Reciprocity and respect — how you care for yourself and others — was the Nakoda way of life for generations. The concept of economic mobility did not exist because it wasn’t needed.
Erik Stegman, CEO of Native Americans in Philanthropy, shared the stories of his great grandfather and grandfather at the Cradle to Career Network Convening to help us understand that context matters as we work to put more children on the path to economic mobility.
“What my great grandfather watched in real time was the imposition of an entirely new system and world view,” Stegman said. “Too often we forget that the systems we navigate were imposed on us, whether it’s western capitalism, the juvenile justice system or global food systems.”
Stegman’s great grandfather grew up at the turn of the 20th century on the great plains of present-day Saskatchewan as a Nakoda child. The harsh realities of colonialism forcibly removed Indigenous children from their families and placed them in residential schools. Children were beaten for speaking their native language and assaulted. But the intent of this residential school system went beyond assimilating Indigenous children into Western culture. The primary architect once stated that the schools were designed to “kill the Indian to save the man.”
These residential schools provided skilled labor for exploitive work on farms and other trades to support the rapid expansion of white settlement across Canada and the United States. Stegman’s great grandfather was fortunate compared to most because he learned how to be a typesetter at one of these schools. The highly skilled trade enabled him to be one of the first typesetters at the Chicago Sun Times and to provide for his family throughout the Great Depression. His son, Stegman’s grandfather, would grow up to become one of the first Indigenous dentists in the country. His family lived a solid middle-class lifestyle.
“In the typical dominant American narrative, the story of my great grandfather and my grandfather is an inspiring one — overcoming adversity but making it in a country that provides ample opportunity for success as long as you work hard,” Stegman said. “But this economic mobility story leaves out so much of what this cost my family. For better or worse, my great grandfather saw his entire world change. He transitioned from a Nakoda way of life that provided for everyone, largely supported by the sacred bison, to a new western, capitalist system controlled by the settlers who put him in boarding school.”
His family lost their ability to speak Nakoda, their connection to their culture and community. His family’s story is the story of Native people across the country. And it’s a never-ending story.
For generations, the government promoted policies that encouraged the adoption of Indigenous children out of their families into non-Native families. These policies stripped one in four Indigenous children from their communities and culture. It also prompted a grassroots movement and the Indian Child Welfare Act that improved child welfare systems for all children. Signed into law in 1978, the Indian Child Welfare Act put protections in place for tribal communities to intervene in child welfare removals. It prioritized placing children with families and relatives and acknowledged the importance of culture and language. It set a vision for a more supportive and culturally appropriate system.
The grassroots movement has proven to be durable over the years as the law of tribal sovereignty has been challenged. Over the summer, the Supreme Court validated tribal sovereignty by upholding the law.
“Who knows what my great grandfather’s trajectory in life would have been with the systems focused on protecting Native children rather than killing the Indian to save the man,” Stegman said. “One of the reasons I love to do this work supporting children, youth and families in our communities is because it’s about a vision for our future that my great grandfather couldn’t have.”
Context — understanding not only what’s been lost in tribal communities but also the strength of Native people — matters. This must guide our work in changing systems to serve every child.