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Historical Perspective

The 1800’s brought many changes to the American Indian’s way of life. The U.S. government contributed to the changes in several ways. It removed Indian people from their homelands and put them on reservations. It passed laws that forbade Indian people to practice their traditional ways of spirituality. In 1819, the United States government established the Civilization Fund, the first federal policy to directly affect Indian children. It provided grants to private agencies, primarily churches, to establish programs to “civilize the Indian.”
 
In a report to Congress in 1867, the commissioner of Indian services declared that the only successful way to deal with the “Indian problem” was to separate Indian children completely from their tribes. They sent missionaries to the reservations to become agents in hopes that the missionaries would be able to educate and Christianize Indian people. The missionaries were not only sent by the U.S. government, but they were also paid by the government.
 
The ceremonies of the tribes were looked upon as being pagan and the people themselves looked upon as savages. The parents of Indian children were believed to be unfit. A policy of assimilation began – which removed children from the home and placed them in boarding schools, usually far away from their parents. As a result of these earlier policies and practices, tribes are often distrustful of state child welfare agencies and the Federal Government.
 
More pertinent to the tribal response are the negative experiences many tribes have had with decades of federally imposed attempts to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream society. In 1893, compulsory school attendance was mandated for Indian children (Marr, 2002). This education took place in Indian boarding schools.  One reason for removing children from their homes was to totally immerse them in the values of mainstream society (Marr, 2002). For Indian children who were students at boarding schools, the curriculum focused on survival skills they would need to live successfully on their own in a white world (Higgins, 2000). The boarding schools were often run by people who hated the children because they were Indian. Many children suffered child abuse in the form of beatings and sexual abuse.
 
In 1880, a written policy made it illegal to use any native language in a federal boarding school. The children were forced to cut their hair and forbidden to speak their language. Some children, as young as six years old, committed suicide while in boarding schools by hanging themselves. In 1910, bonuses were used to encourage boarding school workers to take leaves of absence and secure as many students as possible from surrounding reservations. These “kid snatchers” received no guidelines regarding the means they could use. In 1884, the “placing out” system placed numerous Indian children on farms in the East and Midwest in order to learn the “values of work and the benefits of civilization.” Instead of being allowed to go home during the summer months, the students were hired out to non-Indian families utilized as forced labor for local farmers, businessmen, and craftsmen (Landis, 1996).
 
Another example of an initiative that was devastating to tribes was the Indian Adoption Project of 1958, co-sponsored by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA). The goal of this program was to place homeless Indian youth for adoption by non-Indian families who lived in large cities on the east coast (Earle, 2000). It was articulated in terms of providing “adoptive placement for American Indian children whose parents were deemed unable to provide a ‘suitable’ home for them” (Mannes, 1995, 267). The BIA paid states to remove Indian children from their homes on the basis of neglect. By 1967, 395 Indian children had been adopted through the project. As a result of extensive publicity about the program in the 1960’s, private agencies also focused on the adoption of Indian children by non-Indians. In 1965 alone, 696 tribal youth were adopted through these agencies.
 
Little attention was paid by the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the states to provide services on reservations that would strengthen and maintain Indian families. As late as 1972, David Fanshel wrote in Far From the Reservation that the practice of removing Indian children from their homes and placing them in non-Indian homes for adoption was a desirable option. Fanshel points out in the same book, however, that the removal of Indian children from their families and communities may well be seen as the “ultimate indignity to endure.” Fanshel’s speculation bore out the truth of the matter.
 
A 1976 study by the Association of American Indian Affairs found that 25 to 35 percent of all Indian children were being placed in out-of-home care. Eighty-five percent of those children were being placed in non-Indian homes or institutions. In a response to the overwhelming evidence from Indian communities that the loss of their children meant the destruction of Indian culture, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978.
 
For additional information, see "The Untold Story" presentation.