Reader Reactions to Our Story, 'Tiny Horrors: A Chilling Reminder of How Cruel Assimilation Was—And Is'


Mary Annette Pember’s recent story on ICTMN.com about a pair of tiny handcuffs donated to Haskell University touched many people, and touched off many debates.

The cuffs, believed to have been used to restrain Indian children sentenced to boarding schools in the early part of the 20th century, resonated for many readers as a chilling reminder of the atrocities perpetrated against Native peoples, a ruthless campaign that targeted the youngest, the most innocent, the most precious.

The story drew heavy traffic at ICTMN.com, on Facebook and was picked up by Slate. It also elicited many comments, some of them personal stories from a dark chapter in the U.S. government’s treatment of Natives.

Here are a few of those posts:

Harry Delorme: As a second generational Indian Residential School Survivor, witnessing atrocities at hands of those who were to save us Spiritually, Physically, Emotionally, and Mentally is not anything new. Many a times children were flogged, left in cellars without food or water as corporal punishment for not conforming to their will. Life as political prisoners to kill the Indian and Indian Spirit was their mandate. Running away to escape was our only option even though we knew the consequences of flogging, hair shorn and harsh psychological punishments to break us… [D]eceiving us with lies about family, nation, community and extended family to break the ties that bind us. January 1 at 6:08pm · [ICTMN / FB]

Jim Woods: This is what my Mom lived through. Now she's gone to the creator, with no resolution. January 1 at 4:13pm via mobile · [ICTMN / FB]

Anonymous: My Dad said something about this long years ago. They took his brothers Albert, Jerry and Richard along with his sister Polie. He found all but his sister; they said her records had burned up... January 2 at 11:22 · [ICTMN / FB]

alawyer: Not to trivialize the absolute horror of the Indian boarding schools - but I really hate to tell you this but the use of handcuffs and shackles has simply become more technologically advanced - these devices are routinely utilized throughout the United States on children as young as seven years old, and in Florida, there is no minimum age. A few years ago when a five year old African American child had a temper tantrum in a St. Pete School, she was handcuffed by police before being taken away in the police car. There are several other documented incidents involving children under seven being handcuffed and shackled throughout the United States - regardless of the fact that our forefathers would not have recognized children that young as having the capacity to commit crimes. Handcuffing and shackling children is routine in the United States regardless of the purported crime because there is a profitable industry related to such restraints. In some jurisidictions, small children swimming in prison jumpsuits and shackled hand and foot are led into youth court rooms sobbing and in terror, humiliated by America's abusive use of restraints. No other nation in the world permits small children under 12 from being handled in this fashion.

… The introduction of school resource officers and zero tolerance policies has led to thousands of American children being removed from their classrooms in handcuffs for minor offenses that once received scoldings from principals. This is known as the "School to Prison Pipeline."

SO please don't fool yourselves into thinking that these handcuffs are no longer applied to tiny wrists. My guess is that it is being done as I write this email - probably some 8 year old is being charged with disrupting school in South Carolina or Ohio or Florida or even in New Jersey and being handcuffed and searched and led out of the building. And some 14 year old girl who is the victim of sexual abuse who has run away from home is probably being shackled hand and foot to make the trip to Juvenile Court to face a judge for her transgressions. [Slate.com]

Not all of the comments were positive. Some of the negative comments reflected a general hostility toward Natives, and the usual “get over it” advice. But some skeptics raised important points, such as this:

John Humbert: I have a pair of these. So close to identical I'm wondering if somebody broke into my house. My wife just dug out our pair, and it really is identical. It is also grossly misidentified here. I can attest to how easy it is for a child to get out of these having been put in them often as a child. I'm afraid that what you have is a set of toy handcuffs from the 1930's. They do not lock, and the latch is easily released by the child... They are heavy just because toys were sturdier then than now... January 1 at 4:22pm · [ICTMN / FB]

Pember presented Humbert’s argument to Bobbi Rahder, former director of Haskell’s Cultural Center, who took part in the transfer of the cuffs. “I don't believe they were a toy and the elders who helped me with wrapping them and praying over them did not think they were a toy,” she says. “And although it is intangible, I can tell you that the energy I felt coming from those handcuffs was misery and suffering. I know that is not proof of anything but it is what I felt. I don't believe there is a way to prove one way or the other because there is no documentation in the family who donated them as to how they were used.

“I think the important message is educating people that devices like these were used to forcibly remove children from their families during the boarding school days. People need to know the truth so it never happens again.”

Shane Murray, whose grandfather gave him the handcuffs and solemnly charged him with safeguarding them, also knows he can’t prove anything about the handcuffs, but knows what they mean to him. “I don’t believe that my granddad would have storied me on something like that,” he says. “I’ve held those handcuffs and they seem to have a voice of their own. They are extremely heavy, emotionally heavy. Even if it turns out they were originally made as a toy, something like that would have still worked on a kid, especially a first Nations kid who would not have seen something like that. The kid would only know that they were being hauled away from home. “