The Boarding Schools Continue

I was a foster parent for a bit over a year before I moved to Morris.  It gave me an opportunity to learn quite a bit about the foster care system in Minnesota as well as to care pretty deeply about some profoundly hurt children.

The foster care system in Minnesota is a lot like that in other states.  It needs systemic change.  Wonderful, caring people work within the system.  They are overworked, under prepared for their roles, often lacking cultural competence for working with the groups that they interact with, and eventually just burned out.

There’s a piece though that troubles me most deeply about how the system works.  Here in Minnesota that piece goes back to 1871 with the opening of the White Earth Indian School.   The White Earth Indian School was one of sixteen boarding schools in Minnesota, the largest of which was on the campus where I now work.  The Morris Industrial School for Indians which was begun by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy and later run by the Federal Government had over 2000 students during its 22 year history from 1887 to 1909.  These schools were where Minnesota lived out that idea made famous by Capt. Richard H. Pratt, who founded the Carlisle School in Pennsylvania, “Kill the Indian. Save the man.”

Native children were kidnapped. Their hair was cut. They were denied their traditional diets and forced to speak only English.  They could no longer practice their own spiritual beliefs or learn from their elders.  Entire generations began to lose a sense of who they were.  We know now that this loss has fed into many of the challenges that our Native communities face today.  We understand that the destruction of the Native diet has led to diabetes, heart disease, depression, and other illnesses. We know that people need a sense of family and self to stay clean of drugs and to succeed economically and emotionally.  We know that many of the elders who lived through the boarding schools still carry the trauma and that those experiences are handed down one way or another.

Why does that matter?  Well, here in Minnesota 2% of the population is Native. Yet, over 20% of the children in foster care are Native.  In 1871, maybe the Federal government didn’t understand the culture of the Native people and how the community raised children.  Maybe they really thought they were doing something good.  I don’t know.  What I do know is that today we know better.  Today we know that it’s wrong to simply kidnap those children, cut their hair, take away their language and their beliefs, and feed them poison.  Yet we continue.

The system needs to change.  Stop putting Native kids in foster care at record rates.  Instead, feed them good food, bring back their languages, let them learn their history and their values, honor their communities.

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