This is the working mantra of the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA). After reading the latest report from the Office of the Inspector General, this is made blatantly clear.
The Albuquerque Metropolitan detention center and the nearby Sandoval County detention center recently enacted new bans on crayon drawings, greeting cards and stamps in an effort to stem the tide of Suboxone, the brand name for the opiate substitute buprenorphine, being smuggled to inmates.
The U.S. Surgeon General has reported that rates of co-occurring mental illness and substance abuse, especially alcohol, are higher among Native Americans, and that the suicide rate among the Native population is 50 percent higher than the national rate.
The statistics sound like they come from another county. A one in five chance of committing suicide, a one in ten chance of being abused, twice as likely to be placed in foster care, and a one in three chance of living in poverty.
Like many Native people I began my career working for my Tribe soon after graduating with my undergraduate social work degree. The Indian Child Welfare Act was enacted in 1978 because of the high removal rate of Indian children from their traditional homes and essentially from Indian culture as a whole. Before enactment, as many as 25 to 35 percent of all Indian children were being removed from their Indian homes and placed in non-Indian homes, with presumably the absence of Indian culture. In some cases, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) paid the states to remove Indian children and to place them with non-Indian families and religious groups.
Testimony in the House Committee for Interior and Insular Affairs showed that in some cases, the per capita rate of Indian children in foster care was nearly 16 times higher than the rate for non-Indians. If Indian children had continued to be removed from Indian homes at this rate, tribal survival would be threatened. Congress recognized this, and stated that the interests of tribal stability were as important as that of the best interests of the child. One of the factors in this judgment was that, because of the differences in culture, what was in the best interest of a non-Indian child were not necessarily what was in the best interest of an Indian child, especially due to extended families and tribal relationships.
In October of 1987 I was hired in the first Indian Child Welfare Position in our Tribe’s urban office in Duluth. I loved this time in my career and loved working with our Native families. I learned so much from them about resiliency and survival. I honed my skills and my ability to walk in two worlds. It was an exciting time in Indian Child Welfare in the 1980s. We were pioneers in implementing the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978. I quickly learned that once Native children were removed they were placed in non Native foster homes which were often far away from their biological family and there were no services being offered to the family to aid in returning the children to their families. The advocacy I provided had a great impact on the high removal rates of Native children from their families. In addition, I was able to work closely with families to help them comply with court mandates for reunification or to identify relatives to care for their children so that the foster care system could be avoided altogether. One glaring gap in services in the foster care system was the lack of Native foster homes. When the opportunity to do something about this arose I accepted the challenge and left my position with the Tribe.
In July of 1993 I was hired by a private, non-profit foster care agency to recruit and license Native foster homes. This was a large agency with offices in all of Minnesota and eventually all of Wisconsin and North Dakota. As a Native person going to work for a dominant culture agency there are inherent risks involved. I was initially viewed as a representative icon rather than as an individual. There is always a fine line between being treated as a token minority and implementing cultural competence standards in an organization. A culturally competent program demonstrates empathy and understanding of cultural differences in treatment design, implementation, and evaluation (Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, 1994). Nowadays cultural competence is increasingly a requirement for funding and accreditation. For many years I was the only minority in the entire organization. I began licensing Native foster homes and before long I had several foster homes and for the first time our community had safe, same race homes for Native children in need of care. During the 18 years I was with this agency over a thousand Native children were cared for in the homes that I licensed. I worked my way up in the organization from case manager to lead social worker to area director to regional director in charge of the northern one third of Minnesota. I had great success in developing a long-term, ongoing cultural competence process within the geographic area that I served. I had a great staff of social workers that, although non Native, had an understanding of the cultural nuances of the Native people that we worked with. Over the 18 years that I worked for the agency I was recruited by competing agencies to work for them. Competing agencies also attempted to start their own Native foster care program in my community without success.
Through my volunteer work and as a member of the board of directors for various agencies a needs assessment showed a gap in services for chemical dependency and mental health services for Native people. The agency I worked for was not willing to diversify to provide services to meet the unmet needs in our community. In hindsight this left me vulnerable to offers from these competing agencies that lurked around the community like vultures. In April of 2011 I was approached by the CEO of a competing agency and I met with him in my office. He offered me a chance to work for his agency and to provide any services that I wanted in the Duluth community. In fact, this agency already had successful chemical dependency and mental health programs in addition to foster care services. I agreed to discuss his proposal with my staff but I asked that he also hire my entire staff as we were a team. He agreed to these terms and within 48 hours my staff and I resigned from our current agency and went to work for one of our competitors.
One by one the Native foster families that I had worked with for many years followed me and my staff to the new agency. Cultural competence starts with the program’s administration although competence requires that people of all levels in an agency learn to value diversity. It was obvious from the beginning that this agency had no desire to achieve cultural competence. In June 2012 it was announced that I was the new Cultural Director for the agency. I was not asked if I wanted to be the Cultural Director. I knew right then that this was the beginning of the end for me.
Being the only Native person in an agency that has 150 employees and then be asked to be in charge of cultural competency for a rigid hierarchical organization is a set up for failure. At the same time my responsibility for the budgeting, marketing and personnel was taken from me and I was reduced to a token status in the agency. For the next ten months I was the cultural director for an agency that was seemingly bent on cultural destructiveness. I was determined to give it everything I had. I did a cultural competency assessment of the agency and came to the conclusion that there was resistance throughout the entire agency. On May 7, 2013 I was notified that my position had been eliminated and I was escorted from the building. The staff and the foster parents were told my termination was because of budget and poor marketing of the office. They seemed to ignore the fact that I wasn’t in charge of the budget or the marketing of the agency.
I’m not here to call for Eric Shinseki’s scalp on a lance. There have been substantial improvements on his watch and his heart is with veterans. Nothing would be improved by imposing a new blood learning curve on the VA right now.
In 2011 Mary Fallin assumed office as Governor of the Oklahoma and, like it or not, the events that have followed exemplify some of the worst atrocities against Native Americans in any recent memory.
A few weekends ago saw the grand opening of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Skatepark.
More than a decade ago the clinicians at our American Indian non-profit organization wrote a series of articles related to addiction, Type 2 Diabetes and intergenerational stress with the beginning titles “Killing Us Slowly.” These articles still exist on a number of websites as well as our T.K.
Cannabis legalization is a hot topic. After decades of collective societal distain for the plant ala Reefer Madness, public opinion now seems to be swaying in favor of its use, especially where its medicinal properties are concerned.
On March 25, the US Supreme Court heard arguments in a case brought by a for-profit corporation, Hobby Lobby, claiming it (the corporation) would be denied religious freedom if forced to offer Obamacare compliant health insurance policies that cover birth control to some 13,000 employees.
Indigenous women in Canada experience rates of violence more than three times that of non-Indigenous women and young Indigenous women are five times more likely to die of violence.
American Indian women have long been honored with the name “life giver” for their gift of motherhood to the tribes. In addition, most Native American women were masters at making beautiful blankets, baskets, pottery and jewelry. They gathered materials to build homes for their families and understood the curative properties of wild plants to heal the sick. American Indian men knew women were the source of life and acknowledged that their wisdom and strength was essential for group survival. Thus in modern times, we are no different from our European counterparts going to great lengths and personal expense to make sure our children have the best clothes, schools, lessons, coaches, and more.
We begin economizing the moment our are born in order to save money and set it aside for the best of college educations. We surrender our own personal wants, preferences and even needs so that they will have everything necessary for a successful future. In fact, most of us would literally give our own lives for our children because no sacrifice is too great; surrendering all for the sake of something or someone. It is the act of giving up, offering up or letting go. Sacrificing our preferences should never compromise biblically, theologically or doctrinally but often requires us to make adjustments in order to accommodate generationally and systematically.
Sacrifice is a way of teaching the next generation to think unselfishly and possibly recognize common ground in terms of deference and preference. Deference is a learned and practiced submission based on conviction, or politely giving in to another, or courteous respect whereas, preference is based on feeling and tradition.
The idea that women, Native or otherwise, have to make those choices every moment of every day while men don’t have those same commitments or time constraints. Mostly, men don’t end up splitting their mental lives between the two worlds of home life and work life. They can close the door on each to go to the other. Women, on the other hand, have to juggle both together and make decisions for children, family members, close friends, (and themselves) that effect the outcomes for everyone.
Recently, I had to make the decision (preference) to leave my job and forget about pursuing my doctorate studies to save my seventeen year old daughter, who suffers from drug induced psychosis. How the effects of her drug and alcohol addiction (failing school, cutting, paranoia, attempting suicide), on the emotional life of the mother, grandmother, and aunt can drag down even the strongest of women, and bring about surprising decisions for the woman as well as the child who is struggling with addictive behaviors. Yet, there are opportunities that arise from spending time in the emotional world of the addictive child: learning what brought about the addictions or acting-out behaviors and working through those to the closer bond between mother and child.
As I sit here listening to my 6-year-old daughter read, I wonder what the future holds for her and the next generation of Navajo children. Childhood obesity and diabetes continue to plague the Navajo Nation and American Indian communities across the United States. These negative trends among Navajo youth raise important questions for tribal communities. How will our Navajo Nation government and we, as Navajo people, work together to combat these negative trends?
Let’s not kid ourselves. Defeating diabetes and obesity will not be easy. It will take commitment, creativity, and reliance on our traditional values to solve these problems. More importantly, these issues require all of us to take a stand as we work to reclaim control of our diets, health, wellness and community well-being. But we need a partner in the Navajo Nation government.
The passing of the Healthy Diné Nation Act by the Navajo Nation Council was a big step forward. The battle to prevent our kids from developing Type 2 diabetes cannot be won without the support of our Tribal Leaders. This legislation has a very simple, two part approach: first, increase access to and affordability of fresh and healthy foods sold on the reservation by removing the five percent Navajo sales tax on fresh fruits, vegetables, and water sold on the reservation and, second, implement a small two percent additional sales tax on “junk food” sold on the reservation, with revenues generated from the tax going back into Navajo communities for health and wellness programs. The two parts work together for the good of the people.
I am inspired by the grass roots movement among the Navajo people that led to this important legislation, and the Navajo Council Members who stood up to be a part of this movement. I stand with them today.
But a week after the Healthy Diné Nation Act passed, I was disappointed and discouraged to learn that this important legislation was vetoed. The veto sends a dangerous message that the futures of our children are for sale to outside corporate interests that have no concern for the health of the Navajo people. If we fail to maintain our sovereign identity, our children will be left to pay the consequences. This issue isn’t only about a tax but also about how the citizens of the Navajo Nation want to shape the future for their children.
I realize that new Navajo tax laws will not be the sole solution to an epidemic that results in the rate of diabetes being 2.3 times higher within the Navajo Nation than elsewhere in the U.S. or that 50% of American Indian children are projected to develop type 2 diabetes in their lifetime based on current childhood obesity rates. But the Healthy Diné Nation Act represents an idea that brings together the resources and leadership of Navajo government and combines them with the best interests of the Navajo people. The reality facing our communities is that if government and family leaders continue to ignore the childhood obesity and diabetes issue it will ensure that some of our children will not outlive their parents.