When Joe Wheeler was sent to a boarding school for Native American youths in Oklahoma, he would later tell his grandson, his teachers taught him his first lesson by cutting his hair. Then, when he spoke Wichita instead of English, they made him eat soap. And when he kept speaking Wichita, they beat him — or as they’d say, “civilized” him.
The torment Wheeler endured decades ago is typical of what thousands of children experienced from 1819 to 1969 at the more than 400 Native American boarding schools recently identified in an unprecedented report by the Interior Department released May 11. These schools, like their counterparts in Canada, were government-funded centers of abuse in the name of “assimilation.” The report identifies 53 burial sites associated with the schools — where at least 500 children who may have died within their walls were buried in often unmarked graves.
It’s tempting to believe that this horrific history is ensconced firmly in the past. But still today, countless Native American young people are being robbed of their chance to live safe and fulfilling lives. Currently, Native American youths are confined in the juvenile justice system at three times the rate of their White peers.
What has funneled them there? First, poverty. More than 40 percent of Native children live in poverty — a legacy of the federal government’s impoverishing Native Americans as a matter of policy for centuries. Second, inadequate education. While the regime of brutal assimilation may have ended, it has been succeeded by an institutional indifference that has failed young Native Americans all the same. Underfunding, scant accountability and a lack of Native teachers have resulted in Native public school students graduating at the lowest rate of any racial group. In turn, dropping out of high school increases the chances of incarceration.
Those odds are further compounded by disparities in health care for Native American youths. Combining a population overexposed to violence and trauma with the highest uninsured percentage of any demographic, plus a shortage of therapists and doctors, is a formula for tragedy. Indeed, Native teenagers die by suicide at a rate three times higher than that of White teenagers. Many more are left to self-medicate, often leading to arrests for nonviolent drug offenses.
In short: The legacy of denying Native young people basic — let alone quality — education, health care and opportunities continues to this day. To end this injustice, our country has an obligation to support Native American youths even more fervently now after oppressing them for centuries.
That can start with rooting out racism from the juvenile justice system. Deb Haaland, the first Native American interior secretary, has shown tremendous leadership in investigating Native boarding schools. But conditions in current-day juvenile justice facilities deserve their own inquiry.
And by heeding the Indian Law and Order Commission’s recommendation that tribes receive full jurisdiction over cases involving Native children, we’d avoid sending Native youths to federal facilities lacking rehabilitative infrastructure. More fundamentally, we would restore tribal sovereignty stolen by the United States.
When it comes to improving educational outcomes, the National Indian Education Association has advocated for an array of reforms. These include centering educational programs on Native American history and language, establishing common standards for measuring student progress, ending federal mismanagement of Native schooling, and granting tribes rightful oversight of their own classrooms. Of course, as a prerequisite for any reforms, Native schools also need drastic increases in funding.
Native American health-care systems do too. The Indian Health Service provides health care to 2.2 million Native Americans, but the National Congress of American Indians estimates the IHS would need to double its funding to provide even the base level of care that federal prisoners receive. And since the IHS doesn’t necessarily cover specialized care unavailable on remote reservations, the National Council of Urban Indian Health stresses the importance of expanding Medicaid to help bridge the gap.
Beyond these reforms, dismantling the poverty-to-prison pipeline requires an even grander paradigm shift in how we relate to each other and the criminal justice system.
In a 2017 piece in the Nation (I am its publisher), journalist Rebecca Clarren wrote about Native peacemaking courts. These courts focus not on retributive punishment but on dialogue, rehabilitation and restorative justice. For example, Chief Justice Abby Abinanti of the Yurok Tribal Court will ask defendants to suggest their own ideas for how to atone for past crimes. One federal assessment found that her court was “extremely fair and balanced in its rulings.”
This approach could not only change our justice system but also reshape how we relate to our own past. As Timothy Connors, a judge leading an effort to create more courts that use this peacemaking approach, describes, “It’s the idea of cleansing and healing versus judging. They are designed not to get even, but to get well.” The debt to the generations of abused Native American children can never be fully repaid. But we can begin to heal — by investing in solutions that free the next generation of Native youths from this painful past.