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‘Protecting our Children’ was theme of conference

RENO, Nev. – Conferences on the challenges facing American Indians today are held frequently across the nation, though not many are assembled against a backdrop of successes, change, personal accountability and building upon positive momentum. This message was heard clearly at the opening day of the 27th Annual “Protecting our Children” national conference on American Indian child abuse prevention and neglect, held in Reno, Nev. April 19 – 22.

Nearly 500 attendees went to and presented workshops, created focus groups and networked, among them were child welfare advocates, social workers, juvenile court staffers, clinicians and researchers. Sponsored by the National Indian Child Welfare Association, the attendees are professionals from the field of social work, elected tribal officials, and tribal employees sent to the conference to learn issues of access to children’s mental health services, compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act, youth leadership and cross-border issues between the U.S. and Canada.

The conference was opened by Chairman Arlan Melendez of the Reno Sparks Indian Colony, who welcomed the participants and expressed his appreciation for their devotion to their work.

“I recognize all of us, as tribal leaders, the importance of protecting our children and learning more about the Indian Child Welfare Act and the jobs that you do, and the things that are happening across the nation. Things used to be very subtle and maybe hidden – they’re coming to the forefront now – the abuse of our children, the neglect that is happening to our children. And I think that’s the job of many of our social workers and our ICWA workers – hard jobs.”

The conference theme, “Access to Prevention, Protection, and Treatment: A Matter of Fairness, Justice, and Action,” was explored during the opening keynote, delivered by Terry Cross, Seneca Nation, NICWA founder and executive director.

Cross noted the conference theme was selected before the historic passage of Public Law 110-351, which gave the potential for federal support of tribal foster care programs and kinship care nationwide. And yet, there is still much work left to be done and that Indian country’s child welfare problems will not be solved “with a signature on a piece of paper.”

Cross outlined several historical acts or events that affected American Indians profoundly including the Dawes Act. “But did you know that it was referred to as the ‘individuation process?’ It was designed to eradicate the collectivist worldview. Those were the words: ‘to eradicate the collectivist world view.’ That’s colonization at the intellectual level. Colonel Pratt’s phrase, ‘Kill the Indian, save the man.’ That’s colonization at the intellectual level.

“There’s an old phrase that I found that helps me understand this and move beyond it. The phrase is ‘He who defines reality holds power.’ If we allow other people to define our reality for us, we give away our power. And let’s not believe that this occurrence only existed in the past.

“Let us not think that today’s disproportionality (of Indian children in foster care) is not one more attack on the collectivist worldview, because every child that’s removed from our extended families, every kinship group that’s broken up, every clan that loses track of its next generation, has been attacked in its collectivist worldview. And so we do the work of trying to keep this together.”

Another guest speaker was Joan Glode, co-chair of the Mi’kmaw Family and Children’s Services of Nova Scotia, Canada. Other guest speakers included Cecilia Fire Thunder, co-coordinator of the Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains and Frank LaMere, director of the Four Directions Center of Sioux City, Iowa.

This child welfare improvement event was sponsored by the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, Pala Band of Mission Indians and Morongo Band of Mission Indians, Indian Country Today and organizations.

The conference has been a centerpiece of NICWA for more than 25 years. The American Indian/Alaska Native child welfare advocacy organization’s fundamental purpose has been to improve the social services provided to Indian communities through legislative reform and representation, technical training of social workers, program planning that is culturally relevant, research of Indian child welfare indicators and compliance with ICWA.

NICWA is a national nonprofit and the most comprehensive source of information on American Indian child welfare and works on behalf of Indian children and families. For more information call (503) 222-4044.