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August 09, 2021

ABA House supports inquiry into past programs to ‘civilize’ Indigenous persons

The American Bar Association House of Delegates has embraced efforts by the U.S. Department of Interior to make a full accounting of the forced assimilation and attempted eradication of native people through compulsory “residential schools” that occurred decades ago.

The HOD, as the 597-member policy-making body is known, adopted policy on Aug. 9 that urges all individuals, governments and organizations to support the Interior’s Indian Boarding School Initiative and the Truth and Healing Commission. The new effort partners with tribal nations and organizations to investigate the extent for which the U.S. established forced boarding schools to eradicate Indigenous culture, similar to an effort ongoing in Canada.

The adoption of Resolution 801 came during the two-day HOD meeting, which will end midday Tuesday. The HOD session concludes the 2021 ABA Hybrid Annual Meeting, which began Aug. 4.

The federal investigation seeks to gather information on possible unmarked graves at boarding school facilities in the U.S., and on the decades of institutionalized, federally funded cultural assimilation that has led to a host of negative outcomes for survivors and their families, from mental health issues to the loss of entire communal generations

The ABA proposal emerged this summer concurrent with media reports, mostly from Canada, that found that authorities more than a century ago engaged in efforts to assimilate and “civilize” Indigenous children through the eradication of tribal culture. ABA President Patricia Lee Refo spearheaded the resolution after visiting the Navajo Nation on July 12, and tribal leaders asked for the ABA’s assistance in their efforts to determine what occurred in this country.

By 1909, according to the report accompanying the resolution, there were more than 175 boarding schools and more than 300 day schools in the U.S. alone. Debate on the resolution, which was adopted by a 293-10 vote, generated intense emotion, including remarks from Brad Regehr of Winnipeg, Canada, current president of the Canadian Bar Association. As a member of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, Regehr is the first indigenous person to hold the position of CBA president.

Regehr noted the Canadian efforts were “personal” to him because “my grandfather is a survivor” of the assimilation campaign. He said as many as 25,000 children taken over the years never returned home, and the Canadian efforts have ”found human remains, some as young as 3.”

On Monday, the House also adopted ABA Principles on Law Enforcement Body-Worn Camera Policies. The new policy, Resolution 604, seeks appropriate government entities to develop comprehensive policies regarding the use of cameras, as well as the use and storage of their footage, among eight principles. Supporter Rob Weiner, a Washington, D.C., attorney, noted that “this resolution is one step” to improve police-community relations and serves as a “roadmap for developing policies that will make body-worn cameras to be a more effective tool…that we hope will improve trust in the justice system.”

The HOD also adopted:

  • Two internal ABA governance items. Resolution 11-2 postpones until after the 2023 Annual Meeting determination for whether representation of ABA sections and state and local bar associations should be reduced based on membership numbers. Resolution 11-3 amends various sections of the ABA Constitution, Bylaws and Rules of Procedure as it relates to the House to change gender binary language to gender nonbinary language using the singular “their,” “them” and “they.”
  • A revised Resolution 608 that urges legislation to provide all employees a living wage.

  • Resolution 609, which opposes any federal, state, local, territorial and tribal legislation, regulation or policy that prohibits transgender students from participating in athletics in accordance with their gender identity.

The status of all proposed resolutions and other actions can be found here. Only resolutions adopted by the House become ABA policy.

The House of Delegates reconvenes Aug. 10 to complete its agenda of proposals.