Meeting Cultural Needs of Native American Children in Care

Recently, I was able to connect with two women who were willing to give me tips and suggestions on meeting cultural needs of Native American children in care.  It’s been a topic of personal interest since my husband and I are both Caucasian and have struggled with how to meet cultural needs of children in our care, especially at different ages.  I asked both these women for advice on how to keep a child’s culture alive as a baby, a kid, a teenager, and this is what they had to say.


Embrace Their Culture

“The biggest thing I can tell you is to become VERY familiar with ICWA.  Embrace the fact that your children are not white and never will be.  Do not be colorblind!!  Teaching Native children to embrace their culture and heritage starts with letting them be okay with exactly who they are.


Start embracing their culture as soon as you can.  Look into cradle boards.  See if you can get them moccasins for their first pair of shoes.  Decide early if you will grow their hair out.  My foster son is 2 1/2, and we have never cut his hair.  I recommend keeping it long as a tie to their culture.  Go to as many events on the reservation as possible such as pow wows and story tellings.  Plug into the community.  The earlier you start the more familiar with you the reservation folks will be.


Look into activities at the community centers.  Community centers are the culture hub of the reservation.  Get involved!   Learn as much about your child’s tribe as possible.  My children are Colville, which is not the same as the Kalispell Indians.  Embrace the differences.  Learn about sweats and smudging.  Have books by Native American authors in your home.  Buy toys that look like your child.  Maybe even change some of your decor to reflect their culture.  Learn your history.  If you have your child long enough, you are eventually going to have to discuss boarding schools, the Trail of Tears, and the meaning behind Thanksgiving.  Be prepared to answer as honestly and as age appropriate as possible.


Lastly, make sure you, your doctors, and caseworkers are aware of “Mongolian spots.”   These are basically birth marks that only happen on dark skins babies.  THEY LOOK LIKE BRUISES, BUT ARE NOT.  My first foster son had them, and I freaked because I thought someone had hurt him.  I’ve had four Native babies and three of them had them.”    –Jessica Simpson, foster parent recruiter in Washington

Meeting Needs at Various Ages


Baby needs – There are good children’s books out there that are good to read to children to get them acquainted with the Native American heritage.  Just know what tribe they are local to or enrolled in as there might be some specific to that tribe.  Google helps for this!  There are Facebook Native American language groups that teach the basics.  I always make sure if there’s an animal I will say the Native word and then the English word as well.  Also YouTube has some good Native language videos and English ones that they can watch.


Taking kids to local pow wows is a HUGE benefit beyond any words I can put in writing.  The children get to see the culture front and center.  They also get to eat Indian tacos, which is a staple in the culture.  There are other foods like wojape and stuff you would never get elsewhere.  Just ask your case worker or even a tribal member to keep you up to speed on gatherings.


Teenager needs– Teenagers would more than likely have family ties to the reservation. Make sure they also get visits in not only with bios but with grandma, grandpa, and cousins who are considered siblings.  If they are active in church make sure they can attend, and again pow wows and any tribal gatherings such as community get-togethers are encouraged.  Natives will have a community room and will many times have cook-outs just to get the members together. Tribal reps will talk but mostly just a chance to get together and have a meal.  Beaded bracelets, earrings, necklaces, etc. are all good to get teenagers to have something on them daily.  Also, you can have dream catchers in the room.  However, teenagers can verbally tell you what they need so might be a little easier.  Do not expect a Native teenager to talk a lot because that’s not the tradition.  They are not taught to open up and express feelings so making them do that would be very uncomfortable for a traditional Native child.  I’ve elaborated that a bit below.


History on Native American culture- First, each tribe is run a little differently than the next.  You can think about it as a completely different state with their own political agendas and representatives.  You can also relate it to having their own funding and judicial system as well.  With that being said, each child would have different situations in terms of if the tribe is going to be involved in the foster case or not.  The reason not all are involved is because of many situations, probably funding and enrollment of the child and the bio family as well.  If the bio family is not closely associated with the tribe and does not have a lot of living relatives enrolled, then it would be difficult to place that child within a tribal member’s home.  However, quite the opposite, if the child is enrolled in the tribe and has close living relatives that are reaching out to their tribal councilman to take custody of the children, then that would probably be the case.  I know there’s a lot of confusion in this matter so thought I’d throw that in here.


The best history I can tell you on Native American culture is to have a foster parent read the book titled “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” by Kent Nerburn.  Kent is a Minnesota native and does a book based on a white person’s observations from following two Ogalala Tribal Members around for a while.  It talks about the history of the Natives and also has Kent’s observations throughout the book.  It’s a great read and really opens your mind to life on a reservation.  The Native American culture is not like the English or white person’s culture in terms of raising children.  Before Natives were confined to reservations, it was taught that children are to be placed in a bassinet when they are born and to only provide the minimal essentials such as food and clothes, etc.  If a child cries, they are left to self-soothe and become a strong warrior that is able to find comfort within their own bodies.  It is the beginning of raising a Native child warrior.  Along the same lines, Native Americans are taught to listen and not voice a lot of opinions because listening to the Spirit through things like the Land and living off of the Land is what is in Native culture.  The book goes through a lot of this and helps you understand more than I can put into words.


In terms of family relationships, if a living relative such as a Grandmother passes away, the oldest Aunt will then take on the roll of grandmother to those children.  Same with a parent, if a mother passes away, her oldest sister will now be considered those children’s mother.  Therefore, distant relatives will always want to take care of children even if financially difficult or physically difficult as that’s what is taught in the Native culture.  Whatever family member passes, a living family member takes on that roll.


Long hair is always a topic that is brought up.  In the Native culture, long hair means strength in a warrior.  If you are grieving, you cut your hair short to show that you are grieving and have lost a loved one.  If you have long hair, that means you are strong and have not had anything happen to cause you to cut your hair.


In terms of not having a lot of Native homes for these kids, I do want to point out that I think it is a little discriminating towards Natives and is hard for Native homes to even qualify to be a foster home.  A lot of them do not have open bedrooms, cannot financially back the state for a month if needed, do not have their own vehicle for transporting. Most of the tribal members live in poverty, so they are unable to meet the guidelines we would consider as normal or simple.  Just thought I’d throw that out there in terms of why there aren’t many ICWA homes.”   –Brandy



  One thought on “Meeting Cultural Needs of Native American Children in Care

  1. February 14, 2018 at 10:00 pm

    These are wonderful suggestions to help Native American children embrace their culture and heritage. I’m sure these would all make them feel so loved for who they are, and also part of a wider community outside the immediate family, to support them as they grow up.

  2. February 15, 2018 at 6:15 am

    What an informative piece that I am sure will help many foster families.

  3. February 15, 2018 at 9:33 am

    This is such a great lesson in understanding Native American culture. It’s so important to help children embrace their heritage. Having foster parents who will work so hard to bring that into their home is such a blessing.

  4. February 15, 2018 at 11:23 pm

    Great info…it’s so important we meet the needs of all the children!

  5. February 16, 2018 at 12:07 pm

    I think it’s so important for everyone to know and celebrate their heritage, so I love her recommendations! And I lvoe the idea with getting involved in local events, I think that’s a great idea!

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