“She’s just a little girl who likes shoes.” The thought ran across my mind as I watched our two-year-old foster daughter empty out her shoe basket for the umpteenth time and methodically try on each pair. In a strange juxtaposition, at the same moment, a tear ran down my cheek. I had just finished reading one more news story about a Lost Bird, a term used to describe Native Americans displaced through foster and adoption and searching for their cultural identities after years in white foster homes.
I want to believe that our “Nay Nay” is just a little girl like any other and that her Native American heritage isn’t the big deal they make it out to be. I want to believe that being raised by a family of obvious European descent won’t matter if we continue to show her how much we love her. But am I wrong? Am I simply raising another Lost Bird?
Three years ago, when we made the leap into foster care, we definitely didn’t set out with the idea we wanted to exclusively foster Native American children. We simply looked at the three agencies licensing in our area and decided to go where there was the most need. In a somewhat unusual situation, one of those agencies was a tribal social service who had recently started licensing white foster parents out of a desperate need. As soon as the application was turned in, however, I was second guessing our choice.
Such deep set wounds of the past are not easily overcome. And unfortunately, but also understandably, mistrust is often the name of the game. The tribal social service who licensed us will license non-native families, but they will not adopt their children to them. This means that some of the kids entering care remain “fostered,” potentially until they are 18. Some families are able to pursue permanent guardianship, but that is an uphill battle, since they are expected to go through the immense task of contacting all biological family members entirely on their own. I had to ask myself, if we got a placement who turned out to need a forever home, would I be able to cope with the fact that he or she might never have true permanency? Could I handle the possibility of a family member potentially coming out of the woodwork at any time in his or her 18 years and petitioning to take them?
We were also asked on our licensing application if we were willing to keep our potential placements connected with the culture of their tribes. At first, it was an emphatic yes. I was a history major in college and especially loved the history of the Great Plains where I had lived my entire life. I knew plenty of the historical side of the central plains tribes. But did I understand their culture? I wasn’t Native. I didn’t even grow up near a reservation. I think at this point I had been to a total of two powwows and one or two rendezvous. And what exactly did they mean by “culture”? Were they looking for a sort of generic “Native” culture that has been popularized since the 1970s, or did they want the nitty gritty of their particular tribe? How could I possibly be up to that task?
So I did what I’ve been told to do since I was old enough to understand what it meant. I prayed about these worries. And in no time at all, God started throwing out small signs we had made the right choice. It wasn’t any big bang thing, just small items placed in my path. An article on my parents’ kitchen table about Nicolas Black Elk, A Lakota Medicine man and convert to Catholicism, now a Servant of God; an impromptu trip to a favorite museum where the current installment was all about Sitting Bull; a book titled “Educating Your Native American Students” hidden in a random box of vinyl purchased at an auction; and a seemingly random conversation with a Cheyenne elder in which he instructed me that God was in all things and to continue raising my kids in the faith (ok that last one wasn’t exactly small).
So with confidence in our choice and faith that we would receive the help we needed along the way, we patiently waited for our first placement. Six months in we received our first call. They needed a home for a three-day-old baby girl. She wasn’t, however, from the tribe we were licensed through. Our name had been given to the social worker of another tribe, but we were told, with permission from our licensure, we would be able to take her.
As with most things in foster care, it wasn’t quite that simple, and we waited nearly a week before we brought this sweet baby girl into our home. And then, caught up in the incessant needs of newborns, the cultural piece quickly got shoved to the wayside. I was determined to do this correctly, though, and when she was around three months old we started getting serious about what we could do to keep her connected to her tribe. I’m not going to lie, at such a young age it seemed a bit futile. How do you show an infant she is Native American? We eventually decided on a two-step approach: we would surround our foster daughter with appropriate art and imagery, and we would begin to introduce our older bio kids to the history of her particular tribe so they would be able to help teach her as she grew. My husband and I also spent more time educating ourselves through books and videos on her tribe but also on the plight of the Plains Indians in general.
It was also suggested I search YouTube for pow-wow drum songs to play for our baby. I quickly noticed she not only found it soothing, but that she had an innate rhythm that could only have been inherited. Her favorite songs weren’t traditional lullabies but the music of an Apsaalooke Christian Hip Hop artist, Supaman. On long car rides we would put it on when she was fussy and always smiled over how quickly she calmed down.
And so, for two years, we have watched her grow and continued down this path, praying and hoping we are doing what’s right for her. Fortunately, our worries she would be removed from our home may not be as “perpetual” as they originally seemed, but we do need to be extremely patient for permanency. The tribe which she comes from does not actually have its own social service and so most of the kids placed into the system there by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) are eventually transferred to the state. This means they can be adopted by non-Native families. However, the task of permanency is given back to the tribe and they do not put a time limit on filing for termination of parental rights, potentially keeping them “fostered” for years to come.
Our daughter’s birth parents have not lost their parental rights, though their home remains unsafe for her to live in, and it doesn’t look like that will change in the near future. She does remain in contact with them, though, through regular video chats, something that I am extremely thankful for. Through those calls she has been introduced to a whole world of grandmas, aunties, uncles, cousins, and even siblings. A world she will be allowed to know more of as she grows and has interest and it is deemed safe. Those video chats are by far the greatest link to her culture, both familial and tribal.
We also have a wonderful foster support group in our town and most of the members are in the same situation as us, non-Natives fostering Native kids. Every one of them wants to work to keep their bonus kids connected to their tribes but, like us, they’re feeling a bit overwhelmed by the task. A number of caseworkers and parents have even contacted the tribes directly asking for help with this cultural piece, and while both tribes seem willing, nothing so far has been achieved. With so many kids entering the system and so few licensures, caseworkers, and foster families, it’s difficult for either reservation to go beyond meeting the basic needs of their kids in care.
And ultimately, I’m afraid, the question remains, do any of these small attempts matter in the long run? Is culture really something that can be taught? Doesn’t it need to be absorbed? Soaked up slowly like a sponge through life experiences both ordinary and extraordinary but unique to a particular family, community, or tribe?
I pause in my writing to glance again at our sweet daughter. She’s lying on the floor belly laughing with her one-year-old foster sister. What are they laughing at? Absolutely nothing. They are laughing for the sheer joy of it as toddlers will do. And it dawns on me, the truth of it is, she is just a little girl. And so, we will do for her just as we do with our biological children. We will teach her to wonder. To wonder about the world around her and creation she is surrounded by. To wonder about the family she is being raised by, our differences but also our similarities. To wonder about the family she was born into and what it means to be part of a tribe. To wonder about her tribe’s customs, songs, food, and language.
Some day she will be grown and by the grace of God we will get to be here for when those hard questions do start coming. I don’t know what kinds of answers we’ll have for her then but right now I know we will try our very best, pray we’re doing enough, and expect God to fill in the gaps.
Hannah has been going on adventures with her high school sweetheart Dustin for 15 years. Though God never called them away from their birthplace on the Northern Great Plains, he still managed to place them on the mission field to evangelize through pints at their own microbrewery. With five bio kids and one foster daughter in tow and two babies in heaven, life has been a fascinating mix of difficult crosses and wonderful, beautiful, dappled days.