Native leaders call governor’s handling of foster care ‘shameful’  - TAI News
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Photo by Isai Ramos on Unsplash.

Gov. Greg Gianforte has boasted about his program that funnels kids in foster care to a network of evangelical churches across Montana as a novel approach to a serious problem, but some Native people in the state say there is nothing new here.

“This could just fit perfectly in the 1880s and 1890s when that was the policy,” Janine Pease said in an interview. “The whole work with children since about 1880 has been a matter of acculturation and assimilation … also Christianizing them and Americanizing them.”

Pease, an enrolled member of the Crow tribe, is the founder of Little Big Horn College and a recipient of a MacArthur genius award. She has served on the National Advisory Council on Indian Education and now teaches sociology at Little Big Horn and at Montana State University’s Billings campus.

“These (children) are not blank sheets, and this is just a really seriously ignorant attempt, but it’s a repetition, and it’s sad. It’s very sad,” she said.

“It’s shameful,” Anna Whiting-Sorrell said in an interview. She is a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and also the former director of the state’s Department of Public Health and Human Services, the bureaucracy now carrying out the program in question.

That department’s Office of Faith and Community Based Services has partnered with a network of evangelical churches channeling about 1,000 children a year to Christian families. More than 35% of children in state care are Native, which is a lopsided over-representation, as Native people make up about 6.5% of the state’s population. This is the sort of statistic that fuels racist assumptions about why so many Native kids are wards of the state.

Both Pease and Whiting-Sorrell argue that the irony in these assumptions is the reversal of cause and effect. Both acknowledge Native communities have severe problems with issues including alcoholism, drug abuse, and child maltreatment, just as does any community plagued by extreme poverty. But both stress that research has clearly demonstrated that the dislocation created by the removal by government agents of Native kids from their communities, culture and families over the decades is a significant factor. The legacy of this removal, especially of the boarding schools the children were placed in, is still a raw nerve in Indian Country.

“It’s very important to realize the net result, and the net result on children is devastating, such devastating results as historic trauma on children who have been taken from their homes. It is a lingering trauma that follows them throughout their life,” said Pease. 

Lesa Evers, who identifies as Blackfeet but is now enrolled with the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa, was director of tribal relations for DPHHS for 10 years, including for three years during the Gianforte administration, but left that post when it became clear to her that tribal relations were no longer important to the administration. Gianforte cut the position after she left it.

She said in an interview that the overrepresentation of Native kids in foster care is partly the result of a double standard.

“I think there’s a different set of criteria, to be honest. One thing applied to some families and another thing applied to Native families,” she said in an interview.

Jonathan Windy Boy, a state legislator and Chippewa Cree, said the network of evangelicals engaged in Gianforte’s program “probably does mean well,” but the program ignores the legacy of boarding schools, the physical and sexual abuse and actions such as cutting off traditional braids and punishing kids for speaking Native languages that occurred at those schools. Like many in Indian Country do, he cited his own family’s experience with those actions, including his grandfather’s removal to a residential school in Alberta.

“This (Gianforte’s program) is genocide 2.0,” he said in an interview. “And you can quote me on that.”

Asked what he intended to do about it as a legislator, Windy Boy simply noted that Gianforte is running for reelection. He offered a direct message for Montana’s Native communities. “All that I can tell them is get out and vote. … Don’t complain; vote.”

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