Record-breaking cold pummeled Indian Country this winter. Temperatures in South Dakota, where less than a third of Native American students manage to complete high school, plunged into the negative digits. Survival kits entered the daily routine.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, in late February, a Senate committee hosted a hearing on “Early Childhood Development and Education in Indian Country.” Representing the Administration for Children and Families was deputy assistant secretary Linda Smith. For this Montana native, born and raised on the Flathead Reservation, this is no terra incognita. Smith volunteered in one of the first Indian Head Start programs, brought child care to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, and set up a preschool at the St. Labre Indian Mission. She mentioned a couple of success stories—dual-language (Dakota and Ojibwe) programs in Minnesota and a summer camp in Afognak, Alaska—and declared her passion for better serving Indian children.
Jacquelyn Power, superintendent and principal of the Blackwater Community School, on the Gila River Indian Reservation in Arizona, touted another model in the arsenal: the Family and Child Education Program, available to tribal families at 43 sites around the country. The evidence-based program supports parents and other primary caregivers as children’s first teachers, strengthens ties between family, school, and community, and is responsive to cultural and linguistic needs.
The outcomes couldn’t be better. Nearly a hundred percent of the kids from tribal families go on to preschool, and stay longer. More than 80 percent of parents report reading to their children almost daily. Participating families fill their houses with books, more than 50 on average, at least five times the number in the majority of Native American homes. Close to 90 percent of FACE children are screened, to flag issues with development, hearing, vision, as well as oral and physical health. And the program’s preschoolers leave on a level playing field with their peers across the nation, half as likely to need special education services at kindergarten entry.
But the reality for Indian children remains bleak, the data (a snapshot of 2010), dutifully delivered by Smith, a selection of which I’ve edited, for brevity, and bulleted, the better to deliver the bad news:
- Nearly 30 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives lived in poverty, compared to 15.3 percent of the total population.
- Unemployment on Indian reservations was at 50 percent.
- Almost half of American Indian and Alaska Native children lived with parents who lacked secure employment, compared to 33 percent of the total U.S. population.
- Nearly 30 percent of households with children were food insecure (our euphemism for “hungry”), compared to 16 percent of the general population.
- Infant mortality was more than one and a half times the rate of non-Hispanic Whites.
- Children in Indian families are much more likely to experience violence, substance abuse and neglect.
Missing from the day’s testimony was the Lakota People’s Law Project. Based in Rapid City, this tenacious group continues to hold federal and state policymakers’ feet to the fire, highlighting the involuntary removal of children from their tribal families. This is a very old story for Native Americans, one that has had traumatic repercussions for the youngest members of tribal nations. But the project’s work zeroes in on late-20th-century legislation. In the 1970s, South Dakota Senator James Bourezk spearheaded an investigation of the conditions of Indian Country. Among the findings: when kids were removed from their homes, and placed in foster care with non-Indian families, the majority ended up homeless, in prison, or dead. The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 was designed to remedy the situation, requiring that state departments of social services do all in their power to keep Indian children with their parents. But a legal technicality has rendered federal district courts powerless to stop or remedy violations, identified in a national survey of 40 tribal ICWA offices as one of their most serious problems.
A serious problem, indeed. Stable, consistent relationships with adults who are crazy about them—to paraphrase child psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner—are at the heart of child well-being. “A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground.”