Government, Thought Reform, and Native History

ICSA Today, Volume 8, Number 2, 2017, 2-9

Government, Thought Reform, and Native History

Nancy Miquelon

The use of thought reform has been identified in many settings, including cults and totalitarian governments such as China and Nazi Germany. Rarely, if at all, has it been suggested that the United States government might use such a tactic. In this paper, however, I demonstrate how in my opinion thought reform was used against Native Peoples in this country, and in particular, during what is known as the Boarding School Era. I describe the techniques that were used in terms of the United Nations’ definition of genocide (UN, 1948), Robert Lifton’s criteria of ideological totalism (Lifton, 1969), and the tactics of a thought-reform program identified by Margaret Singer (1995). I also discuss how those practices spread to other parts of the world.

My Connection to the Story

I am a cult survivor. I was involved with the Emissaries of Divine Light for 13 years, from age 19 to age 32. I was involved in several communal settings and married during this time, and was divorced after I left the group. Upon leaving the group, I went through several years of recovery, therapy, and rebuilding my life. I did manage to get my bachelor’s degree in 1975 while in the cult and taught one year. I left the cult in 1984. I returned to school in 1990 and obtained my master’s degree in counseling psychology in 1993. I have been practicing as a counselor since then, including 24 years as a facilitator of the Colorado Cult Recovery Workshop with ICSA (Giambolvo & Henry, 2010). I remarried in 1997, and our life took my husband and me to Southern Colorado, where he began working with the Jicarilla Apache Nation in northern New Mexico. I began working there a couple years later. In 2008, we moved to the reservation, where I have now worked for 14 years.

In many ways, this experience has been the most amazing and fulfilling of my life. It has been like moving to a foreign country, learning a different culture, different beliefs and practices, and even a little of a new language. I have come to love the people and community here. I have learned that the people are survivors, and I have gained a very different perspective on my own cultural background of Western European origin. I have learned that the history I was taught about this country was, at best, incomplete, and, at worst, full of lies and lack of information about inhumane treatment and thought-reform techniques that untold numbers of indigenous people have experienced in this country since the arrival of the Europeans. I am here to share some of that story with you, because I believe you will understand better than many others the implications of what follows.

Overview of Native History

The Native population of the Americas (north and south) prior to 1491 is currently estimated to have been 100 million. In 1491,

More than 500 distinct tribes lived in North America, speaking more than 300 languages from 29 language families. They built massive metropolitan complexes at Cahokia (Illinois) and Tenochtitlan (central Mexico), formed powerful confederacies in the Great Lakes, developed complex social, religious, and political systems, and occupied every corner of the continent not sheathed in ice. The cultural and linguistic diversity of the indigenous peoples of North America dwarfs that of Europe and many other places.... The cultures of North America were dynamic and changing long before European contact. (Treuer, 2013, p. 9)

Most current estimates of the Native population within just the United States and Canada before this period range from 10 to 20 million (Loewen, 2007), with estimates of the population of Europe at that time at about 70 million (Loewen, 2007).

By 1880, however, Native numbers had dropped to 250,000, a decline of about 98 percent (Loewen, 2007). A contributing factor to this decline was the dissemination of disease, which was in some measure inadvertent because Europeans brought illnesses to this country to which the indigenous people had no prior exposure. But once colonizers realized the effect, they often deliberately gave blankets exposed to smallpox and other diseases to the indigenous people. This practice killed many people and destabilized communities because elders, who were the bearers of the oral histories of many tribes, were especially susceptible to disease. Children also were vulnerable, as were adults who could not provide for the community when they too were sick and dying. We would now call this deliberate exposure to disease biological warfare (Stone, 2005).

Another huge factor in the destruction of native communities was the Doctrine of Discovery. This policy began in 1455, with the Catholic Church declaring war against all non-Christians throughout the world, and specifically sanctioning and promoting the conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian nations and their territories.

Pope Nicholas V issued an edict, ... granting “the right of conquest” to Alfonso, King of Portugal, and authorizing him “to invade, search out, capture, vanquish and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever and other enemies of Christ ... and immovable goods ... possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.” (Toensing, 2011, p. 20)

Spain, Portugal, England, France and Holland subsequently carried out the policies. And when Columbus sailed in 1492, this doctrine to take possession of any lands he discovered that were not under the dominion of Christian rulers was well established.

In 1823, the Christian Doctrine of Discovery was adopted into US law by the Supreme Court in the case of Johnson v. McIntosh, which stated that the title to land that had been “discovered and conquered” belonged to the conquering nation, and the indigenous peoples of the land had only a “right of occupancy” (Toensing, 2011, p. 22). Huge numbers of native people were also forced into slavery before Africans were brought to this country for that purpose (Loewen, 2007).

The Indian Wars also had been going on for almost 300 years at this point. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Native Peoples fought only in defense, when they were attacked or defending their homes or land. The attacks by the US military were often brutal, with the intent to dehumanize and demoralize those being attacked.

Assimilation and Acculturation

US federal policies slowly changed over time to those of assimilation and acculturation of indigenous people through their involuntary removal from land; imposition on them of an unnatural social order; suppression of their language, ceremonies, culture and spirituality; and destruction of their indigenous family systems and residential schools, and denial of their historical importance (Stone, 2005). From 1815 to 1860, the government began relocating Indians to west of the Mississippi. In 1830, President Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which began the process of exterminating many tribes and forcing others to move west, many to Oklahoma. Wallace (1993) wrote,

It was a disaster that never really ended. The government thereafter pursued the same policy of buying native lands and relocating Native tribes as the nation moved westward. The Indian Territory became a vast, poverty-stricken concentration camp for dispossessed Natives, administered by a federal bureaucracy—The Office of Indian Affairs—that largely controlled the economy, the local police and local schools. (as cited in Hunt, 2012, p. 23)

In 1851, the Indian Appropriations Act formalized the process of reservations and forced relocations. The Trail of Tears refers to the forced removal of five tribes from the Southeastern regions of the United States between 1831 and 1838. The Navajo Long Walk refers to the forced relocation of these tribes from 1864 to 1868.

The history of the Jicarilla Apache, with whom my husband and I work and live, is an example of this forced process: At the 1854 battle of Cieneguilla, in which Kit Carson was working with the army in Santa Fe, near Taos, New Mexico, drunken soldiers picked a fight with the Jicarilla Apache. Many soldiers died, and the Jicarilla were forced to march to the Mescalero Apache reservation 365 miles away in southern New Mexico. They walked back to their homeland, were forced to march once again back to Mescalero, and walked yet again to their homelands in northern New Mexico before, on February 11, 1887, by executive order, a reservation was established for the Jicarilla Apache in their homeland (Nordhaus, 1995).

In 1871, a revision by Congress to the Indian Appropriations Act discontinued treaty making (such as it was) and made all Indians wards of the US government. In 1887, the Dawes Act was passed, whereby the government divided reservation land into parcels that were awarded to individuals. This act was promoted as an attempt to improve the conditions of the Natives. In reality, it was another attempt at assimilation by breaking personal and family ties with the tribes. More Indian lands were taken away, reducing those Native lands from 138 million to 48 million acres (Toensing, 2012; Newcomb, 2012).

The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, which declared Native people US citizens, was presented as an effort to recognize Native people by granting them citizenship. But the law was another assimilation attempt by the government, which again destroyed tribal ties and replaced them with US citizenship. And even though Natives were officially granted US citizenship, all states did not go along with this policy, and full voting rights for all Native Americans were not in place until 1948.

The Boarding-School Era

The education of Native Americans became a major concern of non-Natives in the latter half of the 1800s, and related funding was allocated and given to churches and missionary schools. Lessons were often taught in both English and the Native language, but with the religious teaching given more importance than general education. This policy was soon changed to an English-only policy (Hunt, 2012).

The Federal Indian Boarding School system was developed and implemented by Richard Pratt, for the Anglicization of tribal students, through Pratts’ belief in “killing the Indian to save the man.” Pratt implemented the strategy of taking children away from their parents and reprogramming them under the auspices of the government. In 1879, Carlisle Boarding School in Pennsylvania was opened and Native youth began the forced trip there. Natives who attended this type of school endured daily punishment for speaking, writing, or even acting in an Indian fashion. A boarding-school student spent the first half of a typical day learning and the second half doing manual labor, which it was thought would help them when they finished school. The goal was to make Natives dress, speak, and act like Whites. (Hunt, 2012). The structure was military discipline and the goal was to assimilate the children completely into American culture (Hunt, 2012). In the beginning years of this policy, children were not allowed family contact for at least 8 years. As the Carlisle School succeeded, the model was expanded by Congress to 23 more schools. As time passed, children were allowed to go home summers, and sometimes holidays if the family could pick the children up.

The Bureau of Indians Affairs (BIA) pressured parents into sending their children to these schools by withholding food, clothing, and other resources if the children did not go. Many children were taken by force. There are people still alive today who tell of hiding when officials would come to the house, to try to escape being taken to the school. The conditions were often substandard in the schools, with overcrowding, inadequate facilities, and not enough food. Corporal punishment was commonplace. I have been told of people being kept in the school basement for days, with no supplies or facilities. Children were often made to kneel in a corner for hours with a pinto bean under their knees. Children who dared would sneak out behind buildings with siblings or friends to speak their language. If caught, they were severely beaten.

In 1928, a study titled the “Meriam Report” set forth in detail much of the mistreatment the US government had inflicted upon Native Americans:

In 1933, John Collier, the new commissioner of Indian Affairs, finally addressed many of the issues flagged in the Meriam Report. One of his major accomplishments was getting the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (IRA) brought before Congress. This repealed the Indian General Allotment Act and restored tribal self-government. (Hunt, 2012, p. 26)

Native culture, religious life, and history were to be considered equal to any other group. This movement, however, proved disastrous; it led to the Indian Termination Act of 1953, which stripped Natives of their sovereignty and land, terminated all treaties, and ended government funding. By decreeing Natives full citizens of the United States and forcing assimilation, this law was destroying their culture and identity. The law was reversed in the early 1970s.

Forced Adoption

Another aspect of assimilation was the practice of adopting children out of the tribe, often by force and without the consent or even the knowledge of their families. In their adopted homes, children were not educated about or exposed to their tribal roots or languages. Adoption records were not kept or were destroyed, so the families could not be traced. I have met people in their thirties who were adopted under this program and still do not know which tribe they are from or to which family they belong.

The practice of adopting children out of the tribe was again, initially, an attempt at assimilation, and ultimately, dissolution of the tribes. Many churches contributed to the adoption practice, from Catholic missions, to missionaries of most Protestant denominations, to Mormonism. Even today, people come to reservations with the intent of converting Native people to Christianity. This practice was halted by the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, the purpose of which was to

protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes by the establishment of minimum Federal standards for the removal of Indian children from their families and the placement of such children in foster or adoptive homes which will reflect the unique values of Indian culture, and by providing assistance to Indian tribes in the operation of child and family service programs. (ICWA, 1978)

US Government Policy and Its Parallels to Thought Reform

The many policies promulgated by the US government during its attempt to force assimilation of Native Americans resulted in loss or disruption of language; suppression of spiritual practices and beliefs; suppression of culture through enforced changes in grooming and dress; and disruption of families through placements of children in distant schools, with no home visits allowed (Brave Heart, cited by Poola, Gorman, Delong, & Trujillo, 2008).1 These tactics, as I suggested at the start of this talk, are tactics of thought reform that Robert Lifton described as used by totalitarian governments, and Margaret Singer as used by cults. They are, in fact, clearly named as elements of genocide in the United Nations General Assembly’s Convention on Genocide!

Even Nazi Germany was patterned after the United States policies toward Native Americans:

Nazi Germany’s extermination program for Jews is the genocide remembered today as the template of all genocide. However, we have forgotten the origin of Hitler’s vision. European Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, communists, and handicapped people were destined to become Europe’s Indians. Hitler saw the settlement of the New World and the concomitant elimination of North America’s Indian population by white European settlers as a model to be followed by Germany on the European continent. The inspiration for the Fuhrer’s concentration camp ovens came from his study of the Indians in the wild West; …He apprised his inner circle through citing the efficiency of America’s extermination—by starving and uneven combat—of the red savages who could not be tamed by captivity. (Buck, 2001, p. 94)

Table 1 depicts parallels between genocide and thought-reform criteria, techniques, and conditions and US government policy as applied to Native Americans throughout history.

Table 1. Parallels Between Genocide, Thought-Reform Techniques, and Government Policy As Applied To Native Americans

The Experiences of Walter Littlemoon

In They Called Me Uncivilized: The Memoir of an Everyday Lakota Man from Wounded Knee (2009), Walter Littlemoon tells how some of these policies impacted his life as a Native American. Littlemoon’s story was made into a PBS special entitled The Thick Dark Fog. Here is his description:

Shortly after my fifth birthday in 1947, a shiny gray car pulled up to our home with two strangers in it. My mother was crying. She told me I had to go with those people in the car. I had no warning, no preparation. Perhaps she thought it was best that way or perhaps she wasn’t expecting them. I don’t know.

I sat in the backseat of the car with my head down, scared to look around, as the men took me for a long drive. They finally stopped at a strange, foreign place with tall buildings. Other children were gathered there. I was overwhelmed by strange smells, sounds of children talking and crying, all the big, tall buildings, everyone speaking a language I didn’t understand. … Then, in the confusion, I saw my sister, Pauline, and I ran to her crying. Gently, she told me not to cry, that Mom would come get me in a month. As we stood there, two stern-looking women marched up to us. Pauline told me I had to go with them. When I hesitated because I felt confused, they pushed me along roughly into one of the buildings and abruptly sat me in a chair. Within minutes, all my hair was cut off; I was stripped naked and scrubbed with harsh yellow soap and a stiff brush until my skin was raw. It stung so. The women spoke a language I didn’t understand and slammed my back with an open hand when I questioned them in Lakota. (Littlemoon, 2009, pp. 37–38)


We would shower in the dormitory basement twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays; at home, we had bathed more frequently. ... We’d come out into a dressing room area naked, wrap towels around ourselves, and then be made to line up for inspection [by the matrons]. … There was no privacy. … If we turned our backs on them for privacy, they’d whip us. (Littlemoon, 2009, p. 43)

Walter Littlemoon wrote that, in his adult life,

Even today, all these years later, when I drive near those schools my head throbs and I feel sick to my stomach. ... [The old dormitory is gone] and new buildings have replaced it. It seems to me those school buildings, and even the land around them, are embedded with frustration, resentment, anger, and hate… When I occasionally need to return, everything inside of me shuts down. Those places represent hell to me. (2009, p. 52)

Littlemoon described the impact of his education on his adult life: ”It seemed to me that our lives had been so firmly shaped by the government boarding schools that we had difficulty making our own decisions” (p. 58). In public settings, at even what was supposed to be fun, such as a sporting event, “we just sat quietly in a guarded way for emotional responses had been killed in us” (2009, p. 59).

Looking back now, after more than thirty sober years, my memories of that time of indifference still appall me. Yet, that’s what happened to many of us who were tortured as children; we sought relief through alcohol and drugs. Our ability to feel and to be human had been taken away. (Littlemoon, 2009, p. 68)

The Healing Process

The term historical trauma was formulated as a result of this Native American history and experience. Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart (Lakota) has defined historical trauma as “the cumulative emotional and psychological wounding, over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma,” and she explains that cumulative exposure to traumatic events affects an individual and continues to affect subsequent generations. The historical trauma response is a constellation of features in reaction to massive group trauma. The response often includes suicidal thoughts and gestures, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and difficulty recognizing and expressing emotions. The response is observed among Native populations, Jewish Holocaust survivors and descendants, Japanese American internment camp survivors and descendants (Brave Heart, 2003, pp. 7–8).

Dr. Yellow Horse Brave Heart, and now many other Native professionals as well, have spent years identifying what happened to Native people and how to assist with healing. Brave Heart has described a historical trauma intervention as having four major components: (1) confronting historical trauma; (2) understanding the trauma; (3) releasing our pain; and (4) transcending the trauma (Brave Heart, cited by Poola et al., 2008). Many Native communities have begun work in this area, some with 4-day conferences, some with ceremonies, some with more appropriate counseling. The community in which I live held a year-long project called The Healing Journey, which I was honored to be a part of. There is much positive movement, healing, and growth in this context in many communities and in many ways.

What Dr. Yellow Horse Brave Heart and others have identified as necessary for healing in Native Americans is parallel to what our ICSA Cult Recovery Workshop identified as necessary for healing in cult survivors:

  • Confronting the trauma—confronting the possibility that the group may have been a cult with its own agenda, and that it did not have our best interests in mind;

  • Understanding the trauma—both the thought reform and how it affected us;

  • Releasing our pain—former members of cults have sessions that address anger and grief; and last,

  • Transcending the trauma—which is about rebuilding our lives and figuring out how to go on from here.

These phases also parallel the work of Judith Herman and are described in her book, Trauma and Recovery. She strongly points out how systems abuse people rather than people having weaknesses. Of primary importance in this process is acknowledgment that the trauma was not the fault of those recruited or coerced into the group, and that people's responses were normal responses to a very abnormal situation (Herman, 1997).

The Current Story

The United States has not made a formal public apology to the Native peoples, although a written apology was entered into the back pages of a Department of Defense funding bill in 2009 (Capriccioso, 2010). One church, the Episcopal Church in America, has publicly renounced the Doctrine of Discovery (WFN, 1997). One state, Maine, has begun its own truth-and-reconciliation process (Maine Wabanaki, 2012).

The state of Indigenous Peoples now includes recovery, survival, restoration of pride, and revival of traditional ways. The Native people who are here and surviving now are strong, resilient. There is a unique Native sense of humor that I am sure developed as a survival tool. At the same time, there is much work ahead. Some Native nations have moved forward economically in very strong ways. Many have strengthened tribal identity and work to strengthen or recover their language. Most communities are working hard to revive and continue traditional spiritual ways.

But there are still huge disparities across the United States in many areas: Domestic violence and physical and sexual assault are three and a half times higher in Native American communities than the national average; Native Americans have the highest weekly alcohol consumption of any ethnic group; suicide rates are 3.2 times higher than the national average; life expectancy at birth is 2.4 years less than that of all US populations combined (Brown-Rice, 2014).

The US government has a strong hold in most Native communities, even though that has lessened in the past 30 years. There is still a Bureau of Indian Affairs and an Office of Indian Education. Some boarding schools and some dorms still exist, though attendance is voluntary, and Native culture is now taught and encouraged most of the time. Some of the boarding schools and some of the public reservation schools now have a large number of Native teachers, which allows students to see people from their own communities in these roles.

There is still oppression in the schools. I was told of a little girl in fifth grade who was writing a paper about a Founding Father of the United States and discovered that the gentleman who founded Rhode Island was very much in favor of buying land from Native people, not just stealing it, and the man was disregarded. She felt very excited to know that someone in history had respected the Native people. But her teacher red-marked this part of her paper and told her to stick to the important stuff. This happened in the past 10 years.

Only last year, when a young person came to school with his face painted in a traditional way because of the death of a family member, the teacher, not having a clue of the significance of the ceremony, laughed and tried to make light of his painted face by saying he was like a clown.

The Indian Health Services staff still dresses in military uniform 2 days a week. Dorm workers are still called matrons. People still describe constant racist interactions when they leave the reservations, even to the point that some of them experience serious anxiety in the face of fear based on real threat of harm. It is my observation that all these experiences retraumatize people.

What Does All This Mean for Us?

We at this conference share an interest, and often personal experience, in the ways human beings can exploit other human beings, from the use of subtle tools of influence to life-threatening and extreme forms of abuse. We speak of the unspeakable. We also bear witness to the strength and resiliency of human beings and the dignity and respect they deserve. Perhaps this discussion about thought-reform programs perpetrated by the US government against Native peoples throughout American history will broaden our knowledge.


[1] These devastating US government policies impacted other areas of the world, as well. Virtually the same policies were repeated in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. South Africa had a similar policy in apartheid. However, following the defeat of apartheid, South Africa established the Truth and Reconciliation committees, which allowed people to tell their stories and begin to heal (1995). Canada has made an apology to First People, and began its own 5-year Truth and Reconciliation process to hear peoples’ stories of the Boarding School Era there (2008). The government of Australia has made a formal apology to the Aboriginal people (2008). In New Zealand, the Maori people are now involved in all aspects of government and education. For additional details about some of these policies, see,, and (cited elsewhere in this paper).


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About the Author

Nancy Miquelon, LPCC, is a clinical mental health counselor specializing in trauma recovery in adults and children. She is currently a mental health counselor at Dulce Jr/Sr High School. Nancy has been in practice since 1993 and is a cofounder and served on the board of reFOCUS, a cult-survivor support network. From its inception in 1992 to its conclusion in 2016, she was a facilitator at ICSA’s annual Recovery Workshop in Colorado, which initiated a model for cult recovery now widely recognized. In 2010, Nancy received ICSA’s Margaret T. Singer award. Nancy was a member of the Emissaries of Divine Light.