Manataka American Indian Council





Legacy of mistrust ...

And reason to hope
By Nicole Paseka Journal staff writer, Sioux City Journal

The toddler's flash cards begin to tell her story: wee, nah bah, tha blee. One, two, three.

Susette* is a 1-year-old member of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska.  She lives in a foster home in Sioux City because her biological parents are unable to care for her right now. Unlike many American Indian children in foster care, Susette's foster parents are American Indian, not white.

"We have tried really hard to keep this little girl's heritage alive," said Susette's foster mother, Renae.

Renae plans to make Susette a cradle board for her baby doll. Sage hangs over Susette's crib to ward off evil. Photographs on the living room wall show Susette and other Omaha children enjoying a powwow.

Susette's foster father, Michael, 36, is Navajo and Apache. Renae, 36, is Apache. Although they are not members of the Omaha Nation, they have learned everything they can about Omaha culture to pass on to Susette.

That's where the homemade flash cards come in. Michael and Renae want Susette to learn her native tongue. The family has frequent visits with Susette's biological parents and grandparents. When Susette grows up, Michael said he would like her to marry an Omaha man.

Michael and Renae moved to Sioux City from Colorado about two years ago. They said it is important for American Indians to consider becoming foster parents.

"What has happened in the past with our tribal ancestors is terrible," Renae said. "We can never forget, but we have to move forward to create a better future for generations to come."

Disproportionate numbers
Mention the words "Indian" and "foster care" in the tri-state region, and you are certain to hear passionate replies.

The firestorm erupted with the Sept. 24 death of 20-month-old Nathaniel Saunsoci-Mitchell, who lived in a South Sioux City foster home when he received the injuries that ended his life. Although he was placed in that home while he was a ward of the Omaha Tribe, both the Iowa Department of Human Services and the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services were eyed suspiciously after his death.

Members of local tribes have not forgotten the past: Children yanked from happy homes, their hair cropped, their clothes changed, their cultural heritage snuffed out by forced attendance at boarding schools miles away from their parents and tribes.

Local child welfare workers are trying to help American Indian families thrive while working under a legacy of mistrust.

It is not an easy task. But according to state statistics, it is a necessary one.

There are 27,751 children living in Woodbury County of all races and backgrounds, according to Iowa DHS data. Of those children, 975 -- or 3.51 percent -- are American Indian.

There are 956 children in Woodbury County in foster care. Of those children, 149 -- or 15.6 percent -- are American Indian.

So while American Indian children represent 3.51 percent of the child population in Woodbury County, they represent 15.6 percent of children in foster care.

No one can say for certain why this disproportion exists.

Ask an American Indian, then ask a social services worker, and you are certain to hear different theories.

Margery Coffey, administrative assistant of the Omaha Tribal Historical Research Project of Rosalie, Neb., is quick to point out the obvious.

"Particularly with the Native American, where you have so many families that are living under the poverty level and in
inadequate housing, it is extremely difficult to get a family that would qualify for foster care," Coffey said. "This is not a
problem that is created by the tribe. This is a problem that has been created by government policy."

Due to the shortage of foster homes, most American Indian foster children do not end up in American Indian homes like little Susette. There are four sets of American Indian foster parents under Iowa DHS administration in Woodbury County, according to B-G Tall Bear, Native Tribal Liaison for DHS.

The rest of the children are placed or eventually adopted into non-Native homes -- unless the tribe is able to intervene through the federal Indian Child Welfare Act.

Even if the foster or adoptive parents make robust efforts to educate the child about his or her heritage, many American Indians say that is not good enough.

Dennis Hastings, director of the Omaha Tribal Historical Research Project and a member of the Omaha Nation, said white homes are "not a good answer to the problem."

"You end up with a white Indian that can't relate to either culture," Hastings said. "How do you teach a culture you don't
know? Would you place a white child in an Indian home and teach them culture by cooking chocolate cake, attending square dances and learning to knit? At this point, it would make more sense to actively work with the tribes to return the culture and let them handle the problems themselves."

Local American Indians will participate in the Annual Memorial March on Nov. 22 to honor the memory of "those children who have been and are being removed from their families and tribal roots."

In 2005, the group crossed the bridge from South Sioux City into Sioux City shortly after noon and marched to the Woodbury County Courthouse where a cedar ceremony was held. The group then proceeded to the Trosper-Hoyt County Services Building, where Iowa DHS offices are located.

The Native Unit
In 2004, the Iowa Legislature recognized the disproportionate number of Native Americans in foster care in Woodbury County and the disproportionate number of African-Americans in foster care in Des Moines. They decided to increase DHS funding in these areas to start pilot programs targeting minority families and youth.

In the first year, the Legislature allocated $75,000 to each project. Now in its third year, each project receives $150,000
per year from the state.

Iowa DHS in Woodbury County works closely with a group called Community Initiative for Native Families and Children.
"I think we've been working more closely in the last several years because we've become more focused on specifically trying to get more Native foster parents, focusing on trying to build up more Native service resources in the area, focusing on researching families, looking for more relative placement, those kinds of things," said Pat Penning, service area manager for the Iowa Department of Human Services.

The Specialized Native American Project (SNAP), known simply as the "Native Unit" to those around Woodbury County, was launched in January 2005.

The unit works mainly with four local tribes: Winnebago, Omaha, Ponca and Santee Sioux.

"We decided we needed to focus our attention on having a smaller caseload for social workers, so they could have more time to work with Native Americans, and we needed some expertise in the culture and tribal ways," Penning said. "So from that we looked at folks we had here -- who would be best suited to that? We selected four workers based on the number of cases we had at the time. We were fortunate enough to hire two liaisons."

B-G Tall Bear, the first liaison, is an expert in health systems. The second liaison, Lisa Lacroix-Weddell, is a graduate of the University of Kansas School of Law and is an expert on the Indian Child Welfare Act.

The 'Indian problem'
The Indian Child Welfare Act was created in 1978 by the federal government to keep American Indian children with American Indian families. During the 1970s and previously, many American Indian children were adopted by whites, destroying family bonds and cultural roots.

Major changes for American Indian children started as early as 1819, when the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Civilization Fund Act, specifically addressing American Indian education, mainly in agriculture, said Richard Chilton, project facilitator for the Omaha Tribal Historical Research Project.

"It wasn't until after the Civil War that the government dealt with the 'Indian problem' in a systemic way through the
institution of boarding schools, beginning in the 1880s," Chilton said.

The boarding schools have not ended, they have simply evolved, Hastings said.

"They are better today than they used to be," said Hastings, who was forced to attend government schools for 12 years as a youth.

Hastings said the real purpose of these boarding schools was assimilation.

"Take away the culture and turn you into whites," Hastings said.

Activists in the 1970s argued that between the boarding schools and white adoptions of American Indian children, cultural genocide was imminent.

Under the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, an Indian child removed from his or her home should be placed with extended family, a member of the tribe or an American Indian foster home -- in that respective order.

That does not always occur.

"The money that the Indian Child Welfare Act, both under the federal and state level, has never been appropriated enough in order to make these programs work," Chilton said. "That's the real criminality here is that the monies are siphoned off by the state into non-tribal programs and monies are siphoned off by the federal, both in terms of Democratic and Republican policies, on the national level. So this is not a Democratic-Republican issue. It's a policy issue. But historically, the Indian Child Welfare Act has never been given the amount of money that Congress is required to by law."

Penning, of Iowa DHS, said funding is not the only issue at hand.

"I think we maybe don't have the right services or right treatment-people for some services for Native Americans," Penning said. "For drug abuse treatment, if we want a Native-focused drug treatment, we have to send people a long ways away. Those types of things aren't really here in Sioux City."

"So I don't know if funding is the biggest issue because even if we had the funding, we'd have to have the capacity," Penning added. "We'd have to have those people who would be able to do that. It's kind of twofold. I guess if we had the funding, we could go out and try to find those folks."

'You love them the same way'

Sometimes a tribe does not have the money or resources necessary to care for foster children -- especially those with special needs and disabilities.

Lenette Hockett, 59, is a foster mother in Sioux City who cares for five foster children. Two of the children, Ariana, 13, and Cedar, 11, are American Indian.

Cedar suffers from several medical problems and requires additional care.

Hockett has cared for the girls since they were 11 and 9.

"I've seen them blossom -- just really blossom," she said.

Hockett said the children attend church every Sunday.

"They didn't know much about God before," Hockett said. "Now Cedar is always talking about God."

Hockett knows how to cook Indian fry bread, venison and rabbit stew.

"We are teaching them to cook now," she said.

One of Hockett's biological daughters married an American Indian man, so Hockett has biological American Indian grandchildren.  Another daughter and son-in-law have 21 children -- four biological and 17 adopted. One of Hockett's granddaughters is a jingle-dancer in powwows.

In her home on Thursday, Hockett was surrounded by cloth photographs of her smiling grandchildren that she plans to make into a quilt.

She knows her own culture and American Indian culture. She is teaching both to Ariana and Cedar. Hockett said even at 59, she would adopt the girls if that was ever an option.

"I'm not Native," she said. "But you love them the same way."

*The names of the children and some of the foster parents have been changed to protect the children.

Journal staff writer Nicole Paseka can be reached at 712-293-4276 or

Submitted by Andre Cramblit Indigenous News Network


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