As a Navajo and Hopi mother who connects new moms to home-visiting services, Daili Lister knows firsthand the vital importance of drawing on Native American child-rearing practices. When she had her first child in Flagstaff, Arizona, she was just a short drive from the small town where she grew up. Relatives passed down a cradleboard and taught her the special blessings and practices that have helped mothers and babies bond for centuries.
But for many other Native American families — particularly those living in urban centers like Mesa, Arizona, where Lister now works — there are fewer ways for new parents to learn about traditional tribal practices.
“Living in the city, it’s like you no longer have a support person,” Lister said, recalling how she struggled to find prenatal care when she had her second child. “You’re running into people who may not look at things the same way that you do, or may judge or stereotype you.”
She hopes to be a part of changing that. This summer, Lister and a handful of other community health workers at the nonprofit Native Health Phoenix received training on a home-visiting curriculum designed specifically for American Indian families. One of the lessons in the curriculum, known as Positive Indian Parenting, highlights the bonding ritual of giving babies a gentle massage and wrapping them snugly on a cradleboard. Due to safety concerns during the pandemic, participants in the July training learned those ancient customs over video conference.
The curriculum was developed by Terry Cross, founder of the National Indian Child Welfare Association and a member of the Seneca Nation. Cross aimed to give parents a combination of practical skills and cultural grounding that would help reduce Native American children’s high foster care numbers and preserve families who have been subjected throughout history to brutal separation by the U.S. government.
Beginning in the late 1800’s, many Indian children were sent to Christian boarding schools — often forcibly by police or soldiers. By the 1960’s, between one-quarter and one-third of Indian children were living in adoptive homes, foster homes or institutions, and 90% of them were being raised by white people. Last month, legislation was introduced in Congress to explicitly acknowledge that the removal of Indian children to boarding schools produced a “cultural genocide” and establish the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policy to investigate and document past injustices.
That history motivated Cross, who was working in child welfare, to develop the parenting course in the late 1980’s. Since then, it has been delivered to small groups and individual parents across the country, some who enroll voluntarily and others who participate to comply with a court order resulting from an abuse or neglect allegation.
To date, the program’s impact on family well-being and foster care placements has not been rigorously examined. Yet the urgency of getting it right could not be more dire, or apparent. Nationwide, Native American children are the most likely of all racial and ethnic groups to be taken from their parents and placed in foster care, at a rate that is currently more than two and a half times the rate for white children, according to 2018 data from the federal Children’s Bureau.
Previously, the Positive Indian Parenting course has been evaluated through surveys of trainers and parents. But with the passage of the 2018 Family First Prevention Services Act, which aims to redirect child welfare funding to prevent the entry of children into foster care, federal funding is now restricted to programs whose efficacy is supported by rigorous scientific studies. Without such evidence for the curriculum, its creators feared that funding for the program would dry up.
Now, for the first time, a pilot study will assess the course’s impact on families. The Casey Family Foundation, one of the National Indian Child Welfare Association’s funders, helped design the study, which will be funded through a $700,000 grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The Child Trends research firm will conduct the investigation.
The study will enroll parents from the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, who live along a river of the same name in southern Washington state. Tribal leaders there are encouraging participation in the 90-minute Zoom lessons, which are voluntary.
“The values of interdependence, learning from nature, holding children sacred, and humor are all important to the tribe,” said Nadja Jones, director of Human Services for the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, noting that the curriculum also highlights some of their traditional sacred foods like salmon, huckleberries and camas root. “The hope is that the positive, culturally grounded parenting experience is passed down to future generations of parents.”
The program’s eight lessons blend the traditions, stories and values of more than 40 American Indian cultures to offer parents a template for how to nurture, praise and discipline their children. They also encourage parents to reflect on how they were raised and what they learned about their tribal heritage.
“If you didn’t learn these things, that’s OK, but it was a loss, probably because of colonization and assimilationist policy,” Cross said. “We have a right to know what our ancestors were teaching.”
While it was originally taught as a class, Positive Indian Parenting has been redesigned as a home visiting program to fit within the categories of prevention services approved under the Family First act. The pilot study will randomly assign the Cowlitz parents who sign up to either an intervention group, to begin the Positive Indian Parenting course either right away, or to a comparison group to begin after a six- to nine-month waiting period. Tribal leaders requested that all participants be provided the lessons by the end of the study.
Researchers will then track the well-being of parents and children over time using standardized indicators of cultural connectedness, parent-child bonding, parent self-efficacy, parent stress and child neglect. If the results are promising, the pilot could be followed by a larger national study whose results could help the program earn a federal “evidence-based” designation.
“Very few curricula designed specifically for Native peoples have been evaluated in ways that meet evidence criteria for federal funding,” said Deana Around Him, a senior research scientist at Child Trends who is co-principal investigator of the study and a member of the Cherokee Nation.
Recently, though, other organizations serving Native parents have also begun seeking outside assessments that could help their programs qualify for federal child welfare dollars. Last year, the nonprofit Native American Fatherhood and Families Association contracted with a consulting group to begin an evaluation of its 12-week “Fatherhood is Sacred, Motherhood is Sacred” program, funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Kathy LaPlante, an Otoe-Missouria tribal member who teaches social work courses on Indian child welfare at the University of South Dakota, is not familiar with the Positive Indian Parenting curriculum, but she said mindful child-rearing is a shared value among diverse tribes and a strength that can be drawn upon to prevent foster care disruptions.
“One thing that’s similar across tribes is that children are considered sacred, and historically everybody had a hand in raising them,” LaPlante said. “Culture can be a protective factor, and it can be healing on many levels.”
That view rings true for Lister in Mesa, who said learning her tribe’s traditions, songs and stories changed her outlook as a parent.
“I feel comfortable, I feel confident, I feel like this is where I’m supposed to be,” she said. “This is what I want my kids to know.”