Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Funny how that only seems to apply to bad things. Without getting into current politics, which you’re safe from here, we can’t ignore the plight of children seized from parents of a particular group. And it’s not the first time either. The American government took tens of thousands of children from Native families and placed them in boarding schools with strict assimilation practices. Their philosophy – kill the Indian to save the man. My name’s Moxie and this is your brain on facts.
That was the mindset under which the U.S. government Native children to attend boarding schools, beginning in the late 19th century, when the government was still fighting “Indian wars.” There had been day and boarding schools on reservations prior to 1870, when U.S. cavalry captain, Richard Henry Pratt established the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. This school was not on a reservation, so as to further remove indigenous influences. The Carlisle school and other boarding schools were part of a long history of U.S. attempts to either kill, remove, or assimilate Native Americans. “As white population grew in the United States and people settled further west towards the Mississippi in the late 1800s, there was increasing pressure on the recently removed groups to give up some of their new land,” according to the Minnesota Historical Society. Since there was no more Western territory to push them towards, the U.S. decided to remove Native Americans by assimilating them. In 1885, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Hiram Price explained the logic: “it is cheaper to give them education than to fight them.”
Off-reservation schools began their assault on Native cultural identity as soon as students arrived, by first doing away with all outward signs of tribal life that the children brought with them. The long braids worn by boys were cut off. Native clothes were replaced with uniforms. The children were given new Anglicized names, including new surnames. Traditional Native foods were abandoned, as were things like sharing from communal dishes, forcing students to use the table manners of white society, complete with silverware, napkins and tablecloths. The strictest prohibition arguably fell on their native languages. Students were forbidden to speak their tribal language, even to each other. Some school rewarded children who spoke only English, but most schools chose the stick over the carrot and relied on punishment to achieve this aim. This is especially cruel when you consider that many of the words the children were being forced to learn and use had no equivalent in their mother tongue.
The Indian boarding schools taught history with a definite white bias. Columbus Day was heralded as a banner day in history and a beneficial event for Native people, as it was only after discovery did Native Americans become part of history. Thanksgiving was a holiday to celebrate “good” Indians having aided the brave Pilgrim Fathers. On Memorial Day, some students at off-reservation schools were made to decorate the graves of soldiers sent to kill their fathers.
Half of each school day was spent on industrial training. Girls learned to cook, clean, sew, care for poultry and do laundry for the entire institution. Boys learned industrial skills such as blacksmithing, shoemaking or performed manual labor such as farming. Not receiving much funding from the government, the schools were required to be as self-sufficient as possible, so students did the majority of the work. By 1900, school curriculums tilted even further toward industrial training while academics were neglected.
The Carlisle school developed a “placing out system,” which put Native students in the mainstream community for summer or a year at a time, with the official goal of exposing them to more job skills. A number of these programs were out-right exploitive. At the Phoenix Indian School, girls became the major source of domestic labor for white families in the area, while boys were placed in seasonal harvest or other jobs that no one else wanted.
Conversion to Christianity was also deemed essential to the cause. Curriculums included heavy emphasis of religious instruction, such as the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes and Psalms. Sunday school meant lectures on sin and guilt. Christianity governed gender relations at the schools and most schools invested their energy in keeping the sexes apart, in some cases endangering the lives of the students by locking girls in their dormitories at night.
Discipline within the Indian boarding schools was severe and generally consisted of confinement, corporal punishment, or restriction of food. In addition to coping with the severe discipline, students were ravaged by disease exacerbated by crowded conditions at the boarding schools. Tuberculosis, influenza, and trachoma (“sore eyes”) were the greatest threats. In December of 1899, measles broke out at the Phoenix Indian School, reaching epidemic proportions by January. In its wake, 325 cases of measles, 60 cases of pneumonia, and 9 deaths were recorded in a 10-day period. During Carlisle’s operation, from 1879 and 1918, nearly 200 children died and were buried near the school.
Naturally, Indian people resisted the schools in various ways. Sometimes entire villages refused to enroll their children in white schools. Native parents also banded together to withdraw their children en masse, encouraging runaways, and undermining the schools’ influence during summer break. In some cases, police were sent onto the reservations to seize children from their parents. 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 would take children assumed to be less intelligent, those not well cared for, or those physically impaired. This was their attempt to protect the long-term survival of their tribe by keeping healthy, intelligent children at home.
It was not until 1978, within the lifetime of many of my gentle listeners. that 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.
Though the schools left a devastating legacy, they failed to eradicate Native American cultures as they’d hoped. Later, the Navajo Code Talkers who helped the U.S. win World War II would reflect on the strange irony this forced assimilation had played in their lives. “As adults, [the Code Talkers] found it puzzling that the same government that had tried to take away their languages in schools later gave them a critical role speaking their languages in military service,” recounts the National Museum of the American Indian.
In addition to documentaries, I’d like to recommend the movie The Education of Little Tree, starring James Cromwell, Tantu Cardinal and Graham Green, about a part-Charokee boy who goes to live with his grandparents in the Tennessee mountains, but is then sent to an Indian school.
There are a number of off-reservation boarding schools in operation today. Life in the schools is still quite strict, but now includes teaching Native culture and language rather than erasing it. Though they cannot be separated from their legacy of oppression and cultural violence, for many modern children, they’re a step to a better life. Poverty is endemic to many reservations, which also see much higher than average rates of alcoholism, drug use, and suicide. For the students, these schools are a chance to escape.
The Australian government of the early twentieth century had similar goals when it came to the Aborigines and particularly to children who were mixed Aborigine and white. Between 1910-1970, between 10 and 30% of Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families as a result of various government policies. A 1994 survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics stated that one in every ten Aboriginal people aged over 25 had been removed from their families in childhood. The generations of children removed under these policies became known as the Stolen Generations.
As with the Indian schools, the forcible removal of Indigenous children from their families was part of the policy of assimilation, based on the assumption of white superiority. Children taken from their parents as part of the Stolen Generation were taught to reject their heritage and forced to adopt white culture. Their names were often changed, and they were forbidden to speak their traditional languages. Some children were adopted by white families, and many were placed in institutions where abuse and neglect were common. Assimilation policies focused on children, because it was believed they were more adaptable than adults.
Mixed-race children, then called “half-caste,” were particularly vulnerable to removal, as authorities thought these children could be assimilated more easily into the white community due to their lighter skin colour. Mixed-race children were also once step along the government’s plan to “breed out the color.” The idea was to encourage them to marry (low-class) whites over the next few generations, until no trace of their ethnicity remained. At a conference in 1937, the chief protector of Aboriginals in Western Australia, A. O. Neville asked, “Are we going to have a population of one million blacks in the Commonwealth or are we going to merge them into our white community and eventually forget that there were any Aborigines in Australia?” This is actually a reversal of the 1918 law which made it illegal for a white man to have a child with an Aboriginal woman; there was no law against Aboriginal men being with white women, because that scenario was unthinkable to the majority.
The Australian government literally kidnapped these children from their parents as a matter of policy. White welfare officers, often supported by police, would descend on Aboriginal camps, round up all the children, separate the ones with light-colored skin, bundle them into trucks and take them away. Desperate parents would paint their children with crushed charcoal to make them as dark as possible to make them less appealing to men looking for mixed-race children, as well as teaching children to run and hide whenever they see a white man. Sometimes, to avoid having to deal with the parents, agents would lure children with candy into animal trap-like cages in the back of their van.
Where the children were taken depended on how old and how light-skinned they were. Sibling groups were split because authorities believed that what they called the “split the litter” system made the children easier to control. Some started out in Roman Catholic orphanages where they were treated decently, but as they grew older, they were moved on to “homes” run by churches and missionary societies. There, they were physically and sometimes sexually abused. Some of the stolen children went straight into so-called “half-caste homes.” Conditions in these homes were deplorable. At Alice Springs, the half-caste home, “The Bungalow,” consisted of a very rough frame of wood with some dilapidated sheets of corrugated iron thrown over it.
Aboriginal children who were taken away also fed the insatiable demand for station workers and domestic servants. Without these cheap, and often unpaid, labourers white Australians wouldn’t have been able to build the wealth and infrastructure that helped them prosper. This is where the Stolen Generations and the stolen wages become one story. Authorities also took children away pretending that Aboriginal parents would neglect them. There is evidence, however, that kids were malnourished or starving because Aboriginal people were not paid the full wages they were owed.
During the 1960s the child removal process slowed down but continued well into the 1970s. Some of the schools and missions who held the Stolen Generations did not close until the early 1980s. The forcible removal of Indigenous children from their families had a profound impact that is still felt today. Efforts to make stolen children reject their culture often caused them to feel ashamed of their Indigenous heritage. Many children were wrongly told that their parents had died or abandoned them, and many never knew where they had been taken from or who their biological families were. Medical experts have noted a high incidence of depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress and suicide. For their families, many parents never recovered from the grief of having their children removed. The removal of several generations of children severely disrupted Indigenous oral culture, and consequently much cultural knowledge was lost.
Many of the Stolen Generations never experienced living in a healthy family situation, and never learned parenting skills. In some instances, this has resulted in generations of children raised in state care.
I think we could all use a quick breather for something happier. How about our latest iTunes/Apple Podcast review? Fan Theory World – Moxie does a wonderful job with this show. Each topic is not only interesting in its own right, but Moxie’s clear and concise storytelling style really puts and enjoyable and easy-to-listen-to spin on it. I can’t wait to work through the earlier episodes and I definitely look forward to new ones in the future!
While children of color being taken by white-majority governments is most common, it doesn’t have the market cornered. When he came to power in 1966, Nicholae Ceaușescu had grand plans for Romania. The country hadn’t industrialised until after the second world war and its birth rate was low. Ceaușescu borrowed the 1930s Stalinist dogma that population growth would fuel economic growth and fused this idea with the conservatism of his rural childhood. In the first year of his rule, 1966, his government issued Decree 770, which outlawed abortion for women under 40 with fewer than four children. “The foetus is the property of the entire society,” Ceaușescu announced. “Anyone who avoids having children is a deserter.” The birth rate soon doubled, but so did the rate of homemade abortions, often with catastrophic results. In 1977 all childless persons, regardless of sex or marital status, were made to pay an additional monthly tax. In the 1980s condoms and the pill, already prohibitively expensive, became available in Romania, and were immediately outlawed. Women were examined every three months in their workplaces for signs of pregnancy. If they were found to be pregnant and didn’t subsequently give birth, they could face prosecution.
These policy, coupled with Romania’s poverty, meant that more and more children who could not be cared for. No one knows how many. Mothers were pressured into giving up their children. Maternity wards had posters saying things like “the state can care for your child better than you can.” The government pledged to raise the children whose parents were too poor or incapable of caring for them. Some women never wanted the children they had been ordered to conceive in the first place and were happy to offload them. Disabled children were almost guaranteed to be placed in state care, with doctors describing them to their mothers as “garbage.”
After 1982, when Ceaușescu redirected most of the budget to paying off the national debt, the economy tanked and conditions in the orphanages suffered. Electricity and heat were often intermittent, there were not enough staff, there was not enough food. Physical needs were assessed, emotional needs were ignored. Doctors and professionals were denied access to foreign research and nurses were woefully undertrained. This led to many orphans contracting HIV because hypodermic needles were seldom sterilised. Developmental delays, autism, and deafness were routinely diagnosed as mental disability. Institutional abuse flourished unchecked. While some caretakers did their best, others stole food from the orphanage kitchens and drugged their charges into docility. According to Doctors Without Borders, each orphan received only 5-6 minutes of attention, per day.
After Ceausescu was deposed in 1989, the world’s press discovered Ceaușescu’s orphanages and the appalling images went around the world: disabled children limbs tied to their beds, toddlers who couldn’t walk, malnourished babies left unattended in metal cribs. The pictures shocked Romanians as much as they did the rest of the world. The institutionalised children were generally kept from the view of the general population, including the parents that placed them there.
Bonus fact: It’s either irony or poetic justice, but much of the power of the revolution that overthrew Ceausescu came from young adults, people who had been born because he had legally required their mothers to have at least five children.
The Dionne family of Ontario, Canada would have doubled the Romanian requirement in one go, with the birth of exceptionally rare identical quintuplets. The odds of their birth alone are 1 in 13 million, let alone surviving being born 2 months premature, in 1934. The five girls, Yvonne, Annette, Cecile, Emile, and Marie, weighed together as much as two average babies. Their father, Oliva-Eduard, reached out to a local newspaper, asking if it would be more expensive to run a birth announcement for five babies rather than one. Reporters and photographers caught wind and traveled to the Dionnes’ remote farm. The Canadian Press distributed the news to outlets across the country. The Associated Press too received word of the miracle, and the birth of the world’s quintuplets gained international attention. Since no set of quintuplets was ever known to have lived for very long, and any bit of good news was welcome in the depths of the Great Depression, the sisters’ made front-page headlines across the globe. People sent donations, supplies, and letters filled with well-wishes and advice.
The people in charge of the upcoming “Century of Progress” World’s Fair in Chicago even reached out to the Dionnes, offering their mother a sizeable amount of money for permission to put the girls on display. The parents initially agreed, which brought on a backlash of accusations of exploitation and some people just being angry that these Canadian marvels were being taken to the US. The parents changed their mind and returned the promoter’s check, but the babies were about to leave anyway. The Ontario government intervened, claiming concern over possible exploitation as well as the parents’ ability to provide for ten children, and removed the children from their parents’ custody … but only the four month old quintuplets. Their parents contended it was because they were French-speaking and Catholic, which was not a favored combination in the eyes of the English-speaking Protestant government. The sisters were made wards of the Crown, and left their day-to-day care to Dr. Dafoe, who delivered them. They were housed in the specially-built Dafoe Hospital and Nursery, which had several areas designated for public observation. It was better known by the name Quintland.
The government, Dr. Dafoe, and his staff set up an entire tourist attraction solely around the girls. For the next nine years, they were constantly studied and examined. They were presented for public exhibition two to three times a day. Their likenesses were used in advertisements for everything from toothpaste to dolls. Quintland generated about $500 million in revenue and brought greater life to the small Canadian village near the city of North Bay, prompting the construction of new hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops. The Dionne sisters became the planet’s most photographed children. Despite the thousands of visitors that came to gawk at the girls, they had little to no contact with anyone outside the hospital, including their parents and siblings.
In November 1943, the Dionne parents won back custody of the sisters. The entire family moved into a newly built house, with many amenities of the time, including telephones, electricity and hot water. It was not the happy-tears daytime-TV reunion you’re hoping for. According to the accounts of the surviving sisters, the parents often treated them at home as a five-part unit and often lectured them about the trouble they had caused the family by existing. They were unaware for many years that the lavish house, the expensive food and the series of cars the family enjoyed were paid for with money they themselves had earned. There were accusations of abuse, as well as suppressing and ignoring sister Emile’s epilepsy, which would kill her at age twenty. The quintuplets left the family home upon turning 18 years old in 1952 and had little contact with their parents afterwards.
Admission to Quintland had been free to the public, but the Ontario government put aside the revenue that the girls generated through advertising campaigns and the sale of souvenirs. That money was supposed to be for the girls later in life. Instead, most of it was used to pay for the salaries of the nurses who cared for them, the policemen who directed traffic outside, and the general operating expenses of the building and amenities for tourists.
In the late 1990s, the sisters reemerged in the media after launching a campaign for a public inquiry into their mismanaged funds. They ultimately won a settlement of $4 million. In 2017, the two two surviving sisters granted a rare interview with The New York Times in an effort to preserve the family home in which they were born. Backed by local residents, especially senior citizens who remembered the Dionnes as a major story of their lifetime, Annette and Cécile succeeded. The home has since been transported to downtown North Bay and will likely reopen as a museum in the summer of 2018.
And that’s where we run out of ideas, at leas for today. Let me leave you on a more upbeat story. In 1997, 7 year old Wang Xue of China was walking to school when a woman stopped and asked her to help carry some things home. When Xue refused, the woman grabbed her and fled. Xue would wake up 186 miles/ 300km away. She was given to a couple who abused her. Xue’s mother never gave up hope. Even with limited information, Wang and her family were reunited through a website called Baby Back Home, which attempts to track down missing children and reunite them with their parents. DNA tests confirmed the results. Hundreds of locals lined the streets around the family home, decorating the whole area with flowers and banners. “I have finally found my daughter,’ her teary mother, Yonghui, told reporters. Thanks for spending part of your day with me.