"Every Indian Child is Unique and Sacred": An interview with Bill Snell, Jr.
by Mike DuBose, UMNS
Every Indian child is unique and sacred.
That’s the guiding principle of the In-Care Network, a nonprofit agency that provides therapeutic foster care for Indian children with severe emotional or medical problems.
The Billings-based program is partially supported by the Yellowstone Annual (regional) Conference of the United Methodist Church.
"One of the things we have to deal with is almost all of these kids come to us with very low self-esteem," said Barbara Karst, a United Methodist laywoman who works with the program. "They oftentimes don’t want to be in an Indian home. A lot of these programs are focused on helping them be proud of who they are."
In its 14-year history, In-Care (In-dividuals and In-dians who care) has placed more than 500 children either with Indian families or non-Indians who have been culturally trained. The program began with one Native American host family, and it now has 90 Indian families among 225 foster homes.
Although Indians make up only 6 percent of the state’s population, 30 percent of the Montana children in foster care are Indians.
As In-Care has matured, it’s captured the attention of state and local agencies involved in helping children, said Bill Snell, program director. "They look very heavily at In-Care now and say, ‘What do you do? We want to know more about you and what your approach is,’ so we have gotten fairly heavily involved with training."
To that end, In-Care brought together social service professionals from around the United States in August for the "Two Worlds Cultural Immersion Camp." The camp, a first for In-Care, sought to sensitize participants to Native culture, Snell said. "We hope to instill in them part of our culture – the way we accept others."
Campers worked together to raise the tipis they would sleep in for the week, guided by Lawrence Flatlip, a Crow cultural historian, and Phillip Whiteman Sr., a Northern Cheyenne. The Native elders combined how-to lessons with an explanation of the cultural significance of each lodge pole as it was placed.
Participants learned about Indian kinship and cultural values from tribal members, and were treated to presentations on traditional food and herbal medicines by noted herbalist Alma Snell, Bill’s mother.
"It was a wonderful team-building experience," said camper Elizabeth Burnham, general counsel for a New Jersey foundation that provides after-school programs for at-risk children. She hopes to bring some of the youth to Montana for a similar program
"It’s away from everything," Burnham said. "It really gets you centered and focused."
"We hope they take back what they learn and apply it with those they serve," Snell said. "We hope they will no longer fear what they don’t know."
Ever since Snell and former partner Corbin Shangreau, a Lakota Sioux, began In-Care in their homes with $300 in cash, they have dealt with fears from nearly everyone involved.
Native Americans, with their traditional emphasis on extended families, found the concept of foster care foreign at first. Indian foster children, often leaving behind dysfunctional birth families, didn’t always want to be placed with Native families. And government officials were equally skeptical.
"There were a multitude of barriers," Snell said. The communication process is different, he said, adding, "Foster care is somewhat foreign to us as Native people. We haven’t forgotten about the government schools, the Catholic schools, the boarding schools." Beginning in the late 1800s, many Indian children were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to boarding schools, often in distant states. Traditional beliefs were devalued at the schools in favor of a forced Christianity, Snell said.
"We have to remember there are different degrees of acculturation and assimilation among our people," he said. "Some are very traditional. Some are very Christian oriented. Some are urbanized. But we’re all still Indian people. And we’re still special in the Creator’s eyes. We can’t categorize each other. Our circle of life says all people are accepted."
Initially, state agencies weren’t fully supportive. They didn’t want to pay In-Care the same rate for foster care as they paid others, Karst said. "The Yellowstone Conference said they knew the trials that In-Care was having. Our conference Board of Church and Society appropriated some money to help out. And we did some legislative kibitzing to get In-Care to have the same benefits. But it was almost like the state said, ‘This is an Indian organization, run by Indians, so it can’t work.’ "
Snell and Karst also helped answer skeptics by becoming foster parents themselves. Snell has cared for as many as 36 children and Karst another five. "We had to do that because some of the first questions that were asked were, ‘Have you ever done foster parenting before?' and when we said, 'No,' the Indian people generally would say, ‘Well, then, I’m not going to do it either,’’’ Snell said.
Snell also had to work to change the mindset of how best to help the children. "A lot of emphasis was placed on professional people changing the child. Therapists and psychologists – their interventions, their techniques -- were the primary change agent for helping children," Snell said. "We felt that the primary change agent was foster parents."
Maintaining cultural heritage in the midst of other problems has always been a cornerstone of In-Care. At the recent Camp Little Feather, Indian children ages 4-11 came together for a three-day program of cultural enrichment. Children listened to Native storytellers, made craft projects and pitched tipis under the stars.
Being around the children has impacted staffers in many ways, Snell said. "Some of the children that have come in have been children that should have died. But because of miracles, through intervention and prayer and support and nurturing, they made it."
Snell pointed out a robust 9-year-old playing soccer at Camp Little Feather. "She’s kind of a star in my eyes," he said. "She came in unable to walk and move. She had shaken-baby syndrome that resulted in a spinal cord injury and wasn’t expected to ever walk. She went through a number of things – physical therapy, special training. A specialist in Great Falls took her and had to ... straighten her (leg) bones out, and cut the bones as well as the muscle to turn her legs. She wasn’t even expected to try to walk for a number of months, and she was doing it within weeks. She never cried."
In-Care also recognizes the importance of extended family to the health and development of children. It involves grandparents, aunts, uncles and others as much as possible.
One of In-Care’s programs, the Grandchild Journey, gives foster children an opportunity to make a holistic journey through the "medicine wheel,’’ an approach central to many of the agency’s programs. The journey through the medicine wheel combines social, mental, physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of personal growth, Snell said.
Today Snell is hopeful In-Care’s traditions will last a long time. Since its third year of operation, In-Care has been self-sustaining and does not depend on grants.
The Elder’s Project: "I’m Just a Lodge-keeper"
by Alma Hogan Snell
We helped a lot. As far as I was concerned, I helped my grandmother a lot. She would be scraping hides, and I had my little scraper, and I would scrape the hide with her. Then she would collect all of that stuff, and instead of keeping it anymore like they used to...They used to make balls out of it, out of skin, and stick that stuffing in it. Sometimes they would use that stuffing for "pampers", because when that got wet, it would be soft, that shaving, and they would just whip it out of that little breechcloth. And, she didn't do that anymore, so she let the dogs have it. The dogs liked it.
Right now, I feel like the people need the collagen, is that what they call that, you know the muscle part? And I feel that a lot of people need that for their joints, and knees, and wrists and shoulders, and so on like that. I feel that they need that, even today. I'm takin' it and it seems to be helping a lot. It's taken from the buffalo hooves too. And we used to scrape off the buffalo hooves and clean it real good. Then they'd clean it with water, clean it off that way. They'd skin it. And then they'd skin the rest of the hide that was on the hoof, and throw it away, rinse it off again, and then they'd boil it. After that was done, they'd take the hoof, like pig's feet, type of thing. They would pull the muscle part out of there, and then they'd cook it. Then they would eat it with their meals, or make paint out of it. Those are the kind of things that we would help our grandmothers or mothers with. The other children would help their mothers. I lived a very different life, because I was a "Grandmother's grandchild" so, whatever she did, seemed to be a little different than what the mothers were doing. So, that's who I followed, was my grandmother. At play, in Sunday school, or school, then I was like the others. Although I kinda stood apart.
This year, the turnips (prairie turnips) seemed like they're baked in the ground. We go out there and we dug ...and I got fifty of them, with Bill, and we went out on a day when it was pretty warm. And we thought, well, we always took heat, you know, so, we dug out about fifty turnips, just out here on the mountain, on the reservation. And it was so hot, that I thought, he should come out, but he'd dig, you know, and we kept doin that. When I got it home...It was strange to me that it was so hard to dig, where it never used to be that hard. And we came...the strips, I stripped the bark off of it, and they weren't really succulent like before. In fact, it seems like that when you cook em, the first half hour that you cooked em, it looked like that. And I thought, 'They're baking in the ground!' Somethings going on, and it's not for the better. It seems like it's for the worse. Our berries are drying before they reach maturity. The type of the shift in the weather, I guess. My grandmother would have another explanation, if she was here, I guess. She says that the moon ripens the berries. They figure that there is moisture in the fruit, and it sweats, and it sets them. Then here come the moon, and it has something to do with water. It pulls them, and it starts to make them ripe, she says. I thought, 'Go to it moon, I want some berries' (she laughs).
But uh, that's what we learn as we come along. And then if science tells us different, we just kind of want to remain believing what our grandparents told us. And they got along, and so, and I'm gettin along, but I sure have clashes with my children and grandchildren, you know, because of all this science (laughs).
It may be modern and it may be quickly done, but I just don't trust any of it seems like. And of course, I have many years behind me, so I feel that I'm living in the privileged years. Every day I just get up and I thank the Lord. And uh, I just go out, look out toward the east, and I think, ‘Thank you. Aho, Aho. Thank you for this day.’
That's kinda my life, you know. I'd like to take my grandchildren out and show them what my grandmother showed me, you know, before it's all gone. But, fortunately, I think that it's sort of returning. I believe that it is, don't you? They're beginning to feel like we have left something behind. When healing, uh....medicine got so scientific, you know, and they discovered miracle medicines, quick-healing medicines, then they forgot it (natural medicines). They forgot all this that they were working with. So now, they work for awhile now, and they say this won't work anymore. But God, ...but God, if you read in His book, He says that every green thing is for your healing. It's for all of you. And, uh, when I do pick up and drink my green things, over there in the kitchen, I think of it, and I tell my mind, ‘Now, the Creator, has made this, and said it's for our healing’. And so, I am installing in my mind-- go to this place and heal--and then I drink it. And so, it seems that I have had good results from doctoring anybody that comes in.
The other day, an interviewer asked me, "Do you consider yourself a medicine woman?" And I said, "No. You got a lot of medicine men and women working in the hospitals, and they're there. They are medicine men and women. And you have them in the Indian culture too. They have medicine men and women. But I'm a lodge keeper, and I want to keep my lodge with things up in the cabinet like we do modernly. I like to put em away. If they have to be dried I do that to ...to administer to my children and my grandchildren... those that enter my lodge. I will give them healing". That's what I believe myself to be. Just a lodge keeper.
My heritage is Jesus Christ. Because every since I was a baby, they must've took me over there (to the church) to be dedicated, baptized. Whatever I had to go through, I went through as a child. And I never knew, (about some traditional practices of healing) because it was suppressed. Our way was suppressed so much that we didn't practice it no more. And so, in my time, that was my heritage. Nobody talked about anything else, except when the family was together or something, and they spoke about what happened.
Pretty Shield practiced it--practiced her gifts--when I was small, growing up. And she was just now changing into the transitional period of medication and all that. One time I had whooping cough. I couldn't catch my breath, and they'd work with me. I remember that, even today, that it was bad. She kept takin’ me to the clinic. She walked me over to the clinic. I could just see her little shawl going up and down, her little cotton blanket, you know. She would be just walking, and I could just see that. And she'd take me to the clinic. Well, they'd give me a bunch of cough syrup. Maybe they'd change it a little bit. Do this and do that. And we'd try to do it, you know. But, uh, she said, "I'm tired of this," she said, "Let me give you something". So she reached up into our little rafter that she had. There was no ceiling. Just the outside, and then the rafters were up there. So she put something up there to keep it away from us kids. So, she went and got this bottle. I didn't know what this is. But she took a little teaspoon and warmed it over a flame-- a candle flame. She warmed it over that and it kinda melted. She tested it to her lips. She told me to open my mouth and I did. She put it in there, you know, and she said, "Swallow it". So , I did. I wanted to swallow fast because I didn't know what it was. I quit coughing. You know my cough, it wasn't that hanging on thing. I said, "What's that up there?", you know. She said, "Skunk oil".
Every time I see a skunk, I think of that time. You, know, it cured my cough. A whooping cough.
So that was the kind of thing she returned to if something didn't work that was given to them. She would return to these Indian medicines, and they seemed to work. I noticed. I notice here too. Bad disease, and these sicknesses. And, just a little something that comes to my mind that would help. I don't sell the stuff, you know. I'm giving it to help people, and if it could help something, that would be my blessing. I give it to them. I'm not selling it. If I make a tincture, and I buy the bottle, then they pay for the bottle. The thing that I pick out there in the wilds, I kinda always remember that verse too...I'm so influenced by this, this book, you know (she points to the Bible), the Bible. Where it says, "Freely you have received, freely give", it remains with me.
That's what we want, for these little ones to grow up to know their heritage. We don't want that to be lost, because heritage is something everyone needs. Their heritage. And if it happens to be mingled a little bit, so be it. If you have both worlds and you make it work, that's your heritage. People without it, I always say, are no people. They don't know where to go or where to fit in, and all this stuff. And I feel that the Lord who gave us these things, the Lord who made us, has made us to have our own way (culture) and do it well, to help one another with it.
Editor’s note: We met Alma Snell and her husband Bill, Sr., at their home on the Crow Reservation in Montana, in August of 2000. It was sunny and dry that day. We spoke for several hours, and then Alma served us lunch. It was a simple day, but memorable. Most important, was the feeling that God had been with us during our visit, and we felt closer to God when we left. Alma shared with us from her heart, and we were stricken by the fact that here was someone who was intimate with God, who found joy in God’s creation, and shared that joy. The day, thereafter, seemed to glow.
Knowing Who You Are
Finding Your Place in Ministry
Here is a mistake in our developing Native ministries. In our effort to make Native ministries "come-of-age", we have forgotten our spiritual roots. We have become used to big programming. In a wealthy denomination where resources are available, we have access to training. We even have training for the training. We can fly to comfortable locations, and meet several times a year.
It’s a wonderful process, until we fall prey to our own form of ministry materialism. We become used to the noise and the spotlights, and caught up in the "big project" syndrome. We begin to think that nothing can be accomplished without fanfare, pomp, and publication in a denominational periodical. We even begin to think that no good work can be accomplished without a grant from a denominational agency.
We begin to look at ourselves differently. We begin to measure our success in light of the big programs. We pursue more degrees, not because of the skills they offer, but how the degrees will make us appear. We wear our church responsibilities like vestments. "We’re very busy", we say, as if busy-ness proved our worth. In the process, we wonder where the thrill of ministry has gone. We’re so busy going to meetings, that we forget how to do the most basic thing--share the Gospel.
Then almost imperceptibly, a breeze rushes past our flushed faces. We are refreshed by something not in the spotlight. Something not born of protest or the sound of ecclesiastical pageantry. It is simply the wind of the Holy Spirit, blowing through a life committed to the will of God. A breeze which stirred the soul of someone who simply got up and begin to do what God was prompting them to do. No grants, no recognition, no well-photographed protest. Just the work of the Holy Spirit.
For a brief moment, we’re taken by surprise. "How could this have happened, and we didn’t notice?", we seem to ask. Perhaps there is a way that we can attach ourselves to this wonderful event, so it doesn’t seem as if we have been left in the dust.
And then it hits us. It hits us square in the soul. You cannot ornament a perfect creation of God. We, like the angels, fold our wings, and listen to the song of those who have followed. You cannot ornament a perfect work of God.
Alma Snell lives in a house at Wind Blowing Place on the Crow Reservation, in Montana. Her grandparents, Pretty Shield and Goes Ahead, were medicine people of historical importance.
There is a love which radiates from Alma. It is not ethereal. It is a love for God, and from God. It is a relationship with the Creator, and Alma wants to share it.
Alma gathers plants around the Crow Reservation. Some are for healing, some are for maintaining good health. It is a simple premise: God has placed growing things upon the earth for the benefit of God’s children. Alma teaches. She teaches anyone who would like to learn. And when she talks about plants, she also talks about God. We are reminded that we are not captive to the popular culture. God has given us alternatives. The heritage from our Native grandparents is rich and deep, and green. It grows.
And God, who has hidden stars in apple cores and cottonwood branches begins to speak green to our hearts. From around the world, people hear and come. Some call ahead. Some ask directions and walk up the road to Wind Blowing Place.
Bill Snell, Jr., Alma’s son, is a hard worker and a man of integrity. He is amiable and kind, and the type of person one would choose for a friend. His work began with a simple idea which altered forever the concept of foster-care for Indian children. He believed that Indian people themselves could oversee foster care for Indian children. He also believed that Indian families, even those with little resources, could make wonderful families for those in foster care. Indian children, traditional and Christian, should have their values reinforced, and concepts of self-esteem could be developed from Native culture. Add to that, camps which strengthened a sense of Native identity and long-term support for both children, and Native and non-Native foster parents.
From an idea, beginning in his own home, he launched a program of national importance, which literally turned the world of foster care for Indian children upside down.
While we are waiting for the grants, for the big apology, for the inclusion we believe we deserve, there is a persistent voice. It is the voice of God to ordinary people. To us. It is the voice, which does not ask for our credentials, but our willingness. It is the voice, which speaks greatness into little things, loaves from crumbs, and warriors from bones.
Resources for Native Churches
Grandmother’s Grandchild: My Crow Indian Life; by Alma Hogan Snell; edited by Becky Matthews; University of Nebraska Press; 2000
This is a book about the life of, and in the words of, Alma Hogan Snell. For several months, Becky Matthews sat and recorded Alma as she spoke about her grandmother, her love of Bill Snell, Sr., the events of her life, her rich culture, and her faith in God.
The voice of the text is simple, and easy to follow, and you find yourself caught up in tragedies, celebrations and quiet miracles. There are portions that you come back to time after time, so that details are not forgotten. There are insights that you tuck away in your heart.
There is also history. The transition of cultures and individuals from one way of life to another. The work of Christian missions and their impact on a community. The reservation and boarding school experiences all told through the eyes of one who has lived there. It is also a study of Indian community and communities.
Readers will learn a great deal about Crow history and culture, but from a personal perspective. They will also be moved by the love story woven in these pages.
This is a story of triumph. Of overcoming obstacles. But the greatest triumph is Alma herself. One realizes that while culture has changed, it has also grown and flowered, and Alma, not quite realizing it herself, has become a bridge. Grandmother’s grandchild has become a grandmother in the broadest sense possible.
The University of Nebraska Press, has proven themselves to be one of
the finest publishers of Native history and literature. By allowing Alma
Snell to tell her story in her own words, readers are given the
opportunity to visit one-on-one with a remarkable woman, and a remarkable
of Native People is a publication of the:
Native American Communications Office, United Methodist
Communications, P.O. Box 320, Nashville, TN 37202.
Ray Buckley, office phone: (615)
742-5414; fax: (615)
742-5413; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
of Native People statement of mission:
is a monthly periodical for local Native faith communities within the
United Methodist Church. Its
purpose is to link these communities together by providing culturally
relevant information, faith stories, and information about issues
facing Native people, news about the church and other Native communities,
and resources for ministry. Voices
also seeks to examine policies and actions affecting Native people within
and without the United Methodist Church and their impact on local Native