Looking at America’s First State-Tribal Truth and Reconciliation Commission
"Reconciliation" has become a term that is expected to follow intense and usually violent inter-group strife somewhere in a land, far away from the United States, whether it is post-Apartheid South Africa, post-civil war Liberia, or post-junta Argentina. After all, it has never been a "tradition" for the U.S. to reconcile inter-group grievances on a nation-wide scale following self-admitted periods of wrong. This alone raises questions as to why the Americans never felt it necessary to redress and reconcile with one another following the end of racial segregation, the forced internment of Japanese-Americans, or the linguistic and cultural suppression of French-speakers in the State of Louisiana. It is nonetheless clear that, while the U.S. has apologized for the aforementioned injustices committed against particular racial, cultural, or linguistic groups, little effort has been made since to mend the scars that had been left behind.
Today, it is becoming self-evident that truth commissions and reconciliation processes have become a more popular way to collectively address the wrongs of the past and restore relations for the sake of the future. In the State of Maine, there are a few who have begun their own process of truth and reconciliation in order to see their own section of America begin to understand and reconcile the flaws of their own past as a community. These few are attempting to address one period in particular that remains a largely unrecognized time in American history and one that has left a mark on American Indian communities across the country.
During the late 19th century, Colonel Henry R. Pratt established a boarding school model intended for American Indian children that was based off the maxim, “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” This effort contributed to U.S. government’s attempt at the time to “solve the Indian problem.” The implementation of these boarding schools was an effort to assimilate the remaining American Indian population that colonization and genocide had not yet claimed. The children who were sent to boarding schools could not speak their respective native languages or practice native traditions, and in many cases, died as a result of neglect and abuse.
In 1958, the Bureau of Indian Affairs collaborated with the Child Welfare League to begin the Indian Adoption Project, an initiative created to "save" American Indian children by placing them into white American households. Since U.S. government policies at the time largely contributed to the dire economic conditions seen in American Indian homes, the Project was able to easily sell to the American public that native children were being raised in unstable households and needed to be saved. Ultimately this “experiment” intended to prove that American Indian children were better off in white homes. On the contrary, the native children who fell victim to this system ended up losing their connection to family, community, culture, identity, and sense of belonging.
The project was initially a response to a study showing 1,000 American Indian children who were legally available for adoption but who lived in poor conditions and needed "saving" as soon as possible. It was quite clear within many states that the Indian Adoption Project was much more than finding homes for children who were supposedly living in impoverished conditions. According to the National Indian Child Welfare Association, American Indian children were placed into non-Indian homes and boarding schools with the belief that they would lose their native identities and would eventually blend into American society.
After the adoption project failed and ended in 1967, American Indian children continued to be removed from their families and communities and placed into state foster care at a much higher rate than non-native children. Estimates state that from 1972-1974, 25% to over 35% of American Indian children in the U.S. had been separated from their families.
Maine became a site in the country where American Indian children were removed at a higher rate. The state adhered to a policy whereby American Indians were considered "wards" of the state - something which would come to influence the state’s child welfare practices. This policy contributed to the rate of American Indian child removal being 19 times greater than that of all other children within the state of Maine.
Following the passage of the U.S. Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978, more regulations were put in place dictating stricter conditions for separating American Indian children from their families, such as ensuring that American-Indian families take precedence over non-Indian families during the adoption process. Nevertheless, many agree that this legislation was not enough to end abusive child welfare practices and certainly did not address the wrongs committed during the boarding school era, the implementation of the Indian Adoption Project, and the foster care practices that followed.
To be continued...
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Children's Rights, International Adoption, Native American, Racism, Reconciliation, United States