By Stormy Sagmoen
"Stormy! Wake up, we have to leave immediately!" My mind races as I attempt to grasp my mom's command. My mother and I are sharing a bed in a local homeless shelter a supervisor approaches my mother and demands we leave due to her uncooperative behavior. I quickly put my jacket on and we surreptitiously stride through the hallways attempting not to wake the other residents. We leave the shelter and drive to a parking lot, not long afterwards, we fall asleep. Approximately a month later, my little brother, my older sister, and myself were placed into the state's custody.
There is an unspoken problem amongst American Indian and Alaska Native children. Within the nationís foster care system there is an inability to adopt alternate plans in order to assist the ever-evolving cultural dynamics of Alaskan Natives and American Indians. Children bear the burden of a broken system when it comes to the transition from their homes to an alternate living environment i.e. a foster home.
A report done by the National Indian Child Welfare Association and Kids Are Waiting concluded that American Indian and Alaska Native children are "overrepresented in the nation's foster care system at more than 1.6 times the expected level." For example, Native Americans in the foster care systems of Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota represent between a third and a half of the total foster care populations of those states. These numbers directly demonstrate the struggles faced by Native American children on a daily basis.
My familyís experience is that of many Alaska Native foster children in microcosm. Previous to my mother's illness my family continually practiced our Dena'ina Athabascan traditions- learning our language through after hour classes, ghelch'eni, birch bark basket making, and simply eating traditional foods such as nivagi, ice cream. However, after we entered the foster care system our culture was temporarily stripped away. My family lived with my aunt and uncle who were also Alaska Native, but not long afterward we were placed with a white family. We not only ceased to practice Native traditions, but also lost our overall knowledge of who we are. Our efforts to preserve our heritage failed. The family barely acknowledged our ethnicity and we were left to adopt new traditions.
According to the Indian Child Welfare Act, our family was supposed to live with another native family. Personally, the living environment did not affect my preserving my ethnicity, but extrapolated to a national scale the effects are devastating. It is crucial to the preservation of American Indian and Alaska Native culture among foster children, to have healthy and harmonious families, and this begins with a sound foster family placement.
According to ICWA's website, the third goal is to increase the number of American Indian and Alaska Native foster families, so it is now the responsibility of Alaska Native and American Indians to step up and preserve their culture. As both an Alaska Native and a foster child, I will do my part not only to preserve the Native culture, but also to help children within the foster care system. Following my graduation from college I plan on using my degree to work within the state. I hope to go through medical school and either become a doctor or surgeon and later come back to Alaska and return to the community a portion of what it has given me.
From my experience, I am aware that it takes more than one person to change a whole system, but I hope with my backgrounds and further education can serve as an advocate for children all across America. There are flaws within the foster care system but I hope to mend the problem of a lack of cultural continuity, and to decrease the number of American Indian and Alaska Native's within the system. Besides knowledge and experience, I hope to find solutions by raising awareness and strengthening family continuities in both rural and urban areas. As far as awareness, I want the foster care system to understand that family cohesion is not just a two parent system. My family has been held together due to my two older sisterís stepping up and my aunt. My mother and father may not have been in the picture, but our strength was derived from the notion of communal families.
If I lift the shroud of silence that has been draped over the community, then I may be able to enhance the future of my people.