On January 22, 1818, the House Committee on Indian Affairs reported that Indian children “will grow up in habits of morality and industry…and become useful members of society” if they are given ‘the primer…the hoe…”and the Bible. By 1879 off-reservation schools were created to separate Indian children from their families, culture, language, sacred history, and territory to “kill the Indian…and save the man.” These schools not only “educated” Indian children, they put them to work in a mandated trade craft which, coincidently, generated profits for the school system.
Decades later, a 1974 study by the Association of American Indian Affairs was presented to Congress revealing upwards of 35 percent of all Indian children had been taken from their families “placed in adoptive families, foster care, or institutions” at some point in their lifetime and “approximately 90 percent [were] placed in non-Indian homes.” Congress reacted to the tragedy by passing the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) in 1978 (enacted in 1979) to turn the tide of what for roughly a century had been encouraged by state and federal governments. Even with ICWA in place, it took the Department of the Interior nearly 40 years to issue regulations on the law to create legal uniformity and consistency. In December 2016, the new regulation clarified many aspects of ICWA.
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One might be surprised to know that the removal of Indian children from their families is still going strong, seemingly unabated. For example, in Pennington County, South Dakota, the state has removed more than 1,000 children from their Native American families since 2010. A 2013 class action lawsuit and a 2015 validation by Chief Federal District Court Judge Jeffrey L. Viken revealed that Pennington County officials were not only removing the Indian children “on grounds not based on evidence,” but holding hearings in state court within 48 hours of removal and denying parents access to legal counsel, the right to testify, or notice of why their Indian children were taken. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the hearings lasted [from] 60 seconds up to five minutes, “and the state won 100 percent of the time.”
In his 2015 ruling, Chief Judge Viken ordered the state to take corrective actions, which they promptly ignored. In a December 2016 compliance hearing, Viken noted South Dakota’s lack of action in addressing the concerns expressed in his 2015 ruling that included violations of federal law and federal regulations (ICWA) including, lack of due process under the 14th Amendment and police reports that only the county’s presiding Judge could review. Rather than correct the well documented lack of competence, South Dakota officials have appealed Viken’s ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. Briefs for the appeal are due March 10, 2017.
In 1879, off-reservation schools, once noted for feeding Indian children on pennies a day, profited from their labor. Perhaps the question we need to ask now is, who in Pennington County, South Dakota is profiting from clear violations of law by removing Indian children from their families?
Dr. Eric Hannel is an independent scholar and consultant. He has spoken on numerous Native American issues and published Reinterpreting a Native American Identity: Examining the Lumbee through the Peoplehood Model in 2015.