Reconciling Our Past: Longstanding Policy of Indian Child Separation Calls for Reparations for Native Americans, 1021 COBJ, Vol. 50, No. 9 Pg. 6

PositionVol. 50, 9 [Page 6]

50 Colo.Law. 6

Reconciling Our Past: Longstanding Policy of Indian Child Separation Calls for Reparations for Native Americans

No. Vol. 50, No. 9 [Page 6]

Colorado Lawyer

October, 2021

As I See It


On September 29, 2020, H.R. 8420 was introduced in Congress to establish the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policy in the United States.1 The Act does not call for reparations for Native Americans, but it should. Perhaps the strongest argument for restitution derives from the formal US policy of child separation that was in effect for over 100 years.

1818: The Indian Civilization Act

Initially, the federal government attempted to eliminate tribal sovereignty with a policy of assimilation by choice. This policy was given a voice by lames Monroe, who said in his 1818 State of the Union Address that "[t]o civilize them, and even to prevent their extinction, it seems indispensable that their independence as communities should cease, and that the control of the United States over them should be complete and undisputed."2

Following Monroe's lead, Congress adopted the Civilization Fund Act that same year.3This Act provided Indian tribes with instruction in agriculture, reading, writing, and arithmetic, but only upon their consent. Congress appropriated $10,000 annually,4 which paid missionaries and church leaders to establish schools designed to replace tribal practices with "civilized" Christian culture.

Forced Removal from the East

By the time he left office in 1825, however, Monroe had changed his mind about assimilation by consent and advocated "forced removal" of tribes to west of the Mississippi.5 This led to the immediate relocation of the Red Stick Creeks in 1813. After losing the decisive battle at Horseshoe Bend, the Creeks were forced to cede more than 21 million acres of land to the United States. Andrew lackson, who led the US Regulars and Tennessee militia, emerged from the war as a military hero and took it upon himself to meet several times with the North American "Five Civilized Tribes" to initiate what would eventually be called the removal policy.6

In 1824, Secretary of War John Calhoun established the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to oversee the fund and adopt programs to "civilize" the Native tribes. By the Act of July 9, 1832,7the responsibility for educating Native Americans was placed under the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. At this point, the government created schools to train Native Americans in agriculture and established 87 boarding schools for Indian children. Throughout the 1830s and 1840s, the BIA engaged in further Indian removal.8

Several decades later, the Indian Appropriations Act of 1871 declared that Indigenous people were no longer considered members of "sovereign nations" and that the federal government could no longer establish treaties with them. Although the Act promised not to "invalidate or impair the obligation of previous treaties," it was the first step toward the elimination of Indigenous sovereignty, which was completed in 1898 with the Curtis Act and by die invalidation of previous treaty obligations, a right that the Supreme Court granted to Congress in die 1903 decision Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock.9

1879: The Formal Child Separation Policy

In the 1870s, the federal government started to convert abandoned US Army posts and barracks to serve as the Indian boarding school system. These boarding schools generally were run in a military fashion and forced Indian children to speak only English. About one-third of the 357 known Indian boarding schools were managed by various Christian denominations.10

In 1879 the BIA authorized Richard Henry Pratt, a veteran frontier Indian fighter who once served with George Armstrong Custer, to establish the first off-reservation boarding school, the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Pratt devised the school's curriculum from his experiments on forced education on Cheyenne, Caddo, Arapaho, Kiowa, and Comanche prisoners of war at Fort Marion, Florida, in the early 1870s. The experiments impressed some members of Congress, who authorized the BIA to take control of the Carlisle Barracks to build the nation's first off-reservation boarding school.11As headmaster of the school for 25 years, Pratt had an unchallenged national dominance in determining Indian education.

Pratt explained his theory of Indian assimilation:

The most effectual way of getting civilization into the Indian is to get Indian into civilization.... Kill the Indian in him, and save the man. ... It is a great mistake to think that the Indian is born an inevitable savage___Transfer the savage-born infant to the surroundings of civilization, and he will grow to possess a civilized language and habit. ..."12

As part of the first class of students, BIA Commissioner Ezra Hunt ordered Pratt to take children from the Lakota Tribe because of their "hostile attitude toward the government." Commissioner Hunt hoped to pressure the Lakota and other Western tribes into opening up millions of acres of treaty-protected territory for white setdement.[13]

Boarding School Conditions

The legacy of the boarding school era lives on as historical and intergenerational trauma.14Most Native American children who went to the boarding schools were forcefully taken from their families. Subjects such as reading, writing, math, and history were all taught from the white point of view, and boys were...

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