As the brutal separations of asylum-seeking families at the U.S.-Mexico border unfolded last week, my twitter feed was filled with folks writing "this is not who we are!" Quickly, these were countered by others saying, "this is exactly who we are and always have been" - and referencing, among other things, the Indian residential schools that were established in the U.S. (and in Canada) during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Designed to rob indigenous people of their culture, language, and family ties, these schools, where children were forcibly sent to live - apart from their parents - at kindergarten age or younger, were standard practice by colonialist and imperialist powers around the globe. The schools were one way to, essentially, brainwash children into accepting the dominant culture and dampen resistance to the ruling regime. Native American children (and First Nations children in Canada) were forced to have their hair cut, punished for speaking their native languages, made to practice Christianity instead of their native religions, and subjected to physical, mental, and sexual abuse. Tens of thousands died of sickness and malnutrition due to inhumane living conditions.
It should go without saying that separating families in this way has a (to say the very least) demoralizing effect on the parents whose children are taken. Robbed of your dearest, closest people, left with no one to help with daily tasks, unable to pass on treasured and life-giving traditions, what is left for you? And for the children, the loss of your childhood, your identity, and the absence of love reverberates for a lifetime.
In my research on sports and hockey in indigenous communities I came across a number of people and communities that have been effected in this way by Indian residential schools in the United States and Canada. (I include Canada because, since Seeking the Center takes place in Canada, most of my research was focused there. However, conditions were the same in the United States.)
Michael Robidoux's book about First Nations hockey, Stickhandling through the Margins, has a chapter about the effects of the residential school system on one particular community, the Esketemc First Nation, through generations - effects including extremely high rates of alcoholism and other self-destructive behavior. Their saving grace is that they are coming together in recent years to find solutions. Robidoux describes how they are adopting (and adapting) hockey as a path toward healing.
In his documentary and book They Call Me Chief: Warriors on Ice, Don Marks writes about the fabulously talented Fred Sasakamoose, one of the first, if not the first, First Nations man to play in the National Hockey League. Sasakamoose was taken away from home at age five by force, his parents threatened with imprisonment. He told Marks, "the main thing I remember was the loneliness." At age 14 he ran away from residential school and hid. Despite his recruitment by and contract with the Chicago Blackhawks, he had been traumatized and never escaped the loneliness, the homesickness, and the sense of being different in a strange place. He cut his career short because of it.
Among examples in the U.S., I came across the great Jim Thorpe, Olympic track gold-medalist and professional football and baseball player. In an account of his life by Joseph Bruchac (Jim Thorpe: Original All-American), Thorpe says, "Running away was nothing unusual for a Carlisle student to do. Boys and girls ran away from the school all the time." Carlisle was the last of three residential schools that Thorpe attended, and he ran away from all of them. And though he documents the abusive treatment he and his fellow students experienced, the trauma of being away from home and family seemed to be the hardest thing to take.
Separating families as a way of promoting colonialist, imperialist, and racist agendas and of quelling resistance to the same is not new. We need to learn the history, and learn from the history. We must understand that this strategy as used by the current U.S. administration is not a random thing. It is part of a known pattern and strategy of such regimes and we need to call it out as such.
Addendum: Coincidentally, the New York Times ran an article about indigenous hockey players today, including information about Fred Sasakamoose, referenced above.