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Ryan Seelau

Excerpted from: Ryan Seelau, Regaining Control over the Children: Reversing the Legacy of Assimilative Policies in Education, Child Welfare, and Juvenile Justice That Targeted Native American Youth, 37 American Indian Law Review 63 (2012-2013) (333 Footnotes)


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There are, of course, countless factors that have exacerbated the problems encountered by Native youths, and many of these factors have developed over time. Native American juveniles and their families are the product of centuries of internal and external forces - both positive and negative. For over 200 years, the federal government's policies towards Native Americans have been among the strongest of those forces. These policies have historically been designed to assimilate Native Americans into the dominant culture. While that is no longer the goal of federal policies, inadvertent assimilation does still occur and the legacy of assimilation lives on.

Since the time of European contact all Native Americans have been under constant attack. Originally the attacks came in the form of exposure to lethal diseases, consistent violent conflict, and forced relocation, all of which greatly reduced Native populations. Even after the formation of the United States, some Native nations were completely obliterated, while others suffered large-scale wounds to their cultures, families, and ways of life. Over the course of U.S. history, Native Americans were subject to policies of assimilation and termination, which further weakened many Native nations.

Native American children were not shielded from this history of attempted assimilation. Indeed, Native American juveniles have oftentimes been its intended victims. Focusing assimilative efforts on children makes sense (from a colonizer's point of view) considering that children are the logical target for any policy “designed to erase one culture and replace it with another” because children are “vulnerable to change and least able to resist While it might seem that a government would have to be particularly sinister to target children as a means of assimilating a culture, that is precisely what the United States has done over the past 230 years. As one author stated, “The main thrust of federal policy, since the close of the Indian wars, has been to break up the extended family, the clan structure, to detribalize and assimilate Indian

Whether intentional, federal policy over the past two centuries had the effect of breaking up families, indoctrinating Native children with non-Native values, and pulling apart the very social fabric that allows communities to function healthily. Specifically, the federal government's policies with respect to education, child welfare, and criminal justice have functioned to assimilate Native American youth, predominantly by separating children from their families, their culture, and their nations.