Domestic Abuse: How the U.S. Government Is Violating Native Americans' Human Rights

By Mckelvey, Tara | The American Prospect, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Domestic Abuse: How the U.S. Government Is Violating Native Americans' Human Rights


Mckelvey, Tara, The American Prospect


PICKSTOWN, S.D.--

SANDY WADE WAS 6 WHEN SHE was sent away to St. Paul's Indian Mission, a boarding school overseen by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) on the Yankton Sioux reservation. At first, things weren't so bad. She got three meals a day--a welcome change from home, where she and her nine brothers and sisters often went hungry. But, as she discovered, not everybody fared so well, especially younger boys like her brother Frank "Butch" Wright, who lived across campus in St. Katharine's dormitory, a red brick building with bars on the windows and double-padlocked doors.

"When I saw him, he was always hungry and dirty and crying," says Wade, 58, who works as a computer technician and has a long, black braid that falls over her shoulder. "Stuff happened to him that he never really got over."

At age 14, Wright told her he'd been sexually abused at school. Four years later, he died of a drug-induced coma. Another former student, Sherwyn Zephier, a 47-year-old art teacher who carved a tattoo--"PEACE"--in his leg while living in St. Katharine's, recalls how he and other children were whipped and beaten on a regular basis.

"Human rights?" says Zephier, standing in front of St. Katharine's on an August evening. "I never knew we had such a thing."

On July 13, Zephier, Wade, and other former students filed a lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and several religious organizations, according to Gary Frischer, a Los Angeles-based legal consultant. (Jerry Klein, chancellor of the Sioux Falls diocese, said he preferred not to discuss the lawsuit, adding that the diocese "never ran or controlled the school.") Last year, on April 9, Zephier and others filed a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. government. David W. Anderson, the U.S. Department of the Interior's assistant secretary of Indian affairs, didn't responded to numerous requests for an interview.

Approximately 100,000 Native American children were placed in BIA-managed boarding schools over the past century, according to Andrea Smith, interim coordinator of the Boarding School Healing Project, a coalition of Native American organizations. In this little-known chapter of American history, many of these children were not only physically abused; they were also stripped of their cultural identity. As Zephier explains, children were forced to give up Indian names, stop speaking their own language, and cut off their long braids. The philosophy was simple: "Kill the Indian. Save the Man," according to Captain Richard C. Pratt, who opened the first BIA--run school in Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, in 1879.

SADLY, THE ABUSE OF INdian children is the tip of the iceberg. The U.S. government has violated human rights in its treatment of Native Americans over many generations and in a multitude of ways, say human-rights experts. Besides the right to religious freedom and physical safety, both of which were violated at the BIA--run schools, land rights, the right to self-determination, and many other rights have been systematically jeopardized-mainly because a separate legal regime has been set up for Native Americans, which legal scholars say often denies them due process and little or no recourse when laws are violated.

The separate legal system dates back to 1775, when the United States signed its first treaty with a tribal government. According to that treaty (and many of the ones that followed), the United States recognizes tribal governments as autonomous and agrees to protect their land, resources, and treaty rights. But there's a catch: An 1886 Supreme Court case (United States v. Kagama) allowed Congress to limit tribal sovereignty. And over the years, say experts,

Congress has ignored many of the treaties, violated Native American rights, and taken land at will.

"We need to look carefully at the domestic implementation of international standards that we've worked hard to develop around the world," says Hadar Harris, executive director of the American University's Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law. …

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