In the Dakota language, there is no word for “child” or “children.” Instead, there is “wakanyeja,” which means “sacred little ones.”

At Spirit Lake Indian Reservation Tuesday, the importance of “wakanyeja” was clear during the Spirit Lake Children’s Services Symposium, a two-day event to present reports and assessments on the reservation’s troubled past dealings with a number of child deaths and problems with child protective and social services.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live

The reservation has drawn negative attention from national news sources in recent years regarding child abuse and the placement of foster children in unsafe homes, which led to suspended funds for foster care and federal officials taking over parts of the reservation’s social services programming.

But now, the tribe is working with Cankdeska Cikana Community College, U.S. Marshals Service, Prevent Child Abuse North Dakota, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other agencies to improve conditions for children on the reservation.

Tribal leaders and representatives from various agencies presented reports and assessments of Spirit Lake’s past record of social services, and had a training sessions for parents, teachers and social workers on how to deal with children scheduled for Wednesday.

“It’s so good to see so many people here interested in our children,” Spirit Lake elder Joseph Lawrence said.

Various tribal leaders and members emphasized the importance of caring for children of both Spirit Lake and all Native peoples, as they will carry on the traditions and cultures of the tribes.

Greg Holy Bull, who was the emcee of Tuesday’s presentations, spoke of this in between the morning’s line-up of speakers.

“Of all the things we do in life, (children) will be the most important thing for us to take care of,” he said.

Building a foundation

Less than a day before the start of the symposium, Myra Pearson was sworn in as the new chairwoman of Spirit Lake to replace Chairman Russ McDonald, who was voted out in a recall election.

“When I left office back in 2011, it was about the children,” said Pearson, who has served as chairwoman in two other partial terms and one full term. “I will still be a voice for the children.”

Pearson said she planned on picking up where McDonald left after he led the tribe up to the point of the symposium.

“Today I can stand here and promise the children they’re going to get what they deserve,” which she said included a new Head Start facility as well as improved social and protective services.

The new community college Head Start facility is already underway. The symposium included a groundbreaking ceremony for the new building, which is being funded by U.S. Department of Agriculture money.

As for other programming and actions, Pearson said implementation is the next priority.

“All the (planning and research) work is done,” Pearson said. “We just need to put the (programs) into place.”

Culture and healing

Moving forward from the symposium, Spirit Lake and its tribal administration is set on strengthening its social services, officials said.

Melissa Merrick-Brady was hired as the full-time tribal social services director in July after first being appointed as interim director in March.

Merrick-Brady, who had been interim director of victim assistance at Spirit Lake, said her priorities include developing a fully staffed and stable program that combines cultural healing with extensive modern services.

Merrick-Brady said she dealt with her own childhood trauma that she only began to heal from later in life, so she knows how important it is for children to receive intervention, as well as cultural healing, early on.

“We wanted to make sure our culture was a part of our program,” she said.

One example she gave was providing traditional Dakota names to children who have been in the foster home system for their whole lives that might have missed out on cultural connections. Providing children with these cultural aspects helps to revive the community feeling that she said is behind the philosophy “it takes a village to raise a child.”

“It’s going to take all of us collectively and individually to heal our community,” she said.

As the department continues to grow, Merrick-Brady hopes to add more services such as parenting classes that will help the department to do more to ensure the safety and well-being of the children.

She said Spirit Lake’s past troubles with child protection and the ensuing media attention made it difficult to build up a staff, and having a small staff only allowed the reservation to provide the minimum of services.

However, as she continues to increase the staff, she said that the worst of the reservation’s problems with child welfare is in the past and that the tribe is now in a position to make progress.

“I think we’re on the other side of this, I really do, and I think we’re moving forward in a positive way,” she said.