NICWA Conference 2018 Recap!

By Francis Cacalda | Indian Child Welfare Statewide Lead Curriculum Developer

According to Francis's conference badge,
he was just there for the raffle.
But unfortunately he didn't win anything...

The sun welcomed us at the 36th Annual Protecting Our Children: The National American Indian Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect.  On April 15th through the 18th of 2018, the Annual Conference was held at the beautiful Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage, Alaska nestled by the water of Cook Inlet with the “Sleeping Lady” mountain range in the distance.  The Conference kicked off with warm welcomes and the singing of the Alaskan Native Cultural Charter School’s Yup’ik Choir and the Flag Ceremony by the Diamond High School JROTC. 

As Aaron Leggett, a proud member of the Native Village of Eklutna, welcomed all conference attendees, I could feel the power and history of the people of this land.  Sitting in a room full of ICWA supporters gave me strength.  (I later found out that about 1,200 people were in attendance, which was a record year!)  Knowing and seeing the importance of ICWA, I knew that at this gathering we would share successes, struggles, strategies, and further celebrate ICWA’s impact on Child Welfare. 

I’ve been able to attend the conference for a few years now and it was good to see old friends and hear about how the journey of life continued for them.  And, it was especially good to hear how they were keeping ICWA at the forefront of practice and continuing all their efforts for children and families.  There were also new friends that I met on my travel here from across the land.  There were different federal regional representatives from the BIA, workers from Oklahoma, Canada Prince Edwards Islands, Florida, Arizona, California, and a plethora of Tribal staff from Washington State.  Seeing all of these people – I was again reminded that we are one.  We are all striving for the same goal. 

As Sarah Kastelic, the Executive Director of NICWA, greeted all of us in her welcoming speech, one of her statements echoed in my mind.  She said, “See the resilience of our people.”  We were all a witness to that, and the hope was that this support would carry forward for the generations ahead.

What I learned in Alaska was the newly entered Alaska Tribal Child Welfare Compact, which was groundbreaking for the State of Alaska.  This Compact was created to ‘ensure improved compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act.’  Although not all of the Tribes/Native Villages have joined the Compact, this was definitely a positive step forward.  If you have a chance to read this pdf copy of the compact, one of the speakers made mention of the “Recitals” that they have started each meeting to guide them in their discussions.  The “Recitals” focus on the true need and STRENGTH of Alaskan Children and Families and the efforts the Alaska Department of Health and Social Service - Office of Children’s Service (OCS) are making.  There are supporters of ICWA everywhere and I applaud the efforts of our relatives in Alaska for making this Compact happen.  Keep up the great work!

I attended breakout sessions about State - ICWA courts, Grand Voices (Grandparents raising their children – also considered Grand Families), Tribal Staff training and examples of what other states are doing to build on the relationships they have with Tribes in their area.  As all of the Child Welfare workers know, this work is truly done by all of the entities involved (Tribes, Child Welfare Workers, Supervisors, Administrators, Judges/Commissioners, Attorneys, Caregivers, Relatives, Service Providers, Teachers, Counselors – just to name a few).  One of the Tribal workers I met said it well: “It takes all levels, multi-layers of understanding of and delivery of ICWA; from the top administrators to the ‘ground pounders.’”

Byron Nicholai – Yup’ik
Drummer and Singer
(from the dinner gathering)

The Dinner Banquet was the main event where attendees gathered, shared a meal and networked.  I especially enjoyed the appearance of Ariel Tweto who emceed the evening.  Her ‘bubbly’ personality was felt by everyone as she kept us engaged and laughing throughout the evening.  The main entertainment was Byron Nicholai a Yup’ik Singer and Drummer.  Before leaving the stage, the audience asked for Byron to sing “The Cousin Song” again, and like me, all were thrilled about Byron sharing his talent. 

This year’s Champion for Native Children was Linda J. Logan.  She was part of the NICWA board for many years.  Her fellow board members and Linda’s daughter shared fond memories and explained the passion that Linda had for ICWA.  Although she was “called home” early last year – she would have been proud to see the energy of the people at the conference. Her legacy will live on.

Part of the closing ceremony was a speech by Gary Peterson.  Not only is he a board member of NICWA, but a proud member of The Skokomish Tribe located here in Washington.  One of his statements was to “write about the conference, and share what you’ve seen and heard here.”  I think the ability to share the knowledge about ICWA is the key.  For me, ICWA is more than an Act, Federal Regulations, State Code and policies of which to comply; keeping children connected to their Tribes and Culture is the main goal.  Making sure children from Native American/Alaskan Native/Indian/Tribal communities know who they are and experience this deep connection.

I was truly blessed with the opportunity to attend the 2018 conference and I hope to see all of my friends again soon.  I want to hear about their triumphs, their successes and their stories.  I want to keep learning from them. NICWA has led this gathering for many years and their exceptional efforts will continue the spirit of ICWA and will keep ICWA alive.