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Protecting Our Sacred Ones

Photo of Administration of Native Americans Commissioner Lillian SparksAs the Commissioner for the Administration for Native Americans, my role extends beyond overseeing the direction of ANA, to a larger coordination role within the Administration for Children and Families and across the Department of Health and Human Services to “serve as the effective and visible advocate on behalf of Native Americans within the department, and with other departments and agencies…”  That is how I found myself testifying last month at the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on a number of bills proposed in Congress that will impact Native Americans, and especially our Wakanheza (our children).

During the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs testimony, Spirit Lake Tribal Chairman Leander Russell McDonald explained to the committee members and audience, that Wakanheza, in the Dakota language means “sacred beings,” that is how we are to treat them.  He also shared that it is this perspective that should guide us in our actions as individuals, tribal leaders and elected officials, to develop legislation and polices that foster their protection and welfare. But as Senator Byron Dorgan also shared in his testimony, too often, Native children have had to leave unsafe home conditions, but their safety in the foster care system is not always ensured.  Both HHS and the Department of Interior have a vested interest in ensuring that Tribes and state welfare agencies are able to ensure the safety of our Wakanheza, so we are working together, across agencies, with Tribes and responding to Congress as we all seek to improve laws and policies. The hearing also focused on a bill S. 1622, to establish the Alyce Spotted Bear and Walter Soboleff Commission on Native Children. This bill, sponsored by Senator Heidi Heitkamp will require the commission to conduct a comprehensive study of federal, state, local and tribal programs that serve Native children, including an evaluation of the impact of concurrent jurisdiction on child welfare systems.  

Just a week later, I was at the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA) annual conference to present on the activities of the ACF Tribal Advisory Committee and attend a workshop that discussed the concept of the Native Children’s Agenda. I was accompanied by the Associate Commissioner of the Children’s Bureau, Joo Yeun Chang, who presented to the general assembly on ACF’s priorities as it relates to child welfare issues in Indian Country, including working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs on updating the ICWA guidance and assisting Tribes in the development of their IV-E programs.

Lastly, ANA has had the opportunity to fund some grants for organizations to improve and expand their services to Native Americans in the foster care system. Not only is this an issue in Tribal communities, but it also a concern for cities with large American Indian populations, as our report from the Healing Generations Project of the Minnesota American Indian Center demonstrates.  Foster youth have shared that they feel a double loss if they are removed both from their homes and from their native communities, because they are not able to learn their language, participate in cultural or spiritual ceremonies — activities that can help contribute to healing and stability during this traumatic time. 

Many people across our country are working on many levels to improve the situation facing our children, so to all of the advocates, leaders, child welfare workers and foster parents, thank you for you dedication, love and for taking care of our precious Wakanheza so that that will have a better tomorrow.

Lillian Sparks Robinson, a Lakota woman of the Rosebud and Oglala Sioux Tribes, is the Commissioner of the Administration of Native Americans.  Sparks was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the Commissioner on March 3, 2010, and was sworn in on March 5, 2010.  She has devoted her career to supporting the educational pursuits of Native American students, protecting the rights of indigenous people, and empowering tribal communities.

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