For those of you who haven’t yet listened to NPR’s recent series on Native American families and foster care in South Dakota, click here.  The first part aired last week when I was running errands.  I immediately parked my car so that I could stop everything and listen.

I can’t remember the last time I’ve done something like that.  I’m a multitasker to the core, but I couldn’t think about groceries with this story on the radio.  I couldn’t stop listening, partly because I could not wrap my mind around what I was hearing.

All Things Considered reporters Laura Sullivan and Amy Walters dropped several bombshells in their story.  Consider the following list of their “key findings” from the web version:

* Each year, South Dakota removes an average of 700 Native American children from their homes. Indian children are less than 15 percent of the state’s child population, but make up more than half the children in foster care.

* Despite the Indian Child Welfare Act, which says Native American children must be placed with their family members, relatives, their tribes or other Native Americans, native children are more than twice as likely to be sent to foster care as children of other races, even in similar circumstances.

* Nearly 90 percent of Native American children sent to foster care in South Dakota are placed in non-native homes or group care.

* Less than 12 percent of Native American children in South Dakota foster care had been physically or sexually abused in their homes, below the national average. The state says parents have “neglected” their children, a subjective term. But tribe leaders tell NPR what social workers call neglect is often poverty; and sometimes native tradition.

* A close review of South Dakota’s budget shows that they receive almost $100 million a year to subsidize its foster care program.

What is going on here?  How is it possible that Native families are still being torn apart?

Native parents and grandparents have fought to keep their children for decades.  The United States began taking Native American children away from their families in the 1800s, sending them to boarding and missionary schools that would “civilize” them and cause them to assimilate into Anglo-American culture.  Native American activism in the 1960s and 1970s helped to bring this era to an end—but clearly many Native children remain vulnerable.  While some children may need a more stable home than the one their parent(s) are able to provide, it’s hard to understand the numbers in South Dakota: Native children comprise less than 15% of the population but more than half of children in foster care; 90% of Native children are sent to non-Native families or group care when they are legally supposed to be placed in the care of other Native Americans.

Louise Erdrich writes about a single Native mother, Albertine, who fights unsuccessfully to keep her child in the powerful short story “American Horse.”  Albertine’s passionate love for her son remains invisible to the social worker, Vicki Koob, a well-meaning woman with a “trained and cataloguing gaze” who sees only evidence of poverty and alcoholism as she surveys their small house.  She wishes to “salvage” the boy from his surroundings—as if his home is a trash heap or his family an impending shipwreck.

What if Vicki Koob were able to see what Erdrich sees?  What the reader is compelled to see?

Patricia Hill Collins argues that placing the experiences of mothers of color at the center of our vision enables us to understand motherhood differently.  In “Shifting the Center: Race, Class, and Feminist Theorizing about Motherhood,” she writes:

Whether because of the labor exploitation of African-American women under slavery and its ensuing tenant farm system, the political conquest of Native American women during European acquisition of land, or exclusionary immigration policies applies to Asian-Americans and Hispanics, women of color have performed motherwork that challenges social constructions of work and family as separate spheres, of male and female gender roles as similarly dichotomized, and of the search for autonomy as the guiding human quest. […] This type of motherwork recognizes that individual survival, empowerment, and identity require group survival, empowerment, and identity.

For these mothers, the biggest conflicts aren’t found inside their homes.  They lurk outside: the institutions and structures and ideologies that threaten to tear families apart.  So for Native American mothers (as for enslaved African-American mothers), “getting to keep one’s children and raise them accordingly fosters empowerment.”

So please, check out the story and leave your thoughts below.