Old conflicts often take new forms – guns and swords are replaced by social, legal and political manipulation. The story of Native American tribes in America has been one of dispossession. The first stage was symbolized by “The Trail of Tears,” when President Andrew Jackson and the Congress forced the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw Indians to abandon their homes in the Southeastern United States and relocate to the Oklahoma territories. At the heart of the matter lay the desire for their land and gold (then being mined in Georgia). During the brutal march, thousands died of exposure, disease and starvation. This marked the beginning of the reservation system which was characterized by land grabs and broken promises.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the dispossession became cultural as the last native resistance against the taking of their lands subsided. Tribal languages, teachings and cultural ways were steadily eroded as their children were forced into the American public school system via Native American residential schools in the interest of assimilating tribes into American cultural.
Today, native families are under a new threat of dispossession – the forced removal of their children to foster care. The story of one such Native American family in South Dakota, and the institutions and processes that enabled it, recently aired on National Public Radio (NPR). The story was one in a series reported by Laura Sullivan and highlighted the systemic nature of this new form of cultural conflict. Not surprisingly, the reports have engendered strong reactions – outrage from many citizens, demands for an investigation by the ACLU, and denials from South Dakota’s governor and many social workers who feel they have been wrongly vilified.
Regardless of the report’s political and legal fallout, it underscores the real emotional damage done to the children involved. They are the innocent victims at the center of this tangle of greed, insensitive government and legislated good intentions gone wrong. Children are the tablet on which our future is ultimately written. If they are hopeful, our future is hopeful; if they are fearful, our future will be filled with dread. Their future is not a place for compromise. We can put an end to this pernicious new form of dispossession if we exercise our inherent empathy, compassion and ethical sensibilities.
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