While the fate of 2,300 children remains unknown after President Trump’s executive order to end family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border, the United States doesn’t even have data on how many children go missing in Native Indian communities.
“People today are justifiably shocked and disturbed by the separation at the border of children from their parents. They should be equally shocked and disturbed by the decades of similar tactics fostered by the United States government against Native American children who are citizens,” said Stephen Pevar, senior staff counsel for the racial justice program of the American Civil Liberties Union. “And by the excessively high rate at which Native American children are being pulled from their families and placed in foster care.”
Beginning in the late 19th century, the U.S. government allowed missionary groups to enter reservations, seize Native children, and put them into boarding schools intended to destroy Native Indian tribal identity. They were forced to speak English, worship Christian gods, given Anglo-Saxon names, and adapt to the ways of the “civilized” world.
“The government wanted to assimilate Indians, and the best way to do it was to start with the kids. So they literally kidnapped these children and sent them hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles away to these boarding schools,” Pevar said.
One of the largest of the Indian boarding schools was founded in 1879 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, on an abandoned army post in Pennsylvania, far away from any reservation. Founder Richard Henry Pratt’s philosophy was, “Kill the Indian, save the man,” according to historical accounts.
About 10,000 children attended the school until it closed in 1918 and reused as a hospital for soldiers returning from war. Reports state Pratt and the school administration had angered too many in the Bureau of Indian Affairs for the school to continue.
After the boarding school fiasco came the foster care debacle.
Nationwide, Native children are placed into foster care at a rate 2.7 times greater than others, according to the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA) that said in a statement, “Ending the policy of systematically separating children from families at the border is not over until every child is reunited with their parents and found safe and unharmed.”
Before the enactment of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) that governs removal and placements of Native kids, 25 to 35 percent of Native children were being taken from their families, according to NICWA.
In 2015, for instance, Sioux tribe members brought a lawsuit against state officials regarding the removal of 823 Indian children in South Dakota between 2010 and 2013. They alleged the policies and procedures violated their rights during 48-hour emergency removal hearings. A federal court found court and state officials violated the ICWA and due process under the 14th Amendment.
ICWA was passed as a result of findings by Congress that state welfare officials and local judges “were often ignorant of culture and tradition of Native groups and were removing Indian children unadvisedly,” Pevar said.
What makes the matter of missing Native children worse is there is no centralized system or data to keep track of them, advocates said.
“Reporting of missing persons in Indian country, no matter if child or adult, used to be marginal at best. It is getting better by the day with new tools available to Native law enforcement, like the Amber Alert and tribes beginning to get [National Crime Information Center] terminals so they can enter their own cases,” said Janet Franson, founder of the Facebook page and website Lost and Missing in Indian Country, an advocacy group that helps families of missing Natives. Posters there show Jermain Austin Charlo missing from Missoula, Montana, since June 16; Roseline Pawai missing from Hilo, Hawaii, since March 4, 1999; Starra Terry missing from Phoenix, Arizona, since June 15. The list goes on.
Native people have been marginalized from they day colonizers came to North America, through direct land takings and violence and through government sanctioned policies rooted in racism, said Madonna Thunder Hawk, tribal liaison with the Lakota People’s Law Project.
The reason people who are upset about what’s going on at the border don’t seem to care about how Native families have been separated for generations is “because they don’t want to,” she told Rewire.News.
“People don’t know their history. We, as indigenous people and the colonized, have faced this for decades. That’s how settler governments decimated our communities generation after generation, which led to a weakening of the family unit and our community,” she said.
Thunder Hawk said she speaks with an average of five to 12 families a week in Rapid City, South Dakota, who are looking for help in finding missing or exploited children. It’s hard to keep track as the numbers fluctuate and people often don’t report missing children because of distrust in the system, she said.
Among them is Rose Mitchell, a Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe grandmother who has looked for her 7-year-old granddaughter since April. It’s a complicated custody case. The child has been largely raised by her father, Mitchell’s son, since infancy because the mother was an addict who neglected her, Mitchell says. After years on the reservation, her mother, who is not a Native, had her illegally kidnapped from school, Mitchell told Rewire.News. Mitchell said she is “heartsick” worrying about whether she is being taken care of or if she’s being abused. She’s frustrated judges did not allow tribes folk to comment, and tend to side with the white people in these cases.
“I’m worried about her safety and emotional trauma and culture shock in a non-Indian setting,” she said. “Her family has not been allowed to see her or talk to her.”
Mitchell said she knows of five families looking for their grandchildren on the reservation but that “their voices are not heard” beyond the Native community.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation counted more than 7,700 Native Indian children missing in 2016. The epidemic of missing children led the U.S. Senate to declare May 5 a National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls two years in a row. It led to the AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act to ensure Native children are given the same protections as other children if they go missing.
Native women and girls face violence at rates far higher than their counterparts, according to a National Institute of Justice study. And the militarized crackdown on peaceful protesters at Standing Rock recently showed how Native people are criminalized when they protest to protect their land and lives.
Native organizations like the National American Indian Court Judges Association (NAICJA) are glad Trump ended the separation policy at the border but criticized the administration for not having a plan in place to reunite the thousands of children who have been removed from their families. Meanwhile, the Trump administration will continue to prosecute migrant parents who come to the United States without documentation, continuing it’s so-called zero-tolerance policy.
“We as Native Americans have our worst memories resurrected when we see children torn from their parents at the hands of law enforcement, taken to unknown locations, and with an unknown path to reunification. We as a people have historically suffered the consequences of such forceful removal of its children from parents and caretakers that created intergenerational harm that we as courts and professionals still struggle to address,” NAICJA said in a statement.