from the floor]. I looked at that high bed, and knew I didn’t want to sleep in it. So I took my blanket and crawled up on the floor under the bed. Then they came and started kicking me, and asked me what I was doing on the floor. They told me I had to sleep in my bed, and stood there until I climbed up into the bed. I didn’t want to be kicked, so I learned to sleep in the bed. I was disciplined. (Grandfather Thomas, November 6, 2001)
In the middle of some nights, and afraid of the dark, I’d have to go down a long dark hall. If I would turn on a light, someone would get mad. So at times, it was much easier to urinate in bed or on the floor. (Written account shared by Grandfather Thomas)
I didn’t know my parents, or that I had sisters. When my aunt and uncle came to visit me at the school, I thought they were my parents. I stayed at school into my teens, when I was viewed as a valuable farm worker. (Grandfather Thomas, September 6, 2001).
We were taught to stand in a straight line at school, and not talk to each other. If I turned to talk to the person behind me when we were lined up waiting for meals, I would be disciplined. It was like when I worked a job and had to be there from 8 to 5, to work for someone else who would take what I made and give me some of it back. I was disciplined to do that. When I was in the army, I was standing at attention and I heard the officer call for the third person in the fourth row to step out: after three calls, I was hit on both sides, and realized that they were calling me. If I had known the officer was calling me, I would have listened because I had learned about discipline in boarding school. (Grandfather Thomas, November 6, 2001)
When Grandfather Thomas left the reservation boarding school as a teenager, he joined the army as a patriotic citizen of the country that had kidnaped him from his family. He married and lived his adult life far from the community where he was born, using the skills he gained, not from his years of schooling, but rather those he learned in the army. The discrimination he experienced because of his darker complexion meant that he was paid less for his skills than Euro-Americans in the same job. He earned enough to support his family, but was forced to retire early to care for his wife when she was diagnosed with cancer. After her death, he finally returned home to be closer to family on the reservation.
Like Grandfather Thomas, generations of Ojibwe children grew up in harsh, abusive institutional settings. Many of these children were not as resilient as Grandfather Thomas and the consequences of childhoods robbed of a nurturing community and loving family left soul-deep wounds. From generation to generation, those who remained or returned to tribal communities witnessed the consequences of cumulative historical trauma. A 1928 study of the conditions on Native American reservations detailed desperate conditions: devastating poverty, widespread disease and malnutrition, and “a life expectancy of only forty-four years” (O’Brien, 1989, pp. 80-81). The study also underscored the consequences of boarding schools (Meriam, 1928).
Indian families are subjected to peculiar strains growing out of their relations to the government …. on the whole government practices may be said to have operated against the development of wholesome family life. Chief of these is the long continued policy of educating the children in boarding schools far from their homes, taking them from their parents when small and keeping them away until parents and children become strangers to each other…. The real tragedy … is not the loss by death but the disruption of family life and its effect on the character of both parents and children. The personal care of helpless offspring is the natural expression of affection no less among Indians than among parents of other races. No observer can doubt that Indian parents are very fond of their children, and though the care they give may be from the point of view of white parents far from adequate, yet the emotional needs of both parents and children are satisfied…. (pp. 573-577)
The federal government never apologized to Grandfather Thomas or other Native children for the suffering they endured at the hands of federal staff during their years at boarding schools. There have been no reparations for the children whose lives bore deep scars from their years in loveless institutions. Nor did the government make amends to the family whose 5-year-old child was kidnaped by federal agents. There were no federal efforts to address the harm done to thousands of families that suffered as Grandfather Thomas’ had. Yet, Grandfather Thomas did not express anger or bitterness about his treatment. Despite the years he spent in boarding school, the army, and living and working in communities far from his reservation community, Grandfather Thomas retained important cultural lessons. Reflecting on his philosophy of life, he shared the following observations and insights.
If you travel in any town in this country, you will see all of these churches with different names and people become members. But the great spirit is everywhere. All you need to do is build a relationship with the great spirit.
The people were given all they needed by the great spirit, and everything they needed was free. They wanted to give thanks, and so, since the great spirit gave them voices, they spoke to him. You see all of these pictures of Indians speaking to the great spirit. And they sang and danced to thank him for all he had given them.
People have a choice about how to live their lives. The great spirit doesn’t force them to live in any way. (He raised his arms out to his sides.) There are two wings. The left wing is of the heart – the good wing, but it is each person’s choice which path to choose. You can choose to do whatever you want. I used to tell my sons that they needed to decide which wing they wanted to follow. I could not make them do anything, it was their choice. They could stand on the corner and drink and smoke: that would be their choice. But they grew up and they don’t hang out on the streets. (Grandfather Thomas, October 9, 2001)
Living this philosophy, Grandfather Thomas focused on helping others. He took me under his “left wing” and shared his stories, photos, and the amazing beauty of his art (paintings, wood carvings, drawings). I wondered what his life would have been like if he had been able to grow up with his family. I wondered what his life would have been like if he had been able to attend a school that provided more than abuse, discipline, and training for farming and manual labor. And I wondered what his life would have been like if the government had apologized and offered reparations to the children and families who had been traumatized when agents were sent to kidnap children and place them in abusive institutions simply because they were Native American.
Photo Credit: Public Domain Pictures
Bremner, R. H. (Ed.). (1970). Children and youth in America: A documentary history (Vol. I: 1600-1865). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Meriam, L. (1928). The problem of Indian administration: Report of a survey made at the request of Honorable Hubert Work, Secretary of the Interior by the Institute for Government Research (the Brookings Institute). Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins Press.
O’Brien, S. (1989). American Indian tribal governments. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
1. The timing of my study was significant for two reasons. First, it was the beginning of the season for harvesting wild rice, a traditional ritual for gathering food that was still an important community activity. Second, it was just before September 11, 2001. As the nation mourned the death of the 3,000 people killed by the destruction of the World Trade Center towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., tribal elders gathered around the television set in the elders’ center. They wondered why people in the world hated the United States so much. As the nation mobilized to help the families of victims and avenge their deaths, these earlier victims of an alien invasion did not make connections between the tragedy of “9/11″ and their own history. In the case of the Ojibwe, the invaders stayed with many tragic consequences for Ojibwe children, families, and communities.
2. Before European explorers, missionaries, voyageurs, and immigrants first arrived, the county was peopled by Ojibwe and other Indigenous Peoples.