Announcing the first comprehensive study on child removal in Native communities

(Image: National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition)

National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition aims to learn more about individuals’ experiences of child removal, the impacts these experiences have had on them and their descendants, and the methods that individuals are successfully using for healing intergenerational traumas

News Release

National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition

The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS), the First Nations Repatriation Institute, and the University of Minnesota are pleased to announce the launch of a new study, Child Removal in Native Communities: An Anonymous Survey.

Between 1879 and the 1960s, tens of thousands of American Indian and Alaskan Native children were forced to attend boarding school against their parents’ and tribes’ wishes. The goal of these schools was to eliminate the “Indian problem” that the United States had to its westward expansion by removing all traces of tribal existence — language, culture, spiritual traditions, communal and family ties, etc. and replacing them with European Christian ideals of civilization, religion, and culture. Today, Native communities continue to live with the impacts of the cultural genocide that was carried out in these schools. Impacts such as high rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, and sexual violence are directly linked to the historical trauma caused by colonization and forced assimilation.

The era of assimilative United States Indian boarding schools started to wane and eventually came to a close after government reports like the Meriam Report (1928) and the Kennedy Report (1969) found mistreatment and abuse to be rampant at the costly institutions. During this time, the federal government shifted its assimilative methods, using the Indian Adoption Project to transfer Native children from their homes and place them directly with white adoptive and foster families. The impacts of adoption and foster care closely mirror the intergenerational trauma of boarding school experiences.

In full swing by the 1960s and 1970s, the adoption era saw (usually white) social workers deem huge proportions of Native families unfit for children. In fact, by 1978, as many as one-quarter to one-third of children were taken by social workers or other coercive means and either adopted out of the tribe or placed in a non-tribal foster care system. Although the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA) was designed to address this form of cultural genocide, Native families continue to face very high levels of child removal. For example, in Alaska, where Native children make up 20 percent of the general child population, they represent 50.9 percent of children in Foster Care. In Nebraska, Native children make up just one percent of the general child population, but nine percent of foster care children (National Indian Child Welfare Association and Pew Charitable Trusts, 2007).

The trauma of family and community separation, as well as the violently assimilative strategies of the boarding schools and adoption, affected these children, their families, and their communities so deeply that the effects of trauma can be seen intergenerationally. Research in epigenetics and historical trauma by scholars like Dr. Rachel Yehuda (2016), Dr. Kathleen Brown-Rice (2013), Drs. Judy Daniels and Michael D’Andea (2007), Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart (1998), and the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft Institute (2012) have found that trauma from experiences like boarding schools, adoption, and foster care may actually be woven into our DNA in addition to being transmitted through social processes and parenting practices. Descendants of boarding school survivors and out-adoptions are likely to have “intergenerational trauma”, which leads to high rates of PTSD and suicide (these rates among Native youth are 2.5 times the national average; Executive Office of the President, 2014).

There has been little research that directly studies these histories of child removal and their effects, so health providers and other care practitioners are not informed about how to identify and address this historical and intergenerational trauma. With this study, we aim to learn more about individuals’ experiences of child removal, the impacts these experiences have had on them and their descendants, and the methods that individuals are successfully using for healing these intergenerational traumas. This information will help us better inform recommendations to health providers and other care practitioners as well as learn more about the various forms of Indian child removal and family disruption that are rarely connected to each other analytically or in history books.

While there have been some smaller scale opportunities for the survivors and descendants of Indian boarding schools and those who experience adoption and foster care to share testimonials, there has never been a large-scale opportunity such as this one where participants will be asked about not only their experiences in these child removal systems but also about the effects these experiences have had on their lives and the lives of their descendants since then. Moreover, there has never been a study that has linked these two periods of child removal: Indian boarding schools and adoption and foster care in Native communities. Though these time periods are often analyzed separately, when linked, they provide a larger picture of child removal, assimilation efforts, and ongoing cultural genocide against Native peoples through family dismemberment.

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(Image: National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition)

The study has three purposes. First, we would like to understand the experiences of several groups of Native people whose family lives have been disrupted by federal or other intervention: United States Indian boarding school survivors and their descendants, and adoptees and formerly fostered individuals. Second, we would like to learn more about the impact of these experiences on child welfare and health in future generations. Third, we would like to hear how boarding school survivors and descendants, adoptees, and formerly fostered individuals have begun healing. We plan to use this information to educate Native communities, health care providers, the public, tribal leaders, and policy-makers to further promote healing by affected individuals and tribes.

National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition's mission is to understand and address the ongoing trauma caused by Indian boarding schools. The study will be an important part of our efforts to learn more about how boarding schools impacted rates of adoption and foster care in our communities and how these instances of child removal impacted health and well-being. The data we collect will be an important part of our efforts to spark a national conversation on these issues and cultivate opportunities for healing. It will help us continue to inform policy reform, best practices in social work and healthcare fields, and community-led healing initiatives.

“Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have all apologized to its Indigenous peoples for the boarding schools they ran. The United States has yet to acknowledge the devastating impacts of its very first Indian child welfare policy — the Indian Boarding School policies of 1819 and 1868 — and the ongoing child removal targeted at our communities, despite the Indian Child Welfare Act” said, Christine Diindiisi McCleave (Turtle Mountain Ojibwe) boarding school descendant and Executive Officer of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. “Its time people know about this part of this country’s history because this is American history, not just Native American history.”

If you have any questions about the study, you can visit www.boardingschoolhealing.org or contact members of the research team at info@nabshc.org or liebler@umn.edu. You may also request a paper copy of the survey or the research report when the study is completed.  

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(Image: National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition)

About National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition

The mission of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS) is to lead in the pursuit of understanding and addressing the ongoing trauma created by the United States Indian boarding school policy. The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, incorporated in June 2012 under the laws of the Navajo Nation. 

Visit us online to learn how you can join the Coalition. 

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