I sometimes assign my US history students to read Black Elk Speaks. The book is a memoir of sorts: a collaboration between poet John Neihardt and Sioux Medicine Nicholas Black Elk. The book was originally published in 1932, long after the Natives had been vanquished as a threat to white expansion and so reduced to the status of non-threatening “noble savage.” Niehardt was interested in preserving a dying culture; Black Elk hoped to pass on his “vision” to a nation whose “hoop” had been broken.
Interest in Black Elk Speaks is now mostly reserved to New Age devotees seeking to unlock the magic of Native American spirituality. But for the student of history it tells from the point of view of the defeated the narrative of how the “hoop of the nation” of the Sioux Indians was broken. The reader has eyewitness access to the Battle of Little Bighorn, the settlement of the Natives on reservations and their slow but inexorable loss of everything of value by a series of Acts of Congress and broken treaties, the display of Natives as circus objects in a Wild West show, and the end of the dream in the dead of winter at Wounded Knee in 1890.
White Americans invaded the lands of the Native Americans. They took their lands, they took their livelihoods, they took their dignity. And finally they took their children, placing them in off-reservation boarding schools designed to “kill the Indian – save the man.” From 1860 until 1978 the US government had the right to force Native American families to give up their children to be “assimilated” into white culture. The following is an excerpt from a historical site maintained by the Sioux Nation Relief Fund.
Naturally, Indian people resisted the schools in various ways. Sometimes entire villages refused to enroll their children in white men’s schools. Indian agents on the reservations normally resorted to withholding rations or sending in agency police to enforce the school policy. In some cases, police were sent onto the reservations to seize children from their parents, whether willing or not. The police would continue to take children until the school was filled, so sometimes orphans were offered up or families would negotiate a family quota. Navajo police officers avoided taking “prime” children and would take children assumed to be less intelligent, those not well cared for or those physically impaired.
Indian parents also banded together to withdraw their children en masse, encouraging runaways and undermining the schools’ influence during summer and school breaks. An 1893 court ruling increased pressure to keep Indian children in Boarding schools. It was not until 1978 with the passing of the Indian Child Welfare Act that Native American parents gained the legal right to deny their children’s placement in off-reservation schools.
Some Native American parents saw boarding school education for what it was intended to be — the total destruction of Indian culture. Others objected to specific aspects of the education system, the manner of discipline and the drilling. Still others were concerned for their children’s health and associated the schools with death. Resentment of the boarding schools was most severe because the schools broke the most sacred and fundamental of all human ties, the parent-child bond.
Public opinion now accepts the crimes committed against Native Americans by mis-remembering them. It is now common for people to unabashedly dismiss the brutality of the past by assigning it to “those people.” The ones who are not as enlightened as we are. If we had it to do over, we’d do it differently.
How do we know this? The linked article reports that in July of 2018 37 migrant children between 5 and 12 were separated from the parents and placed in vans, day and night, in the desert heat and cold, for up to 39 hours. When Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee learned of the incident, he pronounced it “completely unacceptable.” Included in his umbrage was the observation that we should care for children ripped from their parents, “as if they were on our own” (I guess our own children are better treated when they are ripped from their parents and placed in cages). And finally, the virtuous declaration, “This is not who we are as Americans.”
Except that, as I already mentioned, it *is* who we are as Americans. The only thing the election of Donald Trump did was make it harder for us to deny. There is a wide chasm between our values and our actions. Our comfort lies in keeping the spotlight on our values. Trumpworld’s abandonment of those values leaves the spotlight glaring on the ugliness of our actions.
“There has to be a better process. I hope as we move forward there can be adjustments so that we don’t put tender age kids in this position,” he wrote, referring to children between 5 and 12 years old.