Indigenous peoples refuse to be erased

Generations of stolen children must not be forgotten

Tribes hold ceremonial welcome for remains of Rosebud Sioux children returning to South Dakota. PHOTO: Erin Woodiel / Sioux Falls Argus Leader
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The stunning discovery of over 200 Native children found buried on the Carlisle Indian School grounds in Canada in 2021 forced a far-too-brief splash of news. Continuing discoveries of thousands more, there and across the U.S., are now ignored or on the back pages of mainstream media.

For centuries, Native and Indigenous peoples across the Americas and in Australia have been savaged and robbed of life and land by colonialist white supremacists. Stolen children and assaulted language, culture, and sovereignty are the casualties of vast historical and ongoing campaigns to erase them. But Indigenous peoples are defending themselves with wisdom and ferocity.

Genocide exposed. A compelling study by the U.S. Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition identified 523 such schools in the United States; most were federally run, with many managed by religious organizations. The Coalition has developed a valuable interactive map and is continuing its detailed research.

Tens of thousands of young children placed in these schools were not allowed to speak their language, had their long hair sheared and native clothes destroyed, were forced into unpaid labor to maintain the schools. Thousands died of malnutrition, abuse, tuberculosis, and typhoid.

This same ruthlessness has desolated First Nations peoples in Australia. First Nations have never ceded sovereignty, nor has the government recognized their existence or rights. Stolen Generation is the term for those kidnapped from their parents and placed in residential schools to abolish cultural identities. The 2002 film “Rabbit-Proof Fence” made this history internationally known. In 2007 the Australian military descended on the Northern Territory, stripping communities of decision-making under the guise of “protecting” children from abuse and neglect. The real goal was control over vast mineral reserves in the area.

In the U.S. and Canada, the campaign to wipe out Native Americans and confiscate their homelands is also not just past history. Right-wing funded legal attacks on tribal sovereignty drag through the courts. Mining and pipeline companies increasingly violate treaties in their rush to build polluting pipelines and lithium mines on historic tribal lands.

Racist, sexist attacks are responsible for thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous peoples whose cases are ignored by law enforcement and the press. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Native women on reservations are murdered at a rate 10 times higher than the national average, most by nontribal members. The Bureau of Indian Affairs estimates there are 4,200 unsolved cases in the United States.

Cover-ups and posturing. Neither Australian nor North American mainstream media report this ruinous past and present because they are controlled by corporate tycoons and influenced by white supremacy. Modern capitalism continues assaults on Indigenous groups to seize their land and resources. More remains and stolen artifacts are discovered every week. The California State College system alone has cataloged over 700,000 relics stolen from Native tribes.

Papal visits to Canada and lip-service apologies from politicians in the U.S. and Australia resolve neither past nor current wrongdoing. Nor does slowly returning some remains or artifacts held in museums and universities. These gestures do nothing to restore lands, languages, and cultures. They cannot begin to make reparations for the loss of generations of children. By no means do they change today’s systemically racist economic structure, which oppresses Indigenous peoples and perpetuates future inhumanity.

“We are still here and will remain.” Families and communities of those who died at boarding schools and those missing and murdered, as well as over 40,000 survivors and their descendants in the U.S., refuse to bury these gruesome facts. Tribes in Nebraska, South Dakota and Utah are doing their own searches for unmarked school burials. Native and First Nations women in the U.S., Canada and Australia have built movements to save missing and murdered women and men. Tribes push to recover more remains and artifacts from museums and universities, demand more land back and regain true sovereignty.

Indigenous peoples refuse to disappear. Elders, especially women, preserve and teach their languages, values, and cultural traditions. Tribal members and youth activists defend sovereignty, treaty rights and nature, as they fight for their very lives.

The history and trauma of the long colonialist campaign to eradicate Indigenous peoples and cultures must never be erased or hidden. Racism and attacks on self-governance must be halted. Indigenous activism and concern for future generations provide vital leadership for environmental survival struggles on earth.

As a Canadian school survivor puts it, “The residential school system was designed to break us down and erase our culture. But we are still here, and we are stronger than ever.”