Written by Hallie Riggs, MSW, LCSW, CSW-PIP, Clinical Director of the Simply Smiles Children’s Village.
The belief that it is every child’s right to grow up in a safe, supportive, and culturally rooted environment is what guides our work at the Simply Smiles Children’s Village.
For far too long, Indigenous children have been overrepresented within child welfare systems. For child survivors of trauma growing up in Indian Country today, these adverse experiences of family separation compound a multigenerational history of abuse and neglect endured by Indigenous people.
Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, a Hunkpapa/Oglala Lakota social worker, associate professor, and mental health expert, first defined historical trauma experienced by the Lakota people as “collective emotional and psychological injury both over the lifespan and across generations, resulting from a cataclysmic history of genocide.” The impact of the historical and present-day trauma that has been inflicted upon Native Americans manifests itself as unresolved emotional trauma, depression, high mortality rates, high rates of alcohol misuse, significant problems of child abuse and domestic violence.*
In other words, we repeat what is not repaired.
It is crucial that we differentiate the reasons why Native children have traditionally been removed from their biological families. On the one hand, there are failures on the part of the dominant culture to regard traditional Native practices of child rearing and to acknowledge resource limitations perpetuated by systematic genocide. On the other hand, there are incidents in which adults, who undoubtedly love their children, are also unable to safely care for them. Parents can love their children and also hurt them; these facts are not mutually exclusive. We repeat what is not repaired.
In response to a congressional investigation that concluded that American Indian children residing in the US had been unjustly removed from their homes, the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1978 sought to create standards within the child welfare system that would ensure the prioritization of Indigenous children in foster care being placed with Native kinship (foster) parents. While this determination was vital and long overdue in order to support the preservation of Native culture and the survival of tribes, ICWA promised on paper what society has been unable to deliver in practice. This is largely because of the absence of an infrastructure that supports and empowers Native American caregivers to raise their communities’ most vulnerable members—Indigenous children.
This is our mission: to provide exactly that infrastructure (safe housing, kinship parent support and training, access to therapy, education, social and emotional wellness) that empowers Native adults to care for Native children.
While only the Tribal Court of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe can determine placement for a child who is removed from their home, our role at the Simply Smiles Children’s Village is to then provide these identified children with the safe, supportive, long-term care of Native kinship parents. Simply Smiles also prioritizes the reunification and maintained connection between siblings in foster care, as well as biological family support whenever possible. We believe that trusted relationships with Native caregivers will serve as the greatest healer for children in the care of the Simply Smiles Children’s Village.
Resilience, or the ability to survive and even thrive in spite of (and because of) adversity can be understood through the role of a Takini, or a survivor, one who has been brought back to life (Brave Heart). Lakota values and traditions will guide us in our efforts, while keeping in mind that historical trauma is not what defines the Lakota people. It is a condition that, with support, can be healed. Calling upon the warrior spirit will be the remedy.** Our kinship parents, Elders, and the Reservation community that has welcomed our initiative will be our greatest teachers in how we, the Simply Smiles Children’s Village team, support children and families of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.
* Chavez, Nora. NM Cares Health Disparities Center. Shouldering Grief: Validating Native American Historical Trauma. https://hsc.unm.edu/programs/nmcareshd/docs/story_heart.pdf
** White, Kenneth Jr. The Warrior Spirit. A How-to Handbook on Creating Comprehensive, Integrated Trauma-Informed Initiatives in Native Communities. http://www.ignitingthewarriorspirit.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Trauma-Informed-How-To-Handbook-For-Roundtable-20190328_105823.pdf