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U.S. and Washington have a history of separating families

Scenes of families torn apart at the US-Mexico border has Americans pointing fingers at each other, asking how the U.S. could engage in such an inhumane policy of separating children from parents. Some have said “we’ve become a nation that separates children from parents.”

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But we are a nation that separates children from parents and have been for many years.  It may seem odd because the practice was carried out in different ways for different reasons. Still, there are generations in America — in Washington state — living with the consequences of such policies today. If there was ever a chance to learn from history, now is the time.

“When I see people post things on social media and say ‘I can’t believe this is happening, this is not the country that we are,’ in my mind and in other minds of my indigenous brothers and sisters, we’re thinking, ‘Yes it is,’” said Robin Little Wing Sigo, Suquamish Tribal Council Treasurer. “This happened within the last 100 years, which is not that long.”

“…. Their outrage is real, their concern is real,” she said. “They are just not recognizing the larger picture. American policy has been to do this.”

President Trump signed an order Wednesday to end the practice of separating children from parents when they cross the border illegally, or even if they are seeking asylum. Long before the Trump administration, the United States government required Native American children to be removed from their families and go to boarding schools. This became more of a choice in the latter years of the policy, Sigo says, but she points out it wasn’t much of an option at that point — poverty motivated many to leave.

“Prior to that, kids were just taken,” Sigo said. “They would come and pick them up at the beginning of the school year, and drop them off at the end of the school year. There are stories about people who would come to pick up the kids, and kids would hide. The Indian agents would come and find them and drag them away, crying. As soon as they took them away, they would get their hair cut, and they would get deloused because the assumption was they were dirty. They were not allowed to speak their own language.”

“Being here in Suquamish, we are close to Bainbridge Island where there were several Japanese people who were taken to internment camps,” she noted. “These things don’t seem strange to us.”

Bainbridge Island was the first community where the US government rounded up Japanese citizens, tagged them, and shipped them to internment camps during World War II. The American Indian boarding school policy was in effect until 1978 when the Indian Child Welfare Act was signed, giving tribes more control over the removal of children from their communities. It also affected the practice of removing Native American children from their families and placing them in the foster care system — another practice that broke up families.

The Suquamish Tribe is not alone. These policies spanned the nation.

“I want to point this out because history is repeating itself,” said Seattle Councilmember Debora Juarez at a June 18 council meeting.

Juarez is a member of the Blackfeet Nation located in Montana.

“This country, for over 50 years, had a policy of removing Indian children from their families, in which my grandmother, my mother, my aunties, and my uncles all experienced boarding schools,” she said.

The man who raised Juarez was a member of the Yakima Tribe in Washington state. He and his six siblings were also “rounded up,” and sent to the schools, she said.

“It is real, it continues,” Juarez said. “We saw this with the Japanese internment camps as well … this is in real time and things haven’t changed. What really sickens and saddens me is that it is still a targeted population of people of color. I think we have to be honest about that as Americans.”

Long-term effects of separating children from family

As a social worker, Sigo is aware of the effects on children after they experience trauma. In fact, she has known it most of her life.

“I know from being over at my grandma’s house as a child and having her wake up with nightmares, screaming nightmares,” Sigo said. “I didn’t understand why at the time. Later, I found out she had been taken away and brought to a boarding school.”

“We also have the trauma of families remembering, ‘Oh yeah, we lost so and so. We lost our sister and we don’t know where she got placed,” Sigo said of the foster care system.

When news emerged about the new zero-tolerance policy at the U.S.-Mexico border, Sigo found herself overwhelmed by it.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about it, I stayed up at night thinking about it,” she said. “Why do I think those things over and over again? It’s because I know the reality of that situation. That could happen. That trauma has been passed to me through my ancestors. I know that’s a real possibility. I know what that feels like; that trauma.”

“… And using the Bible as a way to justify it, that also happened to us,” Sigo said.

Sigo said that what has happened at the U.S. border over the past few weeks won’t end with Trump’s recent executive order.

“Think of the long-term consequences of this … when we are taking these kids away from their families, that is going to stay with them for generations,” Sigo said. “…. They are going to have a sense of distrust. They are going to have a sense of feeling unsafe. They are going to have separation anxiety from their parents … they are going to have a difficult time in healthy relationships because of what we are doing here. This doesn’t just impact the kids now, it impacts them for generations.”

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