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AIS major works to help families in distress on WI reservation

| Denise Olson

Preservation of heritage is important to all people, but it takes on a higher sense of urgency for Indigenous people of the United States, whose culture and way of life has suffered such loss and marginalization over the past several centuries. But what happens, however, when the immediate health and safety needs of children conflicts with the long-term goals of cultural preservation?

This is the question facing social workers investigating on behalf of children on American Indian reservations, when keeping Indian children placed in homes with family members is not an option, and foster care or longer term placements with non-native families are needed.

Senior Savannah Rigert, a double major in American Indian studies and social work from Minneapolis, is currently completing an internship as a social worker at the Lac Courte Oreilles Indian Child Welfare agency on the LCO reservation. Part of her role in that position is to work with agents to investigate reports, working to ensure the well-being of children.

"When I am working with families, one goal is to keep them together, or if the kids have been removed we work towards reunification. Up at LCO we help families get the services that they need — health care, dental care, AODA counseling, and a lot of other things to help maintain health and welfare," Rigert explained. 

Another component of Rigert's time at LCO is a research project that seeks to gather data on the long-term impacts of trans-racial adoptions on Indigenous adoptees and their children later in life. The lead researcher on the project is Sandy White Hawk, founder of the First Nations Repatriation Institute, an organization aimed at restoring Indigenous adoptees to their native land and people.

According to their website, the institute works to reverse over a century of cultural alienation caused by public policy regarding adoption of children.

"As early as 1890 it has been documented that thousands of First Nations children were forcibly removed from their homes. Between the years of 1941 through 1978, when the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed, we know that 25 percent of all First Nations children were removed from their homes and placed in orphanages and white foster homes, as well as adopted into white families," the site states.

As these adoptees grew up, far removed from their heritage, issues of identity for themselves and their children have left wounds in both the adoptees and in the Indian communities from which they were taken. Unfortunately, however, there is little research or data about the long-term effects of these trans-racial adoptions. White Hawk and Rigert hope their research will fill some of the gaps.

"In review of the available literature, I have found many inconsistencies and gaps in data about children of adoptees, and not many studies done about the emotional and psychological impacts later on in their lives," Rigert says. "We have designed a study to gain further knowledge about possible impacts and effects that Indigenous adoptees and their children face. I hope that with better data, the First Nations Repatriations Institute will be better able to provide services to these groups." 

Along with the academic benefits of completing an internship, Rigert, who is half Yakima Indian, has personal reasons to pursue this opportunity and dive into this research.

"My dad was adopted from Washington, and he is deeply loyal to his adoptive parents. I was always curious about my identity, and once I got to UWEC I had the time and resources to investigate my Yakima heritage. Professors helped me do research and attempt to get in contact with my biological grandmother in Washington. I took classes to learn more about Indigenous peoples, and that led to declaring the major," Rigert said.   

After graduating this spring, Rigert plans to relocate to the Minneapolis area to be close to family once again, and will be working for the Minneapolis Child Protective Services. She is also considering applying for graduate school at the University of Minnesota-Duluth for a master's degree in social work.