Inspired by the case of Baby Veronica, America’s Evangelicals have begun to challenge the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).
It’s not much of a surprise. The Western project of political imperialism never strayed too far from its Christian roots. In the global South, this meant that colonial governments often partnered with Protestant and Catholic missionaries. Colonial activity granted these missionaries unprecedented access to non-Christian people groups; in exchange, missionaries were expected to civilize the natives, making them more amenable to outside rule. The link between colonialism and missions work has been covered extensively in academic literature (including my own dissertation). But the phenomenon wasn’t limited to the global South. It also influenced the European colonization of North America.
Evangelical objections to ICWA are merely the latest iteration of an old prejudice.
Consider the mission schools. These schools were established for the express purpose of forcibly assimilating Native children into Western culture. The 1868 Annual Report of the Commissioner for Indian Affairs to the Secretary of the Interior reveals just how integral these missions schools were to the US government’s colonial project.
John B. Riley, superintendent of an “Indian school,” wrote that, “However excellent the day school may be, whatever the qualifications of the teacher, or however superior the facilities for instruction of the few short hours spent in the day school is, to a great extent, offset by the habits, scenes and surroundings at home — if a mere place to eat and live in can be called a home. “
“Only by complete isolation of the Indian child from his savage antecedents can he be satisfactorily educated, and the extra expense attendant thereon is more than compensated by the thoroughness of the work. “
The same report quotes John C. Ward, a United States Indian Agent based in California: ”The parents of these Indian children are ignorant, and know nothing of the value of education, and there are no elevating circumstances in the home circle to arouse the ambition of the children. Parental authority is hardly known or exercised among the Indians in this agency. The agent should be endowed with some kind of authority to enforce attendance. The agent here has found that a threat to depose a captain if he does not make the children attend school has had a good effect.”
As the term suggests, most mission schools were affiliated with a Christian denomination. Writing for Amnesty International Magazine in 2007, Andrea Smith revealed that at the height of the mission school movement, churches ran the lion’s share of active schools; 460, compared to 25 secular schools run by the government’s Bureau for Indian Affairs. For many students, Christianity became connected to the trauma of cultural violence. In the same piece, Smith quoted Willetta Lophus of the Cheyenne River Lakota tribe: “A little while ago, I was supposed to attend a Halloween party. I decided to dress as a nun because nuns were the scariest things I ever saw.” Lophus had survived a childhood at a Catholic-run mission school.
Church-affiliated mission schools mandated Christian worship and banned any semblance of Native culture, including Native languages. Administrators reported on their Native charges to the federal government (just like their counterparts in colonized Africa). These schools were run on a model inspired by the Carlisle Indian School, founded by Captain Richard Pratt.
Pratt’s motivations were no secret. ”Kill the Indian and save the man,” he wrote, and that’s exactly what mission schools strove to accomplish.
Native parents weren’t given a choice about sending their children to mission schools. The US government forcibly removed Native children and systematically stripped them of their culture.
As a consequence, Native languages were decimated and even now, only a few have made a resurgence. For Native tribes, the mission schools movement delivered a crushing strike at their traditions. And the ramifications have been severe. Reservations are plagued by disproportionately high rates of unemployment, suicide, addiction, and sexual assault, among other concerns. The recent controversy over the Violence Against Women Act, which allotted tribal governments the ability to prosecute non-Native men who assault Native women, is just further evidence that Native cultures and Native bodies are not respected by the colonizing government.
American Christians enabled this colonization. They participated in this cultural violence. Their confidence in the superiority of their beliefs translated into the arrogant conviction that Christianity could, and should, replace Native culture.
And now, having learned nothing from this, they are attacking a piece of legislation that they made necessary because of their abuse of Native children. Elizabeth Sharon Morris, who runs the Christian Alliance for Indian Child Welfare, advocates for the repeal of ICWA and told the Huffington Post that she feels “sick to her stomach” at the thought of Baby Veronica returning to a Native home.
The Post also quotes Johnston Moore, executive director of adoption outfit Home Forever: “ICWA unfairly allows our child welfare and judicial systems to treat children differently if they happen to be eligible for membership in a federally recognized tribe.” According to Moore, Baby Veronica has been “traumatically ripped” from her adoptive home because of her Native status.
On its website, Home Forever argues that adoption is a Biblical mandate. To date, Moore’s spent over $300,000 in legal fees in an on-going attempt to adopt two Native boys. His perspective is rather obvious: he believes he’s entitled to adopt Native children because the Bible tells him so.
It is worth noting that this perspective isn’t universal among American Christians, though the Christian adoption movement is growing in popularity. Journalist Kathryn Joyce investigated that movement for her most recent book, and I’ve also blogged about it here. These Christian-led attacks on ICWA are a timely and troubling reminder that colonialism is an active and thriving force, and it’s one not restrained to the global South. The consequences of colonialism are just as visible in the United States as they are overseas.