VI. Criterion (e) Forcibly Transferring Children of the Group to Another Group

The last criterion delineated in the U.N. Genocide Convention involves “ [f] orcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” While this was not apparent in the immediate aftermath of the 1862 War, Indigenous children throughout the United States were subject to federally mandated boarding schools by the end of the nineteenth century. The boarding schools were a continuation of the kind of civilizing campaigns implemented by Indian agents and missionaries, but on a massive scale. This time, however, the children were specifically targeted. Proponents believed that inculcating children in American culture and Christian values would produce more success since, unlike their parents who were firmly anchored in Indigenous ways, children could be more easily compelled to abandon those ways and embrace the teachings that would make them good American citizens. Thus, the schools worked to erase all vestiges of indigeneity, transforming the way the children spoke, ate, prayed, worked, dressed, and played, and to supplant those ways with white ways. Children were forced to cut their hair, speak English, attend Christian church services, and adopt the worldview and ways of the colonizers. No longer would children be raised according to Indigenous cosmologies or with the same connection to land. To compound the assaults, boarding schools were also places where physical and sexual abuse of children was rampant, setting into motion cycles of abuse within our communities from which we have not yet recovered.

While cultural eradication was not specifically adopted as one of the internationally agreed upon criteria of genocide, Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term in his 1944 volume Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, certainly intended otherwise. While he clearly articulated a definition of the term that included the physical annihilation of a national, religious, or racial group, his definition also included cultural annihilation. The way he conceived the term, the “destruction of the specific character of a persecuted ‘group’ by a forced transfer of children, forced exile [i.e., mass expulsion] , prohibition of the use of the national language, destruction of books, documents, monuments, and objects of historical, artistic or religious value,” would all constitute genocide. Under his criteria, the boarding schools would constitute genocide not just because they involved the forcible transfer of children to another group, but also because the goal was cultural eradication.

The boarding school solution to the “Indian problem” was advocated fiercely by Carlisle Indian School founder Richard Pratt. His comments demonstrate the close connection between physical and cultural forms of genocide:

A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.

This genocidal philosophy has done seemingly irreparable harm to Indigenous people and communities for generations. If the harm created is reparable, over a century later, we have not yet discovered how.

For the Dakota this meant that after years of experiencing governmental assaults on land and life, by the end of the nineteenth century, a full-blown effort was underway to eradicate Dakota cultural traditions for good. To complete this genocidal task, the government worked to transfer all the children into the hands of American institutions run by the federal government. Two major boarding schools serviced Dakota students: Flandreau Indian School in South Dakota and Pipestone Indian School in southern Minnesota. Both schools opened in 1893. Tellingly, the Flandreau Indian School was originally named the Riggs Institute after the prominent missionary among the Dakota.

Unfortunately, missionaries such as Stephen Riggs never escaped their white supremacism, even after spending decades among Dakota people. Instead of being the strongest advocates for justice for our people, they preached the Christian turn-the-other-cheek doctrine to pacify potential resistance in the face of America's cruelest crimes. For example, amidst the suffering at Fort Snelling, on April 21, 1863, the Reverend Riggs wrote to his brother as the military was preparing for Dakota removal out of our homeland:

On Sabbath afternoon I preached to a mass meeting in the camp--the largest I ever preached to--on the benefits to be derived from suffering. I told them that we had been for several years thinking of how we could get the Gospel to the Yankton Dakotas. Now the Lord was opening the way in a manner none of us had thought of.

In his mind, the ethnic cleansing of Dakota people was God's work, as it would afford the missionaries a new population to convert and bring to the light of civilization. In light of such thinking, it is imperative to understand the connections between physical and cultural eradication.