Stealing Children: A Look at Indigenous Child Removal Policies
Tanya H. Lee
Margaret Jacobs, professor of history and director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, won the Bancroft Prize for her book White Mother to a Dark Race, an investigation of the U.S. and Australian policies of breaking up indigenous families and removing children to be raised in boarding schools run by whites. She has also published a second volume based on her research. A Generation Removed looks at indigenous child removal policies from just after World War II up until passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978.
ICTMN interviewed Jacobs about her work. “When I got to Australia [to begin research] it was shortly after the ‘Bringing them home’ report  had come out about the stolen generation [of Australian Aborigine children]. When I went to the archives, I asked, ‘What were white women doing about indigenous children? Were they involved in this policy of the stolen generation?’”
She very quickly discovered that they were. “I was surprised that they were involved because this was an era when white women worldwide were talking about themselves as wanting to extend their maternal instincts and impulses into the world at large. So I assumed these women would be supporting indigenous motherhood and supporting the rights of indigenous women to keep their children.”
But instead, white women “really thought that indigenous women didn’t mother properly. They worked to some extent on trying to teach indigenous women how they thought they should be taking care of their children and carrying out their domestic duties. But many of them believed when there was resistance that the only way to raise children properly was to take them away from the environment of their mothers and cultures.”
Coming back to the U.S., she asked the same question and found that “many white women were involved in even a more pronounced manner in the United States than in Australia. They were involved in creating policy and were even hired by the federal government to carry out the policy of removing indigenous children.”
“So that was the book that I wrote. It was called White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940. As I was researching that book I was also very interested in looking at more recent examples of the removal of indigenous children. This second book, called A Generation Removed: The Fostering and Adoption of Indigenous Children in the Postwar World, focuses less on white women and much more on indigenous women’s experience of having children removed and the activism that they engaged in to reclaim the care of their children.”
Jacobs found that during the termination period, the Bureau of Indian Affairs was eager to close down the boarding schools because they were not accomplishing the goal of assimilating American Indian children into the mainstream culture, and they were expensive.
“So they turned to this policy of trying to close down the boarding schools and they turned toward a policy of trying to turn over the education and care of Indian children to the states,” says Jacobs.
While there were some American Indians working for the BIA in the ‘50s and some sympathy to the problems of Indian families, says Jacobs, “there were rarely any American Indian people working in the state bureaucracies. And there were rarely any people trained to have any sensitivity to American Indian societies or concerns. So this move to change the jurisdiction over Indian children to the states was a move that contributed to greater numbers of Indian children being removed from their families, fostered by white families and eventually moved into the adoption system.”
Jacobs says a close examination of the records shows that 25 percent to 35 percent of Indian children were removed from their families.
In the course of her research, she says, “I was able to find all of these women in their own tribal communities who were working to create really innovative programs to promote child welfare within their communities. They were trying to find foster families within the community. They were creating these kinds of preventative programs for families to prevent children from being taken in the first place and to strengthen families or rehabilitate families. These women were quite incredible. Some were also getting involved in a national level to try to organize to stop this practice.”
One of these women was Evelyn Blanchard, Laguna/Yaqui, who became an advocate for children and families after losing a court case in which Navajo grandparents were not allowed to take custody of their grandchild, who had been placed outside the community. She worked with the Association on American Indian Affairs to help get the Indian Child Welfare Act passed in 1978. “After the law was passed,” Blanchard told ICTMN, “I worked with many tribes to help them develop their own children’s codes regarding care of children in their communities and to help them figure out how they would respond to the law, which was written for state courts, not Indian tribes.”
Blanchard explains, “The ICWA regulates the acts of state courts or public and private agencies. That’s what it’s supposed to do and its intent is to prevent the breakup of the Indian families because records show that before the passage one out of every four children had been removed from his or her family and 85 percent of those kids were not in Indian homes. The tribes were tired of it. They wanted it stopped and the pattern reversed.”
Asked whether the Baby Veronica case was an anomaly in present-day Indian child welfare proceedings, Blanchard responds, “It’s not an anomaly. Those situations occur regularly. And in the majority of cases, I would venture the people yet do not have the legal assistance and counsel they need to fight back against these injustices and irregularities. Even today many children are removed from their parents without due process. In many cases the parents do not have the kind of support they need. It’s a very serious situation and the breakup of Indian families continues. It needs to be stopped.”
Jacobs says, “American Indian children are overrepresented in the child welfare systems in their states. There are five states in particular where they are really overrepresented, including Nebraska and South Dakota. The South Dakota case is really interesting because what’s really going on there, even though we have the ICWA to try to stop this practice, is that there’s a clause in the ICWA that allows for the emergency removal of Indian children and apparently officials in South Dakota interpret this provision very liberally.”
Jacobs notes that A Generation Removed is also about Canada and Australia. “I think that it’s important to show that this is going on globally, at the same time in three different places, and that the same practices and policies are being used against indigenous families in all three places. The international part of my work is important to convince people that this is really a serious issue of human rights violations against indigenous families.”
This story was originally published on Nov 21, 2014.