The Stealing of Our American Indian Children
By Donna Ennis
I have been thinking a lot lately about Baby Veronica and how it came to be that this Native child was placed with white adoptive parents. I have been thinking that the dominant culture values of possession and ownership are so strong that it leads to a sense of entitlement even when it comes to a child’s life. In this way of thinking you simply need to want something so badly that you can employ any means available to obtain/possess it.
This is how it was with our lands at the first point of European contact. When the early invaders wanted our land they had just taken it and if there was resistance there were Wars waged and the land was taken from us. Eventually these ways became more streamlined and instead of taking the land through violence they used methods of trickery and deceit. In this way they took advantage of our traditional values of cooperation and sharing. Before long we naively signed treaties in the hopes of retaining our way of life and the ability to live a long life as good neighbors.
It was just a matter of time before they came after our children in this same way. Beginning in the 1870’s they simply began taking our children from us. The methods of taking our children were ones of trickery and deceit. They brought our children to boarding schools to be raised in harsh environments devoid of any nurturing or semblance of our Anishinabe values. These attempts to “civilize the savages” through acculturation have had intergenerational effects on the structure of the Native family. By the time the era of boarding schools came to an end our way of life was almost extinct.
Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978 in response to the alarmingly high number of Indian children being removed from their homes. The intent was to protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian Tribes and families. Despite state and federal laws designed to decrease the disproportional representation of children by race and ethnicity in the public child welfare system, 30 years later in 2008 Native children continue to experience the greatest disproportionality and the rates of over-representation are expanding.
Collaboration at the state, county, tribal and community level that build upon the strengths of Native families and Native communities will need to be pursued. In other words, we need a foundational change.
If Native people violated federal and state laws in order to adopt or foster a white child the outcry would be deafening. Here again is the double standard that we see across systems. In the book Brother of the Senecas by Walter E. Butts, Jr., a conversation gives us insight into how Native people might deal with this situation. One night in the year 1782 baby Polly was snatched by the Mohawks and her mother spends the next several years trying to locate her daughter…..Tall Chief argued: “This Polly, if she is alive, has grown up among her red brothers and loves them as her own people, for she knows no others. Would it not cause more sorrow than happiness to uproot her now and return her to a mother she has never known?” “An Indian mother’s love is just as great as a white mother’s,” said Slender Fern with a flash of spirit. “To take Polly from the Indian mother, who has raised her as a daughter, would cause her just as much sorrow as the white mother has known. Her sorrow would be a fresh wound. The white mother’s sorrow must have known the healing balm of time. Why cause two mother’s to suffer where it was only one before?” Nate Answered “But Jennifer Harlowe’s sorrow is not healed,” he answered Slender Fern. “It will never be healed until Polly is found.”
American Indian Child Welfare Advisory Councils (AICWAC) are tasked with “strengthening policies and laws that protect Indian children through the sovereignty of tribes with in the State” among other things. Recently there have been renewed efforts to undermine the work that is being done to protect Native children by groups calling themselves names like Coalition for the Protection of Indian Children, and Families and Christian Alliance for Indian Child Welfare. These groups allege that the ICWA law is destroying loving, stable families and placing children in harmful difficult situations. The groups that are encouraging white families to adopt Native children and proposing amendments that will make it easier for these families to adopt cross-culturally are the ones that are destroying Native families. We are undermined when programs like Dr. Phil portray Native people in a slanted way even when they are provided with the correct information. The message today is the same message we gave 150 years ago: The best setting for a Native child is within one’s own culture and relations.
Donna Ennis is currently the chair of the Minnesota Indian Child Welfare Advisory Council, as well as the eastern regional director and cultural director for North Homes Children and Family Services, a professional foster care agency.