Honoring Nations: Julie Wilson: Child Welfare in Indian Country

Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development

Scholar Julie Wilson opens the session "Family Strengthening in Indian Country" with a discussion of recent research conducted by the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development that explores the role families play in improving child and community welfare in Indian Country, highlighting the work of five Honoring Nations award-winning programs that support child and youth development.

Resource Type

Wilson, Julie. "Child Welfare in Indian Country." Honoring Nations symposium. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 11, 2004. Presentation.

Julie Wilson:

"It is really a privilege and a great pleasure to be here today to talk to you about some work that Amy [Besaw Medford], Andrew Lee, Joe Kalt and I and a couple of our students did about a year ago. The Annie E. Casey Foundation approached Joe Kalt and asked him about working with them on issues of 'Strengthening American Indian Families' and Joe said, 'Wait a minute, you don't know about Indians. And we do economic development, we don't really know a lot about Indian families. Maybe we should start first by just exploring the terrain and seeing what's going on.' So Joe contacted me. My area of research has been primarily inner cities in America, but primarily focusing on child welfare. So this was my first opportunity to look closely at what's going on with American Indians in this area. So I want to start with two obvious points. First of all, I'm not an American Indian; everybody figured that out. And second, I'm a pretty nerdy academic. So what I'm going to try to do is briefly summarize what we think we found in our study and I'd like to open it up for discussion because I'd really like some feedback of, does this resonate? Is there something we missed or are there some things that we really got wrong?

What we did, by way of looking at this, is we took five of the winners of the Honoring Nations competition, five very different programs, and explored them in some depth. We didn't have the time or the resources to go out and actually visit the site, so we were very dependent on phone interviews and the types of information that the tribes had sent to us. And obviously the next step is to go out to these tribes and to other tribes and to look at programs more closely, and some of you may want to offer some programs for us to try to look at.

One of the programs we looked at was the Fond du Lac foster care licensing and placement agency. And basically this is the Lake Superior Chippewa band, who faced a problem that there weren't enough Indian foster homes for their children. They'd exhausted the resources on the reservation and their children were being placed in homes in St. Louis County, Minnesota, which is the area of Duluth -- for those of you who know Minnesota -- and they were being placed with non-Indian families. That's primarily a community of Scandinavians and Bohemians and these were the families that were raising their children. And the tribal child welfare agency had no authority to work off the reservation. So they couldn't really be out there recruiting foster homes and creating homes for their own children. So what they did was they started negotiating with St. Louis County child welfare agencies and they established their own licensing and placement agency. They negotiated with the state and with the county and began, then with the authority, to find homes. And as they suspected, there were Indian families very willing to take the children, but they really didn't feel comfortable working with the county agency. And they now -- after only a few years -- have 58 families and 70 children in placement.

The second is the Whirling Thunder Wellness Program for the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, and like many other tribes the Winnebago tribe had a very serious problem with diabetes, continues to have a serious problem with diabetes for both adults and children. Since the 1970s, they'd had a model Indian Health Service diabetes program, but it was in the hospital. It wasn't focused on preventive work, it was really very much hospital based. And they decided that what they really needed to do was get in front of the problem. So in this case it was the tribal health department who took the initiative and created the Whirling Thunder Wellness Program. Now, a piece of the history that you have to know if you're not a Winnebago or not familiar with them, that Whirling Thunder was a tribal chief in the 1890s and had the tribe run foot races to keep in shape. And so it seemed quite obvious to the tribe that the program should be named after a chief who had the foresight to focus on preventive health measures. What they do is they raise awareness about diet, about exercise, about diabetes. They have a lot of culturally appropriate primary and secondary prevention programs. They run a kids' cafe where youth of the community can come and eat; they serve a lot of Native foods. They also work directly with children in after-school activities built around sports and cultural activities and work directly with families who have members who are diabetic.

Third program -- again really different -- the Menominee Community Center of Chicago. This was started by a group of off-reservation Indians who had been scattered around Chicago. At one time, many of them lived in one neighborhood but with urban redevelopment, gentrification, and the kind of renovation that goes on in cities, they'd become scattered. At a funeral one day several of them said, 'We really ought to do something about this,' and kind of get ourselves together and they created a community, a community center that they then affiliated with the Menominee Tribe. They became an official part of the Menominee Tribe and in fact the tribal council holds one of its meetings each year in Chicago in the community center. They provide support for Menominee Indians in Chicago and also sponsor trips back to the reservation in Wisconsin to connect the Chicago Menominee with the culture, the traditions, and the members of the tribe.

Fourth is the Ya Ne Dah Ah school in Chickaloon Village, Alaska, very tiny group of people; a very small tribe. And this program was started by an elder, a grandmother, who was visiting youth in jail and realized that the reason there were so many of their youth in jail was they felt alienated from the Alaskan school system. They were dropping out of school, they had very few opportunities, they were getting in trouble, and they were ending up in jail. So she started a tribal school. And it turns out in Alaska, this is no small feat because the state runs all the schools and the tribes don't get any money from the state for their own schools, so this is totally self-funded. And the school uses tribal members. The forester teaches science, people who are working with computers are teaching math and information technology. They now have 100 percent parent participation in the school; they have tribal members moving back to the community so their children can go to that school. Their test scores are above the national average, and they're beginning to export curriculum built on their tradition to other schools around the country, including non-Indian schools.

The fifth program that we looked at is the one you heard about yesterday, and I'm not going to pronounce this correctly -- I'm sorry, Myron [Brown] -- Akimel O'odham/Pee-Posh Youth Council. For those of you who were here yesterday and got to hear Myron, you know that Myron is a star. And I am smart enough to know better than to even try to follow Myron. So I'm going to let his description of the program stand, but those of you who saw the video and heard Myron know that this is a really amazing program. But again, it was started by a member of the tribe, a young adult who said, 'Those of us who have the education are going off to college, we're not coming back. We've got to do something about building youth into the culture and into the governance of the tribe.'

We looked at these programs and we said, 'What can you learn from these?' Now, there's always a flaw in social science research of this sort and that is when you look only at successful programs and you think you've learned lessons, you might not have learned the right lessons. You'd like to look at some programs that started out with similar innovative ideas, but didn't quite make it to see if what you think are the real success factors in these programs were missing from those other programs. That's another stage. Right now, I'm going to talk about nine things we think we found. Five of them I think are quite obvious and four of them are not so obvious. Let me start with the first five.

First, that effective policies and programs are self-determined. This is a theme that's run through this entire conference, it runs through the whole Honoring Nations program -- this is not news to you --  but I think for foundations like Annie E. Casey who are interested in using their resources to support families and children, this is an important lesson because it wasn't, 'You guys have a real problem here with diabetes and have we got the program for you.' It was instead, 'Our youth and our elders are sick and we need to do something about this.' It wasn't somebody coming in to say we've got a training program for youth in jail and you guys ought to just get into this program with us, it was the grandmother saying we've got to do something about the large number of our youth who are really having trouble, who are struggling and end up in jail because they see no future for themselves. 

Secondly, what's clear from these five is that leadership for these programs can emerge at any level. In some cases, it came out of the formal institutional structures of the tribal government. In other cases like the Menominee Cultural Center in Wisconsin, it was a group of seemingly isolated members of the tribe who had lost contact with one another and lost contact with the tribe who gradually put themselves back into the structure of the tribe. So this means leadership is everywhere around us and we need to be sensitive to it and build on it. 

Third, in each of these cases, we think that buy-in on the part of the tribe and the tribe's formal leadership was essential. Now, buy-in can take many forms. It can be financial support, it can be incorporation into the long-term tribal vision, it could be commitment of leadership authority, could be commitment of buildings -- lots of different ways -- but in each one of these, the tribe itself and the formal tribal government got involved and kind of gave it stamp of approval as well as resources. I seem to be missing some parts of this so I'm going to have to sort of...let's see...the fifth one...the fifth idea that we came about is that each of these programs invested in the training and the growth and the education of the individuals involved in the program, the tribes invested in them. And this is important. If you heard Mary Jo Bane's talk yesterday what you saw is that the program she talked about in Brazil, they invested in the education of these individuals that went out into the community and in each case the tribe has invested in the people.

I think these are pretty important lessons, but they're also kind of obvious. We could have all sort of sat back and said, 'Well, yeah, that's kind of common sense.' I think there are four things, though, that are really very different about what we saw in these Indian programs that I have to say I've given a lot of thought to and I'm thinking about whether or not these are tools that could be used elsewhere in the country or whether there's something that is very unique about American Indian tribes that you can build on that others really don't have.

I think the first of these is that every single one of these initiatives is spiritual at its core. And spiritual is not the same as religious, that's very hard for non-Indians to understand. It takes a while for non-Indians to immerse themselves in this culture and begin to understand this concept of spiritual, but every one of these programs is spiritual at its core, both it is clearly articulated and it's implicit in everything that goes on. And in part this spirituality is played out through a second finding and that is that each of these initiatives draws on and strengthens tribal cultural practices. In some cases, tribes have deliberately tried to bring back a language and to modernize a language. You know, what is the word for computer and for some of these things that were invented after the language began to die? All of these programs involved teaching youth traditional tribal practices, the dances, the crafts, the culture, the food, the language, the music, and this is an explicit part of it. The third thing that I think is unique about these programs and about many of the Honoring Nation winners that were not explicitly focused on families is that these programs deliberately try to pull in people from all generations and all groups. And in part this is done through this deliberate attempt to build the cultural awareness, because powwows and other activities that draw people from across generations and across clans are very important to the success of these programs and very important to the community. And I think the fourth finding that is unique, although perhaps not as unique as the other three, is that each of these programs explicitly tried to strengthen children and adults' social networks and it did this against through this idea of articulating and rebuilding the cultural traditions. That's a lot that Indians have to build on. And I was struck in reading, I read through a lot of the Honoring Nations winners and runners up and other applications and I found even programs like policing programs or salmon farming programs had parts of those programs that deliberately brought youth in -- summer jobs as police or working with the police, youth in nature conservancy jobs with salmon fishing. I think there is something very unique about these programs that we ought to be building on.

As somebody who's spent a lot of time thinking about child welfare issues, there's another aspect of these programs that we did not write about in our report, but, which I think is really important and I think deserves some serious investigation, and that is the following. One of the things that we worry about a lot in America's inner cities is the fact that the men have left. So many children are growing up with young teen mothers and without fathers. So many of the men are in jail or have left the community for other reasons. This is a problem that is also afflicting American Indians. And yet American Indians have, in many tribes, this concept of elder; a highly respected person who has authority within the tribe and who has authority with individual families even if there is no blood relationship. This is an important role. There are a number of social scientists, particularly Elijah Anderson, who have written articulately about the loss of older black men in America's inner cities. This is a treasure that American Indians had. It came through again and again in each of these programs, the role of the elder. Sometimes in starting these programs, other times in articulating the vision and carrying it through and always playing a part in it. I know there are some other people following me and I'm hoping that we will get some feedback from you on what we think we've found and that you'll have ideas for us on what the next steps might be. So thanks."

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