By Jeremiah Donier
Hopi and Navajo tribal member Albert Pooley hears the echoes of his forefathers every day in the work he does as president of the Native American Fatherhood and Families Association (NAFFA).
“Imagine what our forefathers would say to us today,” said Pooley. “They would probably shout, ‘We are here with you. We know about dark days, pain, suffering, sorrow and hard times. Help each other. Care for each other. Comfort each other. Protect one another. Believe in yourself, your families and each other and feel our spirit.’”
Since 2001, Pooley has worked to bring healing and comfort to families torn apart by decades of pain and suffering resulting from the federal government’s oversight of Native American tribes.
The programs Pooley created help Native American fathers and mothers become models of healthy parenting and bring healing to their families and greater tribal communities.
To understand why NAFFA’s work is transformative, it is important to know the history of Native American children in foster care and the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).
A 2019 Partners for Our Children brief on the Indian Child Welfare Act details the forced removal of thousands of Native American children from their families and subsequent relocation to more than 357 tribal boarding schools scattered across 30 states, from the early 1870s through the late 1970s. For more than a century federal policy dubbed, “kill the Indian, save the man,” resulted in Native American children being stripped of cultural identity and family connection.
When boarding schools became too costly to maintain, the federal government determined Native American children were better off in other settings, typically white Christian foster and adoptive families. The policy was solidified in the 1958 Indian Adoption Project created by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and administered by the Child Welfare League of America, according to the Upstander Project. This resulted in hundreds of thousands more tribal children placed into foster care, creating a growing disconnect among Native American family members and the resulting intergenerational trauma still prevalent today.
By 1976, one in three Native American children were taken from families; more than 85% were placed in non-tribal homes. ICWA was passed in 1978 after tribal leaders began calling for policy reforms. And as Partners for Children notes, ICWA became the “gold standard” because it recognizes the right of Native American children to be connected to extended family, elders, community and culture while also acknowledging tribal rights to protect and care for their children.
But, despite federal laws designed to keep Native American children with their families, healing decades of trauma is not easily overcome. The damage is still evident today.
Native American communities experience the largest foster care disproportionality. According to a 2019 National Indian Child Welfare Association report, 57% of all tribal children in South Dakota were in foster care; 53% of tribal children in Alaska were in care, 39% in North Dakota, 34% in Montana, and 27% in Minnesota.
When Pooley realized tribal relatives considered Native American men the cause of many family-related social problems, he flipped the script. He saw Native American fathers as the community’s greatest untapped resource, and called for parents to become leaders in protecting children and keeping families together. Drawing from deep compassion, Pooley began promoting tribal unity by creating two parent training programs: Fatherhood is Sacred/Motherhood is Sacred®.
“Our greatest happiness and greatest sorrows come from our relationships with our family,” said Pooley. “Our existence and happiness are dependent upon building and nurturing strong relationships.”
Agencies who use the programs reported to NAFFA a marked decrease in parent recidivism and a significant increase in child support. Proponents of the programs include seven tribes, 10 tribal courts, three drug treatment centers, four jails, and an adult probation program.
At www.NativeAmericanFathers.org, men in the Fatherhood is Sacred program share heartbreaking experiences of growing up in alcoholic families, of sexual and physical abuse, as well as stories of abandonment by their disconnected, struggling families. Fatherhood is Sacred offers the men hope and healing for themselves and their families.
As of November 2021, nearly 2,000 facilitators reached 250 tribal communities in 27 states and three Canadian provinces.
NAFFA offers two other programs: Addressing Family Violence & Abuse® delves into the conflict between partners, understanding past trauma and healing relationships. Linking Generations by Strengthening Relationships® connects parents with the wisdom and kindness of relatives to build stronger community and cultural connections. Each program is an important part of rebuilding the broken relationships caused by decades of trauma in the Native American community.
“Anybody can just be there with their kids, but to actually be a father and be a man is something totally different,” shares one man in the video. “They’re actually showing me how to live, they’re showing me how to be a father, how to lead and be there for my kids.”
Program facilitators focus on healing by loving the people they serve and loving what they bring to them, which in turn helps participants overcome adversity, prejudice and misunderstanding. Participants hear positive messages about tribal heritage and spiritual connections while learning five core principles — Creator, Choice, Teachable, Wisdom and Service. The objective is to help parents become better parents.
“Many women came back to take the class again,” said Trina Fitzgerald of the Mendocino County Department of Corrections which facilitates Motherhood is Sacred with women from the Round Valley Indian Tribe, in Covelo, California. “They liked the information and how it gave them hope.”
Although NAFFA’s primary focus is to rebuild Native American families, the group also encourages those parenting Native American children in the foster care system to “start by finding out what tribe the child is from,” said Valerie Hollobaugh, NAFFA public relations and economic coordinator. “There are records of who is part of the tribe. Contact that tribe, research what kind of culture they have, make connections, visit, ask when (you and the child) can connect to understand what they do.”
When identifying potential connections, remember tribes are sovereign nations, separate governments within the United States. Tribal council elders decide whether to include someone in the cultural community. Although NAFFA works to preserve family connections, it is important to understand each tribe’s perspective.
“Native Americans do not have a colonized understanding of family,” said Shana King, who serves as a parent mentor for Minnesota’s ICWA Law Center and is also a Holy Owl Woman, Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation. “In my family, my cousins were considered siblings, and my aunties are my children’s grandmothers. To protect children’s cultural identity, (other people) need to understand how tribes define relatives.”
After years spent in foster care, King’s own disconnect from her community ultimately led to a heroin addiction and, for a time, losing her own children to the foster care system. Now a parent mentor at the ICWA Law Center in Minneapolis, King works with other tribal members who’ve lost their children to the system and often serves as a cultural liaison between foster and biological parents.
King helps non-Native foster parents understand the complexities of reaching out to and helping families on remote reservations. She says not every tribe operates a casino with a shopping center and shuttle buses. Instead, most reservation residents are lucky if a gas station is available. Getting essential goods is difficult when it takes hours to drive to the supermarket, and impossible if a family doesn’t own a car.
Getting to parenting classes, legal or medical appointments off the reservation in a different cultural setting is even tougher. Consequently, building what the child welfare system calls “protective factors” such as social connections, child care and food, is hard when few social connections and concrete supports are available within a tribal community.
“The Native American way is different from Western ideas,” King said. “We feel a spiritual connection to each other and the world around us but feel isolated in closed spaces, including homes, with no tribal social connections. Family is our heart, this is beyond a bond between child and parent, it is a deep connection to aunties, grandmothers, uncles and grandfathers.”
She reminds foster parents that tribes have dealt with broken trust and trauma for generations, and it continues to live in their DNA, and taking a child adds to this hurt. “To heal we need meaningful connections,” King said.
Foster parents should reach out to the tribe, talk with a tribal liaison, and ask how the child can be included. This can be something as simple as a beading class or sacred as a naming ceremony. “These connecting moments matter, it defines who we are,” King said.
It’s also important foster parents not vilify biological families for the mistakes they’ve made and to support reunification, King said.
As one Fatherhood is Sacred® participant shares in the video, “We are worth more than the biggest mistake we made in our lives.”
Jeremiah Donier serves as a family consultant with more than 15 years of lived expertise in behavioral health, child development, domestic violence, protective factors, multi-generational adversities and responsible fathering. As a volunteer and contracted consultant, he serves on dozens of projects to keep children safe, help youth thrive, build strong families and create supportive communities. Donier lives on Whidbey Island with his wife and two children and also works part-time as a library associate. In June 2012, Donier was named one the American Bar Association’s first Reunification Heroes. In 2019, he was honored with a Casey Excellence for Children Award.