Prologue to "The Lord of the Rings"
Once upon a time, there was a group of children who, it was thought, were in great need of services to help them learn to speak and socialize like other children. Without extensive government programs to teach them proper behavior and language skills at an early age, they were thought to be doomed to a tragic fate of social isolation and unemployment. Accordingly, well-meaning politicians passed laws designed to educate these children, integrate them into mainstream society, and enable them to lead meaningful and productive lives.
No, I'm not talking about autistic children, but about thousands of Native American children who were taken away from their families and sent to boarding schools a century ago. After their families had been uprooted from their traditional way of life and placed on reservations, these children faced an uncertain future.
Several influential advocacy organizations, which purported to speak for rural American Indians but consisted almost entirely of white city-dwellers, declared that the tragic plight of Indian children was a dire social crisis that required immediate attention. It was imperative that these children be taught to speak English, be instructed in acceptable social behavior, and be given suitable vocational education, the advocacy groups declared; otherwise, they would be unemployable and would be a huge burden to society.
Many people responded to appeals for donations toward the construction of boarding schools for Indian children, believing that this was a worthy charitable cause. Children were removed en masse from the reservations and sent to far-away schools where they often had no contact with their parents for years. They were taught that traditional Indian ways were inferior, and they were punished whenever they spoke their native languages or engaged in any culturally Indian behaviors. They received only the simplest vocational training, meant to prepare them to become manual laborers in a racist society that deemed them incapable of anything else.
As a result, many of the children who grew up in these boarding schools lost a considerable amount of their native language and culture. As adults, they existed between two worlds, no longer fully connected to the tribe but never accepted as equals by mainstream society, either. The tribal elders, now isolated on the reservations, could not pass on their history and wisdom to the younger generations as their ancestors had done.
It was not until many years later that the removal of Native American children to boarding schools came to be seen for what it was—another dark and shameful chapter in society's long history of oppressing minority groups. At the time it was happening, most people simply took it for granted that the boarding schools were both charitable and necessary.
The more widespread our prejudices are, the less we can recognize them.