The Indian Reader


Pressure Points in GROWING UP INDIAN

Dr. Witt, a Native American and an anthropologist, is former director of the Rocky Mountain Regional Office of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

This article was drawn from a paper delivered by Dr. Witt before the American Psychological Association, in observance of the International Year of the Child, and originally appeared in the Commission's New Perspectives magazine. It has been updated for this issue of The Indian Reader.


It used to be so simple when the conventional wisdom spoke of "racial traits" - by saying, for example, that blacks have "natural rhythm," that Jews "know money," that Orientals are "inscrutable," or the American Indians are "stoic." But then came the social scientists, blending every effort toward disbusing us of such stereotype claptrap, insisting that how we behave is pretty much the exclusive result of our training and our culture. And so the pendulum swung away from biological determinism in accounting for human behavior towards a strong bias favoring cultural determinism.

Now the pendulum moves again as the scientists look anew at certain categories of behavior, looking for possible biological basis without worrying about being branded "racist." One of them, psychologist Daniel G. Freedman, after studying the behavioral differences among babies of various racial groups, writes in Human Behavior Magazine that the differences are very real, and apparent as early as birth.

He may not be wrong. Consider the developmental cycle of American Indian babies as I, and others, have witnessed - a cycle that places an exorbitant burden on the psychological well being of these children when confronting the postwar culture of Anglo America. For not only does the clash of culture (and perhaps of biology as well) inflict psychic pain at the instant, it also leaves them with open wounds they will be carrying the rest of their lives.

Let us begin with the beginning. From time before memory, Indian babies have been taught not to cry within days of their birth. If there was a hunt in progress, if there were hostile neighbors to avoid, or if the Seventh Cavalry was stalking, the cry of a baby could place the survival of the group in jeopardy. Whether training babies not to cry was universal among Indian groups, or to what extent it is still practiced is unclear, but the method is simple enough: when the newborn begins to cry, place the hand over the nose. The mouth now must be used for breathing, not vocalizing. Take the hand away. If the baby cries, repeat. The method teaches quickly. From now on, communication from the baby will be a small whimper, not the piercing wail we often hear today. This sounds like a simple trick, but is it really?

Freedman tested a group of racially-different babies for this "defense reaction" and found that while the Chinese and Navajo babies accepted the cloth pressed to their noses and lay back breathing through their mouths, Anglo and Black babies fought by swiping at it and struggling to get away. In another study, a group of Anglo mothers who wanted to raise their babies on Navajo cradle boards gave up in failure: apparently their babies howled so persistently that they were off the tightly-wrapped board in a matter of a few weeks. Just how scientifically valid these findings are remain to be seen. But, if the inference is obvious, so are the long-term implications as those babies grow up.

Take the way American Indians live, in large family groups. This is a preferred living arrangement, not necessarily related to poverty. Thus, it is not unusual to find more than one child sleeping in a bed, a situation that once was common for all but wealthy American families. But times have changed, and an arbitrary ruling that the "proper" home has a bed for each child has been used in some instances as a lever to pry Indian children out of their homes and communities.

Not long ago, Bernice Appleton, an officer of the Native American Children's Protective Council chartered in Michigan, protested against restrictions of the Michigan state social service agencies which, she contended, were denying foster home status to Indian families because they could not provide a separate room or half a room per child, nor a service bed for each child. She reported that:

"These agencies are going into Indian homes and telling them their homes are unfit because they have two children, or three children, sleeping in one bed . . . It isn't necessary for Indian children to have one bed apiece. I don't even think it's good for children to sleep apart. Our children learn sharing right from the start."

Such requirements can force the breakup of families in a culture in which, traditionally, there is no such thing as an orphan or an illegitimate child.

But in recent years, Indian children have become the prized booty of welfare, social service, and adoption agencies. A variety of church organizations covet these children for both adoption and foster child placement actions. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) is the most conspicuous child hunter, but a few Christian organizations are innocent of taking part in the wholesale removal of Indian children. The prestigious New York based Association on American Indian Affairs, In its 1977 study entitled The Destruction of American Indian Families reports that 25 to 35 percent of all Indian children are taken from their families and placed in foster homes, adoptive homes and institutions. And Ramona Bennett, former chair of the Puyallup Nation believes that as many as 40 percent of the Indian children in the state of Washington are removed from their homes and raised by Anglos, a situation which would never be tolerated by more powerful citizens in this country.

Rural poverty makes life difficult even in a supportive environment, and questions must be asked and answered about what we can expect by way of mental and physical growth where there is seldom electricity, plumbing, refrigeration, or stores. Accessible trading posts sell junk foods at exorbitant prices. The Federal Commodities Program donates food which produces nutritionally-absurd diets, despite every effort of their few hard-worked nutritionists. Obesity pervades the reservations, Obesity wrought by a diet that Is neither aboriginal nor modern. There is the old sad joke, "What is the Menomonee word for food? Answer: "Com-mod-i-ties." This means flour, lard, peanut butter.

In Anadarko I saw that while butter was too expensive for the average Anglo citizen to buy, the Indians were deluged with it, courtesy of the Department of Agriculture. Preschoolers as well as everyone else go on junk-food binges when they get into town. Believing in the intimate linkage between diet and behavior, I have only the dreariest thoughts about the mental and physical health of our native peoples. Half of the story is self evident: Indian morbidity and mortality far exceeds that of any other group in the nation. I would strongly recommend research on the relationship of diet to the status of Indian children's mental health and learning ability.

"Many traditional Native people believe that children are especially beloved by the spiritual powers since they have so recently come from mystery. Those same traditions hold that striking a child, punishing a child, or treating it without respect may cause it to return to the mystery from which it came..."

In the traditional Indian home, permissiveness characterizes the attitude toward the young, and they enjoy the warmth and support of males as well as females, and from persons of all ages. It is deemed a privilege to tend and play with children, and it is a rare moment if a child should find itself alone with just one adult. As soon as they can toddle, they become part of the larger group of household or neighborhood children, watched over by older siblings, cousins, or other members of the extended family male and female. In the play group, one seldom sees the severe age grading and sex segregation that seems to distinguish Anglo play groups.

Competition within the large play group is easy or nonexistent. A baseball game can be a delight to watch, with changeable team membership, each child being allowed to swing at the ball as many times as it takes to hit it, or perhaps someone else pinch hitting so that the child can run or be carried around the bases - sometimes in creative sequences. No one keeps score, any questionable hit is dismissed, and the game ends when it gets boring or something more important takes its place. From my admittedly-biased viewpoint, if Anglo children "acted like wild Indians," it might well be a decided Improvement all around.

(I shall never forget my own culture shock, when, after spending the Summer with the Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache and Comanche people in Western Oklahoma, I briefly stopped off in Centerville, lowa. From an environment where babies and children are quiet and contained while receiving continual but not animated attention from grown-ups, the Anglo children commandeered total adult attention by fabricating tears and incessantly interrupting grownup conversation.)

The topic of discipline in the home is also illuminating. Many traditional Native people believe that children are especially beloved by the spiritual powers since they have so recently come from mystery. Those same traditions hold that striking a child, punishing a child or treating it without respect may cause it to return to the mystery from which it came. Those parents who no longer share this mystic view tend nonetheless to perpetuate the behavior pattern which prohibits harsh mental and physical punishment of a child.

"...the Christian ethos tend to absorbe the peculiar notion that 'to spare the rod is to spoil the child.' Film and television media also protray the beating of children by parents as normal and natural..."

The recent laws passed in Sweden outlawing spanking makes perfect sense to the Indian, but based on the outpouring of reader mail to newspapers reporting this development, the move caused great perplexity and even anguish to the Anglo. At the same time, those Native people who have been heavily indoctrinated by the Christian ethos tend to absorb the peculiar notion that "to spare the rod is to spoil the child." Film and television media also portray the beating of children by parents as normal and natural ("This hurts me more than it does you," and "I'm doing this for your own good," etc...).

Correction of Indian children is verbal and quiet, by shunning or ignoring the child who is not behaving. With older children, ridicule is used. Self-control is expected of the child as early in its growth as possible. Objects are removed from the reach of toddlers' hands, or the toddler is itself removed: one doesn't hear "don't do this" or "don't touch that" in traditional households.

The removal or distraction of a child from a situation where it cannot maintain control resembles in some respects the "time-out" procedures discussed in the behavior modification literature, the main difference being that the Indian child is usually not punished by isolation and sequestering. Self-control will come in its natural time for each person, and therefore punishment would be of no use or so it is believed.

At home, children are not compared with and contrasted against one another. Manipulative ploys such as, "Johnny is a good boy. He eats up all his dinner (or keeps his room neat, or doesn't get messy). Why can't you be like Johnny?" simply is not part of the training repertoire. Nor is the inculcation of guilt part of it; instead, I believe that encouraging reciprocity and social responsibility serve to generate altruistic behavior for traditional American Indians.

Perhaps the keystone of Indian child-rearing is the belief that each child is uniquely a person from its earliest moments and has a right to that separate person hood. It is often reported that school personnel are stunned when a parent explains away truancy by saying that the seven or eight-year old doesn't want to go to school anymore. The non-Indian administrators believe that the child should be made to attend by parents. Indians tend to see this as unfair coercion: the child is not putty to be molded and manipulated into the desired shape. No matter what happens, it either will or will not become an authentic adult.

Until the school years, the children spend all of their time embedded in groups spanning all ages and both sexes. Older children tend younger children, the older children may 'be no more than six or seven when they begin leading the toddlers along in the play group. Such responsibilities encourage ties and dependencies between those of differing ages and tend to prevent isolation, polarization and the discrimination that could develop against those outside one's age or sex category.

"And then they go to school...the most profound impact on the children is the enormous contrast that is drawn between their home lives and the promises of the school system. The children are encouraged to make comparisons, and come away troubled and shaken."

And then they go to school.

Probably the first clash is the language barrier. This may range from simple dialect or vocabulary differences to situations where the child has had no English introduction whatsoever. In recent years, emphasis has been placed more and more upon the use of programs such as English as a Second Language (ESL) to help overcome these barriers. The Navajo Nation is in the forefront of this endeavor; other reservations where the need exists are less well funded and may be slower to accept such programs.

Behavioral traits may be the next to come into conflict. Indians as a rule do not engage in the level of eye contact that non-Indians do. As evidence of the Anglo propensity to hold eye contact, consider this observation: "one of the first things I learned while growing up in the south was never trust a man who won't look you in the eye." This was the late Martha Mitchell discussing Richard Milhous Nixon.

In the school setting, it is not unusual for the teacher to request that the child "look at me and speak up." At home, this would be disrespectful behavior toward an older person, particularly one in authority. The teacher may try to induce the children to compete with one another for the right answers and the quickest responses.

This has often met with absolutely no response at all, because the children do not want to humiliate those who do not have the expected response. Or, in some instances, all of the children will raise their hands simultaneously, after they have shared the answer around the room. This behavior precipitated an experiment by a Bureau of Indian Affairs teacher some years ago, as recounted by the late D'Arcy McNickel. The teacher attributed what he saw as a lack of competitiveness and spontaneity among Indian students to slow reaction formation. He would train them to speed up their reaction time. Out on the playground he tied a shoe to a length of rope and had the children make a circle. He planned to swing the rope around faster and faster, challenging them to jump and react quicker and quicker. He swung the rope and each child took one step backward. Would Anglo children have stepped backward, or jumped'?

There can be many other strange things for our children to see and experience in school, not the least of which might be the cafeteria. The school feeding program will acquaint Indian children with foods they may never have seen before. One thing they will have to contend with immediately is the Anglo belief in the beneficence of a peculiar liquid called cows milk.

Very slowly we are beginning to understand that nutritional requirements mean different things to different racial, and possibly sub racial, groups. Although what I have said may be shocking to the most democratic of us, it may be that what is good for the Anglo body may not in fact be good for everyone else. This may be another mindless prejudice yet to be purged: nutritional ethnocentrism. To put it another way, the consequences of ethnocentrism may be more tenacious and deep-seated than we have thought. In the animal pens near Navajo hogans you can usually find the remains of milk products from the commodities program: butter, cheese, dried milk. From one tribe to the next, parents will report that "he (or she) won't drink that milk," to the double perplexity of the non-Indian inquisitor, i.e.. that the child dislikes milk, and that adults don't force children to drink it anyway "for their own good."

But as more and more investigations are reported, the fact is becoming incontrovertible that for many or most of the world's people, milk is not our most valuable food, or "nature's way," or so say the slogans of the milk industry. These studies indicate that most of us cannot drink milk after early childhood without suffering gastric upset, cramps, bloating, diarrhea or nausea. One report, The Health Letter, published in San Antonio, summarizes by saying that:

". . . Most of the adults in the world have some degree of lactose (milk) intolerance . . . the major exceptions to this are the northern European and Scandinavian descendants. In the United States, over 35 million whites and 25 million blacks have lactose intolerance. Most of the nations minority races have a high rate of lactose intolerance. The rate has been described as high as 90 percent of all adult blacks and 70 percent in a random sampling of the black population. The American Indians, Mexican Americans and other people not of northern European and Scandinavian extraction have lactose intolerance. "

What bearing does this have upon Indian children? In schools across this nation, children are browbeaten into ingesting vast quantities of milk whether or not they have the genetic equipment to do so. In 1972, a study I conducted in one of the New Mexican pueblos showed that only one person out of a hundred over the age of six was able to tolerate lactose without strong digestive reactions. (incidentally, the two-month study took pace in the school cafeteria where ubiquitous posters proclaimed that milk was essential to good nutrition.)

The ability of Native children to tolerate milk fades after the age of three or so, and tends to pinch off entirely by eight or ten. It has often been reported that these children do extremely well in school until they reach third or fourth grade. Has anyone investigated any possible correlation between elevated milk intolerance and classroom performance over the K through 5th grade years? Might we not expect that a student fighting off gastric discomfort will not perform up to his or her full capacity?

Twenty years ago, the overwhelming majority of Indian children attended boarding schools operated either by the Federal Government or by a wide variety of churches. In recent years, the boarding school has steadily lost students and its central place in Indian education. Two prevailing currents have contributed to this: pressure by parents for local reservation facilities, and the steady growth of off-reservation populations using public schools.

Yet the final stake has not yet been driven through the heart of the boarding schools, and children are still being removed from their homes for months, and even years, in some cases - into a situation of determined indoctrination and acculturation. Whether Church or Federal, the technique is regimentation and its goal assimilation. The most profound impact on the children is the enormous contrast that is drawn between their home lives and the promises of the school system. The children are encouraged to make comparisons, and come away troubled and shaken.

Many experience a feeling of guilt for the first time in their lives and don't know how to deal with it. As time goes by, their ability to contrast the two worlds becomes more acute, and all the more poignant. Family and tribe lose out to the insistent noise of the Anglo world, its teachers, preachers, television, and John Wayne movies. History is redesigned to show that "White is Right," that manifest destiny is inexorable.

Anglo religious teachers inform the children that the old ways are pagan and evil. The rich ceremonial lives of all the tribes and nations are cut off from them by distance and ceremonial calendar. Participating in obligatory rites for one's family and relatives is no longer possible. Ceremonies which mark the passage from childhood to adulthood are not performed. (It is not unusual to find middle-aged Indians of either sex undergoing rituals for the first time which normally begin at puberty.)

To explain how imperative the Mormon Foster Child Placement Program is for the salvation of Indian children, the late Spencer W. Kimball, prophet and president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, once observed that:

" When you go down on the reservation and see these hundreds of thousands of Indians living in the dirt and without culture or refinement of any kind, you can hardly believe it. Then you see these boys and girls (placed in Mormon homes) playing the flute, the piano. All these things bring about a normal culture. "

In the same Los Angeles Times interview, Kimball had noted, "The children in the home placement program in Utah are often lighter (in skin color) than their brothers and sisters in the hogans on the reservations." You should know that the Mormon program is exempt from the Indian Child Welfare Act, passed by Congress despite strong tribal protest.

Assuming penal as well as educational functions, the boarding schools have long held a notorious reputation for meting out physical and mental punishment. Yvonne Winde, of Sisseton/Wahpeton, suggests that the recent phenomenon of child and wife abuse among Indians, may be directly related to learning these patterns from such schools. If it is true that those who have been abused become themselves abusers, the pattern may be set in this way. There are in some places third and fourth' generation boarding school graduates .

In face of such persistent pressure, how do the children fare? Some are resilient and resistant. Others retreat in shock. And still others become true converts to assimilation, like the Janissaries under the Turks.

Then there is that body of Indian students who live in a world where the force of native culture has become attenuated, that is to say, "off-rez." Included here are some students who attended public and federal day schools on or near reservations and who are sometimes called "border-town kids.

"There is the old Iroquois saying about how one cannot for long have one's feet placed in two canoes...most Indians must more or less permanently live away from the homelands of their cultures and dream of the day when they can retire to the reservation -
if they have one."

Surrounded on all sides by the insistency of Mainstream America, Native people of all ages find it extraordinarily difficult to span two ways of life and still remain tranquil. There is the old Iroquois saying about how one cannot for long have one's feet placed in two canoes. To be able operate effectively in both cultures with a certain level of authenticity, has been called "controlled schizophrenia." Perhaps it is. In any event, it is difficult to maintain a satisfactory self-concept under these circumstances, and young people tend to worry a great deal about their authenticity. City youth yearn for "the old ways" or "going back to the rez." And, indeed, there is much nomadism between city and reservation or home community. But to economically survive in today's world, most Indians must more or less permanently live away from the homelands of their cultures and dream of the day when they can retire to the reservation - if they have one. They will rarely say hello to other Indians unless formally introduced. Many major cities have Indian centers providing opportunities to meet, get news from home, and to participate in the stylized powwow culture that has been developing nationally during this century.

Yet many young Indians have been completely disenfranchised from their heritage. They have been severed from cultural roots either by the migrations of parents or grandparents who retained no ties, or by adoption or foster home placement. With the renaissance of Indian culture currently unfolding, these young Indians desperately seek their origins. Sometimes those origins are retrievable; sometimes they are not. Here are where stereotypes come into play: while non - Indians harbor unrelenting opinions about what Indians should look like and act like, Indians do, too. The more remote from the wellspring of one's culture, the more susceptible are young Indians to "buy" the stereotypes, behaving and dressing in a fabricated stylized way. Matching the stylized behavior to the inner self is impossible, and the resultant stress for youth caught up in the syndrome is unyielding. A study made in Oklahoma indicated that while young males are commiting suicide at an enormously accelerated rate, those who do so have been adjudged "more acculturated" than those with who they were compared in the control group. Suicide as a mode of behavior is rarely found in native legend and the ethnographic literature. The current suicide rate is alarming, and the fact that it appears almost exclusively among teenaged males makes us pause and wonder why this should be.

In the final analysis, then, if growing up is never easy, growing up Indian in Anglo American today is doubly difficult. Yet, we are duty bound to confront and try to solve the unique problems that engulf Native children as they try to become resilient adults in a generally inhospitable American society.

Although I cannot presume to speak for all Indians, I believe that many of us are ready to help scientists and humanitarians with useful skills and insights. Are you ready to help?

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