Sunday, October 30, 2011

Minding the Indigenous Mind - Decolonizing Social Work, Snatching Indigenous Children

Mindful Greetings Friends and Relatives,

In this column I share a story about how a social worker removed children from my home when I was a child. These relatives had come to live with us during times of hardship and my parents, especially my mother, had embraced them with a strong, unconditional, abiding love. And even though I already shared a close bond of friendship and brotherhood with my younger cousin who came to stay with me that summer, after living with us during this time, I believed that my bond of loyalty and friendship to him was unbreakable; until he was snatched away by a social worker.

I was moved to share this story after reading an article entitled, “Native Foster Care: Lost Children, Shattered Families,” that was posted on October 11, 2011 on the National Public Radio (NPR) website. The article reported that “Nearly 700 Native American children in South Dakota are being removed from their homes every year, sometimes under questionable circumstances.” The NPR investigation found that the state is failing to place the children according to the Indian Children Welfare Act of 1978 and that 32 other states also are failing to abide by the law as well. Although what is happening to these Lakota children and their families is unlawful and outrageous, having been a social worker for five years and a social work professor for nearly 20, I am not surprised, but yet I am outraged, that the illegal abduction of Native children continues unabated.

There are four main issues that I believe contribute to this situation: First, there has been no significant enlightenment in colonial society’s attitudes towards Indigenous Peoples and our rights. Second, Indigenous child welfare is situated in the colonial social services industrial-complex which is corrupt, broken, racist, genocidal, ineffective, and inefficient. Third, the system profits from the sickness, marginalization, and oppression of Indigenous Peoples. Fourth, the system’s engines are fueled by paradigms of Western social work that are embedded in the fantasies of American Exceptionalism, a belief that the United States occupies a special place among or above all nations of the world.

Because Schools and departments of Social Work are strategic cogs in the machinery of the social services industrial-complex, in truth, very few programs are interested in truly equipping their students, the next generations of social workers, to overthrow this racist, oppressive structure. Don’t get me wrong: there are honest, courageous, ethical social workers fighting for the rights of those they work for. But, in most cases, social work programs do little to teach students how to decolonize themselves or their profession. For instance, very few programs teach their students how to directly and intelligently subvert the racist rules of the system. Indeed, social work has no equivalent of “The 48 Laws of Power” that they can use to instruct their students to radically reform the racist, colonial structure. Few programs teach students they must stand side-by-side with Indigenous Peoples against the machine called the United States of America. Few programs teach them that they must “occupy” the imperialist social services and social work, and when necessary go to jail for standing up for the rights of Indigenous Peoples. This is beginning decolonized social work and it is an antidote to prevent the snatching of Indigenous children.

The Abduction

My first experience with social workers happened when I was about six or seven years old. When I recently reminded my mother about this encounter, even though what had happened occurred more than fifty years ago, she winced in distress and said, “Yes. I remember that day. It was awful. I still don’t like to talk about it.” I was quiet for a while respecting the fence she had suddenly erected to protect herself from that time. When it seemed that the tenseness had left her I continued by saying, “I think I was about eight years old when that happened.” She replied, “You were only six or seven; maybe younger. You were just a little boy. When I used to think back to that time and all that happened I used to wonder what ever made you want to be a social worker.”

In my community, we all knew that the light, green-colored car with black lettering on the doors belonged to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). We knew the tall, bald-headed White man that drove the car and smiled and waved at us was the BIA social worker. We knew he took children from our community and sent them away to boarding schools or to live with White families, especially those kids that had parents that were poor or drank a lot. We knew that what he did broke the hearts of many parents.

Sometimes the kids that he took away came home; sometimes they didn’t. Off and on, over the years, as we grew up we would hear about someone from our community that had died and how their relatives had brought them home to be buried. But we didn’t really know them, only the family name, since they had been adopted out to a White family or gone to a boarding school and then went to live in the city, never to return until their death.

It was a hot, shimmering summer afternoon when the green BIA car drove up to my house. As usual, my Mom and Dad’s place was bustling with many relatives laughing, eating, and carrying on multiple conversations in English and Arikara. The aromas of fresh baked bread, corn soup, and coffee drifted pleasantly throughout the house. My cousin and I had walked into all of the activity by way of the back door after spending much of the morning playing out back in a nearby row of trees. As the day warmed we positioned ourselves out in the open, away from the shade of the trees to enjoy the gentle heat of the Sun on our shirtless, little brown bodies.

Our conversations that morning had centered on two things. The first was whether some of the older men in the community would stop by my mother’s house for lunch and, after eating, organize another “Indian Dance” contest among the neighborhood kids. They brought a hand drum and sang several traditional dance songs in the yard behind the BIA house we lived in. They laughed and laughed as we did our best dance moves and picked out the best dancers and paid them. Third place won a nickel, second a dime, and first a whole quarter (big money in those days). The second topic was arguing about whom was the best and most accurate mud ball thrower of all of the neighborhood kids. It was a critical question since our most important boyhood game was playing war; and if you had the best mud ball thrower on your side chances were you might survive the battlefield carnage.

As my cousin and I walked into room amid all the activity, from the living room window, which was squarely in front of me, I could see the bald White man getting out of the BIA car. I watched him as he studied the different the cars in front of our house, looking at the license plates and then looking inside each one as if someone might be hiding in one of the cars. After a few moments he turned towards our house, walked up to our front door, knocked, and entered without being invited in. Once inside, he glanced around at all of the activity, smiled, reached into the back pocket of his pressed black pants, and took out his handkerchief and wiped his nose. He put folded it and tucked it into the front pocket of his white shirt. He continued scanning the room until he made eye contact with my mother.

“Hello Mrs. Yellow Bird,” he yelled over all of the noise. “I’ve come for the children. Are they ready?” With that remark all conversation immediately ceased and everyone looked at him. There was a long pause before my mother spoke. “Yes. They’re ready,” she said as she got up from the kitchen table where she had been visiting with several of my aunts.

She slowly walked toward my cousin standing next to me, gently put her arm around his shoulders and guided him toward my other cousins that had gathered in a small, tight circle in the middle of the room. She gazed at them with intense pain in her face, while at the same time trying to smile at them.

“It’s time to go with Mr. Herman,” she said. “He’s going to take you to a real nice school.” Then all hell broke loose! My cousins started screaming and crying and began hiding behind my mother, who burst into tears. My sisters, girl cousins, and aunts all started crying too. But us boys just stood still, frozen with confusion, paralyzed by what was happening. I wish I could say, all these years later, we boys fought back with everything we had; little brown fists flying and hard mud balls striking and disabling the enemy. But there were no warriors among us this day. There was no resistance, no defense; just little boys suffering from the paralyses that war sometimes brings to those that have been engaged for too long.

As my cousins were led outside by the social worker and my weeping mother, I unfroze enough to move to the window to watch them loaded into the green car. They continued crying holding on to my mother’s dress, fighting hard against the grips of the bald White man as he forced them into the backseat of the car. One by one he put them inside the mobile prison; and once they were in all of the fight dissipated from their little bodies, which enabled him to slam and lock the door. He looked at my mother as she stood there crying, looking in the windows at my cousins. He ran quickly to the driver’s side, got in and began to drive away.

I don’t remember my mother coming back into the house, but as I turned away from the window after the green car went out of sight, I saw her sitting back at the table with her face buried in the palms of her hands crying uncontrollably, rocking back and forth, loudly repeating, “I wanted to keep them! I wanted to keep them!”

All around her stood my aunts, sisters, and girl cousins deeply sobbing and wiping the tears from their eyes. But us boys, we just stood there, unable to cry, glancing at one another and the floor.

Michael Yellow Bird, MSW, Ph.D., is an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes and a professor and the director of graduate education in the Department of Social Work at Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA. His teaching, writing, research, and community work focuses on social work with Indigenous Peoples, decolonizing social work, neurodecolonization, neuroscience and social work, and employing mainstream and traditional Indigenous mindfulness practices in tribal communities to promote health and well being. He can be reached by email at:

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