Cultural genocide and White privilege

By Heidi Skallet

This blog post, upon my final review, comes across as rambling. But I hope it makes sense. Please comment if it doesn’t and I will try to clarify.

As a kid I knew I had minor amounts of Ojibwe in my paternal ancestry. Since I was learning what it meant to be Scandinavian from my maternal relatives, with whom I lived, I assumed I’d also have access to my Ojibwe ancestry.

But the more I pushed to learn, the more resistance I met. I recall one instance where one relative flat out told me it wasn’t a good thing to be an Indian.  As time went on I got the impression that being Native was something I should hide, and that it wasn’t to my benefit to learn more about being Ojibwe. Even some of my paternal relatives discouraged finding out more. Inside I never gave up wanting to know more, but I stopped asking to learn more.

Assimilation & genocide

Somewhat in college but mostly in graduate school I found out how my maternal family learned to feel such shame about having a relative with Native ancestry. I learned about the atrocities committed by colonists/European-Americans against Native Americans beginning in the mid-1800s in the name of assimilation—”kill the Indian, save the man,” a.k.a. cultural genocide. Whites learned that one had to start early, to fully eradicate the Indian in the man. So children were taken from their parents without cause and brought to boarding schools, where they were beaten when they spoke their native languages and forced to assimilate into White culture. Over half of all children who attended boarding schools during the first 40 years actually died at those schools and if they weren’t sent home to be buried, they were buried in cemeteries attached to those schools. Yes, cemeteries attached to SCHOOLS. When children who survived boarding school returned home, they returned home empty, often with no knowledge of their culture, without being able to speak their parents’ and tribes’ languages.

In the late 1950s the Indian Adoption Project was developed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Child Welfare League of America. Again, Indian children were taken from their homes via very loose definitions of “neglect” and without consideration of cultural norms and differing worldviews. These children were then adopted into White homes – another version of “kill the Indian, save the man” but with somewhat less physically brutal tactics.

Congressional response

Finally, in 1978 the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was signed into law, the result of a congressional report from the American Indian Policy Review Commission of the U.S. Congress showing that Indian children were not just a few times more likely, but in some instances over a THOUSAND times more likely, to be in out-of-home care or adopted, mostly outside their family and tribe. For example, in Minnesota Native children were 1,650 percent more likely to be in foster care and 390 percent more likely to be adopted than their non-Native peers.

The ICWA recognized that Indian families were being broken up by unwarranted removal of their children and that the response was generally to place the children in non-Native foster and adoptive homes. It also recognized the inability of states to recognize essential tribal relations and cultural values for Indian children.

The ICWA has protections in place for Native children, families, and tribes who are members of or who are eligible to be members of one of the 566 federally recognized tribes in the United States. One such protection is related to adoptive placements. Absent “good cause to the contrary” Native children should be placed for adoption within the child’s extended family, or if that is not possible, then with someone from the child’s tribe, and if that is not possible, then with someone from another tribe. In doing so, a Native child can maintain his or her connection to his or her tribe and culture.

Cultural genocide today

You may have heard of the Baby Veronica case, where adoption agencies and lawyers went out of their way to hide little Veronica’s Native heritage so she could be adopted out to a White family in South Carolina. The birth father wasn’t informed until four months post-birth and for the next four years, he battled all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court for the right to raise his biological daughter. At one point he had custody of her for about a year and a half. Despite the protections put in place, both through the ICWA and in child welfare policy in general, the birth father eventually lost the right to raise his daughter. V has been with her adoptive parents for over a month now.

Thanks to an extensive media campaign by the adoptive parents, the public also turned against the birth father and the ICWA. When little V was living with her birth father, the media campaign was called “Save Veronica.” Many Native advocates asked, save her from what? The media campaign pointed out the adoptive parents’ credentials (mom has a PhD in developmental psychology) and their middle/upper middle class status. The birth father was always the typical stereotype of the “deadbeat dad,” and the campaign took pains to point out all the ways in which the birth father clearly did not want to have anything to do with V, conveniently leaving out all events and instances that showed how much he did want to be involved with V.

The media campaign overemphasized V’s blood quantum as a way to diminish V’s claim to Native ancestry. This also was pointed out in the U.S. Supreme Court’s findings. Contrary to what the media urged the public to believe, V’s tribe does not rely on blood quantum but rather one’s lineal ancestry: A person requesting membership must show that he or she is related to an enrolled member who was listed on the Dawes Roll. Therefore V’s blood quantum has no relevance. It is also not a matter of race or ethnicity, since tribal membership is a political rather than racial status. (As a personal example, it would be like saying my own children are only 50% American, since their father is from Kenya.)

What is the point of this blog post?

It’s hard for me to write about this. I feel quite passionately about the outcome of this case and what it means for Indian children nationwide.

I don’t believe V’s adoptive parents are bad people. I think they truly do care about V and they will be good parents to her.

But history has shown multiple attempts to “kill the Indian, save the man.” I think in this instance, history repeated itself, albeit in a much less violent way. I personally feel a loss when I think about my Ojibwe heritage. I feel like I will never know what it means to be Ojibwe, the same way I know what it means to be Scandinavian. V was taken from her tribe, and she may grow up without the connection to her tribe. She may not ever feel connected to her Cherokee heritage. Her adoptive parents have the right to ignore that connection.

I also think the public needs to be aware of what happened concerning the media campaign. I wrote a blog post once on who determines the best interests of the (Indian) child, to encourage the public to consider a different worldview/perspective than their own. I asked why the public assumes that the tribe’s best interests and the child’s best interests are mutually exclusive. I used the perspective of a specific tribe to show that the tribe continues its way of life through its children, and that the child learns personal and collective identity through his or her tribe. Generally speaking, a child’s tribal identity and culture contributes to the Indian child’s well-being. I received only negative comments on this post. The media campaign worked very hard to diminish Native culture and to impose one worldview on the public, and to a large extent I think the campaign met its goals.

The connection to feminism and women’s issues is hard to make here, considering that the birth father was attempting to gain custody while the birth mother had chosen the adoptive parents. But this is a women’s issue, and it is a feminist issue. Aside from the obvious—White people’s marginalization of Native culture and V’s loss of her right to grow up in her culture— there is this (from Prof. Laura Briggs):

Here’s why feminists should care about this: it’s a racist case designed to gut federal Indian law. It’s a “states rights” case, which should haunt anyone who thinks slavery was a bad thing. It involves a high-profile cast of right-wing actors, from an evangelical Christian adoption agency to lawyer Paul Clement. Making adoption easy and giving birth parents and unwed parents few rights has been a conservative anti-abortion agenda for a long time. It’s time feminists noticed, and opposed it. When unmarried fathers are not really parents, unmarried mothers are vulnerable too, as when Newt Gingrich threatened to take the children of welfare mothers and put them in orphanages. If this case is successful, it would make it much easier for poor people to lose children, including against their will, which mostly affects mothers. (Source)

If that doesn’t convince you, consider this: Towards the end of the Baby Veronica case, another case emerged with horrifyingly similar circumstances, the Baby Deseray case. This case had the same adoption agency and the same lawyer. It also was an attempted adoption out of Oklahoma of a Native infant by a White family in South Carolina. Birth father was also ignored. In this case, the tribe intervened and custody of Baby Deseray was ordered back to the tribe. But the parents who currently have D are not returning her, and the adoption lawyer who also coordinated V’s adoption is seeking to overturn jurisdiction keep D with the South Carolina parents.

When will it end?

*featured image photo credit: Suzette Brewer (from Why Feminists Should Care About the Baby Veronica Case)

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