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Excerpt: Children of the Dragonfly - Children of Nature, Children of the State


“But you, who are wise, must know that different nations have different conceptions of things; and you will therefore not take it amiss, if our ideas of this kind of education happen to not be the same with yours. We have had some experience of it; several of our young people were formerly brought up a the colleges of the northern provinces; they were instructed in all your sciences; but when they came back to us […] they were totally good for nothing. (qtd. in Franklin 10: 387)”

In 1784 Benjamin Franklin may have concurred with this assessment of colonial education by the Iroquois leader Canassatego, who spoke to commissioners from Virginia at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1744 (Baker 47). On behalf of the sachems who refused the Virginians’ offer to educated twelve young Iroquois men at the College of William and Mary, he offered instead t host twelve sons of Virginia’s gentlemen promising to “take great care of their education, and instruct them in all we know, and make Men of them” (qtd. in Franklin 10: 386-87). As a revolutionary with a sense of humor, Franklin must have admired the Iroquois’s satiric send-up of the Virginians’ arrogance and ignorance.

            Within twenty years of Franklin’s writing, however, a competing conception of Indian-white difference would gain ascendancy in the young republic, one which asserted parental authority over the Native nations: “Children […] the great Chief of the Seventeen great nations of America has become your only father,” wrote William Clark and Meriwether Lewis to the Ote in 1804, addressing them as “children” eighteen times, e.g.: “Children. -Do these things which your great father advises and be happy” (qtd. in Carrol 16) Thomas Jefferson’s seaboard America looked west at a continent-wide “Indian problem.” It sought to reduce by reducing Indians to children. Jefferson held contradictory views of Indians, using their physical, intellectual, linguistic, social, and political equality with whites as evidence against the environmental degeneracy theory that was popular in Europe, by calling them “children” when perceiving them as impediments to expansion (Grinde 197, 208).

            Such opportunistic paternalism “required children to have no independence or life of their own,” according to Michael Paul Rogin in his study of the Jackson-era subjugation of American Indians (10). Since Columbus, Europe had conceived of indigenous people as having child-like qualities (Todorov 34-40), but the United States and Canada transformed them from children of nature to children of the state, and gradually assumed parental authority over them in matters of territory, commerce, and religion. The metaphor of Indians as children was soon placed at the enter of the legal definition of Indian status, when Chief Justice John Marshall wrote that tribes “are a people in a sate of pupilage. Their relation to the United States resembles that of a ward to his guardian” (The Cherokee Nation v. The State of Georgia, 1831, qtd. in Norgren 101). Marshall’s figure of speech justified subjugation and relocation of the Cherokee and others. Describing the Cherokee removal in his 1838 report, Secretary of War Joel R. Poinsett asserted that “Humanity, no less than sound policy, dictated this course toward these children of the forest” (qtd. in Rogin 247).

            In Canada, the original partnership between Crown, Indian nations, and colonies was expressed in the Royal Proclamation of 1763 as a nation-to-nation relationship hat protected Indian sovereignty (Canada, Report 1.9.2). The next century of frustrated legislative efforts to civilize and assimilate Indian people led Canada to create a framework of political, social and cultural jurisdiction through the Indian Act (1876) that has persisted to the present. The Interior Department’s report for 1876, written under the same theory as the Indian Act, repeats Marshall’s language from forty years before, revealing that Canadian Indian law “rests on the principle, that the aborigines are to be kept in the condition of tutelage and treated as wards or children of the state” (qtd. in  Canada, Report 1.9.8).

            And if Indians are reduced to children, then their parental role is debased, and their children will be raised by some agency of the parent-state. The metaphor of custodial paternalism presaged the development of Indian education and child welfare as instruments within the larger effort to eradicate Indian culture. The effect of other efforts, such as the end to government-to-government treaty-making in the United States in 1871 and in Canada in 1876, and the US General Allotment Act of 1887, was to further erode Indian sovereignty and disrupt  the passing of Native ways from parents to children, interrupting family, clan, and other relations (Priest 96; Canada, Report 1.9.2). According to Robert Berkhofer, the 1870s saw US federal assumption of “full responsibility for native education” through actions that moved Indian tribes from “being domestic dependent nations […] as utterly dependent wards in order to prepare them for American individualism” (White Man’s Indian 171).

            In Lewis’s terms, the less the great father’s adult Indian “children’ followed his advice, the more his government believed that future accommodations for Native Americans depended on children. In his 1831 report, Secretary of War Lewis Cass wrote that “Our hopes must rest upon the rising generation,” a hope that would be renewed each new generation, as each grown generation defeated that hope (qtd. in Prucha 141) .  The adult Indian, that “simple child of nature” whose mind was “dwarfed and shriveled,” the Baord of Indian Commissioners reported in 1880, was beginning to see the value of education for his children (qtd. in Iverson 20). In 1889, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Thomas Jefferson Morgan predicted that all Indian children would be in school within two or three years, but the number fell far short of his prediction. The 1892 Lake Mohonk Conference asserted that it was not “desirable to raise another generation of savages,” and that “the government is justified, as a last resort, in using power to compel attendance” when “ parents, without good reason, refuse to educate their children” (qtd. in Pruha 70)

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