Indian Orphanages

Native peoples and their communities to this day feel the aftershocks of the assimilationist policies employed by the United States government in the late nineteenth century. Then, federal policy makers and the so-called friends of the Indian imposed programs designed to eradicate tribalism through the destruction of the land base, the erosion of sovereignty, and the suppression of indigenous cultures. Traditional family life was one of the most notable casualties of this era. Now, more than a century later, many Indian tribes are working hard to restore the web of relationships that linked individuals to their immediate and extended families, their clan groups, and their tribes.

In Indian Orphanages, Marilyn Irvin Holt brings her readers into the midst of this period of cultural upheaval to examine the experiences of a unique group of American Indians, orphans. This volume goes beyond the standard histories of de-Indianization to explain how the events of this period created a new identity for those Indian children living without the benefit or protection of families. As Holt explains, tribes historically integrated such children into existing family or clan networks. So long as the social system remained intact, the children had a defined place and role in the community. But the turmoil accompanying the disintegration of Indian life after the Civil War robbed children of their safety net. Customary strategies for dealing with parentless children stopped working as Native nations lost their political independence and their social cohesion. The author argues that out of this disruption there emerged a new entity, the Indian orphan, and a new environment for shelter and protection, the orphanage.

Holt, a scholar whose past projects include PBS American Experience episodes on orphan trains and American farm culture, brings an impressive sensitivity to the story of Indian orphans. Her narrative, though troubled at times by rather wooden prose, is detailed and fascinating. Employing the case study model, Holt follows the Seneca, the Ojibway, the Cherokee, the Chickasaw, the Sioux, and the Creek tribes as they struggled to chart a new cultural course for parentless children. The redefinition of the idea of orphan often led tribal communities to support institutions that replaced the extended family networks of the past. Certainly, these orphanages served as centers promoting acculturation through education, but they also provided a degree of stability by keeping the children within the physical boundaries of the nation. And in nearly every tribe orphanages became places of refuge for children from intact, though destitute, families.

As Holt points out in Indian Orphanages, Native nations could continue to exert some small degree of influence over their most vulnerable and dependent members if they adopted the American orphanage model. By creating unique definitions of orphan specific to their cultures, tribes had another means of defending what remained of their old social networks. But when these institutions fell from favor in the twentieth century, children were lost via foster placements and adoptions outside their tribes. This latter-day removal caused losses to family, community, and culture that remain incalculable.

Lisa E. Emmerich
California State University
Chico, California