Authors: Deborah Ellis
In 1824, the US Department of War had a problem with Indians, so it created the Office of Indian Affairs, the forerunner to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Over the following decades, Indigenous peoples were killed by design or by disease, were forced to leave their homeland under the 1830 Indian Removal Act, and their sources of food were slaughtered.
Yet, they didn't all die.
By the end of the Civil War, the thought was to get rid of the remaining Native Americans by making them become like white people. The federal government gave money to church organizations to create boarding schools.
One of the earliest was the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. It was founded by Richard Henry Pratt, who said, “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one. 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.”
The boarding schools were run in a military style. The students slept in barracks, spent hours drilling and marching and had every moment of their day controlled by bells. They were punished for speaking their own languages and for trying to run away. Punishments included whippings, being denied food and being locked in sheds. Hair was cut short or shaved off. Any signs of cultural heritage were taken away.
More and more schools were built. There were 4,651 students in Native boarding schools in 1880, and by 1900 there were 21,568. More than half of all school-aged Native kids were sent away to these institutions. Parents who refused to send their children would be punished by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which would refuse them food and other necessities. The terrible living conditions in many communities, ravaged by smallpox, hunger and inadequate housing, pushed many parents to hope that their children might be better off in boarding schools. At least they would eat.
Called industrial schools, the emphasis was on discipline and work more than on education. Boys were taught trades like carpentry and farming. Girls were taught to sew. For many children, the loss of family, identity and the trauma of abuse canceled out any benefit of learning a new skill. Most left the schools ill equipped to earn a living in white society and robbed of the traditional knowledge that would allow them to feel at home in their own communities.
In Canada, the situation evolved in much the same way. Between the 1870s and 1996, about 150,000 First Nations, MÃ©tis and Inuit kids were sent to residential schools. In some cases, after the children were taken, their homes and villages were destroyed, so the children had no place to return to.
While some children had a positive experience at these schools â they were cared for by good people and received a good education â others had to deal with abuse from the people they should have been able to trust. Church officials would knowingly send abusive priests and teachers to remote residential schools where they could abuse kids with impunity. Some of the female students at residential schools became pregnant after being raped by teachers. The Mohawk Institute near Brantford, Ontario, was nicknamed the Mush Hole by students because they were fed a watery porridge and other bad food.
Often families were not allowed to visit the schools, and students were not allowed to go home. Children died when they tried to escape. They died from illness, neglect and malnutrition. And they died from harsh physical punishment. Many of those deaths were not properly documented and their graves were not properly marked. Families never knew what happened to their children.
The impact of these schools was severe and wide-reaching. For a long time the shame of the abuse and loss of culture was not talked about, but showed itself in addictions, high suicide rates and domestic violence. Children who had grown up in these schools had no memories of their parents, so they did not know how to be parents themselves. Families continued to suffer.
As time went on, government policy shifted. Residential schools were closed, but that didn't mean minds were opened. The prevailing view was that if you were a Native parent, you were a bad parent, and your children would be better off being raised by whites.
Social workers who had no knowledge of First Nations culture would go into communities and take children, putting them in foster care without any due process, investigation or paperwork. Children who could run fast into the bush might escape. Their slower, younger brothers and sisters were often taken away and never seen again.
This program, known as the Sixties Scoop, saw more than 11,000 status Indians in Canada removed from their families between 1960 and 1990, and those are just the documented cases.
Among those who were actually adopted and did not remain in foster care or orphanages, 70 percent were adopted by non-Native parents. Seventy percent of those adoptions broke down, the children then drifting from foster home to foster home.
The Indian Adoption Project ran a similar program in the United States. For example, thousands of Navajo children were given to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to become workers on their farms. Many others went into Catholic-run orphanages to await adoption. More children in care meant more money for the organizations taking care of them.
In both countries, children often had no chance to say goodbye to their parents. Their parents had no way to appeal, and no way to get their children back. While some children were adopted by good people who raised them in safe and loving homes, others were abused in their foster homes and orphanages. Many lost their sense of who they were and where they came from.
Attacking Indigenous languages was another way to make Native people disappear. Before European contact, it is estimated that there were more than three hundred Native languages spoken in North America. Today, only 150 of those languages can still be heard. Only twenty of those are spoken by children, which means that 130 languages are in grave danger of disappearing, soon and forever.
Inadequate diet, brought on by poverty and bad government policies, has led to skyrocketing rates of diabetes in First Nations communities. For thousands of years Indigenous people ate healthy food from the land such as fish, game, corn, beans and berries. Generations of farmers and hunters knew how to cultivate crops and provide meat in ways that the wildlife would be sustained. The rituals around the hunt and the harvest were part of the rich spiritual culture and cycle of life, providing clothes, tools and rites of passage.
When Europeans arrived, things started to change. The US government had a policy of slaughtering the great herds of buffalo to make way for the railroad and to speed up the extermination of the Indigenous people. When the nations were rounded up and forced onto reservations, often far from their traditional territories, the government promised to provide food in exchange for their land. That practice continues today in the form of commodity foods â generally canned and processed, and not an adequate replacement for fresh proteins and vegetables.
And if all that were not enough, Indigenous people were made to further disappear by becoming a source of amusement and entertainment for colonial powers. Explorers such as Columbus took Native people back to Europe to be displayed as objects of curiosity. Many died on these trips. Indigenous people were displayed at fairs in different parts of the world between 1880 and 1930. Organizers made them wear crude costumes and screech instead of speak to match the audience's expectations of savagery.
At the World's Fair in St. Louis in 1904, the BIA set up a pretend boarding school, complete with Native students. Fair-goers would peer in at the children sitting at desks and taking lessons. The Olympics were also held in St. Louis that year. Alongside the Olympic Games were the “Anthropology Games.” Some of the Indigenous people who were on display at the fair were put into games they had never played, with rules explained in a language they didn't understand, against white players who were competing at the Olympic level, to try to show that the white race was superior.
Indigenous people protested these displays. Their leaders wrote letters, pamphlets and articles and gathered petitions calling for a more accurate portrayal of their cultures.
In 1898 the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians was created in Canton, South Dakota, by a decree from Congress. It closed in 1934 after imprisoning hundreds of people from many tribes, including children. There was no actual treatment. People lived in filth, with improper and insufficient food. They were beaten, shackled and abused by untrained staff who couldn't speak their language. A special section of the asylum was set up for tourists to come and watch what the inmates were up to. At least 121 people died in the asylum. Their cemetery has been turned into a golf course.
The children in this book have inherited this history. That they are here at all is a miracle. That they are strong, smart, brave and looking forward to a new future is a tribute to them and to the amazing communities they come from.
I do not think the measure of a civilization is how tall its buildings of concrete are, but rather how well its people have learned to relate to their environment and their fellow humans.
Sun Bear, Chippewa Tribe
Many First Nations, Native American, Inuit and MÃ©tis people in Canada and the United States live in communities outside their home reservations. Some families have lived in cities for generations. Others leave their reserves to look for work, go to school, join their families or search for something else.
There are more than one hundred Native friendship centers in cities and smaller communities all across Canada. They provide recreation, language classes and a place to be with others who share common experiences, and where feasts, powwows and celebrations take place. In the United States, many cities have similar centers under different names. Events are often open to the public, and people are welcome to call or drop by to learn about the events they can be a part of.
I met Tingo at a center in Kelowna, British Columbia. Kelowna is a small city in the fertile Okanagan Valley. There are breathtaking views of the Rocky Mountains and walking paths along the lake that legend says is home to a monster called Ogopogo.
I was born in Kelowna. My mother was born in Cardston, Alberta. She's from the Blackfoot people. They are made up of three groups â the Siksika, the Blood and the Piegan. A lot of them were killed off by smallpox when the white settlers came. Others died when the whites killed off all the buffalo.
My father was born in Jinotega, Nicaragua. When he was fourteen he was involved in the civil war there. It was dangerous and he left. He made his way to the United States and lived there for a while. He had to come to Canada when things got harder for refugees in the US. He came here fifteen years ago, which is where he met my mother.
He loves to tell us stories of when he was a kid, running around in the jungle. A chicken saved his life once. There's a type of lizard in the jungle. If it touches you, it hurts and could kill you because of the poison in its skin. One of these little lizards dropped down out of the tree and landed on my dad's shirt. He could feel the poison starting to burn his skin, but he was afraid to brush it off because then he'd have to touch it. Then, suddenly, a chicken flew up and ate the lizard. So a chicken saved his life.
My parents don't live together now. My father puts stucco on houses when he can find the work, or does any other job people will hire him for. My mother doesn't have a job.
Things got bad at home last year. My father couldn't find work and we were always short of money. There was a lot of fighting in the house. It got so bad that my brother and I went to stay with our grandmother for three days.
On the third day my father picked us up and we went to the office of a social service agency for a meeting with a lady. This lady said we could choose. Do we want to live with our mother or with our father? Well, my father was sitting right there and I didn't want to hurt his feelings so I said I want to live with Dad. My little brother wanted to stay with me.
We stayed with Dad for a month. He had no money for an apartment so the three of us stayed in a motel room, the cheapest one we could find. It smelled funny. The motel was close to school, close enough to walk, but that's the only good thing I can say about it.
It's very hard to live in a motel. You can't run around anywhere. You have to be quiet or the other people will complain to the management and you'll get thrown out.
Food is hard, too. We just ate canned food, sandwiches, nothing like real meals. You never really feel like you've eaten when you eat that stuff. And your body doesn't feel right. Although I remember once we got one of those barbecue chickens at the grocery store, already cooked. We had to eat the whole thing because we didn't have a fridge to keep the leftovers in, but it tasted really good.
My brother has FASD [fetal alcohol spectrum disorder]. Before he was born, he got brain damage from my mother's drinking. He's very smart. He's really good at math and spelling, all the school subjects, really. He looks like a regular kid. But it's hard for him to sit still and listen so he gets frustrated and he gets into trouble all the time. Teachers don't really see him. They just see a problem. I try to watch out for him.
It was really hard for him in the motel because he likes to cook. It calms him down and he's good at it. He likes to make chili, spaghetti and bannock.
We couldn't do our homework very well in the motel. There was no place to do it because we had all our stuff with us, so it was either the bed or the floor, and the floor was gross. The teachers weren't that understanding about it. They just said Do it at school then, after class. That was really hard because I had to keep an eye on my brother, and after sitting in school all day he was not able to sit another minute to do homework! The one thing I was doing at that time that I liked was doing drawings for the school newspaper. It helped me feel normal.
After a month of this, Dad couldn't find work and he ran out of money. He couldn't pay the money for the motel room and he couldn't even feed us. So we went into foster care. We were there for something like nine months.
I was pretty nervous. I didn't know the people. I didn't know what they expected and what would annoy them. I didn't want to get in the way so I didn't ask them for much, like extra food if I wanted more at dinner. It took a while, but eventually I relaxed. The foster parents were really nice. They knew I liked chocolate, and so they'd always keep these big jugs of chocolate milk in the fridge, and they didn't care how much I drank.
My brother doesn't talk to people he doesn't know, so he mostly stayed quiet. They gave him lots of space and didn't nag him, which is what he needed.
Now we stay with Mom during the week and with Dad on the weekends.
When I'm not in school I spend a lot of time here at this friendship center. They serve good meals here, for free. We came here to eat as often as we could when we lived in the motel. It got us through.
On Mondays I come here for guitar lessons. On Wednesdays we do Sister Talk and Brother Talk, which are groups where we discuss what's on our mind and learn about our culture. On Thursdays I'm a leader of the Turtle Huddle group. This is for younger kids. We do crafts with them, like make drums and rattles, traditional things. And we play games. On Fridays we have youth group. Just social. With food, of course!
At Sister Talk and Brother Talk, we do a family systems program, looking at what a family should be like, how people should treat each other. We learned how to do a genogram, which is like a family history. We do it to look for the troubles in our families â the troubles that have become secrets.
We talk a lot about grief because that's been a big part of our lives as Native people â grief over losing our land, our language, our customs, our ways. Grief often comes out as trouble.
My father's childhood was all war, and he's told me about that. And my mother's life has been hard. And my mother's parents â their life was even harder with what they went through, and there weren't places like this to help them. I've never met my Nicaraguan grandparents, but I know their life was hard too, living under a dictator who liked to torture people. Sometimes I felt like I was carrying all that sorrow with me. Learning about grief is hard. You have to be honest with yourself, and that's not easy. Grief is something you'd rather not think about. You'd rather pretend it wasn't there. And there's no real cure for it, except to speak it and share it and honor what you've lost.
When I was younger, I used to keep family secrets, secrets about things that had happened, things that had gone wrong. In the group we all wrote our secrets down on pieces of paper and burned them. We stood in a circle and prayed while we watched them burn. All the secrets went up to the Creator. I watched them go up in smoke and felt a great release. It was like, now the Creator knows our secrets and will carry them for us.
School is better this year. The teachers have given me extra help and now I'm all caught up.
I like being a leader in the Turtle Huddle group. Sometimes I look back on the good times I used to have as a little kid and it makes me want to be little again, but it's good to have responsibilities too.
I'm taking drawing lessons from Dennis Weber, an amazing Native artist who teaches at the MÃ©tis center. I'm learning the basic shapes. In the last class we learned about the shapes of skulls, like a buffalo skull is in the shape of a triangle.
I go to ceremonial events too, like the Sun Dance. And I go to sweat lodges. The sweat lodge is a place for praying. It's a very old and sacred thing to do.
I've learned from all this that it's going to be okay. Try not to worry too much. Try to do your best to look for things that are bigger than you. And if you meet people who treat you badly, don't give them too much power. They might change and they might not, but you don't have to hang around them and wait to see how it's going to turn out.
It's your life. Find people who will help you live it.