Thousands of captured Ukrainian children sent to Russia for adoption

As horrific as that is, it’s happened here, too

Russia troops have absconded with thousands of Ukrainian children who were separated from their families during the war, the Washington Post reports. While the numbers aren’t clear, Ukraine’s top children’s rights official said family and friends have reported more than 10,000 unaccompanied Ukrainian children have been sent to Russia.

For example, Oleksandr, a 12-year-old boy injured in a Russian attack in Mariupol, was separated from his grandmother while seeking medical help, the Post story said. Troops took him to a hospital in Donetsk, in Russian-occupied Ukraine, where he was told Russian parents would adopt him.

Lyudmila, the grandmother, somehow was able to save him before he left for Russia. She shared her grandson’s experience: They “told him that Ukraine is bad and Ukrainians are evil,” she said. “They forced the children to speak Russian.”

I couldn’t read this story without thinking about the legacy of Indian boarding schools and other U.S. assimilation policies.

We rightfully condemn Russia’s actions, which are war crimes. At the same time, we need to take a hard look at our own history, and our failure to repair the deep harm U.S. actions have inflicted on Indigenous children, families, and communities.

We can’t condemn the one, and ignore the other.

The war in Ukraine has more currency, receiving much media attention. Public awareness is growing about the child abuse that took place in U.S. Indian boarding schools, which operated from 1819 to 1969, according to a federal report. The U.S. government ran or funded 408 boarding schools across 37 states.

Is there a moral equivalency between the two? Consider the following:

Maria Lvova-Belova, Putin’s children’s rights commissioner, “openly advocates stripping children of their Ukrainian identities and teaching them to love Russia,” the Post reported.

Col. Richard Henry Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, is perhaps most remembered for his statement: “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” That is, strip Indian children of their Indian-ness and teach them to love the colonizers and colonizer customs.

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School circa 1900. (Image: Wikimedia Commons, author unknown.)

As of August, families in Russia’s Krasnodar region had adopted more than 1,000 Ukrainian children, including places “more than 2,000 miles from Ukraine,” the Post story said, citing Russian reports.

Compare that to Carlisle, the prototype Indian boarding school, which opened in 1879 in central Pennsylvania. Its first students arrived from the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Indian reservations in South Dakota, the National Park Services (NPS) said. (Rosebud is approximately 1,400 miles distant from the Carlisle school.)

“The distance kept the students away from their families’ cultures and influence for long periods of time,” NPS said. “Some students never returned home.”

Just as Russia is telling Ukrainian children that their country is evil and forcing them to speak Russian, Indian boarding school staff shamed and punished Indian children for speaking their Native languages, insisting they speak English. Staff told Indian children their customs and spiritual teachings were evil. They cut the Indian children’s traditionally long hair, and forced them to wear western clothes and convert to Christianity.

Other assimilation practices targeting children followed.

For instance, up until 1977, “large numbers of Native children were being separated from their parents, extended families, and communities by state child welfare and private adoption agencies,” according to the National Indian Children Welfare Association.

Child welfare agencies were removing between 25 percent and 35 percent of all Native children from their homes, the association’s research said. Of those removed, welfare agencies placed 85 percent outside of their families and communities — “even when fit and willing relatives were available.”

In 1978, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) with the goal to keep Native children in Native homes.

ICWA directs states to work with an Indian child’s family and Tribe when making an out-of-home placement. The law gives placement preferences to extended family, Tribal members, or other Native families who would better understand the child’s culture.

Today, conservatives are suing to overturn ICWA, claiming it’s racist and infringes on states rights.

This fall, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Haaland v. Brackeen, a case challenging ICWA. A decision is expected next year.

Ruling ICWA unconstitutional would be a major step backwards.

Ulterior motives are in play.

The case has drawn the attention of groups who see the chance to undo ICWA as the first step into doing away with a whole chain of legislation around Native sovereignty, with huge implications for land use, water rights and gaming rights. In short, a successful legal challenge to this one law, which has now reached the steps of the Supreme Court, could mean a lot of money for a whole lot of non-Native people.

NPR Marketplace

As the Lakota Peoples’ Law Project sees it, the lawsuit is making Native children “pawns in a colonial chess game.”

Russia is using children as pawns in its war with Ukraine.

I don’t expect Russia to change its behavior. (“Putin has applauded … removals of Ukrainian children,” the Post reported.)

I have higher expectations of the U.S. government. We need to make serious efforts to repair the harms of U.S. genocidal policies, which have destroyed Indian families and community structures. They are long overdue.

As a start, the U.S. Department of Interior in May released its Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report. Among its findings: approximately 19 of the hundreds of federal Indian boarding schools accounted for the deaths of more than 500 American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children. (On average, that’s 26 child deaths per school.) “As the investigation continues, the Department expects the number of recorded deaths to increase,” the report said.

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