By Vi Waln
Lakota social systems have always revolved around strong kinship ties. Yet, the ongoing colonization of our people has undermined our sense of relationship to one another. Still, despite all we have faced as Indigenous people, the basic virtue of caring for one’s extended family is still alive in contemporary Lakota society.
September is Kinship Appreciation and Awareness Month in South Dakota. This is a time to recognize the people who care for members of their extended family or others. It’s a time to let our grandfathers, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, as well as other members of our Tiospaye, know how much we appreciate their willingness to open their homes to children who need care.
There continues to be a great demand for suitable homes to care for Lakota children. Our reservation communities especially need sober, stable families to open their homes to children who desperately need a place to live. There are many Lakota grandparents who have stepped up to this challenge and are now caring for their own Takoja, as well as other children in need. We appreciate their efforts.
Kinship has always been an essential aspect of Lakota Society. Many Lakota people are aware of the history of our people’s willingness to care for the less fortunate tribal citizens, especially children, elders and others who may need extra help due to a disability. Prior to the coming of the wasicu, there was no such thing as orphans in Lakota society.
Unfortunately, the strength of our Lakota kinship systems has deteriorated over the past 524 years. Today, many Lakota children are taken from their parents by the Department of Social Services and placed in long term foster care, usually in a non-Indian home. Unfortunately, when our children are placed with or adopted by non-Indian families, they are more likely to grow up without a sense of Lakota identity.
Still, even though our children might be placed in off-reservation homes with non-Indian people, they tend to find their way back to their blood relatives when they reach adulthood. Many Lakota people pray for these children who are lost in the system to return home. But it’s very difficult when these relatives who grew up off the reservation try to reestablish ties with their birth families.
For instance, we are well aware of the lateral oppression and violence which is so prevalent in most of our reservation communities. For one reason or another, many of our people work very hard at viciously tearing others apart on the reservation. The crab-in-a-bucket mentality is something everyone living on the reservation has experienced at some point in their life.
Consequently, this dysfunctional behavior makes it difficult for the people who were raised in non-Indian homes to ever experience the sense of kinship that those of us who live on the reservation take for granted. It isn’t easy for them to return to their families on the reservation. They often aren’t emotionally or mentally prepared to cope with the dysfunctional behavior exhibited by their own relatives.
For instance, relatives who grew up in non-Indian homes off the reservation are often called derogatory names by their own family members. They are often ridiculed or belittled because they were raised by white people. This is conduct unbecoming to Lakota people. This oppressive behavior directed at our own relatives doesn’t demonstrate the Lakota value of kinship.
So, even though many of us pray for these lost children to return to their Tiospaye, it often doesn’t work out for them. We have to remember that they were not exposed to the lateral oppression that those of us living on the reservation are accustomed to suffering on a daily basis. As a result, many of these relatives who were lost in the social services system as children, cannot cope with the treatment they face upon returning to the reservation. Many of them leave again to never return. They would rather stay away to avoid being mistreated by their blood relatives.
We have many Lakota grandparents who are raising their grandchildren, and in some cases, their great-grandchildren. These are the families holding our value of Lakota kinship intact. Also, many of our elders are surviving on a fixed income. They may face many hardships in providing for the basic needs of their grandchildren. It’s not fair to our elders when they must step in to raise their abandoned grandchildren. Yet, we rarely hear them complain because they truly understand the importance of Lakota kinship.
Our Lakota grandparents work hard to find ways to provide food, shelter and clothing for their grandchildren. Grandparents who do not hesitate to take their grandchildren into their homes are being good ancestors. They are determined to help their grandchildren grow up knowing their own Lakota culture. Those children who are fortunate enough to have the support of their extended families are blessed. Even though they may have a hard time, they are still able to have a childhood which allows them to grow up with family.
Many grandparents sacrifice an early retirement in order to provide for their grandchildren. It’s not easy to raise children on the reservation today. Alcohol, drugs, violence, peer pressure and bullying are realities we all live with. Still, many grandparents and other relatives don’t give a second thought to opening their home to extended family members in need.
Wopila to the Lakota people who continue to embrace our kinship values. You are the people ensuring Lakota culture stays alive. Wopila for your generous efforts to keep our sense of family alive for the unborn generations.