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Family separation: Not as new as we would like to think

As much as we would like to see current family-separation policy as the work of a blatantly white-supremacist, xenophobic administration, it follows a long history of family-separation practice and policy.

Colette Hyman

I made a revealing Freudian-type slip in thinking earlier this week, while exchanging emails with a good friend and colleague who teaches Native Studies. In the middle of a discussion about missing and murdered Indigenous women, my friend told me how sad she was for all the mothers who have lost their children due to federal policy. My response reflected my assumption that she was referring to boarding schools and other policies tearing Indigenous children from their mothers. It wasn’t until later that day, upon reading yet another account of the horrors of current immigration policy, that I realized that she was referring to current atrocities being perpetrated against families seeking asylum in the U.S.

It’s an easy mistake. As much as we would like to see current family-separation policy as the work of a blatantly white-supremacist, xenophobic administration, it follows a long history of family-separation practice and policy. We can even say that our nation is founded on the brutality of family separation. What else can one call slavery? How many of our nation’s Founding “Fathers” achieved political prominence through the wealth created by tearing apart African families to create their chattel labor force, and fathering more of this wealth? As long as slavery persisted, with implicit — if not explicit — assent from citizens and lawmakers north as well as south of the Mason-Dixon line, family separation remained de facto federal policy.

Post-Civil War removals

As legal scholar Patricia J. Williams has recently pointed out, “after the Civil War, juvenile-reform policies encouraged the removal of children from people deemed unfit, ‘feeble-minded,’ promiscuous,’ or epileptic. These parents were disproportionately Irish immigrants, people of color, or unmarried women.” She might have added the long history of removing Indigenous children from parents and separating family members. European colonizers sought to enslave Indigenous people whose lands they were taking, and in California, Catholic missionaries built the wealth of their church and of other colonizers through the large-scale imprisonment and enslavement of Indigenous peoples in their “missions.”

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Here in Minnesota, Christian missionaries were somewhat lighter in their touch. For them, family-separation policies became opportunities to recruit new souls. When the U.S. defeated the Dakota in 1862, they removed children, women, and elders to a concentration camp at Fort Snelling and then to an isolated, disease-ridden spot in the Dakota Territory, while the men were removed to a military installation in Davenport, Iowa. Missionaries worked the ranks of defeated, divided, imprisoned Dakota, crowing about the large numbers of new converts they were gathering.

While some Dakota families were eventually reunited, family separation took on a new face: the boarding school. Every Indigenous family has stories of children being ripped away from parents, by soldiers, civilians, and clergymen, to send them to military-style institutions designed to “kill the Indian and save the man.”

Sent to foster care and adoption

These families also have later stories about children being taken away by social workers to be placed in foster care and put up for adoption. The numbers here are staggering: In the early 1970s, 25 to 35 percent of Indigenous children nationwide had been removed from their families, and in some states, the rate was 85 percent. Minnesota seems to have been and remains the most enthusiastic state in the nation, in terms of separating Indigenous children from their families and their communities. According to a 2016 Minneapolis Star Tribune review of state and federal data, Minnesota exhibits, by far, the widest disparity between Native population and the rate of children in foster care: While the Native children make up 2 percent of the child population, they make up 24 percent of the children in foster care, 12 times their proportion in the child population.

Of course, such disparities are not unique to Indigenous populations. People of color are also far disproportionately represented in foster care, as they and Indigenous youth are in the school-to-prison pipeline, to which foster care is a significant contributor. Mass incarceration, again, disproportionately targeting populations of color and Indigenous peoples, is only family separation by another name. And when you add into the mix the hiring of armed police as “school liaison officers” — as the high school in my community, Winona Senior High School, does — the separation of children from their families becomes very much a local issue.

Yes, we must loudly deplore and forcefully resist policies that brutalize immigrant families and children, but we must also look closer to home for dehumanizing family-separation policies. As long as we accept such policies, we remain complicit in a system that targets so many “others” while allowing the rest of us to believe that what we are seeing on the border has nothing to do with us.

Colette A. Hyman is the author of “Dakota Women’s Work: Creativity, Culture & Exile” (2012). She teaches U.S. history at Winona State University.


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