The Cultural Genocide of Indigenous Children Through Legal Means

The fact remains however, that the ideas used to construct and maintain such patterns of domination are not a physical container, nor a physical object; they are nothing more than mental processes. The paradigm of domination is more and foremost, a product of the mind.

Steven Newcomb

            Genocide is often taken in its literal sense: the slaughter or massacre of a large group of people, particularly those of a specific ethnic group or nation. What is not so easily understood is that genocide can occur on a non-physical level by infiltrating the very culture of a certain group of people. Eradication of a people does not always end in a physical death or extraction from society (though that is often the case). Rather, many genocidal acts are manifested in assimilation. The act of dissolving one culture into another is far subtler and met with less resistance than the archaic form of annihilation. The removal of killing, however, is hardly preferable to the alternative. A lost identity can be exceedingly harmful and its effects nearly irreversible. Tamara Starblanket, a Cree scholar, believes the Canadian government is guilty of committing genocidal acts to Indigenous children through the eradication of their culture in boarding schools. If the Canadian government does not admit to their assimilation (intentional or not) and make drastic changes in the education system, a generation of indigenous culture will be lost, further perpetuating the genocide of native peoples.

One of Starblanket’s first arguments is that “the colonial mission could not have been accomplished without the widespread harm experienced by Indigenous Peoples’ children in government-controlled residential schools and child welfare systems.” (3). Even though Indigenous peoples are no longer slaughtered, the colonial genocide is still greatly at work through the means of cultural eradication. Per the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, one of the specific definitions of genocide is “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” (Starblanket 4). The Canadian government violates this in many ways, including placing Indigenous children in foster homes so they can have direct control over a child’s upbringing, and therefore, education. “The peace and friendship treaties made between Indigenous Nations and the Crown of Great Britain early in the colonial invasion of Great Turtle Island” require Indigenous peoples to be subjects of international law, removing most of their rights and say in the matter. Much of this is rooted in historical treaties that were perverted in favor of the settlers.

The Cree people created the Treaty Six in 1876 to confirm their deep connection to Creation, basing their proposed legal system as a way to protect and respect the land. While peace was made with the colonial settlements, “the authority to protect the land or underlying title and their children was never relinquished or surrendered by Indigenous Nations.” (Starblanket 6). Instead, settlers violated their treaties using deceitful repartee and, ultimately, forcing the children of Indigenous peoples to partake in setter culture exclusively, negating the culture and history of the natives. This process was considered benevolent by settlers, a “grand object that justified colonialism as a means of redeeming the backward, aberrant, violent, oppressed underdeveloped people of the non-European world by incorporating them into the universal civilization of Europe.” (Starblanket 7). The argument was that it was for their own good and development, masking genocide even further under the guise of progress. This gave the Canadian government permission to continue their assimilation of Indigenous peoples by means of education, furthering the evidence that “forced civilisation is a process of colonialism.” (Starblanket 9).

The indoctrination of Indigenous children through the education system traces back to 1883 when John A. MacDonald explicitly requested the Canadian House of Commons “to change the ‘uncivilised’ condition of the ‘savage’ Indian child to a child that would speak, think and write like a white person.” (Starblanket 10). Many other aspects of early colonial law and policy were rooted in racial superiority and social Darwinism. Once it became legal to force Indigenous children into the colonial education systems, no one raised an eyebrow as the Canadian government set out to “kill the Indian in the child.” (Starblanket 11). No one was being murdered, after all. Concern was renewed surrounding WWII as the United Nations revisited the meaning of genocide in light of the Nazi brutalities. Greek delegate Mr. Vallindas stated that “there could be no doubt that a forced transfer of children…constituted genocide…. [It] could be as effective a means of destroying a group as that of imposing measures intended to prevent births, or inflicting conditions of life likely to cause death.” (Starblanket 17). Many other delegates from around the world echoed their agreement that the method was, indeed, genocide, and most certainly still an ongoing issue. Still, the program continued through the omission of this international definition on a local level. Theodore Roosevelt has even been quoted in saying that state law and policy were to be a “mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass,” making it difficult to deny colonial intents for Indigenous children (Starblanket 20-21).

Genocide through indoctrination can be considered worse than massacre because of the long-term effects it has on a culture. Instead of wiping out a mass group of people, this form of genocide aims to destroy an entire culture through the assimilation of generations. Detrimental effects are too numerous to count, but they can include the following: eradication of language and traditions; a child viewing his or her own people as inferior; lack of identity because children do not recognize themselves as settlers or Indigenous peoples; developmental issues due to being removed from loving families and communities; depression culminating from all the other impactors (Starblanket 23-24). Principally, forcing Indigenous children into the Canadian government system has been generally dangerous both physically and mentally for Indigenous children, and it is undeniably a form of genocide. The psyche of a child is constantly at stake as they are frequently being forced to see themselves through the eyes of the colonial government. It is not happening on some small scale either, as in “some provinces 80 per cent of children in [welfare system] care are aboriginal, yet they make up only 5 per cent of the total population of Canada.” (Starblanket 25).

Current laws prevent Indigenous peoples’ capability to protect their children, specifically the omission of the international definition of genocide in the penal code. Moving away from colonized government is crucial in returning rights to Indigenous peoples, and in order to do so, Starblanket suggests “decolonised critical analysis is necessary to enable a true movement towards healing on a global level.” (34). Indigenous peoples must counteract the dehumanizing acts of colonial domination, thereby reestablishing a new identity as an Indigenous nation. This will only be attainable if nations like the United States and Canada are willing to acknowledge the crimes that have been committed—and, in some cases, are being carried on to this day—and seek reconciliation. For true peace and harmony amongst contrasting societies, and in an effort to avoid war, destruction, and persecution of peoples, all nations must be given the right and responsibility to live within their cultures laws, especially when it is causing no harm to surrounding nations. There is no one set of rules or type of government that is well-suited for all people, and mankind flourishes most when exposed to ample diversity.

Works Cited

Starblanket, Tamara. “‘Kill the Indian in the child’: Genocide in International Law.” Ed. Irene Watson. Indigenous Peoples as Subjects in International Law: We Were Here First. (Routledge, 2017): 1-36. Print.


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