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U.S. tried to purge Indian culture; act helps save it

By Ben Shelly
Special to The Washington Post

The recent Supreme Court ruling regarding the fate of a young Cherokee girl has reignited debate about the role of the Indian Child Welfare Act in today’s society.

The law has faced critics since its passage in 1978. But understanding why it was implemented also helps explain why it remains necessary.

For hundreds of years, the official policies of the United States were to eradicate American Indians from their homelands. The doctrine of Manifest Destiny did not have room for the first peoples of this land. While the practice of genocide gave way to assimilation policies, the goal was still the same: to remove the Indian or Indian culture from these lands. As a result, Native Americans have been forcibly removed from their homelands and forbidden to speak their language or practice their culture. In the 1970s, a study by the Association of American Indian Affairs found, as many as 35 percent of Indian children were removed from their homelands through religious programs, boarding schools and adoption.

I was assimilated into mainstream U.S. culture through such practices. The cost to me was the loss of my understanding of the Navajo belief system. I had to work very hard to reconnect to Navajo culture later in life.

When I was knee-high in the 1950s, I began my Bureau of Indian Affairs schooling in my home town of Thoreau, N.M. I entered a school system that drew many of its philosophies and practices from the 1870s, when boarding schools first became a tool of the federal government to “fix” the Indian problem.

Other programs were designed to help Indian children become acculturated, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Indian Placement Program, which began in 1947 and ended in 2000. This program took Native American children from their reservations and placed them with foster families. The children were supposed to be gone for only a year, but some still haven’t returned.

While it’s good for young people to learn about different cultures, it is just as important for youths to gain identity by learning about the culture they are born into. This is especially true when long-standing U.S. government policies have sought to eradicate that culture. Teachers in my schools washed out our mouths with soap or openly punished us in other ways, sometimes physically, if we spoke our native language. I learned to be ashamed of a language and life that were designed to be my strength in times of greatest need.

For decades, many of our young people were denied the right of cultural inheritance because of programs and adoptions eager to take American Indian children and assimilate them into the larger American society. Most of these efforts probably stemmed from people’s desire to help children. In reality, however, these actions resulted in confusion and mental trauma about identity. The tribes’ fundamental right to determine the best teachings for our children were denied.

This is why the Indian Child Welfare Act continues to play such an important role for American Indian tribes. The law allows tribes to give our children the opportunity to experience the beauty of their culture and to ensure that we as a people survive.

I have been disturbed by the blood quantum discussion that has been part of the debate, sparked by the lawsuits about Baby Veronica, over whether a child is considered American Indian. Tribal membership is a sovereign and sacred right. A child determined to be a member of a sovereign nation is just that.

American Indian people have long fought for our rights and practices to have a place in U.S. society. Our language, culture and traditions are as sacred as the air we breathe. Despite attempts to remove us in one form or another, we remain intact and culturally strong as ever. The chance to teach our children the ways of our ancestors is a sacred honor and duty.

The writer is president of the Navajo Nation, headquartered in Window Rock, Ariz.
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