As an avid lover of visiting museums, it is important to hold them accountable when their exhibitions can have damaging implications. History and science museums can be among the most fascinating places to visit, as the world has such a rich scientific history. However, there is a fine line between preserving a specific piece of history and exploiting groups of people in the name of science. In recent years, several museums have come under fire for capitalizing on the exploitation of ethnic groups and glorifying the world’s hurtful history of colonialism, imperialism, and the oppression of marginalized peoples.
In recent years, attention has been paid to the sources of acquisition that many popular museums in the United States use. One of the most recent is the American Museum of Natural History, located in Manhattan, New York, and its exhibitions contain the remains of indigenous people.
What is Colonialism?
Colonialism is a practice in which domination over a specific area is carried out by another foreign state. Colonialism has been and is used as a way to consolidate political or economic gain and always leads to the complete subjugation, or conquest, of the people in the colonized area. The foundation of America was built on colonialism, dating back to before the nation was even established. While there are records of British colonies existing prior to the 1600s, the 17th century marked the beginning of the first permanent colonies.
The Jamestown Colony was created in Virginia in 1607. Long before the establishment of any colonies in the New World, or present-day America, Native Americans were the first to live on American soil. The region in which the Jamestown colony arrived was the same region as the Powhatan people, an Indian tribe. On many occasions, there would be violent encounters between the tribe and colonists. When establishing colonies in the New World, colonists would bring diseases like tuberculosis and smallpox. While they had immunity to these microbes, they would be fatal for the local Native American population.
As the 17th century progressed, the relationship between colonists and Native Americans would significantly weaken. For instance, King Philip’s War occurred in 1675 after the execution of three members of the Wampanoag people by the government of the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. This war is known as one of the deadliest conflicts in American history, with the amount of casualties reaching extreme heights throughout the 14-month period of the war.
Even after America was established as a country, harmful practices against Indigenous Americans continued to be considered legal. Hundreds of thousands of Indians—particularly Indian youth—were forced to assimilate. Cultural assimilation is extremely damaging for multiple reasons. It normalizes public stigmatization of the affected groups and erases their cultural identity.
Not only has the American Museum of Natural History come under fire for exhibiting the remains of thousands of Native Americans, but also for acquiring the bones of five Black adults who were buried in a cemetery for enslaved people. This brings an important conversation of eugenics, where bodies were exploited and used as “scientific property” against their will. The presence of eugenics and other scientific thoughts entrenched in racism and white supremacy have allowed for other forms of oppression against marginalized groups—specifically Black Americans—like medical racism and healthcare bias. These connections make the museum’s acquisition of these remains even more problematic.
Another museum that has come under fire for its exhibitions is the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in D.C. While this exhibition does not involve human remains, the exploitation of a group of marginalized people under colonialism remains present. The museum held 29 bronze sculptures that originally belonged to the Kingdom of Benin. The Kingdom of Benin was established during the pre-colonial period of what is now southern Nigeria. The sculptures were seized by British military and colonial forces during a raid in 1897. This raid also resulted in the burning of the city and the deaths of the people who inhabited it
Real estate developers Paul and Ruth Tishman collected the Benin sculptures and sold them to the Walt Disney Company in 1984. In 2007, they were donated to the Smithsonian. Without thinking about the implications the sources of acquisition of their exhibition pieces have, the Smithsonian turned a blind eye to their hurtful histories. Fortunately, the Smithsonian recognized this problem and removed the sculptures from public display in late 2021. Museum director Ngaire Blankenberg also enlisted the help of curators to find the places of origin for all pieces that had potential ties to the Kingdom of Benin raid.
Harvard’s Peabody Museum and Warren Anatomical Museum
The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and the Warren Anatomical Museum, both owned by Harvard University, recently repatriated the remains of over 300 Indigenous people back to the Wampanoag communities. The university completed the repatriation process in January of this year. Harvard has since aimed to create efforts to better understand and rethink the implications of sources of acquisition. For instance, the Peabody Museum created a virtual exhibit titled “Listening to Wampanoag Voices: Beyond 1620.” The exhibit includes oral histories given by various members of the Wampanoag community.
Why are Sources of Acquisition Important?
The term ‘acquisition‘ refers to an object purchased or given to an institution, such as a museum or library. ‘Sources of acquisition’ deals with the background of these objects, like their historical context and location of origin. If not taken into careful consideration, ignoring sources of acquisition can be harmful to the affected communities. It normalizes the idea that the oppression of people is something that can be glossed over in the name of science or a glorified museum exhibit. In the case of many museums collecting the remains of marginalized communities, it pushes the notion that the subjugation and exploitation of people are acceptable. As reflected earlier in this post, America was built on the institution of white supremacy and colonialism, which makes the sources of acquisition of exhibition pieces even more important to note
So, what can be done to right the wrongs of these museums? Taking the initiative to go through the repatriation process should always be considered. While this process entails a number of legal procedures that may not be completed within a specific timeframe, it is always worth the exhibition pieces being returned to the rightful institutions and people. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGRPA) was instated in 1990 and is a US federal law that facilitates the repatriation process. As of 2022, there have been many changes made to the NAGPRA. These changes include defining how objects are defined to better accommodate the cultural traditions and customs of the rightful descendants.
Similarly, hiring curators and anthropologists to analyze the origins of exhibitions can be helpful. Next, understanding shortcomings within the pieces a museum inherits through efforts like opening conversations about America’s history of colonialism, racism, and oppression of marginalized people. Giving a voice to those who have been affected by these harmful practices, like the Peabody Museum’s Wampanoag exhibit, is another way of allowing them to reclaim the hurt that has been done.
A Philosophical Take on the Detrimental Climate Effects of European Colonization in North America
I would like to begin by recognizing that the land I sit on while I write was stolen in cold blood by European colonizers. On a once flourishing forest valley now sits tons upon tons of concrete. On land once occupied and cared for by Creek and Choctaw peoples now sits freshly mowed yellow lawns painted blue, overflowing drainage pipes, and office buildings filled with tired, underpaid workers. It is with a heavy heart that I mourn the loss of Indigenous people and their cultures at the hands of greedy White supremacist colonizers. With this article, I do not wish to convey that climate effects are the only or the most detrimental result of European colonization and their genocide of Native peoples. Life, culture, language, and knowledge, to name a few, are some of the more immense losses. The purpose of this article is not to reduce this catastrophic event to solely how it affects the climate today but to bring attention and reverence to Indigenous philosophies, traditions, and ways of life that can inform our modern discussions of climate change.
As a precursor to this article’s more philosophical take, you may want to read about the historical contexts of colonization. In this case, please check out this article recently posted by my colleague here at the IHR, Kala Bhattar.
How do you provide for yourself and your family?
Your answer probably involves producing a product or carrying out a service that society deems valuable enough to attribute money to you for it. You then use that money to buy food, water, and shelter from those in your community who produce or own it. Money probably plays a huge role in your everyday life, and if you’re anything like me, it’s probably one of the larger stressors on your mental health. How much of our lives do we have to sacrifice doing hard labor or sitting behind computer screens in order to make enough money to stay alive to do that work all over again? When was the last time you ate food that you or your loved ones didn’t spend money on? When was the last time you wandered into a forest to breathe unpolluted air and observe the plants and bugs that call your land home? Why does modern culture demand of us that we focus all of our energy on acquiring wealth and ignore our own mental health to do so?
Modern Western society does not live “at one” or in harmony with the Earth. We no longer heavily rely on nature and the climate, but increasingly rely on money and the economy. It’s as if this planet is solely a stomping ground for a “holier than thou” species to level out and cover in concrete. The Earth has been screaming back at us for years. We’ve seen endangerment of species such as the monarch butterfly, rising sea levels, and one of the worst wildfire seasons to ever be recorded. This is consistent with deforestation, the degradation of the ozone layer, and rising global temperatures. These are all aspects of the climate that human activity has affected. In North America, the notion that humans are separate from the ecosystem, that distancing oneself from nature is “more civilized,” and that relying on the flora and fauna of one’s homeland is “primitive” or “dirty” roots all the way back to 1492.
Before European pilgrims traveled over to the North American continent, the land was inhabited by vastly diverse Indigenous tribes and nations. Some of these tribes were nomadic and lived by moving around the landscape, hunting and gathering an array of foods as they traveled. Others were mostly stationary, growing crops and raising farm animals to provide for themselves and their communities. There were many groups with many different worldviews, religions, and philosophies. The one thing that united them all was their profound reverence for the forces of nature. They saw themselves as a part of the ecosystem of the land they lived on. It was an honor to raise crops and livestock and to participate in their homeland’s well-being. They promoted biodiversity, expressed empathy and gratitude towards the animals they ate, and valued cooperation in and between their communities. They practiced herbal medicine, tending to their sick and injured with natural remedies that they had identified to have healing properties. They even had their own forms of religion/spirituality centered around connecting one’s spirit to the Earth, feeling what Mother Nature needs, and providing that for her in exchange for her providing for them. The human population on the North American continent was thriving and developing. There was peace within and between nations for the most part. All of their needs were taken care of so they could focus on negotiations rather than violence.
Property and Greed
When the Europeans arrived, the Americans taught them how to live on their continent. They taught them how to grow crops in their soil, hunt for their own food, and use every part of the animal including the hide, bones, and meat. They were more than willing to allow these settlers to join them in their symbiotic relationship with nature. To them, more people meant a more diverse and stronger community to help each other out.
One can imagine their surprise when the Europeans introduced them to greed. They introduced them to the ideas of personal property, wealth hoarding, and social status based on material goods. They saw all of this land as unclaimed and up for grabs since the Americans had no formal ownership system. They started violently enforcing this ‘property view’ of land onto the Americans. They would claim plots of land as their own and hoard all of the resources that could be obtained from it. They also were not fond of the Americans’ religion. They started threatening them with eternal damnation if they didn’t convert to Catholicism. They called them “primitive” for their symbiotic relationship with nature, and “savages” for their denial of Christianity.
Centuries later, after colonizing the East Coast, the English-speaking Europeans separated from the British monarchy and believed it was their god-given manifest destiny to own the land all the way to the West Coast. So they loaded up their swords and crossed the Appalachian mountains, slaughtering and relocating the Native people along the way. Although many Native tribes had helped Great Britain during the Revolutionary War, Great Britain was nowhere to be found when the colonizers perpetuated their genocide.
A Culture of Climate Apathy
Today, we live in a world where we mow our lawns once a month and call it environmental care. We plant uniform gardens outside our homes solely for aesthetics without caring that the ‘weeds’ we pull up are the only sources of food for certain butterfly and bumblebee species. We stomp spiders into our carpets for daring to wander onto our property. We spray poison on our foods so that humans are the only ones that can eat them, and we pack hundreds of cows into small barns with no ventilation to steal their children’s food for ourselves before slaughtering them when they stop producing. We can’t survive without constant air conditioning (partly because global temperatures have been consistently warming for over 50 years) and the air we share has record-high levels of carbon in it.
We have taken ownership of the Earth and drained it of its resources. The Earth was never meant to be claimed for oneself; it was never meant to be commodified. It was never meant to be drained of oil to fill the pockets of wealthy CEOs. The Earth was meant to be shared by all its living beings. Similarly, humans were never meant to be in solitude. We were meant to live symbiotically with each other and with nature. Greed has divided us as one humanity; it murdered the Native American tribes and robbed the Earth of its biggest supporters. And I am afraid that Mother Nature might never accept our apology.
I would like to start this piece off with a land acknowledgment, where I acknowledge the truth of who the lands of America truly belong to. The land in which I sit to write this article, as well as the ones occupied by those who reside in America once belonged to the many diverse communities that existed long before America got its name. Once prosperous, thriving lands belonging to these various indigenous communities, (to the Creeks and Choctaw, in my case), the lands of America were respected and honored by the relationship that these various tribal communities held sacred between themselves and their environment. It is in honor of their stewardship and resilience that I hope to shed light on some of the more gruesome, nefarious betrayals they have experienced at the hands of colonizers from the time their tribal ancestors witnessed the colonizers’ arrival to their lands in 1492.
Before the European colonizers arrived on this land, there existed a diverse group of tribal communities, over a thousand different ones just in the mainland we call America today. Now, these tribes have been reduced to no more than 574 federally recognized ones, with dwindling tribal membership numbers, a fact that can only be blamed on the federally sanctioned behaviors of the colonists. So much has been stolen from the diverse groups of indigenous people since the colonization of the North American lands first began. The original indigenous peoples had offered the newly-arriving colonists hospitality and taught them how to cultivate the lands of America and brave the New Frontiers. Yet, what they received in gratitude was bloodshed, tears, death, and betrayals. So many treaties and promises were broken. According to Howard Zinn, the famous author of the book, “A People’s History of the United States,” the various indigenous communities that existed in the Americas by the time the famous explorers landed in the Americas were anywhere between 25-75 million individuals. They had moved into these fertile lands 25,000 years ago, long before the explorers “founded” the Americas. For those interested in learning a truthful history of America, please check out his book. The book begins in 1492 and continues to examine historical events until contemporary times and phenomena such as the “War on Terrorism”.
There is so much information to be covered on this topic, and the more I researched, the more I found. I want to do this topic justice, and I cannot do so until the historical context has been put in place. Hence, this will be a two-part deep dive into the Native American lands, their cultural lifestyles, their relationship with the environment, and what this means for their existence in a capitalist, contemporary society. Part one will focus on the history of Native American lands, the process of treaties and loss, and the cruel, scheming ways of the federal government that attempted to indirectly, yet forcibly, steal lands away from Native Americans by targeting the youngest members of their tribes. Part two will focus on the Indian Child Welfare Act, the fight (and entities involved) in support and against it, how the environment plays a role, and the vast consequences of the recent Supreme Court ruling on the matter, both in terms of the welfare of these indigenous children, as well as the issue of tribal sovereignty. There is a lot to unpack here, so without further ado, let’s begin with a deeper understanding of the relationship that indigenous communities share with their lands.
It’s All About the Land; It Always Has Been
The European settlers had a problem with the Native Americans from the moment they landed in America. For one, they thought the indigenous way of life to be “savagery” and believed that the Native Americans needed to be “civilized”, something they believed only Europeans could teach them about. They found the gods and spirituality of the various indigenous cultures to be blasphemous and nonsensical, and many Europeans attempted to convert the Natives to Christianity, a more “proper” religious belief. Most of all, though, the Europeans and the indigenous communities had vastly different concepts of property and land ownership. To the settlers, who came from the feudal systems of Europe, land was a commodity, purchased and sold by individuals, and prosperity (and social status) was determined by who owned the most properties, and the most prosperous lands. They became lords and could employ the less fortunate to work under them, paying them a fraction of their profits, while keeping the rest for themselves. This was how things worked in Europe back home, and this is the system they brought with them when settling in the New World.
Native Americans, however, had a different lifestyle and concept of ownership. To them, the thought of owning a piece of land was bizarre, as they viewed the land to belong to the various energies and life forms that existed in the said land. The tribal lands of an indigenous community not only fed and nurtured the tribal members but also protected the tribe’s history and held the ancestral burials of their people. The indigenous communities had a spiritual and emotional connection with their tribal lands, one that cannot be sold to another, similar to how you cannot sell to someone else the relationship you hold with your family. Many (if not most), Native tribes even practiced animism, a belief system that accepts all living and non-living things (and natural phenomena) as being capable of having a life force (or soul). For Native Americans, land ownership was a foreign concept, and everyone that existed in their community held rights to the land their tribes lived on. In fact, when European settlers began purchasing lands from the Native Americans, the indigenous people believed they were only “leasing” the lands to the settlers, not giving up their rights to them. For the indigenous communities, the land was just as much a right of every human as sunlight, water, or air.
The Native Americans’ relationship with their lands was also threatening to the European lifestyle of land ownership and individualism. This struggle, between an individualistic view of community, versus the collective view of community, is, as they say, a “tale as old as time.” For Europeans, who believed individual merit and hard work to be the true characteristics of a successful individual, their success could only be displayed by the vastness of their empires, figuratively and physically. Hence, land ownership was a symbol of status and in a way, a testament of a person’s character. For Native Americans who focused on collective success rather than individually standing out, the strength of their tribe was a result of the part each individual tribal member played to ensure their success. This meant that everyone had a role, and if they played them right, everyone in the tribe benefited from the success. This was how tribes survived even as they warred against each other.
Treaties and Deals
Due to these differences between the indigenous communities and the European settlers, many struggles broke out between the two groups between 1492 and 1700. In an attempt to keep the peace between the settlers and the indigenous communities, the British Crown established the Proclamation of 1763, which awarded the colonists all the lands East of the Appalachian Mountains, and everything West was promised to the various different Native American populations that lived in those regions. This did not make the colonists happy, as they believed the King was preventing them from expanding their population, and it was one of the points they listed in the Declaration of Independence as a wrong that was done by the King. Many scholars claim that the Proclamation of 1793 led colonists to pursue a revolution against the crown. The diverse indigenous populations attempted to stay out of the Revolutionary War, as they believed it to be a family feud between the British King, and his colonial subjects. Yet, when they did take part in the War, their participation was diverse. Some joined the rebelling Americans, while others joined the forces of the monarchy. Still, others chose to remain neutral, not wanting to support either side of the struggle. Upon the loss of the Revolutionary War, as part of the treaty signed between Britain and the newly established United States, Britain had to give up all the lands they lay claim to in America, including many of the lands that were promised to the Native American tribes living West of the Appalachian Mountains. This happened without consent or discussion with the Native Americans who took residence in those parts. When the colonists came to take over much of the lands that were promised to the Native Americans through the Proclamation of 1763, they justified their brutality against the Native Americans by blaming them for supporting the British in the Revolutionary War, and when the Native Americans tried to fight back for their lands, the British were nowhere to be seen. This was yet another episode of betrayal experienced by the indigenous populations at the hands of the settlers and the British Crown. Yet, this was just the beginning; the atrocities and betrayals were far from over.
Following the Revolutionary War and the as a result of the resilience shown by the many indigenous communities protecting their lands, the United States decided to engage in creating treaties between the various indigenous tribes in an attempt to set boundaries to their lands, and “compensate” them for the lands taken from them. I have “compensate” in quotations because first of all, no amount of money or goods can compensate for lost lives, which is what many tribes experienced. Some tribes became extinct as a result. Second, these treaties were signed by members who did not have signatory authority to give permission to the lands on the side of many indigenous nations, and Congress seldom ratified the treaties that were signed on the part of the United States. This meant that this was more of a theatrical expression than anything else, and the United States continued to steal the lands of indigenous people. Thirdly, as discussed above, many indigenous people who did engage in treaty-making assumed they were simply “leasing” their lands to be used by the colonists, not selling their rights to it outright. So, there was miscommunication and misunderstandings as to what the treaties actually established. Finally, the United States Congress and Supreme Court established that the indigenous tribes were not capable of engaging in treaty-making, and as such, ended the whole process altogether in 1871, claiming that Congress had full control over “Native American Affairs.”
In an attempt to fasten the process of transferring lands from Native American tribes to the hands of the government, the United States passed the Dawes Act of 1887. Many of the treaties that were made between the US and the various nations included provisions in which tribes were expected to distribute their lands among their members so that lands were held by individuals rather than the tribal entities as a whole. For reasons explained earlier, the settlers were threatened by the communal lifestyles of the Native American tribes and believed that having individual members have rights over smaller portions of lands would make it easier for them to accept the European lifestyles and give up their “backward” ways. The Dawes Act forced these indigenous members to choose a parcel of land for themselves and their families (the size of the parcel of land was determined by the government), and any excess amount of land after this process would be sold to the government to be used by non-native residents and corporations alike. Millions of acres of land were stolen from various indigenous tribes as a result. This essentially acted as a way to separate the individual Native American member from their larger tribe and weaken their sense of community and tribal sovereignty as a whole.
Since the end of the Revolutionary War, the United States government has made about 374 treaties with various indigenous nations across the country. The United States has either violated or fully broken nearly all of these treaties they created as a promise of peacekeeping. Many of these treaties that the United States obtained in the first place were either coerced or done so by forcible means such as threatening starvation on the communities that refused to sign the treaties. Of the various treaties that were violated and broken, one that comes to mind clearly for anyone even slightly familiar with American History is the actions of then president Andrew Jackson and his Indian Removal Act of 1830. Although he negotiated treaties with various tribes in the Southeast in an attempt to get them to move West of the Mississippi River voluntarily, when he became president of the United States, he passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, forcibly removing almost 50,000 people from their homes. This forcible removal today would be recognized as a forceable deportation of a population, specifically as a crime against humanity. Under the United Nations Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, this is one of the most heinous systematic crimes that has been committed throughout history. Jackson did this in an attempt to clear lands to cultivate cotton, which would lead to another atrocious event, the revamping of plantation slavery in the South.
History of the Forced Assimilation of Native American Children
Another tactic used by the government to acquire lands from the indigenous populations was through further treacherous means. Native American children were forcefully assimilated into American culture in an attempt to beat/torture their culture out of them. The existence of the Federal Indian Boarding School System was proof of this very thing. Recently, an internal investigation was conducted of the United States government’s treatment of Indigenous children following the incident in Canada, where they found over 215 unmarked graves at a school in 2021. This report, led by Deb Halland, the Secretary of Interior, highlighted many nefarious ways in which tribal lands were stolen from different indigenous nations and the atrocities that were forced upon the children from these nations.
To explore some of the details outlined in this report, (specifically from pages 20-40), the plans of forcible assimilation have been put in place since the days of George Washington. This plan to forcefully erase indigenous culture and assimilate the children into Western culture was seen as the “cheapest and safest way” to steal the tribal lands, ensure a less violent relationship between the colonists and the Native Americans, and transform the tribal economy so they would be prepared to live off of lesser and lesser parcels of land. They found a way to weaponize education in order to accomplish this task.
Elaborating on George Washington’s proposal, Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, put forth a 2-step solution to acquire more lands for the colonists. First, he argued that Native Americans could be forcefully assimilated into European culture, where they could be discouraged to live out a nomadic lifestyle (which requires the use of vast areas of land) and to adopt an agricultural lifestyle similar to the colonists (which can be done with a few acres of land that are cultivated). Second, he proposed that the United States place indigenous populations in debt by encouraging their use of credits to purchase their goods. This, he presumed, would make them default on their debts, and when they were unable to pay back their loans, they would be forced to give up their lands as a result. This land acquired by the government would be sold to non-native settlers, and the profits from these land sales would be put back into the education programs for forceful assimilation of native children.
Sanctioned by the United States government, indigenous children were kidnapped from their homes, whether they wanted to go to boarding school or not (with or without parental permission), and placed in these schools that were located far away from their tribal lands. The plan was to erase the relationship these children had with their cultures, communities, and lands, and instead instill individualism in the children who they were attempting to assimilate in the hopes that they could break up the communal lands into individual parcels, making it easier to be ceased by the government and private entities alike. They called it the “Indian Problem”, which was the different lifestyle and relationship tribal members held with their land and their community. Thomas Jefferson’s two-part proposal was seen as a “key solution” to this “Indian problem.” If the Native American children were forced to become dependent on agricultural lifestyles, they assumed, they could be “civilized.” The government believed that if you separate the children from their families and their tribal connections at a very young age, what they were introduced to would be all they knew, and they would become strangers to the indigenous lifestyles. In turn, the government assumed, the children would not want to go back home and live on the reservations, but instead, would be much more likely to assimilate and live amongst the colonists.
As a result, indigenous families were broken apart, and indigenous children were placed with white families as part of the “outing system.” This meant that the children were forbidden to speak in their native languages and were required to speak English to communicate their needs. What’s worse, they were placed with children from other tribes, meaning that their common language of communication was English, and any children they would have would grow up learning English as their first language instead of the tribal languages of their ancestors.
To support the government in this endeavor, many churches were given legal power over reservations by the government. The military was called in to reinforce the orders of these religious institutions. Many times, the government paid these institutions if they operated a boarding school, paying them a sum for each child. The churches went along with it because they believed that the indigenous way of “paganism” kept them from becoming “civilized” and to fully do so, the indigenous children needed to accept Christianity. The government worked with churches from many denominations by funding them to build the Federal Indian Boarding School System.
Treatment of Indigenous children in these boarding school systems
The Federal Indian Boarding School System was problematic in so many ways. Not only did it forcefully assimilate indigenous children, but the system also took a militaristic approach to education, abusing and mistreating these children in the process. The living conditions at these Boarding schools were terrible. There was no access to basic health care needs, and diseases ran rampant across the schools. The children were malnourished, as they were provided with food and water of poor quality. There was an overcrowding issue, with many facilities forcing multiple children to share one bed as a result. There were not enough toilets to serve the number of children at each facility, and the toilets were not properly maintained.
The infrastructure in these facilities was so poor because they were not built specifically to house these children as facilities for education. Rather, these children were placed in abandoned government buildings or military forts to carry out their education. There was also the issue of child labor, where the children were expected to provide all the services required to run the facilities. This included looking after the livestock, chopping wood, making bricks, sewing garments to clothe the other children, working on the railway, cooking, and cleaning for the others in the facility, and so much more.
The children were expected to take care of themselves and the other children at the facilities. They were also tasked with work from various fields like carpentry, plumbing, blacksmithing, fertilizing, helping with the irrigation system, helping make furniture for use in the facilities (such as tables, chairs, and beds), and anything else that involved physical labor. These jobs the children were trained in would forever keep them at a lower socioeconomic level than their White counterparts. Here too they tried to instill the patriarchal norms of Western society, making sure to teach and employ young girls to work as assistants and cooks, while the young boys were expected to be farmers and industrial workers.
The Indigenous children were forcefully assimilated into American culture. They were told to stop practicing their faiths and were stopped from performing any spiritual and/or religious rituals. The children were expected to go by the English names they were given at the boarding school instead of their Native names given to them at birth. They were forced to cut their hair (which was sacred to many indigenous people as it represented their cultural identity), and were forbidden to wear their cultural clothes and instead were put in military garb.
Those who resisted the assimilation or tried to run away were caught and severely abused and punished. They were put in solitary, whipped, slapped, starved, and abused for fighting to retain their culture. Many of the older children at the facilities were forced to punish the younger children, further dividing the children, and destroying any opportunity the children may have had to band together to resist the assimilation forces. As a result of what the Federal Indian Boarding School System put these children through, there were over 50 marked and unmarked burial sites found. These burial sites had found over 500 indigenous children dead and counting, and these numbers are expected to rise to thousands more. Many indigenous children that survived these boarding schools are reported to have long-lasting impacts on their health and their lives. These children that grew up to be adults reported having higher risks for cancer, diabetes, and Tuberculosis. They experienced heightened mental health issues, and many remain in a lower socioeconomic class as a result.
Many believe this forcible assimilation program conducted by the federal government to be a cultural genocide, in which a state-sanctioned attempt at the erasure of an entire culture took place. The official definition of genocide as established by the Genocide Convention in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court reads as follows: “…any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” As per this definition, the acts carried out by the United States government against the children of various Native American tribes fulfill most, if not all these categories that define these acts to be considered genocidal. It is not a surprise that Native Americans have been killed by the federal government’s sanctions throughout history. There has been serious bodily harm and mental harm caused to members of these various indigenous groups throughout American history. The government deliberately placed young children in conditions of life that ensured their destruction as a member of the Native American tribe they each belonged to. The children within these facilities were not allowed to mingle with others from their own tribes, making it harder for them to retain and pass down their cultural identities, as well as procreate with members of their own tribe. Finally, they were forcibly taken away from their parents and placed in these facilities and other non-native homes in an attempt to erase their cultural backgrounds. All these actions, as was discovered by the recent report we explored at length in this blog, were done so with the intent to destroy the rich cultures of the various Native American tribes. So, the forcible assimilation of Native American children can, without a doubt, be characterized as cultural genocide.
The main goal of this blog was to establish the historical context of what the various Native American tribes endured, as well as the intentions of the federal government in terms of their dealings with the different native nations present in America. Part two of this conversation will focus on a specific piece of legislation that has gained a lot of attention in recent years, the Indian Child Welfare Act. At face value, this legislation is simply an act that addresses the long, detailed history of Native American children and sets guidelines to ensure that proper regulations are put in place to prevent a repetition of history. Yet, it’s now been challenged, partly with the help of very shady moneyed interest, and its fate (and the overarching consequences as a result) were placed in the hands of the nine Supreme Court justices of the United States. We will explore more about this legislation and the case in the next blog.
Collective guilt is a phenomenon that has impacted societies over time. The idea of collective responsibility means that we (as a society) feel responsible for hurting a group of people. It typically connects with tragic events such as genocides. One country or people feel bad about a tragic event. Why does collective guilt happen? It occurs when members of society feel that their actions are hurting others.
Syria and collective guilt
One example of collective guilt is when the United States deliberately neglected hundreds of thousands of individuals in Syria. After this occured many people in the United States felt guilty. The United States has an extremely extensive history of neglecting different cultures. A prime example is the Native Americans. When the United States was colonized, Native Americans were abused and murdered in their own land. The guilt our people felt did not occur until centuries later. As a result of the collective guilt and responsibility, our people feel for what we’ve done to the Native Americans, we teach children about their culture in schools. We assume cultural responsibility for what we’ve done to them by owning the fact that we hurt their people and took away their land.
The same goes for the Holocaust and what happened to the Jewish people in Europe. Many Jews were murdered by the Nazis and Americans watched this happen. We did fight against what was happening to Jews in Germany, however, it was too late in some ways. By that time millions of Jews had already died at the hands of the Nazis. Americans did not intervene to try to help in a way that millions of Jews of their plight of death. Collective guilt has a strong association with neglect and not taking action, it is deliberate neglect. It’s standing by while something awful happens and doing little or nothing to stop it.
Studies about collective guilt
There are studies where the authors of the research focused on historical victimization. In these studies, they are concerned about the emotional responses to genocide or societal tragedy. In one study Americans experienced less collective guilt when they were harming citizens in Iraq during the period of September 11th. That time period was challenging for the world’s population. Many cultures struggle with knowing how to feel. Collective guilt was a common emotion during this time.
Vulnerable groups and collective guilt
One thing to recognize about collective guilt is that it has perpetuated stigma amongst many cultural groups during history. For example, consider the Jews during the Holocaust in Germany. In the states, people felt bad about what was happening to the Jews across the sea. Despite this, the Jewish people were stigmatized as bad and murdered by the Nazis. The responsibility for this terrible event didn’t take place until years later. Christians were able to rationalize anti-Semitism during this era and many others. The current administration has put collective guilt on Mexicans and demanded that we build a wall to keep them out of the states. He has put collective guilt on Muslims labeling them terrorists. Collective guilt as well as scapegoating contribute to a larger problem, which results in genocide and other cultural intolerance and discrimination.
What can we do to change collective guilt?
As a nation, we need to be mindful of when we are able to take action and recognize how we can help different cultures with their struggles and challenges. We need to remember not to be egocentric and recognize that we’re part of a larger collective: the world. Everybody deserves to have a good life, and it’s not good to turn a blind eye when you see people of other nations suffering. So if we can mobilize and help people rather than turning around and pretending that no one’s hurting that’s what can stop this situation from continually occurring.
Letting go of guilt
Guilty feelings can be intense. If you’re feeling the weight of guilt, you’re not alone. Many people feel conflicted and guilty of a plethora of reasons. Some people feel guilty about hurting their friends, loved ones or their partner. It’s difficult to let go of guilt whether that’s collective guilt or if you’re feeling guilty as an individual. When you feel guilty about something, it’s usually because you don’t want to let others down. It can be difficult to let go of guilty feelings, particularly if you have not worked through them. One of the best ways to do this is by talking to a therapist. Whether you work with a therapist in your local area or find an online counselor to help you process these guilty feelings. Whatever your challenges are, you can get help in therapy. Guilt is something that can cause us distress, whether it is collective or individual. But you can get the help you need to stop feeling guilty and start getting better.
Marie Miguel has been a writing and research expert for nearly a decade, covering a variety of health-related topics. Currently, she is contributing to the expansion and growth of a free online mental health resource with BetterHelp.com. With an interest and dedication to addressing stigmas associated with mental health, she continues to specifically target subjects related to anxiety and depression.
“That’s how we can end this dangerous cycle — by making sure that every single person we know makes their voice heard, in this election and in every election. Because when we all vote, we all do better.” –Michelle Obama, Shondaland, 2018
On November 6, 2018, we did do better in many areas. That’s because it was the day of the midterm election, a day that featured elections in several U.S. states. Voters in many of these states voted for proposals and candidates that promoted human rights and represented advancement. A few of the highlights:
Voters in the Sunshine State approved Proposal 4, a measure that will restore voting privileges to people who have completed serving their sentences for felonies that don’t include murders or felonious sexual assault. This measure is expected to restore the voting rights of more than one million Floridians. A significant number of these Florida residents are minorities. According to Vox, “In 2016, more than 418,000 black people out of a black voting-age population of more than 2.3 million, or 17.9 percent of potential black voters in Florida, had finished sentences but couldn’t vote due to a felony record.” Florida’s Proposal 4 thus will enfranchise people and create a voting pool that more accurately reflects the population of the state. Such voters might elect candidates and approve measures that resemble their lives and their desires, which could make the state more of representational democracy.
Did you know that slavery is a punishment that is still legal in federal prisons? Slavery as a punishment is also legal in the constitutions of many U.S. states. But, this won’t be the case in Colorado. On November 6, 2018, voters in that state approved Amendment A, a proposal that would include language that bans slavery in its state constitution, two years after a similar proposal failed in the state. While banning all slavery for all reasons on both the state and the federal levels would obviously be a more humane and empowering decision, banning language that forbids slavery is a good first step. A small step, to be sure, but still a step in the right direction.
Midterm elections in other states featured candidates who are sympathetic to human rights. New York voters elected Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the U.S. House of Representatives. Ocasio-Cortez is a woman of Puerto Rican descent and a self-described socialist whose platform endorsed criminal justice and immigration reform, expanded Medicare health coverage, gun control, LGBTIA+ and women’s rights, the promotion of peace, and support for senior citizens and Puerto Rico. Ocasio-Cortez stunned her home state and the nation when she defeated longtime Congressional representative Joe Crowley in the New York Democratic primary in June 2018. The representative’s political views thus place her in the company of fellow progressives such as independent senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. This means it also places her in opposition to U.S. president Donald Trump. The 2018 midterm election gave Ocasio-Cortez and her fellow Democrats a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. The U.S. Senate, meanwhile, retained a Republican majority, and the presidential administration is also Republican. Will these different political perspectives lead to bipartisanship? Conflict? How will they affect the politics and governance of the country?
Arizona’s race for U.S. Senate may have been as interesting as its ultimate results. That’s because the race featured two women running for a Senate seat. Even though the results of the 2018 election means that a record number of women will serve as U.S. senators, this still means that twenty-four women will be U.S. senators. That makes the U.S. Senate 24% women. The population of the entire United States is 50.8% female, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Women, then, are still underrepresented in the U.S. Senate compared to their overall totals in the general population. Since Arizona’s race featured two female candidates, it represented a more inclusive sort of political race, one that a female was bound to win, no matter what. And the race? It pitted Republican Martha McSally and Democrat Krysten Sinema. McSally also served as the first woman to fly in combat for the U.S. Air Force. Sinema won, receiving approximately 50% of the vote to McNally’s approximately 47.6%.
Another new Congressperson, Lucia “Lucy” McBath of Georgia, has supported LGBTIA+ and women’s rights, immigrants, and the Affordable Care Act. Another focus of her work, gun safety, is sadly personal. That’s because, in 2012, a man shot and killed McBath’s unarmed seventeen-year-old son, Jordan Davis, arguing that the teen was playing music too loudly. The first trial for the crime ended in a mistrial in February 2014 after juror disagreements. After a second trial later that year, Davis’s murderer, Michael Dunn, was convicted and received a sentence of life imprisonment with no chance of parole. Her son’s death and further tragedies such as a 2018 mass shooting at a Parkland, Florida high school led McBath to become what she calls a reluctant activist and prompted her to run for office. McBath supports a host of gun safety measures, such as raising the age requirement to purchase firearms and banning weapon access for people convicted of domestic abuse.
Women swept the top executive seats in the state of Michigan. Voters elected Gretchen Whitmer as governor, Dana Nessel as the attorney general, and Jocelyn Benson as the secretary of state. Openly gay Nessel also gained fame as the attorney in the case that legalized gay marriage and adoption in Michigan and helped pave the way for marriage equality in the nation. Whitmer, Nessel, and Benson joined Debbie Stabenow, who held her position as one of Michigan’s U.S. senators. They also join newly elected Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan attorney and civil rights advocate who was one of the first two Muslim women elected to the U.S. House of Representatives (newly elected Ilhan Omar of Minnesota was the other). Michigan voters also approved proposals that could impact state politics in the future. Proposal 2 was a measure that will establish a board of political party members and independent voters that will create legislative maps. This measure hopes to fight gerrymandering, the practice of creating maps to produce voter patterns that are favorable to specific political parties. Another voter-approved measure, Proposal 3, aims to make voting easier and fairer by making absentee ballots more available, automatically registering voters at state government offices, and enacting other measures.
Voters chose more diversity
Many other states elected women. In fact, so many women won their races that there will be a record number of women in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Two of these women are New Mexico’s Deb Haaland and Kansas’s Sharice Davids, who became the first female Native American members of the House of Representatives. Haaland, in fact, is a thirty-fifth generation New Mexican.
This surge of female power isn’t just confined to the legislative and executive branches. Nineteen black women campaigned to become judges in Harris County, Texas in 2018. All nineteen will serve as judges. Their campaigns have been dubbed Black Girl Magic and are emblematic of the growing power of African American women in political affairs. Observers hope that the Harris County judges will bring their diverse experiences to represent and work with the people of their area.
Speaking of diverse life experiences, U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota is a woman, a Muslim, and a refugee from Somalia. She wears hijabs, headscarves that some Muslim women wear, which has prompted members of the U.S. Congress to reconsider the legislative body’s ban on head coverings. Her experience as an immigrant could be crucial in shaping or fighting legislation relating to immigration and asylum in the coming years.
More members of the LGBTIA+ community are also running for and holding office. U.S. congressperson Sharice Davids and Michigan attorney general Dana Nessel are lesbians, and Colorado’s Jared Polis became the first openly gay man elected governor of a U.S. state. Previously, he was the first openly gay man elected to the U.S. Congress. And, although Christine Hallquist did not become Vermont’s governor, she did make history as “the first openly transgender gubernatorial candidate in the nation’s history,” according to Politico.
This is not to say that the results of the 2018 midterm election entirely supported inclusion and human rights. Alabama and West Virginia both approved measures that restrict abortions. Mississippi voters elected a senator, Cindy Hyde-Smith, who said she’d attend a public hanging in her enthusiasm for a supporter. Since Hyde-Smith’s competitor was an African American man, the senator-elect’s comments recalled the horror and ugliness of racially motivated lynchings in Mississippi and elsewhere in the nation.
But, even despite these developments, the election elected candidates from many different backgrounds with many different experiences and perspectives. It supported measures that aim to make life more inclusive for more U.S. residents. It approved candidates and measures that represent voters, acknowledge them, and give them agency. Michelle Obama was right. People who vote are broadcasting their voices. They’re working to help make life better for themselves, their fellow citizens, and future generations.
About the author: Pamela Zuber is a writer and editor who has written about a wide variety of topics, including physical and mental health, addiction, human rights, and gender.
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