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November 2022Vol. 23, No. 9Choose to Practice Positivity

Written by Associate Commissioner Aysha E. Schomburg

This month we will celebrate Indigenous People’s Day, which is a time to honor Native American culture and contributions to American society. Indigenous means “originating in a particular place.” There are 574 federally recognized Indigenous tribes throughout our nation. Indigenous people were here first. There is a disproportionate number of Native children in foster care and Native families entangled in the child welfare system. We must do better. At the Children’s Bureau, we have been steadfast in lifting up the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). We know that foster care should only be a last resort. However, if foster care becomes necessary, we know that Native children deserve to stay in their community and maintain their strong connections to cultural identity.

Last month, I had the opportunity to spend time in South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation of the Oglala Lakota Nation. Before I arrived, I began listening to a podcast about the history of the Lakota people. The podcast describes Lakota values regarding how children are treated. Children are seen as gifts from the creator and are nurtured and cared for by the entire community. One of the narrators said, “The father’s brothers were all fathers to the child...and the mother’s sisters were all mothers to the child.” In the Lakota community, everyone had responsibility for the healthy development of a child. This reminded me of the phrase we often hear: “It takes a village to raise a child.” It truly does. The Lakota values are intentional, purposeful, and carefully communicated through oral history. They are not only intellectually observed but they are practiced in daily life. ICWA acknowledges that Native children have a right to remain in their community and stay connected to their culture. When we remove a child from their community, we take them away from the important intangibles—that which we cannot necessarily see—and we separate them from their guiding cultural principles.

My brief immersion into Lakota life led me to reflect on how we support children and families in our field. I learned that one of the Lakota principles—one of their practices—was that children were never degraded. They took special care to say only positive things about a child in that child’s presence. I thought about what a difference that could make in child’s life. I imagined what that could do for a child’s self-esteem, their belief in themselves, and how it might impact the kind of adult they would become. I wondered whether it was possible to create a generation of children who were never degraded. We would have to believe it was possible. This Indigenous People Day, we can learn from the Lakota people. We can make the conscious decision today to adopt that one Lakota principle and live life in a way that is acutely mindful of the language we use around our children. We can choose positivity. What would it cost?