America’s Failure of Indigenous Children Is By Design

Photo: Petros Karadjias (AP Photo)

Indigenous invisibility has long been the norm in the United States. This isn’t news to people from these communities, nor is it specific to this topic, so apologies to fellow Native readers for retreading painful ground. But it’s clear that the rest of population of Turtle Island remains in need of constant reminding.

The latest examples arrived in a pair of heart-wrenching reports published on Friday—a joint project from ProPublica and the Anchorage Daily News, and another from the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.

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These reports bear no direct connection. The Leader’s investigation concerned years of abuse faced by Native children forced to attend Catholic missions and boarding schools in South Dakota throughout the 20th Century. Meanwhile, ProPublica and the Anchorage Daily News’ report focused on the violent chaos that’s sprouted in the 1-in-3 Alaska towns that lack any law enforcement, the majority of them being towns of Alaska Natives.

For most non-Natives, reading one or both of those stories would have been a horrifying awakening to the dark underbelly of what America has been about since the day the colonizers first washed up on our shores. For the First Americans, they amount to little more than another drop in the bucket.

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After all, it was only last year that Alaska’s Diocese of Fairbanks revealed the abusive priests that bankrupted them after dozens of Alaska Natives filed lawsuits seeking damages for decades of unrelenting sex abuse.

It was just three months ago that the mainstream press took notice of Stanley Weber, the former Indian Health Service doctor who abused children at tribal hospitals for decades. The victims of Weber’s abuse came forward repeatedly. IHS employees filed complaints against their co-worker and alerted their supervisors, but still, nothing happened, not until he was finally indicted in 2017.

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Hell, it was just yesterday that Rep. Ruben Gallego, the chair of the Subcommittee for Indigenous People, tore into the officials representing the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education during a hearing concerning the Chemawa Indian School and the recent deaths of three Native students. 

“It’s very disturbing to hear from our witnesses, including our government witnesses, what is occurring in this school.” Rep. Gallego said in his closing statement. “When we take students into our schools we take a very serious responsibility. We do not replace the parents but we certainly are making for decisions for them. And the fact that we are still putting up walls of communication between teachers and medical staff, walls of communication between mental health experts and between parents and the administration...is absolutely ridiculous. The reason why this school is having this problem is because it does have a culture of stonewalling.”

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Educating yourself on the specifics of any one of these cases is emotionally draining, but it’s not enough. I recognize it’s difficult, trying to take five giant steps back and reassess not only the American government’s relationship with the Indigenous nations, but the relationship between Native people and the international religious community as well. But as has been borne out since time immemorial, it is crucial that we do so before the next man-made crisis strikes.

The very fact that practically every child in America leaves high school unaware of the Catholic boarding schools and missions that littered the Midwest and West—which scooped up (and occasionally sold off) Native children by the dozen with little-to-no supervision and attempted to wholly extinguish the preexisting Indigenous cultures from the face of the continent—is a fucking disgrace. And it’s because our government and our classrooms specifically do not force us to reckon with this history that these tragic news items bring reminders of every two months, only to quickly wither away.

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The easy comparison of what’s required is the widespread response to the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal. In that case, state and federal governments unified to take swift action, albeit decades after the fact. But the most impactful facet of their response was not the lawsuits and settlements. Those steps were legal vehicles by which a massive public awareness campaign burrowed the information into the American consciousness.

Even if they aren’t aware of the full extent of the Church’s abusive and secretive nature, everybody at least knows about the crisis. Yet even within this response, awareness and empathy eludes Native Americans—researchers have shown the highest per capita abuse rates by the Church were found in Indian reservations and boarding schools.

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See, the American government and corporate barons and religious leaders have repeatedly preyed on Native children and populations because they recognize that if or when they get caught, the outrage will not be sustained. Perhaps some of their lower-level officials will be apprehended and face punitive action, but their structures will remain intact, because they recognize the ugly truth that so many politicians do not—the American public, by design, couldn’t give a shit about what happens to Native people. Even the children. That’s not a condemnation of the individual people, but of the haunting forces that shape this apathy.

What Indigenous people view as failures on the part of public schools to properly educate non-Natives on their history are not failures, but rather purposeful systemic adaptations designed specifically to erase that ugly history. They work because all of these institutions historically had success in thinning our numbers and then underfunded our schools, thus limiting our ability to seek higher education, connect the dots tribe-to-tribe, and then spread that historical message to the masses. The ironically maddening reality is that now, only by way of appealing to the governments that once intently set out to erase us, can we even hope to have our problems addressed.

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As long as the United States government and its citizenry choose to ignore Indigenous people, stories like these will be repeated—only to be reported years later, again and again and again. This is not a promise or a warning. This is history, and it’s long past time to learn it.

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