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By Chuck Haga, Forum News Service, Published April 21 2013

At Spirit Lake, challenge can be to keep kids safe – and Indian

GRAND FORKS – On a Spirit Lake reservation torn by factional infighting, the leader of an American Indian advocacy group arrives to find 25 percent of all Dakota Indian children living in foster care with white families.

Two months later, five Dakota mothers and the tribal chairman accompany William Byler, director of the Association on American Indian Affairs, to New York. There, the mothers tell reporters their families certainly are poor, their children often without adequate food or shoes, but they are just as certainly loved.

One, Mrs. Left Bear, tells that all five of her children were taken from her despite her protests. Indian children should remain with their families, she and the others say – for their identity and for the tribe’s identity.

That happened in 1968.

As Spirit Lake grapples today with issues of child protection, including foster care, it faces some of the same vexing dilemmas the tribe faced in 1968 and before: chronic poverty and unemployment, internal feuds, the presence of known sex predators, and a lack of adequate housing, which can force three or four generations to share a roof.

So how does the tribe best protect its children?

In 1968, Byler wrote that the government needed “to expose the scandalous situation regarding forcible removal of Indian youngsters without due process of law, which has reached epidemic proportions.”

Recalling history

The account appears in “Mni Wakan Oyate (Spirit Lake Nation), a History of the Sisituwan, Wahpeton, Pabaksa and other Dakota that Settled at Spirit Lake, North Dakota,” published in 2007 and commissioned by Cynthia Lindquist, president of Cankdeska Cikana Community College.

“I believed it was important that we have sources for who we are innately as a people,” Lindquist said.

To preserve its culture and identity while “being in both worlds,” the tribe and its members – and non-Indian people who would deal with them – need to understand the harmful effects of boarding schools and other attempts at assimilation, she said.

“We have to deal with the stereotypes,” she said. “We have to know how this country was settled and how the people who were here were treated. That history is what happened to us, and understanding it helps to explain this sense of helplessness that so many feel.

“But despite everything – the denial of culture, sex abuse by the churches and boarding schools, the alcohol and all the traumas – we are still here. We have a culture.”

The history of how Spirit Lake came to be “shows the importance of believing in something,” Lindquist said, the power of “the spiritual belief of indigenous people, and the importance of relationships. We have to unlearn the dependent lifestyle we have been forced to live.”

Setting a priority

In 1978, Congress responded to the high numbers of Indian children being removed from their homes by passing the Indian Child Welfare Act, or ICWA.

The intent, Congress said, was to “protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families.” That would be done by setting standards to be met in state child custody cases involving Indian children.

Some non-Indian foster parents who have taken in children from Spirit Lake say they are frustrated and confused by practices that seem not to be in the children’s best interests. They describe – on background, due to privacy concerns and confidentiality agreements – how Indian children are sometimes returned to homes despite clear evidence of drug and alcohol abuse, violence and neglect.

“Kids get sent back who never should be sent back,” one foster mother said.

Tribal and foster care officials will not discuss specific cases involving minor children.

Who’s at fault?

Controversy over the sexual abuse of children at Spirit Lake raises other complications: How extensive, actually, is the problem? What policies, actions or inactions contribute to it? What should be done to better protect vulnerable kids?

Some at Spirit Lake and beyond fault tribal and federal officials for not aggressively pursuing cases of alleged abuse and neglect, including several cited in reports by federal whistleblower Thomas Sullivan with the Administration for Children and Families in Denver.

The U.S. attorney for North Dakota and other officials have told Spirit Lake members that all cases of suspected abuse brought to their attention have been or are being investigated. In some cases, available testimony and evidence would not support prosecution, they said. Other cases remain open.

Shirley Cain, chief tribal judge at Spirit Lake, has said no children are placed by the court with registered sex offenders. That does not mean, however, that no children wind up in reservation homes where members of the extended family may include a convicted and registered sex offender, whose status does not necessarily mean he is legally barred from living in a home with children.

Indian homes

ICWA applies off-reservation. Most reservations have implemented their own standards, also asserting the primacy of Indian homes for Indian children.

At Spirit Lake, Cain and other tribal officials say their first priority is to place an Indian child with close family members. The next preferred placement is with members of the extended family, then with another Indian family, and finally with a non-Indian family.

Such policies help to safeguard tribal culture and individual and tribal identity, said Erich Longie, a Spirit Lake elder who manages a consulting company on the reservation and leads workshops on traditional Dakota Indian values.

“I understand the argument we can’t return them to abusive homes,” he said. But non-Indians also need to understand history, he said.

“Go back to the boarding school days,” Longie said, when Indian children routinely were shipped off to white-run schools where they were not allowed to speak their own language or practice other traditions.

“I caught the tail end of them,” he said. “I went to a (Bureau of Indian Affairs) school. My mom ... when she talked about the boarding schools, she talked about how hard it was to learn the language, how misunderstanding the teachers were. They had no clue what Indian people were about. They did everything they could to erase their culture.

“Out of that developed a deep suspicion that the white man is going to change you, take all that’s Indian out of you.”

Prospective white foster parents may be wonderful, loving people with the best of intentions for Indian children, Longie said, “but they come from a different world, a world we could never be part of, yet they come to our world and have complete control. They take our children and put them in homes far away, just like boarding school.”

‘Unjust removal’

After his 1968 visit to Spirit Lake, Byler reported: “As sad and terrible as conditions are that Indian children must face as they grow up, nothing exceeds the cruelty of being unjustly and unnecessarily removed from their families. Today, in this Indian community, a welfare worker is looked (upon) ... as a symbol of fear rather than of hope.”

He quoted one of the mothers, Alvina Alberts.

“They want to assimilate Indians into the white race,” she said. “They’re starting with the kids because they couldn’t do it to us. They are using white middle-class standards to judge the Indian way of life …

“We want our children and our grandchildren, but we are not allowed to keep them. We are told we have no rights. Sometimes we don’t know which way to turn or what to do. We need help. We are too backward. Sometimes our people just despair and give up their children without a fight.”

The mothers appealed to federal officials in Washington, who sent a child welfare consultant to Spirit Lake.

“She later reported that there was 1) too little casework service to prevent family break-up on the reservation, 2) a lack of knowledge about legal procedures for placing children in foster care, and 3) too many older foster care givers,” Diedrich wrote in his history of the Spirit Lake Nation.

Two years later, in 1970, the tribe hosted a conference on child welfare for tribal, county, state and federal representatives. Much of the talk centered on needs: family counseling, juvenile delinquency programs, better housing.

The tribe is still talking about those needs.

‘They were lost’

“I remember in the years before ICWA, many friends of my youth were taken away,” Longie said.

“As soon as they turned 18, they returned,” he said. “But they were lost, many of them. They didn’t know who they were. They didn’t feel part of that outside world, but you were gone so long you don’t feel part of this world, either.

“Many, because of that, had a tough life, a short life. They couldn’t cope with the extreme changes in their lives. They often turned to drugs and alcohol. So why should we want to keep sending our kids off the reservation?”

How, then, should the tribe secure its children against predators?

“We need to return to our traditional values and encourage honesty, courage, generosity and perseverance,” Longie said. “If you live by those values, your life won’t be dysfunctional, and we will have good parents, good teachers, and good leaders who will lead us in a proper manner.

“Of course, that’s easier said than done. To live by those values, you have to have been raised by those values. I was, and that has given me a satisfaction with my life here I couldn’t find anywhere else.”