Soon central South Dakota’s wind-swept prairies will be home to a new village — one that aims to create a community on the Cheyenne River Reservation for children who would otherwise be sent off the reservation to far-flung foster homes.
Being built by nonprofit Simply Smiles, a circle of six four-bedroom homes will comprise the Children’s Village, where Native American foster parents will care for up to six children. Unlike group homes or other institutional settings, this village will be a close-knit family community for children in LaPlant, S.D., where they will receive counseling and other services while remaining closely connected to their tribe.
Similar models like SOS Children’s Villages and Mockingbird Family are scattered throughout the country, but this is a first for an American Indian reservation.
“Simply Smiles is such a big deal because it is about the children and keeping them among us,” said Marcella Gilbert, who is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe working as a program manager for Simply Smiles.
The objective of the new village is to address the lack of licensed foster parents on the reservation, leading to many children being placed far away and often with white families. According to data collected through The Chronicle of Social Change’s Who Cares project, there were only 29 Native American foster families in South Dakota in 2017, but more than 1,026 youth in the state’s system were Native American.
According to the 2019 Annual Progress and Services Report from the South Dakota Department of Social Services, there were 107 children with Cheyenne River Sioux tribal membership in the state’s foster care system as of May 31, 2018. Meeting the needs of the tribe’s children is especially challenging with only about five Native American foster homes on the reservation and four off the reservation, according to tribal officials. Some homes are as far away as Rapid City — a three-hour drive.
Since the goal for most children placed into foster care is family reunification, the distance creates significant barriers to those efforts.
Gilbert joined the Simply Smiles team in 2018 after spending four months at Standing Rock, Cheyenne River’s neighbor to the north, protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. When she left there, she was looking for a new way to support her people and learned about Simply Smiles from her mother Madonna Thunder Hawk, a tribal elder and long-time Indian rights activist.
Thunder Hawk and other tribal leaders had been working with Simply Smiles to determine how a partnership would help strengthen children and families and address some of the systemic issues plaguing the community.
Simply Smiles founder Bryan Nurnberger was invited to the 2.8 million-acre Cheyenne River Reservation, home to roughly 8,000 mostly Lakota Sioux, in 2005 by Lakota musician and activist Tiokasin Ghosthorse. Nurnberger was already doing similar work in Oaxaca, Mexico, and Ghosthorse thought there might be an opportunity for Simply Smiles to work among the Lakota people as well.
Since then, the organization has become a member of the community, creating summer camps, constructing homes and helping tribal members attain home ownership and building programs that support and empower families. Gilbert now serves as the Simply Smiles program manager and is helping to establish the Children’s Village.
“We realized there was a tremendous need not being met in terms of child welfare,” said Hallie Riggs, the clinical director of the program who has spent several summers on Cheyenne River facilitating Simply Smiles’ summer programs. This spring, she will move to the reservation to help get the Children’s Village off the ground and serve as therapeutic support to the children and families there.
The six homes will be constructed on eight acres that were leased for 99 years through a tribal resolution, the first of which has already been constructed.
“We chose to lease the land and not buy it out of respect for the Lakota owners of the land,” wrote Nurnberger in a press release about the lease in 2018. “We wanted to make sure that in all of our actions that Simply Smiles is supporting and giving, not taking anything from the Lakota people. By leasing the property, the land stays in the ownership of Lakota people.”
That is how Simply Smiles has operated from the very beginning, with respect and appreciation for the people of Cheyenne River.
“Our journey first started by showing up, being present and listening,” Riggs said. “It isn’t our job or right to take ownership of this project. There’s an incredible history of trauma first and foremost and we need to acknowledge that. We want to empower them to take back control of their children. Our elders are going to be with us every step of the way.”
The first step will be finding families for the foster parent role, not an easy task because there are few licensed Native American foster families which has left the tribal court with no other option than to place the children in non-Native families hundreds of miles away from their family or origin.
Once Simply Smiles’ Children’s Village is established, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Juvenile Court Judge Karen Jefferies says it will be an important option for the tribe’s children. She’s spent the last 20 years serving as a tribal judge and has often had to look beyond the boundaries of the reservation to find homes to care for children while they’re in foster care.
“That would be a really big plus for us to be able to place children with [Simply Smiles],” Jefferies said.
Not only will the children live among other Native American children and adults, but the tribal elders will play an integral part of the Children’s Village. Each child who comes to the village will be welcomed by tribal elders, and cultural aspects, like language and food, will be woven into the programing, taught by the elders as well.
With a master’s degree in nutrition, Gilbert will help families learn about healthy eating habits, teaching them to cook and leaning into the traditional hunter-gatherer ways that harken back to when the tribe’s ancestors roamed freely across the Northern Plains instead of being constrained to the reservation boundaries. Gilbert is excited about “the possibility these young people are going to grow up with a new experience in life.”
Gilbert and her mother Madonna Thunder Hawk have been key in helping the Simply Smiles team understand “what it means to make a culturally-informed environment,” Riggs said.
In addition, Simply Smiles is committed to preserving familial relationships and supporting reunification efforts when that is the goal. Families will have space in the Children’s Village for visits and other social interactions, including invitations to community meals.
“It’s so much more than a home,” Riggs said. “It’s a village community.”
Simply Smiles is currently accepting applications for Native American foster families and has already received nine inquiries that are under review. To apply, click here. The organization hopes to have a family in place this spring and welcome the first children by July 2020.
This article first appeared in our sister publication Fostering Families Today.