america's real 'savages' were presidents, generals, priests, and, yes, even nuns
How Native Americans were systematically stripped of their culture, and why it's invaluable that the youth reconnect.
American history is riddled with fanatical, foaming-at-the-mouth monsters and wretched child abductors, and they’re not all named John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy. No. Many have names like Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Richard H. Pratt.
Jackson, the blood-thirsty former U.S. president (as well as Donald J. Trump’s hero conquistador), was known for his fuming hatred of Indians, and he’s remembered (at least in Indian country) as the evil architect of the brutal Trail of Tears that claimed the lives of thousands of Natives between the 1830s and 1870s.
Then there’s Lincoln, the towering-top-hatted testament to hypocrisy who, to this day, holds the record for hanging the most Natives in a single sitting. That execution has come to be known as the “Dakota 38,” where just a week before he would sign Emancipation Proclamation, the bearded bastard ordered the hanging of 38 Dakotas (plus two more) – Natives who were killed on cheap, trumped up charges of murder, rape, and robbery.
And although modern day Americans are typically aware of names like Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, few are as familiar with Richard H. Pratt, America’s first serial child abductor.
But we Natives know this Demogorgon. He is at once the skeleton in the American closet and the boogeyman under the bed of the tens of thousands of Indian children who were robbed from their families, abused with hands and needles, forever fucked up because, indeed, many of America’s most rotten racists were presidents and priests and boarding school superintendents like Richard H. Pratt.
The former Brigadier General and Indian fighter-killer was the founder of the Carlisle Indian Boarding School in Pennsylvania which became a living hell for Native children caught within the industry of forced assimilation. The explicit objective of the place was to “kill the Indian, save the man,” as Pratt so famously put it at a convention of white men in 1892:
“A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man,” Pratt spewed.
At Carlisle and at a great many more Indian boarding schools throughout the U.S., Native kids were savagely whipped, their hair cut close to the skull, and even stabbed through the tongue by priests and nuns if they dare spoke their indigenous languages, and then, when night fell, the obscene gaggle of God-fearing Christians would molest the children, which set into motion lifetimes of depression, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts among a myriad of debilitating consequences for the those who made it out of the building but not entirely the hell.
Right. The real savages in the annals of U.S. history were not Natives at all, but the vile and vicious white invader with an insatiable appetite for everything: land, gold, women, and now you know, innocent children as well.
Fast-forward to 2019. Pratt is long dead now and so are Jackson and Lincoln, but the legacy of their hate and racism dragged into this century, like shit on the American shoe. "The more things change the more they stay the same,” noted French philosopher Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr in the mid 1800s. It's a phrase that certainly rings true today especially for Native children caught within the system.
And the system these days is twofold: state child welfare and adoption agencies.
According to the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), an organization that provides legal counsel to nations and tribes as well as individual Natives, an alarming percentage of Indian children are removed from their families. Based on their research, of the 35-percent that were taken from their homes, 85-percent were placed outside of their Native communities.
For at least a hundred years, the U.S. government officially believed that what was best for Native kids was to strip them of their families and communities, their culture and language, their hair and clothes, render them white and Christian, but now a mounting stack of empirical research has demonstrated that this approach has not only been ignorant and arrogant, but also destructive and deadly to Native peoples.
“Identification with a particular cultural background and a secure sense of cultural identity is associated with higher self-esteem, better educational attainment (grades and going to college), and is protective against mental health problems, substance use, and other issues for adolescents and adults,” a summary of research concerning the psychological health and overall well-being of Natives by the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA) stated. NICWA is a Portland, Oregon-based organization that works to keep Native families together and promotes mental, physical, and spiritual health throughout Indian country.
The summary continued: “There is also a large body of studies showing that forced acculturation (meaning being forced to be part of a culture group that is not one’s own) has specific deleterious effects on mental health and psychological well-being for AI/AN (American Indian and Alaska Native) people specifically, including increased risk of suicide, substance use, and depression.”
These discoveries stand in stark contrast to the U.S.’s attempt to “kill the Indian, save the man.”
And the truth of the matter is that Natives never needed saving. Natives needed to be together, with our family and children and community, not separated and stripped, and certainly not molested and murdered.
It was a few years ago when I sat down with a Lakota elder and relative and survivor of the Indian boarding school system who said she can no longer speak her language – not because she doesn’t remember it (she remembers it quite well, she said), but because every time she spoke it she would shudder, feel sick; she’d relive the trauma all over again, and it was the nuns she remembered most of all.
And the lesson here: beware of priests and nuns, know your monsters, and there’s nothing better for a kid, especially a Native youth, than to be among family, friends, culture and community. Facts are stubborn things.