FEATURE — Winter 2005

Phyllis Bigpond, M.S.W. ’72, is the executive director of the Denver Indian Family Resource Center.

Education Pathways Lead the Way Home

American Indian alumni take social work practices back to their people.

By Gretchen Lee

Since 1990 when the Kathryn M. Buder Center for American Indian Studies was founded at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work, the School has become a beacon for talented and devoted American Indian students determined to “give back” to the communities from which they come.

The Buder Center prepares social work students for the special challenges of working within American Indian populations through a specialized program of study, research into social work topics of vital importance to American Indian populations nationwide, and outreach and educational programs such as an annual powwow and American Indian Awareness Week held on campus every spring.

“Across Indian country, the School has a great reputation,” says Phyllis Bigpond, M.S.W. ’72, executive director of the Denver Indian Family Resource Center. Though she graduated from the School long before the Buder Center was established, Bigpond has returned often, and she received a Distinguished Alumni Award in 2002. She and the three other alumni profiled here, along with multiple social work graduates, have formed a farflung network of professionals in leadership positions across the country.

Watching out for kids

In her role as senior government affairs associate with the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA) in Portland, Oregon, Chey Clifford, M.S.W. ’01, has become all too familiar with the tragic statistics.

Chey Clifford, M.S.W. ’01, is a senior government affairs associate with the National Indian Child Welfare Association in Portland, Oregon.

She knows, for example, that suicide is the second-most common cause of death for American Indian and Alaska Native youth, and that this population commits suicide at a rate three times the national average. Also, American Indian and Alaska Native youth are 2.4 times more likely than white youth to become involved in the state and federal juvenile justice systems. And when their lives intersect with the foster care system, Indian children are placed out of their homes at a rate twice that of other children.

What’s more, the resources available to help at risk Indian children are woefully inadequate—there is only one trained mental health provider for every 17,000 Indian children nationwide.

“There are so many needs out there for Indian children,” Clifford says. “At NICWA, we’re helping make sure that the children get the services they need in order to have a healthy lifestyle.”

Clifford monitors national legislation regarding children’s issues, including mental health and juvenile justice legislation. She also offers training and technical assistance, primarily to tribal and state representatives nationwide, as a means of encouraging advocacy for Indian children.

On a personal level, this commitment means spending a lot of time on the road. Clifford travels two to three weeks every month, on average. But this year her job yielded an unexpected emotional reward: She met some members of her tribe, the Gitxsan Nation based in Hazelton, British Columbia, for the first time when she traveled there in November to lead a workshop.

Clifford spent the bulk of her childhood in Nashville, Tennessee, where her American Indian father worked as a country music singer. When she first arrived as a student at Washington University’s George Warren Brown School of Social Work fresh out of an undergraduate program at Beloit College, she thought she wanted to do direct service work on domestic violence issues. But one class changed all of that for her: Professor Eddie Brown’s course, American Indian Social Welfare Policy and Administrative Practices.

“I knew there were disproportionate numbers of Indian children in the child welfare system,” she says, “but I didn’t know that there were so many other political issues affecting Indian child welfare. Professor Brown’s class helped me understand some of the nuances of tribal interactions with state and federal governments and helped me discover a meaningful and rewarding career.”

Growing stronger families

Five years ago when Phyllis Bigpond, M.S.W. ’72, moved from Phoenix, her home of 30 years, to Denver to become executive director of the newly formed Denver Indian Family Resource Center, she uprooted herself from everything that was familiar.

But something about the move struck her as the right thing to do. “It was just around the time of the millennium, and everyone was talking about change,” she recalls. “Throughout my career, I had been involved with child welfare agencies and also had worked with Indian communities, both on and off reservations,” says the board member of the National Indian Child Welfare Association and former field office director for Save the Children. “So it seemed like an opportunity to bring all of those experiences together.”

The Denver Indian Family Resource Center was founded out of a community concern for Indian children and families in crisis. “We had a disproportionate number of Indian children who were placed in foster care,” says Bigpond, “and there was concern that they were not being served in a culturally appropriate way.”

To date, the Center has worked with tribal members in 68 of the 100 Denver-area tribes, intersecting with child welfare authorities in the seven-county metropolitan area. The goals include strengthening families to help them avoid the child welfare system altogether, reuniting families where the parents have temporarily lost custody of their children, and collaborating with other organizations to enforce the tenets of the Indian Child Welfare Act, which encourages the placement of Indian children within their tribes.

“Through the years, a lot of children have been removed early on. People have not always had good experiences with social workers, and some of that feeling lingers on,” Bigpond says. “And people do care about their children, but sometimes other things get in their way and they can’t cope.”

Where possible, the Center tries to find ways for Indian children to remain connected to their culture even if they can no longer live with their parents. Sometimes, this means fostering connections with extended family. Other times, it means facilitating their attendance at powwows and introducing them to other aspects of Indian culture.

“It always makes me sad to see the little children who can’t go home with their families,” Bigpond says. “I had a very good early childhood. I had parents who loved me and took care of me. I’ve always wished that all children could have that good of experience in life.” Bigpond, a Yuchi tribe member, grew up in Oklahoma and attended boarding school at Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas.

“I went right after high school to get my undergraduate degree, and I always thought that I wanted to be a social worker,” she says. “A lot of us who saw ourselves as wanting to help went into the professions of social work, teaching, and health care.” In her first job in Arizona after college, Bigpond worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a child welfare worker.

As a student in the early 1970s, Bigpond says that the community at large inspired her as much as her experiences at the University. Most of all, she says, graduate school taught her new ways of approaching problems. “I will always remember what the dean said when we were finishing: ‘Now you are ready to go out and learn.’”

Helping students to succeed

The institution where Virginia Drywater-Whitekiller, M.S.W. ’95, teaches has the highest number of American Indian students in the country, with about 25 to 28 percent representing some 17 tribes. Yet students at colleges elsewhere often aren’t as lucky to have a built-in community—and the consequences can be significant.

Virginia Drywater-Whitekiller, M.S.W. ’95, is an assistant professor of social work at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

“It’s very common to have high attrition rates for Native American students,” says Drywater-Whitekiller, assistant professor of social work and coordinator of the Title IV-E Project at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. (Title IV-E is a program that provides scholarships to upper-level students who, in turn, agree to practice in the field of child welfare upon graduation.)

After conducting in-depth interviews with students at four universities that attract significant populations of Indian students, Drywater-Whitekiller, who received a Ph.D. from Oklahoma State University in 2004, has become an expert on what factors influence a student’s chances for success.

“One of the things that I have found is that many of these students coming from a Native American background have a desire to reciprocate and give back to the community,” she says. “Spiritual practice is also important to the success of Indian students who succeed. They’re using prayer to help them get through their studies.”

In order to help American Indian students make it, she says, it’s important that universities reach out not just to the students but to the people they’ve left behind at home. “I think a lot of institutions just do not understand the sacrifices that the communities make to send their children away,” she says.

“Many of these students are first-generation college students. For most of them, they are the trailblazers, and they see that as a huge responsibility,” says Drywater-Whitekiller, who is a member of the Cherokee Nation. “When they succeed, it’s not an individualistic success, but their accomplishment reflects their entire community.”

Getting down to business

“One of the things we learned in school was to empower people to do the things they want to do with their lives,” says N. Levi Esquerra, M.S.W. ’99, program director for Northern Arizona University’s Center for American Indian Economic Development (CAIED) in Flagstaff, Arizona. Under his leadership, CAIED has helped a number of tribal entrepreneurs in Arizona, New Mexico, and Southern California to realize their dreams of running successful small businesses.

N. Levi Esquerra, M.S.W. ’99, is program director for Northern Arizona University’s Center for American Indian Economic Development in Flagstaff.

One of the Center’s first projects enabled a Hopi entrepreneur to open up a print shop on reservation lands; during the process, Esquerra advised him of securing approval from his tribal council. Within a year’s time, the business had grown to the point where the entrepreneur could afford to hire employees and move the business out of his house and into a commercial location.

More recently, Esquerra has been instrumental in opening up an alternative route to the Grand Canyon that will direct tourists through Indian Country, providing many new opportunities to tribal entrepreneurs. The route includes a new open-air, arts-and-crafts market located just about 15–20 miles from the park entrance. That’s where members of the Cameron Artisan’s Association will sell their wares. (The group had been temporarily put out of business by a State of Arizona order that forbade them from selling their wares in the right-of-way of the road, as they had done for many years.)

“In the last three years, we’ve done more than 100 workshops, and we’ve trained about 500 entrepreneurs,” Esquerra says. CAIED has also been successful in organizing business incubators where entrepreneurs can share resources like a fax machine, office space, etc., while they get their businesses up and running.

Though entrepreneurialism drives much of the business that CAIED helps to nurture, a good many of its projects are much larger in scope. A call center organized by the White Mountain Apache Tribe, for example, is expected to provide upwards of 100 jobs in an area where unemployment is around 50 percent.

Esquerra, a Chemehuevi Indian who has served as chairman, council member, and planner for his own tribe, also serves on the board of the Nineteen Tribal Nations Workforce Investment Area, an organization that provides training for displaced workers and creates job opportunities for them. 

In 2003, Esquerra was invited by the U.S. State Department to tour Argentina and talk with several indigenous tribes there about economic development. While in Argentina, Esquerra instructed the groups on the value of business basics like SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis, and also introduced the concept of tribal match, whereby a tribe pursues a business interest only if it correlates with the group’s longtime cultural interests.

Stateside, Esquerra also acts as liaison for groups that want to do business on tribal land in Arizona. “We created a book called, Doing Business with Arizona Indian Tribes,” he says. In Arizona there are 22 officially recognized tribes, and nearly 28 percent of the state is held in trust as tribal lands. “Every tribe is different,” he says. “Every tribe has different ordinances.

“I don’t want to kill deals, but I want to make sure there’s equity for all,” Esquerra says.

Gretchen Lee, A.B. ’86, is a free-lance writer based in San Francisco.