On October 27, Grand Valley State University hosted U.S. Under Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland at the Eberhard Center in downtown Grand Rapids.
To begin the panel, Newland explained to the audience why his position exists.
“I often get asked ‘Why do you have your job?'” Newland said. “Well, that’s because it’s in the Constitution. That’s why we have this office. This office is one of the oldest federal agencies in existence; it is older than the Department of the Interior, the Department of Education, and the Department of Homeland Security.
Newland, a member of the Bureau for Indian Education (BIE) and alumnus of Michigan State University, provided attendees with information on the history of Native Americans after the arrival of Europeans in the 1800s.
“Some of the earliest federal laws America passed were related to Indian Affairs,” Newland said. “The job of the Bureau of Indian Affairs as trustee was to decide what was best for Indian country, and what the federal government decided was that Indians were best not to exist. “
In an effort to erase Native American culture, the federal government established boarding schools for Native American children. In reference to these boarding schools, General Richard Henry Pratt (1840-1924) said their main purpose was “to kill the Indian but save the man”. Between 1819 and 1969, the US government seized Native American lands and forcibly assimilated children by requiring families to send them to these boarding schools.
“There was rampant physical, emotional and sexual abuse of children in these schools,” Newland said. “We also found that the school system used militarized methods of identity alteration to force Indian children to change.”
It was not until 1978 that the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was passed, which stipulated that the government would stop targeting Native American children for assimilation and instead ensure that children remained with their family. Following this legislation, the Native American Religious Freedom Act (NARFA) and the Indian Self-Determination and Education Act (ISDEA) were passed to give more freedom to Native American tribes.
On May 11 of this year, 408 Native American boarding schools were surveyed and identified in the first-ever Report on Federal Indian Residential Schools. Newland explained that this is the first time the federal government has held itself accountable and acknowledged the horrors of these boarding schools.
“It was only in my lifetime that the US government rejected these harmful policies,” Newland said. “We are in a new era, relatively speaking. We embrace this new political era where we ensure that tribes can govern themselves and continue to exist as Indian people.
The success of ICWA, NARFA and ISDEA proves that the constitutional powers of the US government can be used to help Native Americans.
“We have an obligation to remake, restore and revitalize the tribal way of life in partnership with the tribes,” Newland said. “That’s what America’s trusted responsibility is, it means we work in partnership with the tribes, not to destroy, but to revitalize.”
The U.S. government has made great strides toward this goal in recent years, including $31 billion sent to tribal communities as part of the U.S. bailout passed last year — the largest investment allocated to the Native American community in U.S. history.
“We have a lot of people coming to terms with going back to a time when Indian children were removed from their communities and their families,” Newland said. “This administration is defending ICWA against these lawsuits in the Supreme Court in two weeks. We will do everything to keep it the law. »
Although many Native advocates believe the United States still has a long way to go to repair the damage done to Native American tribes in their first two centuries of existence, Newland’s hope is to encourage a sense of optimism. to the public about the future of Native American affairs through his presentation.
“We’re not all the way there; we haven’t even come a tiny bit, but we’re starting,” Newland said. “It’s a partnership with the federal government. We believe that the Indian powers of the federal government cannot exist just to do bad things. They must also be available to us to rebuild, repair and restore. It is our responsibility to do just that.