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Experiencing the Rich Culture of America’s First People

Acting Assistant Secretary George Sheldon and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius pose with children from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe ChAs we celebrate Native American Heritage month, I reflect on all of the outreach we have done with Indian Country, including when I had the opportunity to accompany Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to visit several Native American communities in South Dakota. 

During this trip, we witnessed firsthand the rich culture of the Lakota Oyate (people) and listened to leadership, community members, and students discuss their goals and future plans for their rural, and sometimes remote, communities.

On the Pine Ridge reservations, high school students of Red Cloud Indian School talked about the important role language and culture have played in their educational success, “We have to know where we have been to get a vision of where we are going,” one student advised us as she discussed her college plans after she introduced herself in the Lakota language. 

Sitting with the Secretary and ANA Commissioner Lillian Sparks, I learned from the young people about why Native American languages are integral to identity, education, and sovereignty. It gave us great pride to know we support the education of these future leaders through curriculum development supported by the Administration for Native Americans.

In Pine Ridge we also had the opportunity to sit down with the Tribal Council and learn about the importance of maintaining the government-to-government relationship and the responsibility to uphold the 1868 Treaty of Ft. Laramie while meeting with the Oglala Sioux Tribe government.

On the Rosebud Reservation we were welcomed on the Sinte Gleska University campus through a smudging ceremony that included the burning of sweet sage and symbolized the cleansing of our minds from impure thoughts and feelings. This allowed us to discuss the sensitive topics at hand with a cante waste, or good heart. 

Youth leaders and Tribal elders discussed how equine therapy has played an important part in healing the community through a program funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.  The Rosebud Sioux Tribe discussed some of the health challenges of the community, including mental health and suicide. They also provided recommendations for their LIHEAP and Head Start programs. 

The Rosebud Child Care program scheduled a mini-powwow for us. As the young grass dancers performed, I was reminded that it is everyone’s job in the Administration for Children and Families to ensure that all young children, youth, and families are able to access the services that we provide through ACF programs.

Our last visit was with the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe where we toured their brand new state-of-the-art hospital built through funding provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  We also visited a child care classroom where students actively participate in the “I am Moving, I am Learning” initiative through dancing and other cultural activities. 

During each community visit, we learned that despite the very real challenges these communities face, the men, women and children of Indian Country are full of hope, faith, generosity, wisdom, bravery, fortitude, and love for their families.  We have a responsibility at ACF to continue strengthening our relationship with tribal communities through on-going communication and the joint development of policies and guidance to ensure we are meeting the needs of American Indian and Alaska Native children and families.

I look forward to learning more about all of the rich cultures that make up our country and to finding creative and innovative solutions that will allow us to make gains in social service programming, while respecting the traditions of America’s first peoples.

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