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Who Will Speak for Native Children?

In July 2012, national press thrust the status of Dakota children in the social service program of the Spirit Lake Dakota Nation into national headlines. The sad and untimely death of two Dakota children, discovered by their mother, has been played out like a mad melodrama. The real losers of this media frenzy are Dakota children, and this could have implications for Native children in social service programs nationally.

The tragic death of these children has played out in the press, with news of BIA “strike” teams called to the reservation to save the day and other political pundits asking for the sovereign nation to answer questions about child welfare on the reservation, and even allegations that the tribal chairman could face charges for neglect and culpability in the matter. It is with some irony that political pundits (and some Native critics) have suggested that a solution to this issue for the betterment of Spirit Lake children is to turn over administration of social services to outside state and federal authorities. The irony of this situation rests in the historical reality that federal and state agencies have also been the source of neglect, mistreatment, and harm when it comes to the welfare of Native children.

U.S. policies have historically had as their intent the abuse of Native children. For example, it was the undeniable intent of the federal government, and their religious allies, to remove Native children from their homes, strip them of their culture and language and their Native identities to effectively “save the man, kill the Indian.” From boarding schools to government homes, Indian country is ripe with stories from our grandparents of verbal, physical and sexual abuse. This abuse has produced a historical trauma that is still alive and well in Native communities and continues to manifest itself in many destructive ways.

This history is by no means a defense of any blind neglect that may have taken place by tribal leaders and officials. But this history is a reminder that turning over Native children to outside agencies, forcing the Spirit Lake Nation into receivership, stripped of their self-determination contracts, may not be the answer and may not be in the best interest of Spirit Lake children. Thus, this raises the question: Who will speak for Native children?

We have no clear idea of who will emerge to speak for Native children, especially those of Spirit Lake. But Indian country must take note that the allegations and smear tactics that have played out in the press, in the North Dakota state legislature, and at the BIA, raise serious questions about sovereignty, self-determination, and the true intentions of political pundits who have effectively called into question the sovereign authority of the Nation and their ability to care for their children.

Do these outside individuals and agencies have Native children as their fundamental concern? History would tell us no. History would remind us that federal and state agencies have historically initiated purposeful acts of abuse and neglect against Native children as part of their colonializing and Christianizing efforts and showed little regard for the best interest of Native children in mind. To suggest that the current circumstances have changed surrounding Native children in relation to these outside agencies may be more fiction than fact.

It may be that tribal citizens take the reins of this situation, as mothers, fathers, daughters and sons and demand a voice in crafting appropriate solutions for the best interest of their children. It is the responsibility of tribal citizens to also demand appropriate investigation in which individuals are held accountable if it is discovered that tribal leadership and agencies were indeed culpable in these situations. After all, an active and engaged citizenry is foundational to a strong and healthy Native nation. Without the active engagement of tribal citizens, the children could find themselves in worse situations, far from home, their families and cultural identities.

Tribal nations across the U.S. must also take notice of the events at Spirit Lake for at least two reasons: to perhaps lend needed support in strengthening the protection of Dakota children, and also consider these events at Spirit Lake as a potential learning ground for things to come. We all know that the assault on Native nationhood has not ended and can take many forms. We also know that every nation across the United States struggles with how best to protect Native children in the child welfare system with limited funding, staff, and resources. The current events unfolding at Spirit Lake may reveal some important and interesting trends when it comes to Native nations, child welfare and self-governance on a broad level.

Children are the ones that carry on our traditions, knowledge and are the future of our nations. Until we put them at the forefront of our discussions and agenda, they may be vulnerable to several levels of government abuse and neglect and may be the catalyst to force Native receivership.

Raymond Foxworth is a citizen of the Navajo Nation and a Ph.D. student in the department of political science at the University of Colorado at Boulder.