by Roberto Dr Cintli Rodriguez
*This is the original and longer version of this column published by Truthout as: Those Impacted by Colonialism Speak Out on the US’s Legacy of Family Separation
Open your eyes America; that those crying children and their parents separated and detained by the U.S. president are mostly brown doesn’t mean they are merely dark; it also means that they are part of the original peoples of this continent; the children of La Llorona. They symbolize all those children that have been ripped away from their mother’s arms, since the era of colonialism.
To be sure, this U.S. president is doing what this country has always done best; destroy and dehumanize nations and peoples, destroy lives and construct and peddle pseudo-religious-politico providential narratives. However, this time, it is the USA itself that is imploding and being slowly destroyed by both, a would-be dictator and a spineless and complicit Congress.
There’s an Indigenous meme: Your heroes; my enemies (Custer-Sitting Bull, as two examples). Let me suggest another meme: Your narrative; our narrative.
On this continent, this crisis at the border began in 1492 and there is a direct line that begins with genocide, theft of a continent, theft of bodies, souls and even identities, all of which resulted in the destruction and enslavement of many peoples and cultures on at least two continents. And it leads to this current crisis. Despite the president’s executive order, Tuscon mother, Norma Barrios of Calpolli Teoxicalli, equates the separations and detentions as a legalized for-profit human trafficking scheme (rebut with your narrative here).
There are other powerful Indigenous voices here – other Brown and Black voices – that oppose the use of children and infants or recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals students as hostages to build a wall. And for Indigenous peoples, the U.S. narrative regarding immigration is obscenely upside down. Tia Oros Peters (Shiwi), executive director, Seventh Generation Fund (SGF) observes: “For trade, alliance building, ceremony, and cultural exchange, Indigenous Peoples have traveled to meet, share, and learn from each other along the corn and turquoise trails; salmon runs,; rivers; and pathways carved by butterfly and hummingbird migrations. These travels leave millennia of memory imprints across a vast region many refer to today as the Americas. First and foremost, however, these are Indigenous peoples’ homelands and territories, and as such, Indigenous peoples have an inherent right to traverse the places and pathways our ancestors first marked for generations to follow.”
Here is a parallel narrative that includes the deaths and killings, intentional or accidental (due to government policies), of primarily Indigenous peoples along the U.S./Mexico border. Since NAFTA in 1994, several thousand people, who have tried to cross, have been found dead, all along the U.S./Mexico border. Marla Pacheco, a Sonora Yaqui human rights activist, speaks about the recent killing by a border patrol agent of the young Maya woman, Claudia Gomez Gonzalez on the Texas border. Close to 100 migrants have been killed by border patrol agents since 2003: “We know that the only person who is going to be protected is the border patrol agent. The impunity will continue and their families will never know justice in this system that continues to criminalize refugees and migrants.” (For more info re Gomez Gonzales, hit the hyperlink here).
The voices here, which are usually silenced and erased, may be difficult to process emotionally, precisely because that trauma, dehumanization and de-Indigenization are still with us to this day. It is what is referred to as intergenerational trauma, which these children and families are in danger of passing down to future generations. Maria Molina Vai Sevoi, a Tucson mother of 6, and Yoeme-Tlamanalcah says: “Whether to fight in wars, work as slaves, attend boarding schools or to be adopted out, the story is the same — they take our children.” This includes forced sterilization, she adds… “They took them before they were in our wombs. My ancestors migrated north to escape persecution by the Mexican government. They sought to erase our bloodlines. They seek to erase our bloodlines. “We shall take … your children … shall make slaves of them … shall sell and dispose of them …” are more than words spoken through Spain’s 1513 Requerimiento. They represent the psychosis [goals] of those European colonizers whose dreams are conquest and whose hearts pump destruction rather than lifeblood.
Dr. Martha Many Grey Horses, a member of the Kainai First Nation of the Blackfoot Confederacy, speaks to us about her experiences in Canada: “I know all too well what it’s like to be forcefully separated from my parents, family, grandparents, as a child growing up on my family’s farm on the reserve – and placed into the government residential school. I find it challenging to read about the separation of these precious children from their parents and relatives. I see their images, and my tears start falling . There are moments when I wail for these little people. I see myself in them as a child. I’m one of them. I want so much to reach out physically and hug them.”
Dr. Debbie Reese, tribally enrolled, Nambé Pueblo and founder of American Indians in Children’s Literature says this: “This is not new. We can characterize it as a U.S. value because U.S. presidents have done this before, directly, and indirectly. If more people knew this history, perhaps they would not have voted for the person who currently holds the office of president.”
Here, Leilani Clark, a Tucsonan of African and Dine’/Santa Clara descent, offers a glimpse of two worlds: “The policies of ‘Kill the Indian, [and] Save the Man‘ very intentionally separated children far away from their families to begin the physically and emotionally violent process of forced assimilation through the Indian boarding school system, which served to ‘domesticate’ and white-wash Native youth.
Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz, an oral historian and cultural worker in New Mexico, makes a similar observation: “I am the direct descendent of stolen people, living on stolen, occupied land…. The United States has a steady history of separating and dehumanizing families that began with the transatlantic slave trade, and continued through forced boarding schools with Native Americans, Japanese American internment camps, and currently is practiced through youth detention centers for marginalized young people, targeted by the school-to-prison pipeline.”
The legacy of lost familial roots weigh deep within the psyche of Black people in the US, when entire families, including children, were forcibly ripped from their family members after white slave-owners purchased and sold our ancestors to different plantations throughout the Southern and Eastern regions of the US; those little Black bodies worked alongside the adults in the fields.”
And yet, in this instance, the voices of mothers are difficult to read ,because the topic and the memories disturb:
“I think of when my sister and I crossed this illegal border. We were 5 and 1, says Marisa Duarte, Yaqui, Phoenix, Arizona. “As a mother, I am beyond angry to think that this could ever happen to anyone’s kids! It is also a continuation of the US’s war on Indigenous people by ripping away and terrorizing our most sacred; our children.”
“As a mother, my heart is broken, and I am sickened by the lack of love for humanity, observes Eva Alcalde, Xicana-Dine, Tucson, Arizona: … There is a pure wickedness in the very thought that a government would enforce such a great atrocity. A child’s bond with their parents and their family is scared and should not be desecrated in this way. Where is the love in the world if we do nothing to protect our children from this outright act of evil?”
“The policy is shameful in theory but even more so in practice,” said Steve Russell, retired Texas judge, associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University, citizen of the Cherokee Nation.” And here, he is even bolder: “When I see crying children pulled out of their parents’ arms, I think when that kind of thing was last commonly done…. I think Nazis.”
There is a clear linkage between historical practices and the present. Nellie David of the Tohono O’odham Nation is an advocate for human rights. She notes: “The US government sponsored the kidnapping of young children and separating them from their Indigenous mothers as an official policy of indoctrination and assimilation. They were forced to stand for the pledge, speak English, and make way for colonial edifices in an attempt to maintain supremacy and control. In the modern era, history repeats; the United States is still using family separations as a form of psychological warfare to maintain supremacy and control.”
A similar observation is made by Alicia Nevaquaya, Choctaw/Comanche, of Oklahoma: “Separating Brown children from their parents by foreign invaders in the name of religion is nothing new to this hemisphere. It is as inappropriate now as it was then.” And she adds that the separation of children from their parents actually amounts to terrorism. “The dictionary defines ‘terrorism’ as the ‘unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims’.’”
A former journalist, Ed Wiley III from North Carolina calls this practice demonic: “There are two pervasive reactions to the atrocities occurring at the borders – deliberate amnesia and utter indifference – and both are predicated on race. When Africans were kidnapped from their homelands and spirited to these shores, the pain was exacerbated when their children were ripped from them and sent to parts unknown… Can you imagine how swift and relentless the national reaction would be if these were blue-eyed Canadian babies being yanked from their mothers’ arms and put in cages?”
Michael Yellowbird, professor of sociology at North Dakota State University, Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara), and Peters, both see this same practice as an act of genocide. Article II, Section E of the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention of Genocide reads: “Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” Yellowbird adds: “What’s happening reminds me of two instances in history when military leaders were making Indian policy. The first was Capt. Richard Henry Pratt who said: ‘”Kill the Indian, [and] Save the Man.'” Today, the president and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are repeating this history. Only this time it’s ‘Kill the Children, Save This Bigoted Nation’.”
Gabrielle Tayac of the Piscataway Indian Nation of Maryland wonders whether tribes can do something, and proffers one possible solution: “Many Indigenous people are outraged and are ready to help; we’ve gone through the incarceration of our kids, too. What is the practical solution right now? Can tribal people claim them? Offer asylum?”
Peters sees this issue as a test of Native sovereignty, an opportunity “to do the right thing by giving refuge – asylum to our thousands of relatives from the south who are fleeing the impacts of US ongoing settler-colonialism and imperialism in their homelands. This could help inspire other attitudes and practices of caring for one another, of responsibility, integrity, humanity and love – rather than basing our relationships or mutuality on economic benefit and capitalistic exploitation.”
Yellowbird observes that the people dying on the border or who are being separated and detained are actually Native, including their relatives that already live in the United States. “They are Native American in the same political, geographical, and historical sense that I am … I recently found out that through DNA testing that I had an ancestor in Mexico and Peru. My father always said our sacred tribal bundles had recorded that our people spent time in Mexico and South America. He was right.”
Grandma Gloria Arellanes, a Tonga Elder/Chicana from Southern California makes an appeal: “”I believe we are going through ‘selective racial cleansing’.” The most innocent of all are the children … I wish I could curse, scream and not cry.”
Symbolically, this crisis is becoming the new Trail of Tears; it also exposing the world to 526 years of America’s open veins.
Rodriguez, an associate professor in Mexican American Studies at the University of Arizona can be reached at: [email protected]
* It is not hyperbole that the U.S. government has engaged in kidnapping and human for-profit trafficking as it has missed the court’s deadline with hundreds of children “ineligible” to be returned to their parents and many just outright missing.