I just finished writing the most difficult research paper I’ve ever written. I decided my final paper for this term in History would be on the Indian Child Welfare Act. The information wasn’t completely new to me. I began trying to learn more Native American history a little over a year ago. That was when I took my kids to the local history museum and my middle son grumbled the whole time about the lack of Native American representation.
When I discovered that I had grown up less than an hour away from a “reservation,” I was pretty shocked. I mean, I knew my grandparents were racist, but why had I never been told anything about it in school? Why had none of my friends mentioned it? Native Americans were not even on our radar, though our school name and mascot was a Native one. Or maybe they were as ignorant as I was.
Whatever the reason, that was a shock to my system and I realized that of all the minority groups in the US, that is the one I hear the least about. Oh, I’ve heard what all the missionaries did to them in the past. I’ve heard about the Indian Wars. But I had no idea about what was going on with Native Americans today.
Despite the fact that I had watched Dawnland and had read some of the information about the boarding schools, I was not prepared for the actual toll it would take on my psyche to do a full research paper on the subject of the forced removal of Native children from their families for over 150 years in an attempt by the US government to wipe them out.
If you are disturbed by the history of slavery in the US, the history of Native Americans is, well, it’s a nightmare. The US, it is obvious from history, has been on one long jaunt to wipe from the earth anyone who isn’t white. Starting with the Pilgrims and all the way on down to the Trump administration and Goldwater Institute. Why? I have no clue. How can you explain in anyway that makes sense the need of a dominant group to destroy the non-dominant group?
Jefferson told the Native Americans of his time that, basically, they could be friends when the Natives started acting and dressing like white people. He established the American view of the Native people in the Declaration of Independence. “…the merciless Indian savages, whose warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.”
It should come as no surprise to us that he wrote these words. He was a racist slave owner who raped black slaves. He was no stand up guy. But that we continue to ignore it, that people in government know the facts but refuse to speak of them, is disturbing. The US is the ONLY country that removed Native children from their families that HAS NOT apologized.
And that, the lack of remorse we have in this nation over the sins our parents and grandparents and all the way back committed against non-whites, is, in my opinion, the root of just how horrible the nation is. We are not sorry. We still think we are superior to non-whites. We still think that white, middle-class morality is the lens through which we should judge everyone.
On Sunday, I finished my rough draft of both my paper and the project that was required to go along with it. In less than 30 minutes I was sound asleep. I could barely open my eyes when my youngest son came into my room asking where the bandaids were. I didn’t have the energy to even ask him what he needed one for.
During my research, I came across an old TED Talk by Aaron Huey. He is a photographer for NatGeo. His photos were as poignant and disturbing as his lecture. I almost hesitate to show them to you because you won’t understand them. You will judge the people by your white, middle-class morality standard, even, I have found, if you are not white. They will be condemned in your mind. And you won’t care.
I have learned a lot over the last few years. One thing I’ve learned the hard way is that our judgement of other people says more about us than it ever does about other people. So think long and hard about this photo, because it is not what you probably think.
When I saw this, and the other photos that are similar, I recognized the despair. I have come far enough in my journey that I can now see it in other people. I think back through my life at all the situations I have been in and come across and this photo is one that describes all the despair in people I have met.
I have spent 50 years fighting for my life. I was unwanted, a product of a woman’s desperate need to get married in a world before Roe V Wade. I was abused from infancy and constantly rejected by my parents. My mother actively tried to get me to commit suicide. I have spent most of my adulthood barely able to move because my husband was abusive as well. When I tried to speak out, no one would listen. They would silence me and blame me for the horrors that were inflicted on me, even when I was a little girl.
Now, imagine that your entire race has been experiencing that on a national scale and for several centuries. The government, one that claims to value freedom and justice, tries to force your assimilation to their ways and when you say anything about it, they kill your people. Eventually, they force all of your people into prison camps (aka reservations) and try to starve you. When that doesn’t destroy you, they take your children and put them into abusive environments so they can force them to become servants for white people. That is only the smallest fragment of the atrocities the US has heaped upon the Native population.
It took me until last night to fully physically recover from my research. The psychological toll of just a few weeks was only obvious in hindsight. I had pulled back from everything. I could not talk to people, I didn’t even really want to talk to my kids. At the time I just thought it was usual school stress. It wasn’t until it was over and I could feel the physical change in my body that I realized what had happened.
Now, imagine that you cannot escape those stresses I researched. That is your daily life. That is your legacy. A government that is still trying to wipe you out and destroy you and a white society that demands you assimilate even as it curses you. All the while, remember, these whites claim to hold nothing to be more important than freedom and justice.
The top photo is from The Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition site. Specifically, it is on a page for churches.