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


Generational Cycles of Abusive Behavior



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Generational Cycles of Abusive Behavior


The risk factors for abusive and criminal behavior did not evolve in isolation. Today, survival of Native people is remarkable given that entire tribal cultures were destroyed. The atrocities continued unabated by removal from the traditional lands; introduction of old world diseases; disregarding consensus in decisions; encouragement of alcohol usage; confinement with limited resources; removal of children; murdering for bounties; greed for land, gold, water and other natural resources; and, increased military and civil conflicts that diminished members. It was against this framework of inconsistent, unpredictable, non-supportive policies of an emerging government that began a period of regulation, legislation, and control that contributed to Native victimization. Governmental attitudes and polices contributed to the vulnerable position of Native tribes and created the opportunity for other demoralizing circumstances that increased the risk for later injustice. The cycle of violence has been fostered. Sanctions for illegal or criminal behavior directed at Native people was non-existent or held limited consequences.

The effects upon Native families were devastating. Children were taken from their homes to be “civilized” under the assumption that given enough education they would no longer consider themselves Indian. What was once accepted and taught to children about who they were as a tribal person became distorted and demeaning. The sense of self was undermined and tribal people were caught in the marginal landscape of jurisdiction, limited resources, and personal and emotional deprivation.

It is against this backdrop that the long-term effects of boarding and mission schools with its lingering legacy of victim issues emerged. The purpose of boarding schools and missions was “to provide for the U.S. government a method to education and civilize Native children away from the influences of their savage lifestyle and unchristian ways.” Most boarding schools functioned similar to the military, enforcing rigid structure and punitive discipline. The early regime of strict discipline in the Indian schools did not change for many generations.

Boarding schools existed as early as 1700’s but blossomed from 1880-1960. Boarding schools were the breeding place for emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Boarding schools were initially established in the eastern area of the new United States. As tribes were moved west and more encounters with western tribes occurred, the military and boarding and mission schools relocated to remote areas on the fringe of “westward civilization.” By 1887 more than 200 boarding schools existed with an enrollment of over fourteen thousand Native children.

The history of the authoritarian rule of boarding schools is notorious. Students were severely punished for infractions of speaking their Native language or practicing their traditional beliefs. Common experiences for children in boarding schools included:


  • harsh and cruel punishment for behaviors defined as infractions or rule breaking,

  • whipped and beaten for typical behavior appropriate for children who were scared or frightened,

  • denied contact with family for months and sometimes years,

  • denied medical care,

  • used as indentured servants,

  • punished for using their Native language,

  • limitations placed on amount of food, clothing, and shelter they received,

  • non-notification of parents upon child’s death, and,

  • burial on school grounds without markers or ceremony.






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