Native traditions 'call out' to foster youth
Tribal elder Betty Blackwolf shows Kimberlee Ward, 14, the ingredients of a medicine bag. Teens say that learning about Native traditions and being with elders is an important part of the annual Native Teen Gathering.
Learning about her Native American culture has helped Izabella Atanacio "feel connected - not alone in the world."
Hannah Morrison became interested in her own Native heritage a couple of years ago. She likens it to searching for a missing puzzle piece. "Without it, you can't see the whole picture of who I am."
For Tishonna Bernacel, being with other Native teens is about finding her people. "I never knew there were people like me...I thought I was the only one."
The three teens have grown up in foster care, living with non-Native families and estranged from their tribes. This lack of a cultural context has added to the feelings of isolation so common to children in foster care. But for one week this summer they joined about 30 other teens at the annual Native Teen Gathering, where they learned about Native American traditions, heard stories from tribal elders and developed life skills that will help them as they transition out of foster care.
"While in (foster) care it's important that children have knowledge and security of their respective cultures. The Native Teen Gathering provided cultural awareness and understanding for Native American children and reinforced the importance of personal identity. It's our hope that all children know and be who they really are rather than...who others say they are. It was an honor for Klamath Tribes to host the Native Teen Gathering."
- Marvin Garcia, social services director for the Klamath Tribes
Jennifer Monteverdi, 19, left, came to the gathering at the urging of her friend Hannah Morrison, 20. The two are transitioning out of foster care and hope to return as chaperons. Zach Stites, 18, is a rarity because he lives in a Native American household. He says his foster father considers him a son, following the traditional circular view of family.
"I feel like these are my sisters and brothers - they are my family," 20-year-old Morrison says of the teens, chaperones, Klamath tribal staff and elders at the gathering hosted by the Klamath Tribes in southern Oregon. She's attended the gathering for the past three summers, and "each time I get closer to what I need to find."
The gathering, open to Native American foster youth age 14 to 20, was started in 2004 and is hosted each summer by one of the federally recognized tribes in Oregon. It is supported by grants from the Department of Human Services' Independent Living Program, which helps all youth transition out of foster care.
By connecting Native American youth with their culture and kinship group, the gathering addresses one of the goals of a partnership of the Oregon Department of Human Services, Oregon Commission on Children and Families and Oregon Judicial Department. With the support of Casey Family Programs, the partnership works to safely and equitably reduce the number of children in foster care and improve the lives of those who remain in care.
Some of the benefits of the gathering are difficult for the young people to articulate. "I've never really understood Native culture," says Zach Stites, 19, who is Tlingit and Aleut. "But there are times, like during Native singing...it just feels like it's reaching out to me."
A presentation by Frank Summers, a member of the Klamath Tribes, resonated with Bernacel, a 15-year-old Navaho. Summers told the group how his high school teachers had encouraged him and other Native American students to prepare for blue collar jobs, but he went on to graduate from college and earn a Master's Degree. "It showed me all the choices out there," says Bernacel, who wants to go to college. "There's not just one thing I can do when I grow up."
Atanacio sees her role in shaping the future as she learns the traditions, such as making a medicine bag with elder Betty Blackwolf. "Our culture is slowly dying out...there's not many of us," says the 18-year-old who is from the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde. "Never let it go. Pass it on."
This year's gathering at the Box R Ranch included presentations by FosterClub All-Stars, a group of teens who have successfully transitioned out of foster care and travel during the summer to help their younger peers.
In a session led by the All-Stars and titled Relatively Speaking, gathering participants wrote and acted out skits about how to deal with their biological families. In one skit a teen confronts his mother, whom he suspects of ruining his credit rating by using credit cards she's taken out in his name. In another skit, a teen tells his terminally ill father that the father cannot live with him because it wouldn't be good for the younger siblings the teen is helping raise. In a third skit, a girl who's suffered repeated disappointments finally comes to terms with the fact that her biological mother is unable to do what's necessary to regain custody of her.
Travis Johnson, 18, is from the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde and proudly displays his heritage with his tattoo. He describes the gathering as a loving, caring place. He's learned that when he transitions out of foster care, "I still have my tribe to rely on."
The power of the skits is palpable. Tears roll down a girl's cheeks; a teen tells his chaperone he needs time alone; others appear distracted as they move on to the next activity.
With one adult for five youth, the gathering provides a safe and comfortable place for the teens to deal with the emotions that surface. The scheduled activities create a balance of serious discussions, cultural events and just plain fun - swimming, basketball, stories around the campfire - with plenty of time for friendships to form.
The opportunity to meet Native teens from around the state is something the teens look forward to each year, says Selona Willett, who works as a foster care support specialist for the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) in Portland. She's been attending the gatherings since 2004. "The other part that really means a lot to them is when the tribes get a lot of elders and tribal members to come in and share with the youth. That makes a big impression on them."
Izabella Atanacio, 18, says coming to the gathering reminds her that her heritage gives her "something to be faithful to."
NAYA has been an important link for Morrison, too. She began attending high school classes at NAYA when she was 17, which led to her cultural awakening and provided her with a circle of Native friends and mentors. They encouraged her to join in the annual teen gatherings.
Morrison is now attempting to become an official member of the Ojibwe Tribe. She also wants to learn all she can about her ancestors and Native traditions, such as gathering roots and berries and preparing traditional meals. "I ask the elders to tell me their stories - the stories that get passed down generation to generation. Maybe I will tell them to my children some day."
Reconnecting with her heritage has made a big difference, says Morrison. "It's changed me because I didn't know who I was."