Sherri Mitchell on Stolen Children: “Don’t Look Away from the Suffering You See”

Unspoken: America’s Native American Boarding Schools – PBS


Published June 22, 2018

I recently stood in solidarity with many of my fellow citizens to say NO to the brutal separation of families at our borders. As I stood there and looked into the faces of the other people gathered there, including several small children, I struggled to hold back tears. So many children, through so many generations, have been subjected to the type of trauma that is currently being inflicted by the United States Government. Though this is a new blight on the face of America, it is by no means a new tactic in the long-standing war of colonial domination.

Throughout history, the taking of children has been a hallmark of the conquest mentality that has ruled this country. The taking of Native American Children has resulted in multiple generations of traumatized families and it continues today. In 2015 the court decided Oglala Sioux Tribe v. Van Hunnik, a contemporary case in which the State of South Dakota was held to have violated Constitutional Law and the Indian Child Welfare Act, by unlawfully taking approximately 600 hundred Native American Children away from their parents in just a few short years.

“The court finds that Judge Davis, States Attorney Vargo, Secretary Valenti and Ms. Van Hunnick developed and implemented policies and procedures for the removal of Indian children from their parents’ custody in violation of the mandates of the Indian Child Welfare Act and in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.” 100 F. Supp. 3d 749 (2015).

Instead of changing these abysmal policies and procedures, the state of South Dakota essentially thumbed its nose at the Court and continued engaging in these unjust and inhumane practices. In 2016, the judge in that case cited numerous ongoing violations, despite the Tribes’ successful appeal to the courts of this land. Unfortunately, we are living in a land where the law is frequently used as a weapon and where those entrusted with upholding the law are often the ones responsible for the most egregious breaches against human rights and dignity. Until the laws become just and are equitably applied, we have a responsibility to stand against them and those willing to use them to harm others. The case outlined above is just one example of a brutal reality that countless Native American communities and people of color experience every day, and the brutality that causes these realities is often engaged in lawfully, under the unjust laws of this land.

As I stood with my friends and neighbors, I couldn’t help but think of all of the children who have suffered at the hands of this government and its brutal policies over the years. From 1869 through the 1970’s, there were approximately 200,000 Native American children violently taken from their parents and placed in one of 60 white boarding schools. Many of these children never saw their families again. This figure does not account for the children who were lost in transit or sold along the way. It also does not account for the millions who were killed in the unsettling of this land. In 1755, the Phipps Proclamation offered a bounty for children under the age of twelve, 25 pounds for males and 20 pounds for females. This bounty was placed on the skins of those from my own tribe, the Penobscot Nation because we were in the way of the “settlement” plans of the Governor of the Massachusetts Colony. In addition to the incredible losses that we experienced, there were also an estimated 3.5 million children born into slavery in this country, between 1619 and 1865. These children were also brutally torn from their parents and sold on the slave market, never seeing their families again.

Sherri Mitchell

The next most notable example of taking children and families and keeping them in detention was seen during the Japanese internment. Though these families were not killed, they were still torn from their homes and lives and often lost all that they had owned prior to the internment. And, they were subjected to decades of distrust and hatred from their former neighbors and friends.

The most horrific example that we have outside of this country is the millions of children who were taken from their parents and killed in Nazi Germany. In some instances, parents were told their children were being taken to the showers to rid them of lice, instead the Nazis took their lives. The similarities between that scenario and ICE officials telling parents that their children were being taken to get baths is haunting. And, it is only one of many similarities that exists between these historic atrocities and current political actions. Today, thousands of children who arrived at our borders seeking safety are missing, lost by the United States Government. Who will search for them? Many of these children have ended up in the hands of child traffickers. Who will protect them from the horrors they will now experience because of this Government’s careless handling of them and their callous disregard for their wellbeing? Who will be held responsible for those lives?

The trauma that these families are experiencing is an all too familiar pain for many of us. This trauma has been used as a weapon of racial warfare since the founding of this country. As a result, communities of color live with the impacts of trauma in our families and communities every day. As survivors, we are living with the legacy of this pain, while we are forced to witness others experience its immediacy. This witnessing triggers our own wounds and perpetuates the cycles of harm on this land. It breaks my heart wide open to see the terror on the faces of these children, and the agony in the faces of their mothers and fathers, knowing that this will continue to impact them for generations to come. But, I will not turn away, or try to suppress the immensity of what I am feeling. It is the depth of that feeling, and my compassionate understanding of the real harm that is being inflicted that lets me know that I have retained my humanity despite all attempts to destroy it. I will not turn away or “mind my own business” while others are subjected to the harms that my own people have experienced and continue to experience. And, I will not remain silent so long as one person is forced to suffer the inhumanity of the colonial mind.

We all need to seek the sparks of our humanity and fan them into a flame. We need the heat of that flame to eradicate the sickness in the hearts and minds of human kind. We need a fever to rage through the body of humanity and rid itself of the illusion of separation, superiority, false narrative of power, and the cruelty that they engender. In the face of so much suffering, we absolutely must forge renewed connections to the deeper truth and beauty that exists within our souls and bring that forward for all to see.

So, I beg you, don’t look away from the suffering that you see. Look it straight in the eye, walk toward it, and shine your love into the situations that are causing it. Protect, comfort, and soothe those who are in pain, and become a shield for those being harmed. We did not come into this life to be spectators, nor should we remain quietly complicit with any harm that is being done to others. We must use our voices and whatever power that we have to ensure that our humanity is not only preserved individually, but that it is restored globally. Wherever you are, I ask you to stand for love, compassion, and kindness. I ask you to do everything within your power to alleviate the suffering of others and to protect those most vulnerable. And, I ask you to remember that the power of love is far greater than the illusion of hate that is being paraded through our streets. Call upon that power and allow it to open your eyes and strengthen your hearts, so that you may walk courageously into the streets and shine your light into the darkness that you find there.

In my book Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change  I say:

“Every person alive today is part of the dream of the ancestors come to life. We are the fulfillment of prophecy. Now it is time for us to step into our role as the ancestors of the future and dream the next seven generations into being. In doing so, we must realize that giving them life is not enough. We must also work to provide them with a world that is capable of sustaining their lives. This is the work of our time, the work of our lives. To succeed in this work, we must reconnect with the thread of Life. We must learn the spiritual language spoken by our ancestors and renew the long relationship that they held with the rest of creation. Together, we must turn away from our stories of domination and destruction and begin to write a new story based on cooperation and conscious co-creation of a new way of being.”

This work does not end with the signing of one Executive Order, nor is it tied to the heinous acts of one political administration. This work involves the turning of the entire species back toward the path of life, which includes the vital work of restoring our basic humanity and our sense of responsibility toward the safety and wellbeing of our brothers and sisters. It involves a complete decolonization of our hearts, minds, systems, and societies. Together, we must breathe life into a collective vision for a world that is more just, humane, and balanced. Then, we must take corresponding steps in the real world to make that vision come to life. This is what we were born to do.

Sherri Mitchell (Wena’ Gamu’ Gwasit) was born and raised on the Penobscot Indian Reservation. She is an Indigenous Rights attorney, writer and teacher. She’s been an adviser to the American Indian Institute’s Healing the Future Program and the Spiritual Elders and Medicine Peoples Council of North and South America. Sherri speaks around the world on issues related to Indigenous rights, nonviolence, and the traditional Indigenous way of life. Earlier this year, her book, “Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change,” was released by North Atlantic Books. Follow her on Twitter @sacred411 or on Facebook.


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  1. Frank Mancuso 2 years ago
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