"It enrages me," says Crow Creek tribal council member Peter Lengkeek. "We're very tight-knit families and cousins are disappearing. Family members are disappearing."
The Crow Creek tribe has lost more than 33 children in recent years. The reservation only has 1,400 people. Last year Lengkeek asked social service officials to tell him where the children were and who they were placed with.
Seven months later, he received a list. Lengkeek says every single child was placed in a white foster home.
He says if the state had its way, "we'd still be playing cowboys and Indians. I couldn't imagine what they tell these kids about where they come from and who they are."
"It's kidnapping," he says. "That's how we see it."
Except for the obvious reasons, many people may wonder why this matters so much to Indians, why it arouses our fury more intensely than just about any other conflict between Indians and non-Indians in today's world. That's because the foster-care program contains a powerful echo. Our rage arises out of a history that is, for many of us, devastatingly personal.
For instance, among Indians who participate in the Daily Kos group Native American Netroots, at least four of us have relatives who were yanked away from their families and sent to boarding schools (aji: great-grandmother; me, grandmother and great-aunt; navajo: mother; cacamp: grandparents, parents and himself).
Some went to government-run schools; others were taken in by church operations, Catholics and Mormons being among the prominent proponents of this approach to "civilizing" us.
In addition to being physically abused and treated as sexual prey in many cases, children in the boarding schools had their language, culture and religion yanked away. That wasn't collateral damage. It was the whole point. The concept behind the boarding schools, more than 150 of them by 1900, was "Kill the Indian...save the man," as noted in an 1892 Denver speech by Col. Richard H Pratt, founder of the U.S. Training and Industrial School at Carlisle Barracks, Pa. In short, demolish Indians by literally stealing their children.
|Apache children on arrival at the Carlisle Indian School wearing traditional clothing.|
|The same children at the Carlisle School four months later. Note the haircuts.|
Here's cacamp - Carter Camp - giving the short version of his boarding school story:
I was a repeat run-away same as my Mom, so I didn't graduate until I was 19. Mom never did because her Dad hid her from the agent after the first time. In my parents' day the schools were run like military academies where the kids marched in formation and drilled like soldiers. They had disciplinarians and jails and ran farms, which the students worked on to feed themselves. Those were the bad old days. By the time I got there, they were more benevolent but still strict about erasing our cultures. We still had to work on the farm two hours a day and more if we got in trouble.
The Navajo had it especially rough since they were forcefully rounded up like my parents were and taken up [to] Kansas, far from home, while the rest of us were sent by our parents because of poverty. We were high school age; so were the Navajo but they hadn't gone to any school before and most spoke no English so they had "special ed" and were segregated in different dorms. Funny thing though, we met and became friends with students from all over and later on became tribal leaders and American Indian Movement leaders who knew each other and could work together for things like tribal sovereignty.
Back then the Bureau of Indian Affairs agent stole the kids and ran roughshod over the parents and tribe. Today it's the State and the welfare system that is doing the same thing. We call our lost children "Lost Birds" after the baby girl who survived [the] Wounded Knee [massacre of 1890] and was adopted out to a white family but finally (recently) came home to her people to be buried again at Wounded Knee.
Each year we have "lost birds" coming home who have turned 18 and come seeking their families and yearning to learn their culture. Many times they don't even know who to ask for and sometimes they're quite old, grown up and with their own children looking for a connection to their past. Winter Rabbit reminded me of such a lost one. The majority of the stolen kids know their families and come home ASAP, so we have a large population of Indian kids who were brought up outside the tribe and have now come home. They almost all have stories of abuse. Only a few were lucky enough to find love and stability. Most are passed around in the system and bounce from foster home to foster home. This has been going on so long that thousands of lost ones are out there from every nation in America. It needs to stop.
Aji tells the story of her great-grandmother:
[My mom's grandmother] died without ever knowing who or what she was; it's taken a lot of work, years later, to piece her "self" together. Initially, the family thought she was of Scots descent, not realizing that the Scottish surname was that of her by-then-widowed mother's second husband. Her adoptive name was English. There is no record of what her traditional name (or any surname) might have been; they were more interested in covering up the very fact of adoption than anything else.
In the 1870s, the Catholic Church in Michigan was very invested in saving Indian children from an alleged "epidemic" of illness. What they were really doing was stealing kids and farming them out as fast as they could to reliably Catholic families who would ... "save the [wo]man by killing the Indian." No one knows how many were lost to white families via church theft. Hundreds, at a minimum. Probably thousands over the course of one generation alone. But one day in the late 1870s, a good white Catholic couple of English extraction left their home and traveled to the rez for two months, and came back bearing their new little Indian "papoose," promptly given a white name and identity, with never a reference to be made to the adoption, much less from where.
Ironically, when she married, her husband ran his father's logging business, and during the summer months, he traveled around the state; in his absence, she ran the business for him. She hired and fired - you guessed it - Indian laborers, some of whom were undoubtedly relatives, but neither side ever knew it. She died thinking that 1) she was English, and 2) she was the lineal descendant of those English "parents." To this day, I'm not sure how they explained the differences in coloring - probably via the "Gasp! That's not discussed in polite company" method.
Also ironically, after her adoption, her new parents went on to have nine biological children of their own. You'd've thought they could've been a little less greedy about acquiring someone else's child as a possession.
Nobody is suggesting that the foster-case system in South Dakota is treating Indian children the way the boarding schools did back, in Carter's words, in the "bad old days." Or that children are being snatched in quite the same way that the churches did decades ago. But many of today's Indian foster-kids are still losing their culture and the connection to their heritage.
Take the case of Janice Howe, one of the grandmothers that the NPR team focused on. Her four grandchildren, the children of her daughter Erin Yellow Robe, wound up in foster care despite the 1978 law.
Except rarely, that law requires that Indian children be placed with relatives, a tribal member or at the very least, another American Indian. And it requires states to do all they can to first keep a family together through services and programs. Surely, a grandmother qualifies.
But nothing Howe did over 18 months brought her grandchildren back until she told the Crow Creek tribal council that they were about to be put up for adoption. The council passed a resolution warning the state that if the Yellow Robe children were not returned, it would be charged with kidnapping and prosecuted. Nobody thought this would work, but it did.
"Antoinette came in and said 'Grandma, Grandma. We get to stay! We get to stay!'" ...
Howe thinks the babies were treated well. But Rashauna and Antoinette left a size 10 and came back a size smaller. Howe says they hoard food under their pillows and hide under the bed when a car pulls up.
"I feel like they were traumatized so much," Howe says.
The children don't remember their native dance, something Howe says is especially important for Antoinette, the oldest.
"We go to sweats," Howe says. "We have ceremonies at certain times a year. She's got to be getting ready to learn these things that she has to do in order to become a young lady. They took a year and a half away from us. How are we going to get that back?"
Among other tasks, Danny Sheehan works for the Lakota People's law office. He has about 150 case files on removals.
"These are all the different people who had their kids taken away from their entire families. ... Not one of them has had their children left with a relative of any kind."
He hopes one day he can sue. ...
"Maybe if we devoted all our resources to a particular case and said, look, we're going to land on you like a ton of bricks [social services] and make you give this one kid back and sue you and do everything else, they would probably just turn the kid loose," he says. "But it wouldn't change anything. It wouldn't stop them from doing it a hundred times again."
But why should lawsuits be necessary? There is a law against what's being done. It's just not being enforced. A good deal of the reason for that is because the centuries-long efforts to make Indians disappear, to make us invisible, has succeeded. Our political clout in such matters, even in places where we can still be found in substantial numbers, is next to zero. The 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act appears to us to be just another ignored bit of paper, like hundreds of treaties, and nobody official is doing squat about it. When it comes to invisible Indians who enforces the enforcers?