Rescuing Children or Homogenizing America? — Part 2

Carol A. Hand

 (Part 1 Questions)

… 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.

Part 2

State and Federal Child Welfare Initiatives (1935-1978).

The answer to these questions is suggested by the life stories shared by Uncle Raymond, born 20 years later than Grandfather Thomas. Although the boarding school era had ended as an enforced policy in 1935 about the time Uncle Raymond was born, some families still did opt to send their children to Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) schools in Kansas or North Dakota so they would be away from the new threat posed by state and county child protection agencies. The BIA continued its efforts to assimilate Native children through the “outing system” – the removal of Native American children from their homes and families permanently and placement with white families. State and county child welfare agencies joined these efforts. The Child Welfare League of America spearheaded a movement for placing Native children with white families, and in 1958, partnered with the BIA on the Indian Adoption Program to place Native children in white adoptive homes (Fanshel, 1972; Goodluck & Epstien, 1978). Increasingly, state and county workers, rather than BIA staff, intervened to rescue Native children and placed them with white families through either foster care or adoption (Pevar,1992). The evidence suggests that removal was largely due to poverty and cultural differences: cases of child abuse remained rare (Blanchard, Denny, Levy et al., 1979; Byler, 1977).

When Uncle Raymond was a child, removal was still a risk. He shared an account of his narrow escape from removal on my first day in the community. He was at the elders’ center when I arrived with Cousin Linda, and he was one of the elders she introduced. We joined his table, and when I explained my reason for being there, he invited me to come to his house later in the day.

I did go to his house, a house filled with children’s laughter and so much light on this lovely August day. I shared the handout Cousin Linda had helped write, and Uncle Raymond began sharing stories about his life. The first story he shared was about his narrow escape from the attention of county police and child welfare authorities.

When I was a boy, there were only about twenty-eight families that lived in the village here. All of the families were poor, but we hunted and shared what we gathered. Deer were divided among all of the families, and my friend and I snared rabbits as young boys and would share what we caught with everyone. [Laughing] I remember one time when I was a young boy, it was winter time, and all of us were really cold: we didn’t have any fire wood. So I had gone off to find some wood, and there was little to be seen. It was cold, and it was getting dark when I came up to a white farmer’s fenced in land. I thought “those fence posts would burn nicely.” So, I cut them and brought them home. We had a fire that night. The farmer was really mad when he saw that his posts were gone and wanted to have the thief arrested. [Ogema] found out about it and figured out who had taken the posts. He came to wake me up early the next morning, and he took me out to the woods to gather cedar trees and he taught me how to make posts. When we were finished, we brought the posts to the farmer and helped him repair the fence. I apologized for taking the posts. [Ogema] persuaded the farmer not to report me since I realized what I had done was wrong and worked hard to make up for my mistake. The farmer agreed. After that, [Ogema] knew families in the village were cold, so from then on he made sure that the community worked together so there was enough wood for everyone in the village. (Uncle Raymond, August 28, 2001)

Ogema is not the name of a person, it is the Ojibwe word for “leader” or “chief.” [3] As Uncle Raymond’s account underscores, it is a title earned through generosity, wisdom, and actions that protect the community. Uncle Raymond’s story also documents the enduring legacy of a culture that valued children highly and had developed sophisticated techniques for ensuring their education and well-being (Broker, 1983; Johnston, 1982). Sadly, adults also felt the need to protect children in ways that meant the loss of their language.

When I was growing up, my cousin and I would follow the elders when they went out into the woods. We would hide behind brush so we could listen to them speak Ojibwe. The elders would come and chase us away so we wouldn’t be able to learn the language. They told us they didn’t want us to suffer the way that they had. (Uncle Raymond, September 10, 2001)

Uncle Raymond also shared stories of hardship. His mother struggled alone in later years to care for more than a dozen children.

I dropped out when I was a junior in high school. I was kicked out of the house when I turned 18. My sister … took me in, but there was no support to finish high school. So I went into the military, and sent money home and hoped they wouldn’t drink it all up…. When I dropped out of school, I got a job and I realized that I needed more education. I went to night school for highschool and college credits. I didn’t want to go through the process of getting a diploma with younger kids, so I took the GED test and passed. I went to [technical schools, a university, and a college]. A few were paid for by the BIA, but not through tribal education. Most I paid for myself. I had military benefits I didn’t even know about that would have helped. I took courses in business, accounting, English language, tribal history. I wanted to be able to do my job better. I went as someone who wanted to learn, not for a degree….

I never wanted to be dependent on any authority. I provided for my family, and I provided for myself for years. I still believe this. I don’t believe the tribe owes me a thing. (Uncle Raymond, October 26, 2001: SN)

Despite adversity, or perhaps because of the resilience he developed along the way, Uncle Raymond learned to value children, education, generosity, and kindness. He described the sense of responsibility he felt for all children in the community, not just his own, and some of the ways he has served as their advocate, foster parent, or provided financial support in times of need. He and his wife have taken in children from the community when their families were having difficult times. When Ojibwe children were expelled from the local public school, he made arrangements for them to complete their education elsewhere. He passed these values on to his children who all work together to make sure all of the grandchildren have the care, supervision, and financial support they need. Because of Ogema’s actions, he was able to learn many traditional skills and values – hunting, harvesting, and sharing – and now teaches those skills to the youth.

The childhood memories Auntie Lucille shared were very different. Auntie Lucille, also in her 60s, worked at the elder center that I visited regularly. She helped set up the dining room for meals and cleaned up afterwards. And although I saw her almost every time I visited with elders, she remained friendly but distant. As she became more used to seeing me there, she asked me to help her with small tasks – cleaning the tables, sweeping the floor, or counting donations. She was reluctant to talk with me initially, saying only that hers was not a happy story. It was not. When she finally began to share her life experiences, she talked for several hours.

Ogema was not able to protect all of the children at risk of removal, particularly in situations of family disputes. Although it would be easier to blame outside oppressors, Auntie Lucille’s childhood turned into a nightmare because of petty jealousies and disputes among siblings. Her aunt was mad at her sister, Auntie Lucille’s mother, and called welfare agents to get back at her sister. This allegation of abuse set in motion a tragic situation, not only for Auntie Lucille, but also for her siblings and other children from the community.

When I was little, with grandma and grandpa, when it was time for doing canoes, I went with them to get bark for the canoes, for the wigwam. I went with grandpa. He always did that. Grandma always taught beadwork. I had to tan hides (I’m glad I didn’t have to clean them). They were spread out on frames in the house – I would scrape them [she lifted her hand and moved it through the air with back and force motions] until they were nice and soft...

The big drum was here and grandma and grandpa were part of it. The drum was presented to grandma. Every time they would have a feast, she’d take me and my brother. I sat on the right side of grandma, and my brother sat on her left. As long as the drum was out, we couldn’t get up or say anything. My job after school was to go to all of the elders’ houses to see if they needed anything, any work done or water or wood. My job was to do whatever they needed. I guess that’s why I do it now. I always got along better with elders. If they ask for help you give it, or you offer. I could sit and visit with elders and I always felt better….

I had a lot of good times when grandma and I would sit on the porch. She would talk Indian and I could understand what she was saying. My brother and I always knew what she was saying, but she wouldn’t teach us because she said it was going to be a white man’s world. “They’re taking over and I don’t want you to be beaten up for talking Indian.” And she was right. It was our heritage, but we couldn’t learn because the white man’s going to take over….

We went to ball games. Grandpa would be an umpire and we’d go all over. I was always with grandpa and grandma, going everywhere with them, more than with my mom. Mom didn’t care. She’d come home drunk and chase us out of the house at 3 or 4 in the morning. We’d run to grandma’s – grandma always had a crock pot of biscuits by the door, it was covered with a towel, and we’d go in and grab a biscuit and go upstairs to the bed – they always had a bed for us. When grandpa got up in the morning, we’d hear him say “Well our kids are home again.” I could never figure out how they knew we were there, and then one day I realized that my brother never put the towel over the crock pot after he took his biscuits.

My grandparents got up early. In the morning, my grandpa would say “It’s 6 a.m., daylight in the swamp kids.” My grandpa trapped in the winter time. He’d come and wake me up early and tell me to go with him. I’d ask him why he wasn’t taking my brother instead. He’d say “you’re the oldest so you’re coming.” If I wanted money, I’d have to work for it. I’d cut wood, or pump water if I wanted money. If I wanted a nickel or dime, I had to work for it first.
I could always count on them. They always had something to eat and there was always a bed ready….

I can’t have no hate in my heart. If you can’t forgive, take charge of your life, you’re lost. I don’t blame anyone, I don’t blame my mom – she thought she was doing the best thing for us. Mom drank a lot. There were nine of us kids. She was a good mom, other than going and out drinking. She was not a mean mom, but a lot of the reservation thought she wasn’t a very good mother. Her own sister did it to her – reported her to welfare. She said [the sister] if she had known what was happening in the foster home she never would have done it. (Auntie Lucille, July 31, 2002)


After I was 9, for 9 years I was away from that love, heritage, pride, life. Where’s an Indian supposed to fit in? When you have those values and are denied a chance to practice them? It was just nine years of hell. How to work was all I got out of it. There was no love – no nothing. (Auntie Lucille, July 31, 2002)


I was 9 years old when I was told welfare was going to come and take us to a foster home. Grandpa and grandma … wanted to keep us but they were told they were too old. They were not willing to have us go away, but they [county child welfare workers] took us anyway.

I was one of the first ones taken away. They came and picked us up and took us to this farm. I was 9, so I tried to remember the route. I remembered the highway. They said it was 80 miles, but it was more than that. They said that mom could come and see us whenever she wanted but that did not happen.

The home on the farm had three daughters of their own, but we had to do all of the work – we had to wait on them all. We were supposed to get $3 a month for an allowance, but we never got it. We didn’t know anything but work and school. We were not allowed to go anywhere else. We couldn’t have any friends. They were mean to us – we were hit and beat by horse straps. We would tell the social worker at our monthly meetings, but for the 9 years we were there, we never had the same worker twice. They kept changing workers.

After I was there, they started bringing others – my brothers, sister, cousins – from [the reservation community]. My grandma told me “You’re the oldest so you need to watch out for the others.” I took a lot of beatings to protect them so they wouldn’t be hit….

They only took us in because of the work they could get out of us. They never took me to the doctor or dentist like they were supposed to do. I never went to the dentist until I was 18 and I got out of there.

They had these fields of green beans. They took us there to work in the fields picking beans every day in the summer. We were there from 6 in the morning until they came to get us. We earned 3 cents a bushel, but we never got to keep our money – they took it.

My brothers ran away. I got beat until they came back. (Auntie Lucille, July 31, 2002)

Auntie Lucille did not have Ogema to protect her. Her strength came from what she remembered from her Grandmother’s teaching, and from an outside source.

Church was my only out. I was 13 when I accepted God as my savior. That was the only thing that kept me sane – that and what my grandmother taught me – the old Indian way.

My grandma told me “You’re a survivor – you’ll make it no matter what.” And that kept me going. I had a couple of nervous breakdowns – when I was raising my own kids everything that I went through at that farm – it all started to come back. (Auntie Lucille, July 31, 2002)

Her assessment of the child welfare system is certainly legitimate given her experiences.

I don’t have anything good to say about the welfare system. I don’t care that much for foster homes because there is no one who oversees the homes. I don’t think Indian children should be raised in a white man’s home. They don’t share our culture, and they don’t want to understand us. The only way is their way. I don’t think that’s right for Indian children. (Auntie Lucille, July 31, 2002)

Grandfather Thomas, Uncle Raymond, and Auntie Lucille all began their stories with the same statement. “This is my story. Other community members wouldn’t understand it because it is something only my generation lived through.” Each adapted to lives made more difficult by the legacy of discrimination because of their ancestry. All struggled economically, yet all returned to the community that gave them a sense of roots and belonging. All contributed their skills to others to improve the community. Auntie Lucille, the one whose suffering was perhaps the most profound, told me the reason she decided to return and to share her story was because she hoped “to make a difference in at least one person’s life. That will make all my suffering worthwhile” (July 31, 2002). My reason for sharing each of their stories, like Auntie Lucille, is the hope that their stories will touch other hearts as they did mine. I wish I could say that their assurance that other generations did not suffer as they did was correct, but tragically it has continued, as accounts from the next generations demonstrate.


Photo Credit: Public Domain Pictures

Authors Cited:

Blanchard, E., Denny, G. M., Levy, P., Robbins, M., Milligan, D., & Ryan, M. (1979). Keeping children out of foster care. Practice Digest, 1(4) 11-13.

Broker, I. (1983). Night Flying Woman: An Ojibway narrative. St. Paul: Minnesota Historic Society Press.

Byler, W. (1978). The destruction of American Indian families. In S. Unger (Ed.), The destruction of American Indian families (pp. 1-11). New York: Association on American Indian Affairs.

Fanshel, D. (1972). Far from the reservation: Transracial adoption of American Indian children. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, Inc.

Goodluck, C. T. & Epstein, F. (1978). American Indian Adoption Program: An ethnic approach to child welfare. White Cloud Journal, 1(1), 3-6.

Johnston, B. (1982). Ojibway ceremonies. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press.

Pevar, S. L. (1992). The rights of Indians and tribes: The basic ACLU guide to Indian and tribal rights, 2nd edition. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.



3. Ogema is not the name of the person described in the account. Ogema, which means leader in the Ojibwe language, is used in place of a name to maintain the confidentiality of individuals and to mask the specific location of the community.




26 thoughts on “Rescuing Children or Homogenizing America? — Part 2

  1. Heartbreaking. Give someone authority over other people (and I don’t mean the authority of Ogema!) and out comes the cruelty. And when the other people are different culturally or racially, it seems there’s no limit to the damage that is inflicted by those who think they are entirely justified. It doesn’t end.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is heartbreaking, Diane. I wish the stories ended with these past generations — but Ojibwe people in the next two generations shared similar stories, and I have no doubt the hegemonic abuses continue as I type this response. The question that remains for me is — what can we do to end this archaic torturous way of traumatizing families and children from generation to generation under the guise of “rescuing” children from their families and communities? The life challenges Native American families face today are the direct result of colonial oppression.


      1. Education from you and others may help. I don’t think people go into social service because they want to cause damage but they too often carry damaging and oppressive assumptions with them. So if only the mindset and training can be focused on respecting, supporting and strengthening families instead of “rescuing” children. And that includes ending poverty. Child welfare and child protection are cover stories for colonialist mentality. All over. I’ve just been reading about new Stolen Generations in Australia. A friend who grew up Roma in Switzerland was taught by her mother to always lie about her name and address so she wouldn’t be taken away and raised in a “Swiss” home. Another friend, a Korean adoptee to a white family in Nebraska, said her American father had to adopt because he was an orphan and one day the doctors came to the orphanage and sterilized all the children. These authorities always act with total impunity. Do you think the internet and social media will make any difference? It is always easier to abuse people when you’re doing it in a place that’s distant and that most people don’t know about — a reservation, behind the closed doors of an orphanage. But everywhere is now next door in cyberspace. I hope it will prove to make a difference.


        1. I agree education is crucial — yet all too often what I have seen in social work education is the tendency to accept past policies and practice paradigms with little critical thought about power and dominance, and to continue to approach change from outdated problem-focused expert-driven methods based on etic rather than emic values and expertise. Add to that the continuing dependence on the banking model in most university classrooms, and what students really learn is how to impose what they have learned on their clients in the same oppressive ways that they have experienced in classrooms.

          As your examples demonstrate, the problem of child abuse is really a global systemic issue — governments and “experts” have been the destroyers of cultures, communities, families, and children for centuries. It is my hope that social media may help — it’s why I decided to post these essays. I haven’t had much success using Facebook for serious dialogue, so I don’t often bother anymore. My last attempt to engage social work faculty and students from UW-Madison, my alma mater, was not very productive. I am more hopeful about the blogging community because of all of the amazing people I encounter 🙂 .

          Liked by 1 person

        2. My honest answer — almost all undergraduate students I have had the privilege of working with wanted to learn (more than 99.9 %), as did the majority of graduate students (maybe 90%), but most faculty I have encountered have been unable to admit that there are many things they don’t know and will never know. The most successful have a vested interest in protecting what they “discovered” or “developed” in the past and tenaciously protect their turf, the status quo. Anyone who suggests there are other ways of seeing things is easy to dismiss, especially if the suggestions come from a student or someone on the margins…

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Amazing stories of survival. Foster care reminds me of the Disney ride”it’s a small world”, Marketing of Care, and celebrating diversity” but not always allot of substance . As a foster care survivor, I think it’s fair to ask, what would the alternative have been? Living in the street? Not trying to justify abusive situations . I just don’t know.. Great stories for discussion. Peace.


    1. A crucial question, goroyboy. Thank you for asking! Foster care — for this particular community there were alternatives. In Auntie Lucille’s case, her grandparents were already there for her and her brother, and they wanted to take care of her but the social workers wouldn’t allow them to. In other cases, relatives or community members like Uncle Raymond would be preferable to off-reservation placement with strangers. If the goal is to keep children within their culture and help families be successful, a whole range of other options are possible tailored to meet the needs of each family. Some communities and tribes have developed approaches that fit with their cultures — kinship care, community support networks, foster grandparents who provide family respite and support, intensive family preservation support workers to provide guidance and support, financial help for struggling families, or programs that place the whole families in “foster care” settings to help them deal with relationship and parenting issues more effectively. What prevented creative, humane interventions that kept tribal children in their own communities were state and county systems with decision-making power that judged tribal cultures as inferior, viewed lower income homes as less desirable, and encouraged assimilation whenever possible.

      Another example — when I coordinated a tribal initiative to reduce infant mortality rates, some communities started women’s crafting circles to make gifts for each newborn. After the birth of each child, the circle of women held a ceremony to give the gifts to the families and welcome the child into the community, creating bonds that meant they assumed responsibility for overseeing the well-being of each child. The circles built a strong network among women in the community and rewove community connections that were disrupted by past colonial policies.

      The real question for me is why don’t communities see each child as special and important? Why don’t communities want every child to have the best life possible? And why are we so willing to give up on parents who struggle without really figuring out what it would take to help them succeed?

      (I am curious to hear your ideas about possible alternatives.)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you , as always for addressing a non issue to the non native world!
    Have you read ” The Destruction of the California Indian ” by Robert F. Heizer ?
    You might find it of value.


    1. I so appreciate your comments, Gator Woman. I haven’t read the resource you mentioned, but I understand that the treatment of Indigenous Peoples of California was especially violent. I promise to check out Heizer’s work as soon as I can.


      1. Should be in your local library.
        This is an excellent work with great details of early CA. history relating to Indigenous.
        It was especially hard to learn this, as my next door neighbors in California were very kind Mormons.
        You’ll understand this remark when you read the book.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Carol, I’ve been thinking such a lot about the resilience of the people who speak to you. They are very courageous. Do you think it’s the early bonds of community and care which enabled this?


        1. This is such an important question, Nicci! I do think it takes courage to tell one’s story, to be “vulnerable” as you have mentioned in your posts. Because people who lived in this Ojibwe community were free to talk to me or not, and to later decide if their stories could be shared or not, in a study that promised not to reveal names or community identifiers, those who shared stories had reasons other than “ego” for telling their stories and permitting them to be written. They also signed intimidating university-required research consent forms that made these options clear. And yes, given where I met them (the elders’ center), they were already involved in many activities to improve things in the community. And as they thought about the questions I asked over time, they would sometimes seek me out to share more.

          But listening to and recording experiences like the ones Grandfather Thomas, Uncle Raymond, and Auntie Lucille shared is a heavy responsibility and a sacred trust. I have always loved to learn more about people and as a sometimes-reclusive introvert, have learned to be a deep listener and observer in a world that is filled with talkers and doers 🙂 . I am aware of the “power” researchers have to frame other’s understanding of people and cultures in their studies and their writing, so I try to be mindful and privilege community voices in what I write. And because I really want to know what others think, I work hard to create questions that are open without suggesting “right” answers. So I think people see me as someone who genuinely wants to hear what they wish to share, as someone who can be trusted to honor promises and protect secrets, as someone who will act responsibly in choosing what to share and with whom, and as someone who will be respectful of the honor they bestow with their trust. Yet still, this is the first time I have shared some of these stories in a place other than a 320-page dissertation where they were chopped up and buried among literature reviews and theoretical discussions.

          Nicci, I thank you for being so respectful of people’s words and perspectives, for thinking about the deeper meanings. Your questions and reflections help me see things in new and deeper ways.

          Liked by 2 people

  4. Hi Carol, thanks for the reply. Thank you for sharing. The respect and value you give to the people who share with you is easy to see.

    I have a lot of admiration for the people who shared with you. They tried to bring value to their very difficult experiences through caring for others and trying to make a difference, as do you.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Carol, thank you! Social sculpture is really quite incredible, and it’s teaching me about democracy, or a voice for every person. Also the synergy between people and environment. I spoke to James (Teed) about you and your work on Saturday. You can contact him if you’d like. He’s very kind. He’s in Portland.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I so value you kind words, Cindy. I feel the same about your lovely photo essays that remind me about the beauty and wonder that surround us if we take the time to be present in the moment.


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