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Child welfare conference examines past, looks ahead

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NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ontario -- While growing up in Chicago, John Dall knew
he was an Indian; however, he didn't know his history. He didn't even know
from which tribe he came.

He felt ashamed because of his ignorance.

"These non-Indians ... felt the need to put me in my place," Dall recalled
when asked about his heritage. "'If you don't know what tribe you're from,
how Indian can you be?'"

In his late 20s he discovered he was from the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin.
Since then, Dall has been thankful to those elders who educated him about
his culture and people and guided him along his present path. Now a tribal
leader and lobbyist in Washington, this one-time adoptee has made it his
mission to see to it that other Native kids do not grow up outside of their
heritage.

"I'm making sure those people who are affected understand what is being
done on their behalf, and I don't believe a lot, of that has happened as of
yet," Dall said.

Dall was a guest speaker at the recent conference "Reconciliation: Looking
Back, Reaching Forward -- Indigenous Peoples and Child Welfare." More than
150 Native leaders, government agents and social work advocates were
invited to discuss philosophical principles, often from informal clan
sessions, working towards effective child welfare for Natives and their
communities.

Thirty years ago, there was no mandate to keep Indian children within their
own culture. When the federal Indian Child Welfare Act became law in 1978,
Dall had already been fostered by white parents for four years.

Even with ICWA, Dall sadly asserted, few states have complied with this
legislation, in part because state courts have refused to acknowledge laws
from Washington or the rulings of tribal courts. Thus, several years ago in
conjunction with Loyola University Chicago and the Illinois Department of
Children and Family Services, Dall was part of a team that developed a
curriculum that included history and traditions to be distributed to
government and nonprofit agencies.

"A lot of the social workers don't understand the law itself because they
don't understand where it comes from and [they question] why have something
special for Indian children."

At one time angry at social workers, Dall realized they were only part of a
larger problem, one that often stemmed from laws and government policies
that were far from where the children were being removed for supposedly
better homes. Within this context of reconciliation, the conference
presented historically differing perspectives.

One invited speaker was Shay Bilchik, president of the Child Welfare League
of America. His organization -- and him specifically -- issued a formal
apology four years ago to American Indians and Alaska Natives for the
historic maltreatment of the indigenous youth who were placed in the care
of the CWL.

Acknowledging that sometimes the number of Native children in need of
protection from abusive or negligent parents exceeds the number of
available foster homes within local Indian entities, Bilchik said he
nonetheless strives to preserve and respect Native cultures.

"Indian people and communities should define the way to protect their own
children," said Bilchik. "Within the tribal community, how do you ensure
that that child can be cared and protected for without ripping them away
from the community?"

National Indian Child Welfare Association Executive Director Terry Cross
believes "courage and fortitude" are required before moving forward. This
is especially difficult, Cross added, when in the past government agencies,
at times, truly thought their actions were what was best for the child.

"In any reconciliation, to move beyond the anger and defensiveness is
telling the truth first and allowing those who were wronged to tell their
truth," Cross said.

Within this international setting, numerous speakers from several countries
talked about how other local indigenous populations have also been
mistreated. Guest panelists from South Africa, Australia and India,
including professor Jaap Doek, chair of the U.N. Committee on the Rights of
the Child, discussed how colonization has affected their respective
nations.

"From a personal standpoint, you get caught up in advocating for your part
of the world; but while our stories are unique for us, the problem is
worldwide," Dall said. "Even across the boundary with Canada, the history
[of oppression] is virtually the same although under a different name."

The conference worked toward drafting of a charter for the creation of an
indigenous sub-group to work with the United Nations for the rights of the
child. Further, it was hoped those attending would return to their
communities or jobs with a different perspective on how to protect Indian
children and promote their culture.

That goal is something Dall strives to achieve every day. "As a
quintessential urban Indian, because that's where I was born and raised,
I'm always advocating those services that are promised make it to the urban
Indian [and that] they are not forgotten."