ODANAH, Wisconsin — It was the blue ceiling that got me.
Although St. Mary’s Catholic Church is tiny, its vaulted ceiling soars to an unexpected height. It’s an impossible robin’s egg blue or the hue of a blue sky that could never exist. Unexpectedly, it drove my heart into my throat, where it stayed for several minutes. That blue color obliterated journalistic objectivity, placing me back into a wordless, needy childhood.
I realized at last that the ceiling was the same color as the little blue Virgin Mary medal that lived between my mother’s breasts, fixed to her brassiere with a safety pin. That medal would gaze back at me when we laid down in bed together for afternoon naps, at bedtime or just to visit. Those were the times she told me the Sister School stories, her life at St. Mary’s Catholic Indian boarding school and her childhood on the Bad River Ojibwe Reservation in Wisconsin.
The little church is all that remains now of the mission school buildings.
Aƞpétu wašté from the Cheyenne River Nation. As you know, the welfare of our children has been a longstanding issue for Native communities. Centuries of colonization means we’re always in the crosshairs. As I discuss with my granddaughter in today’s video, our people are marginalized — especially our young parents and grandparents — by the State of South Dakota and the Department of Social Services, and our children are taken from us at an alarming rate.
We have worked to solve this problem for decades, and we have specifically confronted issues surrounding the Indian Child Welfare Act. In my work with Lakota Law, I’ve seen a lot of grandparents raising their grandchildren. This ultimately spurred me and others to create the Wasagiya Najin (Standing Strong) Grandmother’s Group at Cheyenne River. Wasagiya Najin focuses on what’s happening to our grandchildren, and we dedicate our time to improving our communities’ health and wellbeing from a Lakota perspective.
Our vision encompasses both a Children’s Village on Cheyenne River and a plan to create a Tribal Department of Child Welfare. I’m happy to share with you that we’re well on our way with the village — a place where siblings can stay together and children won’t be lost to the system or worry about aging out. We already have three homes and kinship parents (we don’t use the term “foster parents”). We’re doing all this with support from the tribe, but it is a community-based and operated children’s village, not run by our tribal government.
A tribally-run Department of Child Welfare will be the next big step for us. A centrally-located, multi-service center, it would offer needed support for our parents and grandparents. Right now, it’s far too complicated for parents to access services and resources from the State of South Dakota, which is the only entity handling foster care and adoption on the rez. Our vision will make things easier, give tribal members more autonomy, and also hold us accountable. It’s not our way to terminate parental rights. Instead, we promote family restoration. Children want to be with their families and their people. If we approach it from a Lakota perspective, we can make that happen for many young ones.
We take the pandemic seriously out here, and that has slowed things down. But right now, we’re organizing on the ground and distributing a one-page, anonymous survey identifying family circumstances and gathering feedback about the potential for a tribally-run Child Welfare Office. This data will help us request a reservation-wide hearing and present effectively to our tribal government, which is willing to work with organizers and hear testimony. We’re not looking for approval or permission. We grandmothers have heart for our people and our children, and that’s all we need to get it done!
It’s an exciting time, with positive change happening now and more on the horizon. We’ll have much more to tell you as we move ahead, so please stay with us.
Wopila tanka — thank you for supporting our children! Madonna Thunder Hawk Cheyenne River Organizer The Lakota People’s Law Project
Lakota People’s Law Project 547 South 7th Street #149 Bismarck, ND 58504-5859