At this point in my life, I greet each morning with gratitude for all of the gifts I’ve been given and for the ancestors and wise beings who have been a guiding and protective presence. I ask only that they help me hold center with compassion, patience, and integrity in good times and bad as I walk my path, perhaps chosen consciously in a previous lifetime. I try to follow the wisdom conveyed by the Ojibwe principle of “doing things when the time is right,” and I hope that this is the right time to share where I am in my manuscript editing journey.
This morning I awoke with a deep but gentle sorrow and tears in my eyes thinking about what my ancestors endured, and what too many people around the globe are experiencing now because we have failed to learn from the past.
In a few days, November 24, 2022, people in the United States will be celebrating Thanksgiving. It’s a holiday meant to honor the sharing of food and companionship between colonists fleeing from oppression in England and the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island (now referred to as North America). But a mere three centuries after that romanticized celebration of unity, the following excepts describe the consequences of hospitality for those who helped the new arrivals survive.
This post will not be an easy read for those with tender hearts. It’s drawn from the chapter that stopped my editing process eight years ago. I often say I stopped because I was too busy teaching. That’s partly true. Mostly I stopped because it was too difficult for me to set aside my deep sorrow each week in order to be fully present for students. Yet my muse tells me it’s time to move on, and time to share these excepts with others.
Although centuries of colonial domination affected all aspects of the lives of Native American people, the effects were, in Peter’s* language, “off the radar.” Few outside of tribal communities knew about the dire conditions Indigenous people endured before 1928. That was the year the “Miriam Report” was published, 891 pages in length, documenting the social and economic conditions of tribes. The report,
… revealed an existence filled with poverty, suffering, and discontent. Indians suffered from disease and malnutrition, had a life expectancy of only forty-four years, and had an average annual per capita income of only one hundred dollars. The report reached two basic conclusions: (1) The BIA ** [Bureau of Indian Affairs] was inadequately meeting the needs of Indians, especially in the areas of health and education; and (2) Indians were being excluded from the management of their own affairs. (O’Brien, 1989, pp. 80-81)
The conditions for children and families documented in the Miriam Report have direct links to the present issues that Carrie* [the tribal child welfare coordinator], Peter* [a State regional field representative who worked with countries and tribes], and Karen* [the counselor for the tribal alcohol and drug addiction treatment program] described in their interviews. Given the crucial importance of the issues the Miriam Report researchers covered, excerpts from the report follow. The excepts also illustrate how prevailing beliefs and perspectives at the time the study was conducted influence the interpretations and analyses reported by otherwise highly qualified and objective researchers.
Family and Community Development. The Indian Service has not appreciated the fundamental importance of family life and community activities in the social and economic development of a people. The long continued policy of removing children from the home and placing them for years in boarding school largely disintegrates the family and interferes with developing normal family life. The belief has apparently been that the shortest road to civilization is to take children away from their parents and insofar as possible to stamp out the old Indian life. The Indian community activities particularly have often been opposed if not suppressed. The fact has been appreciated that both the family life and the community activities have many objectionable features, but the action taken has often been the radical one of attempting to destroy rather than the educational process of gradual modification and development” (p. 15) …
Strains Imposed by the System of Education. Indian families are subjected to peculiar strains growing out of their relation to the government. Some of the projects of the government, notably the appointment of field workers to deal with home conditions, have tended to strengthen family bonds. But 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 theory was once held that the problem of the race could be solved by educating the children, not to return to the reservation, but to be absorbed one by one into the white population. This plan involved the permanent breaking of family ties, but provided the for the children a substitute for their own family life by placing them in good homes of whites for vacations and sometimes longer, the so-called “outing system.” The plan failed, partly because it was weak on the vocational side, but largely by reason of its artificiality. Nevertheless, this worst of its features still persists, and many children today have not seen their parents or brothers and sisters in years… (pp. 573-574) …
The real tragedy, however, is not 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… (p. 575)…
Effects of the System upon Children. The effects of early depravation of family life are apparent in the children. They too are the victims of an arrested development. The experience of the white race abundantly demonstrates that institutional children, even with the best of care, have greater health and personality difficulties than children in families. Affection of an intimate sort is essential to development. Recognizing this fact the better societies for the care of dependent white children have for many years been placing their wards out in families as rapidly as the very delicate adjustment involved can be made. Even in institutions for the care of dependent white children the children are there because they have no homes or because normal home life is impossible, and very few are taken forcibly from their parents. But many children are in Indian schools as the result of coercion of one kind or another and they suffer under a sense of separation from home and parents. Since initiative and independence are not developed under the rigid routine of the school, the whole system increases the child’s sentiment for dependence on parental decisions and children in their teens go back to their mother with a six-year old’s feeling for her.
Under normal conditions the experience of family life is of itself a preparation for future parenthood. Without this experience of the parent-child relation throughout the developmental period Indian young people must suffer under a serious disability in their relations with their own children. No kind of formal training can possibly make up for this lack, nor can the outing system when the child is half grown supplement what he has missed in his own family and with his own race in earlier years. (pp. 576-577).
This is just an except from one chapter of a rather long manuscript to try to show a small part of the legacy of loss that has continued to affect each generation of Native Americans in the US, as it did for me this morning and many other times in my life. It’s a deep, often unhealed, wound survivors of genocide and colonial domination carry and pass on to the next generations.
I don’t have the answers for resolving these issues. Perhaps I will have a few ideas when I finish editing my manuscript. But for now, I offer this post in hopes that it will inspire others to be both grateful for the gifts they have been given and compassionate for those who suffer.
* Note that these are not people’s real names.
** Here’s a link for more information about the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA): https://www.bia.gov/bia
Sharon O’Brien, American Indian Tribal Governments (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989), pp. 80-81.
Lewis Meriam and Others, The Problem of Indian Administration. Report of a Survey Made at the Request of Honorable Hubert Work, Secretary of the Interior, and Submitted to Him, February 21, 1928. (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1928).
In loving memory of my mother, a gentle and gifted healer, who was born on an Ojibwe reservation on March 1, 1921, and died on October 10, 2010, just before what would have been her 89th Thanksgiving.
My mother, age 7, before removal to a Catholic-run Indian Boarding School
My mother on her Confirmation Day. It wasn’t until her later years during the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease that she told me how much she hated the Catholic Church because of what they did to her. She never shared those stories.
My mother at home after Boarding School. She was the first Ojibwe from her reservation to attend the local public high school in the nearby Euro-American border town and, despite discrimination, or perhaps because of it, graduated as salutatorian of her class.
Retirement from the tribal clinic she helped establish on her reservation.