Not America’s first act of cruelty toward children

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An image from the documentary "Dawnland" about the removal of Native American children from their homes.

So many in the U.S. are decrying the Trump administration’s separation of immigrants from their children along our southern border, claiming, “This is not who we are.” It certainly isn’t all of who we are, but there are two such glaring examples of how it was exactly who we were – or who our government was – that we can’t ignore them if we hope to look honestly at our past and become the nation so many think we already are.

I just watched a documentary called “Dawnland,” which is an exploration of the practice of removing indigenous children from their parents and communities in order to “take the Indian out of them.”

As the blurb for the documentary says, “For most of the 20th century, government agents systematically forced Native American children from their homes and placed them with white families. As recently as the 1970’s, one in four Native children nationwide were living in non-Native foster care, adoptive homes, or boarding schools. Many children experienced devastating emotional and physical harm by adults who mistreated them and tried to erase their cultural identity.”

The film follows the State of Maine’s version of a truth and reconciliation commission a few years ago, inviting parents and children who suffered through this atrocity to talk about it. The process produced a report, but it seemed at the end of the film that perhaps nothing more would come of it.

It was hard to watch, just like the screams and cries of the kids snatched from their immigrant parents hoping to claim asylum was hard to listen to in an audio released by ProPublica on June 18.

I was hiking last week on the Appalachian Trail in the mid-Atlantic states, and our van driver pointed out the marker on a street corner in Sharpsburg, in western Maryland, to denote where slave auctions were held. I never saw such a site in person before, and that was a slap upside the head.

We don’t have any audio recordings of the slave auctions before the Civil War, but if we try hard – or think of our own children, if we are parents, or remember being kids and think about being torn away from our moms and dads – we might get a tiny inkling of what that was like. Or truly take in Sojourner Truth’s often-quoted words, “I have borne 13 children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”

When these attacks on the humanity of our brothers and sisters occurred, there were many Americans who called on “the better angels” of their natures (to quote Abe Lincoln) to condemn and oppose these atrocities. It took a Civil War, with 600,000 dead, to end legal chattel slavery. (Slavery continued after the war as freed blacks were arrested on bogus charges and pressed into chain gangs – as another documentary, “Slavery by Another Name,” makes clear. And now it continues in the bogus War on Drugs and the Prison Pipeline, which have separated untold mothers and fathers, disproportionally African Americans, from their sons and daughters.)

Trump’s cruel policy is the latest iteration of practices that have helped define our country for centuries – since before we were even a country. The damage done in the past was incalculable, and so will it be from the current tragedy. The fact that racism is at the root of these practices should go without saying, but I’ll say it.

And Trump’s executive order issued on June 20 that parents and children will no longer be separated, but will be jailed together, is not an acceptable response as immigration violations have, up until now, been considered civil, not criminal offenses. Furthermore, it does nothing to reunite the families already ripped apart. Let’s continue to raise our voices against this atrocity.

Let’s stop it now.

Melinda Tuhus lives in Hamden.


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