Separating Parents from Children History is repeating itself

The Stewart Indian School. one of the original buildings that housed and educated Native American students

We are almost halfway through summer and yes, I am aware that I have not posted in quite awhile. Where does the time go?

While I have no problem posting my views on a variety of topics, it is rare that I talk openly about my day job. But, given that the Federal Government’s solution to immigration is to separate children from parents, I am going to talk about my job. I am developing expertise on the subject, not due to any involvement in the current situation but because history is repeating itself, and part of my job involves dealing with the history of separating children from parents. This will also explain in some measure why my posts are far and few.

In order to understand my job we have to travel back in time. Back to the early 1900’s when the Federal Government and white settlers were fighting with Native Americans as more and more Americans moved westward and outward determined to fulfill the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.

In order to gain control of large parts of what was quickly becoming a vast United States, treaties were signed between the Federal Government and Indian Tribes. Along with treaties came reservations; areas designed to round up and “house” Indians in order to keep them in one place; often far from their native lands and way of life.

The government felt they had an “Indian problem” so a narrow part of these treaties was the promise to “educate” Indian children in order that they could navigate (or hopefully assimilate) the American culture. As the issue of how best to educate these children arose, a group of “progressive” thinkers offered a solution; it would be best to remove the children from the reservations and place them in boarding schools. Schools specifically designed to force assimilation. To quote the founder of the first boarding school, the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were created to “Kill the Indian and save the man”. In order to accomplish this goal, the schools forced students to speak only English, wear proper American clothing, deny them access to their culture, religion, and to replace their Indian names with more “American” ones. In short, the children were stripped of all notion of self and forced to become other than who they were.

Children as young as four were forcibly removed from their homes. Parents had little say in the matter as armed men came into the reservations using the promise of food and medicine as their primary weapon. If the parents willingly gave up their children they would be given government commodities and medical attention to their elders. If this approach did not work, children were kidnapped and taken in secret to boarding schools, sometimes across the country. Parents were not allowed to visit their children even if they were in a nearby school. I kindly ask that you think about this last paragraph and if you can, imagine yourself in these families’ place. Imagine the government coming into your homes and taking your children and or grandchildren never knowing if you will see them again. If you need to take a moment to scream, I completely understand. There are days when I go home crying.

As you can well imagine, this had a devastating effect on the families and most importantly on the children. Thousands of young children grew up never knowing what it was like to be hugged or told that they were loved. On top of this psychological damage came more damage, as their identities were stripped away to be replaced by alien ones. Not only were they unloved, they were taught that by being Indian they had no value. As you can guess, these boarding schools did not result in the making of well-adjusted young people.

It was hoped that after graduating the students would return to the reservations and teach their elders how to succeed in the new American culture; though how they were supposed to do this not knowing their own native language or culture defies explanation. Most did not return and are lost to history. In the later half of the 1900’s many students were not returned to their families, but were sent out across the country to work on ranches or factories.

By the late 1920’s it was obvious that denying the children their culture was not working. Some of the boarding schools, including the Stewart Indian School, began to slowly integrate American and Indian culture. This had a positive impact on the students though many still resented being educated away from home. By the time Stewart Indian School closed in 1980, it was thought to be a shelter from systemic racism found in public schools. During the last 30 years of the school’s operation the students excelled in sports and music; the last of the students have fond memories of the school in large part because attendance was voluntary and they had the option of going home (daily if they lived nearby, or in the summer months if they lived outside the area).

Though it may appear that this story has a happy ending, we need to keep in mind that the devastating effects of the first 70 years of this history is still felt in families and communities. The children who were raised without loving parental role in turn were not always the best of parents. Low self-esteem and loss of cultural identity are only now are beginning to be recognized and dealt with. Many families still remember the loss of loved ones; for a culture that places high value on unity this is a shattering loss of personal unison. How as a society we work to honor those who suffered so much is part of the ongoing history of the “Indian problem”. Here is where I come in.

The Stewart Administrative Office built in the 1920

The Stewart Indian School is one of the few intact historic boarding schools. It was one of the first 25 such schools. It opened in 1880, and closed in 1980. Though the original wooden structures are gone, the beautiful stone buildings from the 1920’s remain. I work in Superintendent Frederick Snyder’s home. Snyder oversaw the building of the stone structures by Hopi stonemasons. Today, the Stewart Indian School is home to government offices and training facilities. In the spring of 2019 it will also be the home to the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum; the beginning of a new era for the school. It will be a place to learn the history of Indian boarding schools and a place for local Native Americans to share their art and culture. The new master plans calls for the revitalization of the school; the campus will be a mix of maker-spaces for native artists, small convention facility, guest housing and auditorium. Visitors will learn about the school’s history while contributing to its future.

The Administrative office will now be the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum

I work for the Nevada Indian Commission. Our mission is to work government to government with Tribes and to promote economic growth and stability within tribal communities. We are also in charge of the changes to Stewart as it becomes an economically viable campus. This means that on any given day you may find us meeting with tribal councils, state and local government bodies or working directly with the Stewart Alumni and the master plan design team; but most importantly to this post, with the legacy of the Stewart school, and the consequences of its history. I’ve met wonderful people with not so wonderful stories. I see first hand the devastating aftermath of the Federal Government’s solution to its “Indian Problem”. There are days I come home exhausted. Oh do not get me wrong. I love my job and what we are doing, but it does take an emotional toll.

And now history is repeating itself. The Trump Administration’s policy of separating families at border is not only horrific now; it will have lasting detrimental effects on the future. The children caught in this real life horror will also have life-long issues. The policy will result in suspicion on authority, trust, and loss of self-worth. I cannot even imagine how hard this is on parents. Can you imagine fleeing a war torn country or extreme poverty only to have your children ripped from your arms by those who you have asked for help?

History will not be kind to this policy or the society that sat back and silently allowed it to be normalized. We may have an “Immigration Problem” but as history as shown us, this is not the way to solve it.

 

If you would like to learn more about the Stewart Indian School, please visit our website at http://stewartindianschool.com/ or come by and take a self guided tour of the campus.