Trump Administration’s Policy of Separating Children is Reminiscent of Indian Boarding Schools

Remembering the 227 American Indian students who died while attending Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial boarding school last week in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. Native News Online photo by Levi Rickert


Published June 15, 2018

There is a lot of news these days about the Trump administration separating children from their parents at the U.S. border to Mexico. On Thursday, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions even invoked the Bible to bolster the federal government’s justification of its zero-tolerance immigration policy that uses the tactic to separate children from their parents by placing them in holding units.

In a speech yesterday, the attorney general cited the Bible:  “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.”

Historically, Romans 13 has been used to justify man-made laws of Jim Crow in the South, apartheid in South Africa and even by Adolf Hitler after he had laws enacted so that he could commit his evil deeds in Nazi Germany.

Children are taken into custody of border patrol agents. PBS photo

Last evening, former Senator Barbara Boxer said on MSNBC that the zero-tolerance tactics that separate children from their parents are sinful and wondered about the lifelong trauma the children will ultimately suffer as the result of being separated from their parents.

The Trump administration of separating children from their parents is not a novel idea. It is not a new thing exercised by the federal government.

The separating of children from parents is familiar to American Indians because it happened in our families—often. As a child, my deceased grandmother, Ellen Moore Whitepigeon, was taken from her home in on the Prairie Band Potawatomi Indian Reservation in Kansas and put in an Indian boarding school at Genoa, Nebraska. Talk about separation.

The whole crazy Indian boarding school scheme was concocted by Capt. Richard H. Pratt to “kill the Indian and save the man.” The notion was by taking American Indian children from their familial homes, cutting their hair, taking them out of their traditional attire and forcing them to speak only English would “civilize” them. Stories passed down generations among American Indians are filled with beatings experienced by Indian children in these boarding schools because Indian children spoke their forbidden Native language.

Last week I attended the annual “Honoring, Healing & Remembering” event at the closed down Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial boarding school that operated from June 30, 1893 to June 6, 1934.

Members of Saginaw Chippewa youth council did a roll call, naming each name of the 227 who died there. Native News Online photo by Levi Rickert

Each year, on or near June 6, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan hosts an event to “honor, heal and remember” what happened at the closed boarding school where 227 students died. Utilizing newspaper articles on microfilm, county death records, and other historical documents, the tribe’s Ziibiwing Center Research Team arrived at the number of students who died there.

Levi Rickert

At my visit last Wednesday, each name—one by one—of the 227 students was called out by the Saginaw Chippewa youth council. During this roll call, after each name was called, an American Indian drum beat provided further honor and remembrance. On that day, I was given a card to wear around my neck with #150 printed on it that contained the name of Theodore Jackson, 11-years-old, whose life and death was remembered among the 227.

Going to such ceremonies can be difficult for me because the Indian board school experience strikes too close to home. Last week, I thought about my deceased grandmother. I thought about the tattoo – which remained until she died at 89 – on her forearm used to identify who she was during her encampment there. I thought about how the Nazis tattooed Jews during World War II.

Yesterday’s statement by the attorney general reminded me of words spoken by Professor K.Tsianina Lomawaima, Arizona State University, who was the keynote speaker at the closed Mt. Pleasant Indian Boarding School last week. She spoke of a massive photograph archive put together intentionally by the federal government as a public relations campaign to convince the public it was doing really great work to transform Native students from savages to civilized so they could become citizens on the very land taken from their ancestors.

In public relations terms, they call it “spin.” Attorney General Sessions’ using the Bible was nothing short of spin to convince people the Trump administration is doing the right thing through its zero-tolerance policy.

Currently, the U.S. Department of the Health and Human Services houses some 11,200 immigrant children. In one facility in Brownsville, Texas, a closed Walmart has been converted to house almost 1,500 boys. They are kept inside 22 hours per day on weekdays and 21 hours on weekends.

Hopefully, enough people will convince Trump administration that separating children from parents did not work during the Indian boarding school policy days and it will not work now and should not be part of their policy.

Levi Rickert is editor of Native News Online. He may be reached at

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