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Native Intelligence

Kay Fiddler's kids (left to right): Monica, Briana, Jesus and Kieth, with Annabelle in front. Credit: Zachariah Bryan

Screaming is coming from the other room. Anabel is accusing Jesus of “acting sexy” as he pulls the collar of his t-shirt down over his shoulder. Moneka sits in the corner scrolling through her smartphone. Briana talks about boy troubles. Kieth flips through his journal, looking every bit the thoughtful teenage activist. Spongebob Squarepants is on the TV.

Foster mom Florence Kay Fiddler’s five kids looks like most kids their age. But when you quiz them about who they are, both as foster kids and Native Americans, they reveal a sense of maturity that few others their age have.

They will tell you how it makes them uncomfortable when people dress up as medicine men and Pocahantases for Halloween. How it frustrates them when teachers tell them that Christopher Columbus discovered America when Natives were here long before.

They’ll tell you how they lost their identity when they were taken away from their parents and put into foster care with people who didn’t understand their culture. And how their lives got dramatically better, and more stable, when they were placed with Kay, a 56-year-old member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Tribe, who has been running her therapeutic foster home in West Seattle for more than three decades.

More than two-thirds of the children in the state's foster care system are white. But since Native children are far more likely to be removed from their homes, they are over-represented in the system compared to their numbers in the general population. According to Partners for Our Children, an independent group that compiles statewide foster care statistics, about 42 of every 1,000 Native kids ended up in foster care or relative care in Washington last year. That 42-per-1,000 percentage is more than triple the rate for the runner-up group, African American kids, where 12.35 of every 1,000 children were removed from their homes in 2012; and almost seven times the removal rate for white kids (5.79/1,000).

Moreover, Native American kids are the least likely to exit the out-of-home care system (24.48 percent are still in out-of-home care after 48 months), and they are most likely to wind up back in the system after being reunited with their parents (26.12 percent).

It is impossible to talk about these imbalances without accounting for a long and painful Native history that includes pioneers giving Native people smallpox-infested blankets, moving Natives to reservations, sending their children to boarding schools (to “kill the Indian and save the man”) and removing Native children from their families at a huge rate (25 to 35 percent of all Native American children) before the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978.

Lisa Powers blames this tragic history for a chronic cycle in Native American families. Powers is a DSHS Foster Care Licensor and a member of the Comanche Nation who has children in the Tulalip Tribe. She says that Native parents, many of whom struggle with drug and alcohol abuse, don’t know how to take care of their children. Those children, in turn, grow up not knowing how to parent.

“It’s a cycle that goes on and on,” says Powers. “We have gone through a lot of traumatic experiences as Native people and we are still working to overcome those traumas.”

Prodded by the federal Indian Child Welfare Act and pressure from Native American communities, Washington State has made pairing Native foster kids with Native foster parents a priority. It isn't that non-Native parents aren't excellent caregivers, says Bob Smith, the state's Indian Child Welfare program supervisor and a member of the Skokomish Tribe. It's that "Native families just have a better idea of how to connect kids [with their culture].”

Lisa Powers works in the Native Recruitment and Retention Program. She goes to reservations, community events and powwows to encourage Native Americans to become foster parents. It’s hard, she says. After all that has happened, many are still leery of the state.

Fortunately, many Native children who need out-of-home care are placed with relatives: 36.28 percent, as of 2012, according to Partners for our Children. (Forty-four percent are placed in state foster care, and 12.7 percent are placed in private foster care.)

Children placed in non-Native homes can suffer what’s called “split-feather syndrome” as adults, says Powers. They lose their sense of self, which puts them at risk for depression and substance abuse for the rest of their lives. “They grew up realizing what they lost: The beauty of the culture, the songs, the dances, the language,” says Powers. “And they have a hard time.”

Split-feather syndrome is precisely what Kay Fiddler seeks to avoid in her own foster home. She takes great care to reconnect her kids with their culture, teaching them the customs and traditions and bringing them to their tribal reservations. “I got assimilated into white culture and forgot who I was,” says Kieth, 18. “I’m still trying to find it."

If, Kieth continues, "Your spirit and body and culture are all balanced, in sync," you feel whole. "Otherwise," he says, "you’re just spiritually disconnected, culturally disconnected and bodily disconnected from who you are.”

Kay also wages a fierce war with the school system, which doesn’t always fully understand how to best accommodate Native Americans and their culture. She often makes several calls a day and spends hours in meetings with educators. “Every kid is another battle,” she shrugs.

Native American kids are struggling in public schools. According to Washington State's 2011-12 Office of Native Education Annual Report, they have the lowest on-time graduation rate (51 percent), the lowest extended graduation rate (58.9 percent) and the highest dropout rate (10.7 percent).

They are also underrepresented in gifted and honors classes and overrepresented in special education programs by a system that does not account for cultural, linguistic and learning differences.

An oft-cited explanation (at least, oft-cited by Native Americans interviewed for this article) is that colonial education is incompatible with the indigenous style of learning which favors watching and doing, rather than being "taught." Kay talks about how otherwise intelligent Native children fall behind and get demeaned in Seattle Public Schools. One of her foster kids has an IQ of 114 — certainly above average — but at school he is considered to have “learning problems.”

“Our children go to these schools and they speak English and they wear blue jeans and they like Hello Kitty and they play Angry Birds, and our schools look at these kids and assume they’re from a Western system,” says Kay. “When one of these kids has academic trouble, they make an assumption [and put them in special education.]”

Kay has been at this a long time. She’s tired. She dreams of a vacation. Hawaii would be nice, she says. At the same time she loves the kids and feels blessed to have parented so many of them throughout the years. “I’m not looking for a thank you,” she says. She just wants to see the kids succeed in life — on their own terms.

“I want these children to be respected for their natural gifts, for what they bring to life," says Kay. "I want them to grow up and be what they’re supposed to be. … You know what I mean?”

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