U. S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs 810 Seventh Street, N. W. Washington, D. C. 20531 Janet Reno


Social Structure and the Breakdown of Family Structure



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Social Structure and the Breakdown of Family Structure


Several generations of Native parents were raised in boarding schools. Many families with limited resources and lacking food and shelter sought boarding school assistance for their children. Boarding schools offered food, clothing, shelter, education and hope; but for many Native people, the disadvantages far outweighed the advantages. Students never had the opportunity to experience or embrace a traditional family environment or experience what it was like to negotiate or work out compromises with elders, siblings or extended family members. They were not taught their responsibility within the tribal unit. The void that occurred was quickly absorbed in destructive and unhealthy habits. Alcohol, risk taking, aggressiveness, hostility, limited coping, and marginal relationship skills emerged as replacements for being disassociated from the tribe. With the passage of time, students in boarding schools were more likely to come from a foster care environment and more likely to have had parents that attended boarding school. Students in boarding schools were more likely to have a history of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. Some families embraced formal religion in order to combat the effects of abuse and other hardships. Others sought education to change social programs as a way to build a foundation for families, while others fought an uphill battle to gain the right to govern themselves. In spite of these valiant attempts, Native people continued to suffer and true accountability for violations was denied them. Finally in 1970, the Bureau of Indian Affairs began the closing of boarding schools, however the damage was done and the toll immeasurable.

There is historical evidence that tribes were cognizant of the danger of incest, sexually inappropriate behavior, or other physical injury toward others. All Native cultures appear to have strong sanctions against incest, defined by inappropriate sexual relations with immediate and extended family members. Many contemporary families make statements to their children not to date “so and so” since they are related in an “Indian way.” Most tribal groups continue to recognize the extended family system and the informal adoptions that occur.

Historically, violators of the incest taboo were punished by banishment, death, or stripped of all rights and honor. This does not mean that tribal members did not allow sexual activity among relations. Tribal protocol allowed for sexual teasing and bantering, and in some situations, actual sexual relationships between certain individuals in order to defuse tension and create a balance of power. Appropriate sexual activity was seen as natural and understood as part of the procreation of life. Understanding tribal social mores regarding sexual behavior maintained order and structure and defined expectations in relationships.

Many tribes have some version of the story of the relationship between a brother and sister. The story goes something like this:

“Neither married, but the sister had a lover who visited her only at night. He would not allow her to see his face. They enjoyed each other’s company and she wanted to know who he was. One night she smeared ashes on her finger and when her lover came, she touched his face in the dark. The next morning she looked about for someone with ash marks. She discovered her brother was the one with ashes smeared across his face. The brother was shamed and left the tribe. The brother became the moon and the sister became the sun. The moon still has the ash marks that can be seen today and rarely can one see the moon out when the sun is bright”

In many tribes, rape was perceived as a shameful act on the part of the male participant. Rape typically occurred as a result of insult in a marriage or other social violation. A man would announce that his wife was “out on the prairie.” Young, unattached males would then be able to take advantage of her. However, this was seen as immature behavior since other women and men of the tribe would harass the male participants for their behavior. It was more acceptable for one to “walk away” from a marriage than to bring shame to the family by calling attention to the failure of the marriage. In some acts of adultery involving a woman, it was acceptable for the offended spouse to cut the tip of the wife’s nose off or disfigure her in some way. In other cases, a man may just take up housekeeping with someone else and not acknowledge his former spouse again. She, in turn would be free to establish a marriage with a younger male who may be a better provider. Or, she could destroy all of his goods, kill his horse, or “throw him away.” It was much more likely that a spouse would be “thrown away” rather than bring shame to the family by not staying married.

Other aspects of family structure that changed was the status of spouses. Economic, social, or familial responsibility may dictate a male assume more than one wife. As late as 1920’s and 1930’s, families were made up of sisters married to one man. The Indian Commissioner imposed sanctions against families if polygamy was discovered or reported.

The social structure of most tribes protected members from harmful activities that were abusive, damaging, or inappropriate which probably would be viewed as illegal or criminal today. Children were punished not out of anger, but the focus was on whether the child’s inappropriate behavior could bring shame to the family or tribe. Disciplinarians were usually uncles or aunts or another designated person who dispensed punishment when necessary. Cultural events also reinforced compliant behavior, for the most part, tribal members were not subject to sexual abuse or severe physical punishment. Bringing shame to the family was sufficient punishment for most individuals to stop the inappropriate behavior because the entire band or clan was aware and reinforced discipline through social sanctions.

Another system in place that undermined the sense of family security was the services offered by child welfare or child protection. For many years, the Bureau of Indian Affairs Social Services maintained jurisdiction for children placed outside the home and initially the removal of children was primarily based on conditions of poverty. Children were taken from families because of perceived “neglectful conditions.” Extended family placement was viewed as being less than ideal or inappropriate based on criteria determined by the Child Welfare/Social Services agencies. These agencies employed non-Indian standards and lacked an understanding of the extended family system that functioned within many tribes.

Social Services began shipping troubled, multiple-placement kids from one boarding school to another without understanding the dynamics of moving students without follow-up treatment nor cognizant of the emotional history students brought to the schools. There was little or no sharing of background information between social service programs and school sites when students were transferred. Social services programs began to contend with high numbers of parents abusing drugs and alcohol. Few treatment resources existed in tribal or federal school systems. Social services, law enforcement, and legal services were contending with children, parents, and grandparents within the same family and a bottomless pit of problems that did not respond to imposed interventions.

Today there is more recognition of the historic child welfare practices regarding Native parents that have impacted generations of Native families. It contributed to the decline of parents to care for their children, creating more victims while placing individuals in vulnerable positions to be victimized repetitively.

Many present problems contribute to parents being unable and/or unwilling to care for and provide for their children. All tribes have experienced living under new and changing social conditions that resulted in the loss of traditional lifestyles, cultural values and teachings, social norms and sanctions, and parental guidance and instruction. The family system of clan/band living and sharing has been disrupted, resulting in the lack of support for the most susceptible members – children, elderly, imprisoned, disabled, mental ill, and suicidal. At one time susceptible individuals had an extended system of relations to assist and address their concerns; now many do not know their tribe, their clan, or their extended family.

Historically Native families used the extended network of family members to rear children. Segmented members in urban settings have replaced the extended family network of rearing children. Original ties to extended relationships became almost non-existent or marginal. This vulnerable population struggles with protection toward children, violations against spouses, high incarceration rate of adolescents and young adult males, crippling statistics on automobile injuries and death, and the increase in elderly abuse. Lateral violence in Native communities astounds all. It appears that empathy and compassion among tribal members has been totally eliminated when stories are told of vicious and random attacks against young people by members of their own communities. There seems to be a complete disregard for humanity as bodies are recovered from burned out automobiles or left lingering along isolated roads to be discovered weeks or months later. The astonishment is that no one questioned the disappearance of a family member, only to discover that he has been murdered without his disappearance being reported. Families are struggling and are not without fault in this tangled web of uncaring. The history of generational abuse offers families limited choices as they contend with violence and the inability to exhibit appropriate nurturing behavior toward one another.

The destruction of structure that once governed the social interactions between parties took away more than just relationships. It removed accountability and honor and left shame. Today’s generation of Native people can be described as:



  • having a higher likelihood of a history of substance abuse usage within the family,

  • having a higher likelihood of first pregnancy as adolescent and increased likelihood of having children later in life,

  • having a longer period for child-bearing years,

  • having a higher likelihood of only having a GED equivalent,

  • having three generations living within the household,

  • having a history of oppression, generational grief, depression, anxiety, and shame,

  • if male, most likely to have a high suicide rate,

  • if male, most likely to have a history of incarceration or probation,

  • living below the poverty level, living in substandard housing, and living in isolation,

  • an age of less than 21 years old,

  • having a higher likelihood of living on a reservation if older individual; higher likelihood of living in an urban area if younger individual,

  • having a higher likelihood of dying before non-Native peers.



Federal Policies and Events


It is helpful to understand the past Indian policies of the federal government and their impact on the current conditions facing Native families. Below is a historical or chronological overview of the policies and the foundation for the federal government in their approach toward Native tribes:
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