Speaking up to Protect Indigenous Children and Youth

School psychology and SHPA classmates form a lasting bond around Indian Child Welfare Act advocacy.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023
(From left) Starr GreenSky and Bryanna Kinlicheene, who worked to uphold the Indian Child Welfare, stood outside the SDSU Administration building. (Photo: Sarah Wilkins)
(From left) Starr GreenSky and Bryanna Kinlicheene, who worked to uphold the Indian Child Welfare, stood outside the SDSU Administration building. (Photo: Sarah Wilkins)

Instant relief. That’s what Starr GreenSky (Leech Lake Anishinaabe and Oglala Lakota) experienced on the morning of June 15 when she received a text message from her friend and former San Diego State University classmate Bryanna Kinlicheene (Diné Tábąąhá).

The U.S. Supreme Court had just upheld the constitutionality of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).

“For us, it meant that we were being heard and that — for the next couple of generations at least — that would continue,” GreenSky said. “That safety is unmatched.”

Added Kinlicheene: “I started tearing up. It was one of those moments where you grab your children. You hug them, and you hold on to them.”

For several months prior, the two students in SDSU’s school psychology Ed.S. program and Native American and Indigenous Scholars Project (SHPA) had been making their voices heard loud and clear on the legal threat to ICWA, a landmark 1978 law affecting adoption that prioritized keeping Indigenous children with Indigenous families.

They’d been a two-person advocacy team, raising awareness of the law and what it meant among their program peers, through their membership in the National Association of School Psychology and at the school sites they worked in through SHPA — a long-running U.S. Department of Education-funded program that trains future school psychologists and school counselors to work in Native communities.

“It was really about using our voice,” said Kinlicheene, who graduated from SDSU’s Ed.S. program in May. “We’d bring it up in conversations where it wouldn't normally be brought up, because (ICWA) is not something that is well known. There are different levels of advocacy, too. I’d often just ask if people know about it or how they know about it.

“Just to get the conversation started.”

Maintaining Traditions

Born on the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona, Kinlicheene was instilled with values about treasuring her roots and language, and carrying on the traditions of clans and bloodlines.

All these things have a fraught history, coming under sustained assault from the U.S. government, which for more than 100 years forced Indigenous children into boarding schools in a policy of assimilation.

ICWA, Kinlicheene said, has been an essential part of not repeating that ugly history.

“I think it's a way for our children and our youth to stay connected to their roots, to their creation stories and to the land,” she said. “I think for me, it's a part of protecting yourself and a part of being in community with others. It's really important for our children and our youth to know that they will be cared for, and that they will have people who love them who are from their own cultural background.”

GreenSky, who was raised in Santa Barbara, has an even more direct connection to the law. She grew up in the foster care system and, likely because of ICWA, she was placed with an Indigenous family.

“It hits close to home,” GreenSky said. “When I think about my time in the system, along with my two younger brothers, I think about all the ways our identities could have been lost. Seeing ICWA in action, seeing how the tribe was involved in our placement, was influential to my upbringing and how connected I stayed to who I am as an Indigenous person.”

Feeling Valued and Heard

The lived perspectives brought by Kinlicheene and GreenSky added to the richness of SDSU’s school psychology and SHPA programs. The two joined Professor Emerita Carol Robinson-Zañartu and others in studying and publishing on the needs and strengths of Indigenous students and families in school psychology practice.

“These scholars have brought their lived experiences, current news, historical perspectives and strengths-focused perspectives; not only into the classrooms but also with their supervisors and students and families they have served across several districts in San Diego County,” said Jennica Paz, associate professor in school psychology. “We are humbled they have chosen to be a part of our SDSU school psychology community, and we are forever transformed by their presence, stories, strength and perspectives.

“They helped our program to make needed changes to help ensure Native and Indigenous issues are given the space they deserve.”

In turn, Kinlicheene and GreenSky said they found a community at SDSU where they felt valued and heard.

“I think the level of community that the program has really fostered and nurtured the advocacy work we have been able to do,” GreenSky said.

Continuing the Work

SHPA was also where Kinlicheene and GreenSky found one another.

“There's just a feeling that you get when you meet someone that you know will be a lifelong friend, sister, colleague and advocate,” Kinlicheene said. “With Starr I felt that pretty immediately.”

Added GreenSky: “She's also been that person that I looked up to. Here's this other amazing, Indigenous woman doing the work. And the work can be tough. I'm really lucky to know her and to work with her.”

This fall, Kinlicheene is starting her first full year as a school psychologist serving Native youth at a school site in North San Diego County.

In her final year of the four-year Ed.S. program, GreenSky is looking forward to her future in school psychology. Inspired by her upbringing as a foster youth, she also dreams of opening her own group home for Indigenous youth.

“I think that there's so much power and strength in our tribal communities,” GreenSky said. “It's really inspiring and motivating. That makes it all worth it, I think. I want to continue to be a voice in these spaces.”

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