Persevering Despite Hardships: How the Lakota Tribe Has Used the Pandemic to Its Advantage

Gail Spotted Tail

The pandemic has forced us to acknowledge the dysfunction in our tribal homes. Domestic violence, crimes to children and elders, and existing health disparities—all heightened by the Coronavirus—compelled our leadership to look deeply at our programming and search for out-of-the-box ways to provide services. Following are some of the changes we made in early care and education.

Changes in Child Care

  • Income Eligibility Waived: We waived income requirements and provided assistance to families working on the frontline. Our number of enrolled families and children grew and families who were previously ineligible became able to receive assistance. 
  • Enrollment Process Simplified: Documentation was waived, which made the application process quicker. 
  • Costs to Families Eliminated: Co-payments were eliminated and more money became available at home for eating nutritious meals or providing activities.
  • Program Requirements Focused on Quality and Public Health: Child-to-staff ratios were decreased, allowing for more one-on-one or smaller group sizes for quality child care. CARES Act funds provided health and safety stipends for cleaning products to improve the sanitary condition for home-based child care, enabling the whole family to benefit, not only the children in care.  
  • Virtual Monitoring and Training Introduced: We switched from in-person monitoring visits to virtual monitoring tours, and to online training for child care staff. In the beginning, we were able to quickly provide health and safety trainings to providers about the Coronavirus and how to keep children safe. When they completed the training, we required disaster preparedness plans. Upon completion of online trainings, child care providers were eligible for a stipend. Because we have depended on online state training for child care providers, providers have become more computer literate. These increased skills will benefit us in the future when we continue to offer online early childhood training.   
  • How and What We Pay Child Care Changed: We amended our tribal CCDF plan to allow for payments to providers based on enrollment rather than attendance and we increased our payments to child care providers. With many of our families having been oppressed and living in poverty for generations, our self-worth, self-esteem, and hope has diminished to despair and hopelessness. Changes in our payments contribute to consistency and continuity of care and higher self-esteem for our child care providers, and help elevate the integrity of child care as a profession. This also leads to the greater likelihood that families and providers will come to the forefront and not be afraid to ask questions, state opinions, speak out, put their needs out there, and have open discussions about early care.  
  • New Spotlight Put on Home-based Child Care: Our tribal center had to close, and child care shifted to home-based child care. As a result, our community housing issues were highlighted as we required more checklists for building safety, the environment, playground safety, and the availability of nutritious foods by incorporating gardens for providers, as well as training in various health and safety, early childhood, and cultural topics.

Innovations in Family Outreach, Engagement, and Support

Our outreach to families has focused on those on the front lines—hospital staff, ambulance services, police, Emergency Preparedness staff, Fire Department staff, Housing Inspection staff, food distribution programs, solid waste employees, school personnel, corrections officers, child care providers, and food and nutrition programs. For example, one community on the reservation had been quarantined for five days. We provided food and supplies (cleaning supplies, diapers, first aid kits, nutritious snacks, and activities) to our child care providers by coordinating with the emergency preparedness program. This helped us learn about families’ issues and needs during quarantine and isolation.

Unexpected Benefits

  1. The CARES Act: The CARES Act enabled us to get needed repairs to homes, and prepare for and prevent Coronavirus, helping us to believe we could fight the pandemic. We purchased laptops for all child care providers who were able to participate in their own homes, and we provided training and support to our child care providers during tribal office closures, decreased local store business hours, travel bans, curfews, and tribal lockdowns.  
  2. More Culturally Sensitive Practices: The closure of our tribally operated center due to Coronavirus seemed to push parents toward using family child care providers. In the Lakota culture, this is what would have been the preferred child care choice. However, with our non-Coronavirus work schedules, families had more stringent work requirements, such as being on time. Coronavirus has allowed for family-friendly, culturally attuned practices. Now parents drive the extra miles to grandma’s house for child care. Child care choices are less about convenience now and more about safety and culture. 
  3. Sharing Cultural Knowledge: As a tribe, we are able to provide cultural programming in child care homes via technology; people don’t need to travel. Being industrious is very important in the Lakota culture. Coronavirus has provided the opportunity for families to spend more time together and to learn to be industrious by, for example, teaching each other how to make Lakota arts and crafts, such as beading, in the home. We delivered packages to families with the materials they need for many of these projects and many focus on cultural traditions that start from birth. In addition, Lakota creation stories are needed to guide children with life lessons. We are developing storytelling videos to share through our website, providing cultural programming via technology. 
  4. Focusing on Healthy Food: We live in a food desert. In addition, we experience many health disparities related to diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and other illnesses, all of which have afflicted us for generations. We must educate our families about good nutrition and how to improve their immune systems. With poor outcomes due to diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, that have been an issue for generations, education is key. We are starting with the children by teaching them about planting seeds and learning what types of foods and medicines in the culture we eat and use to provide nutrition and medicine. 

A Time to Take Stock – and Move Forward 

The pandemic has provided a time for leaders to look at our past and see the ability of the Lakota nation to persevere through hardships. It is a time for them to ask, “Who were we, who are we, where are we going, and how do we get there?” Prior to the pandemic, we were accustomed to a slow pace of change. Now, we are eager to bring our Lakota values of respect, compassion, honor, generosity, humility, perseverance, and wisdom to the forefront to guide us through this time. After all, this is how we survived 500 years of cultural genocide; we will survive the pandemic.  

About the Author 

Gail Spotted Tail has been the Child Care Director for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Child Care Services Program in South Dakota since 1991, and for the Lakota Language Preservation Project since 2014. She managed childcare centers, the Lakota song and dance project, Lakota Language revitalization projects, Lakota cultural programming, and she served as chairperson of the Cultural Committee from National Indian Child Care Association. From 2018-19, she was the World Forum Foundation Global Leader for Young Children for the Americas. Gail has incorporated Lakota child-rearing practices into the Program with the guidance of many Lakota elders, historians, and Lakota speakers. Her ultimate goal is to provide quality child care to working families, or those receiving education or training, by focusing on good health - physically, mentally, and spiritually. She is committed to providing culturally sensitive education to children and families so they may incorporate the Lakota way of life in the 21st century.