Margaret Jacobs, a UC Davis graduate and award-winning scholar, is an expert on the forced removal of indigenous children from their families in Australia, Canada and the U.S., and efforts at reconciliation for these past wrongs. Jacobs, a professor in history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, gave the talk “Indigenous Children’s Rights and Settler Colonial Wrongs,” as part of the Human Rights Studies Program lecture series April 20, 2017.
Countries that had boarding schools for indigenous children argued that it saved them from poverty and brought them into the larger European-based society. But the children were often subject to emotional, physical and sexual abuse, and the result of the programs was “cultural genocide,” said Jacobs, who earned two graduate degrees in history at UC Davis (M.A. ’92, Ph.D. ’96).
The schools broke up families, undermined native culture and were used to open land for white settlers, she said. The schools, often run by churches, existed from the middle to late 19th century until as late as the 1990s.
Child removal took place on “an epic scale,” she said, with as many as a third of all indigenous children in Australia and Canada taken from their families.
To force families to turn children over to the boarding schools and adoption, authorities “withheld rations and used brute force” in a “military-style regime,” said Jacobs, winner of a Bancroft Prize for her book White Mother to a Dark Race.
Starting in the 1990s in Canada and Australia, grassroots movements, government inquiries and Truth and Reconciliation Commissions began to emerge to address what had happened to native children. Those who had gone to the schools told their stories, often horror stories, and there have been national apology events and formal apologies from the governments.
Kevin Rudd’s first act when elected Australian prime minister in 2008 was to issue a formal apology. Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper followed suit a few months later. Notably missing from the dialogues about removal of indigenous children is the United States.
“The United States has its own ‘stolen generation’ but there is little public awareness let alone inquiries,” she said. In 2010, President Barak Obama signed the Native American Apology Resolution that was buried in a defense appropriations spending bill and was not publicized.
Improvements in indigenous people’s lives—closing the income gap between indigenous people and the rest of the nation, increasing life expectancy and decreasing infant mortality—have been slow to materialize, Jacobs said.
The final lecture for the academic year will be May 4 by Susannah Sirkin, director of international policy and partnerships at Physicians for Human Rights.
— Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the College of Letters and Science