In light of the Summer Institute in American Indian Child Welfare held this week in Walker, MN, I thought it would be good (and relevant!) to discuss the importance of collaboration between early childhood and child welfare agencies for American Indian children. Since the majority of the speakers during this conference were from the Ojibwe (or Anishinaabe) tribe, what is presented below is from the Ojibwe point-of-view; however, please feel free to comment below if you have anything to add!
Every child is sacred
According to Mike Dahl, Larry Jourdain, and others, the Anishinaabe hold their children in high regard. Every child is sacred. This is directly related to Ojibwe spiritual beliefs: Before a child is conceived, the Creator gathers all the spirits and chooses one of them to go to the physical (human) world. On its way to the physical world, it travels through Orion's belt, where it receives 4 gifts (a name, a clan, a lodge, and something it won't realize until its deathbed); it officially enters the physical world through the womb of a woman, using a human body as its vessel. Therefore, all children, beginning at birth, are sacred, as the Anishinaabe recognize the arrival of a new spirit on earth.
As you can probably imagine, removing an Anishinaabe child from the home has detrimental effects on the family. In essence, one is basically removing a very spiritual being from those who cherish it. One is also denying that spiritual being's right of belonging somewhere. Key phrase: "You're a spirit having a human experience."
Every child has the right to family and clan
Not only is the child him/herself sacred, but his/her rights are sacred as well. Every child is given a name through a naming ceremony, and immediately after birth the child is introduced to his/her family, clan, lodge, and tribe, as well as assigned a role in life. For example, males are generally the protectors and providers, whereas females are the nurturers and educators. In doing this, the child is given a sense of belonging immediately at birth, and the child knows who he/she can count on and who he/she is.
When an Anishinaabe child is separated from his/her family, he/she is being denied his/her rights to family, clan, lodge, and tribe. More importantly, the child's sense of belonging is disrupted, especially if the child's parents are given infrequent visitations or the child is placed far from his/her reference points (family, friends, neighborhood, etc.). This is why it is so important to maintain an Anishinaabe child in the home, or place him/her with extended relatives, rather than placement in a non-Native home. Also, the longer the child is removed from his/her family and clan, the less likely that child will grow up knowing his/her role in Anishinaabe society. Finally, in removing children from Anishinaabe homes, one is denying family members their purpose in life (i.e., men can no longer protect and provide for their children, women can no longer nurture and educate their children).
Every developmental milestone is a joyous moment
Furthermore, all developmental milestones in a young child's life are recognized and celebrated. Milestones discussed in particular are:
- Losing the last of the umbilical cord: When the baby's "bellybutton" falls off, the mother keeps it in a pouch so that they maintain their connection that they had in the womb; when a child needs his/her mother, people will say, "Your child is searching for his/her bellybutton."
- The first smile: The Anishinaabe people celebrate this accomplishment and remind the baby to be happy and laugh often.
- Rolling over for the first time: Because of the numerous times the baby has struggled to do this, the Anishinaabe people see this as a great accomplishment. It is the result of the baby's will to never give up, and the Anishinaabe use this accomplishment to encourage the baby to never give up, and to keep trying. When someone seems to be giving up, an Anishinaabe person will say, "Did you forget how to roll over?" so that the person will realize his/her potential and continue trying.
- The first steps: By far, this is a great, great feat. This signals to the Anishinaabe the baby's path to adulthood and beyond. The Anishinaabe celebrate the first steps by placing four pieces of cedar on the ground and having the baby walk across the cedar pieces towards his/her parents on the other side. In doing this, the Anishinaabe are wishing the baby a long life ahead.
When placement of a child occurs at a young age, particularly at birth, parents and family members are unable to witness these milestones in their children's lives, and the ceremonies will not occur. Because of the important ceremonies that occur at birth, Anishinaabe leaders at the Institute recommended that intensive services be provided to mothers and babies who test positive for drugs, rather than removing the baby from his/her mother.
Overall, prevention was stressed at the Institute as a way to maintain healthy Anishinaabe children and families. Due to historical/intergenerational trauma, current child welfare practices are not conducive to Native families. It is important to approach child welfare practice with tribes using culturally-appropriate services; for the Anishinaabe, this includes prevention services (via in-home services), utilization of Native social workers, inclusion of cultural and traditional ways (such as smudging and the use of sage/tobacco), maintenance of children either in the birth parents' home or with extended family members, inclusion of family and clan members in decision-making processes, and frequent, consistent contact.