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A national parent support program on the reservation ends due to a loss of funding during the pandemic

Three people stand around a table with a baby doll on it.
Taylar Stagner
Wyoming Public Media
Students learn how to swaddle babies at the Northern Arapaho 477.

Elsie Charging Crow is helping with a Northern Arapaho summer youth program teaching childcare.

The classroom setting is new. Before the pandemic, she would be going into the homes of new and expectant mothers and helping them set up doctor's appointments, and checking up on their nutrition.

Charging Crow is the Family Spirit supervisor on the Wind River Reservation. A program created by Indigenous researchers under the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health that promotes the overall health and wellbeing of parents and newborns.

She has been mentoring new mothers since 2017. Family Spirit on Wind River has helped over 300 parents bring their kids into the world according to Charging Crow. Some have even given her a nickname.

"'Hey, Mom, mom, mom. Mom, look at grandma's family spirit!' They think that I'm Grandma family spirit," Charging Crow said, laughing.

Family Spirit has been in 150 tribal communities across 23 states, with 64 active sites as of the end of July according to a spokesperson from the organization. The program is a 63 lesson curriculum including information on prenatal care and information for kids up to three years old.

Cibonay Jimenez, a senior research associate with Family Spirit, said home visitors try to make birth and childcare easier on the family in the face of long driving times to clinics and those who want to learn more about traditional childcare.

"Some of our communities have a disconnection between our culture and our child rearing ways and our teachings that would be passed on to what do you do when you're a mom, right? How do you care for this new being?" Jimenez said.

The Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health's director of development Crystal Austin said for the last three decades the center has been trying to support Indigenous clinics.

"We continue to ensure that all of our work is done with our community members, with our Indigenous knowledge keepers that no one wants to know what the needs are in their community," she said.

But finding funding for such ventures is difficult. Family Spirit's Cibonay Jimenez said the pandemic, like so many other things, made it harder.

"Family Spirit, specifically, I think one of the biggest challenges and struggles that many, many programs have had even before COVID has been sustainability of funding," she said.

Wind River Family and Community Health Care is the Northern Arapaho run clinic on the Wind River Reservation. They had been paying for the affiliate fee to gain access to the program until this year. They have decided not to pay that fee anymore.

Elsie Charging Crow is very concerned about the decision.

"I have a mom that's gonna have a little girl next week, and she was in a really bad domestic problem. And her domestic situation was so bad that I was so upset that I would not let go of her. Once I knew what she was going through, I never let go of her," she said.

The program fee starts at around $10,000 for access to technological and training opportunities.

In an emailed statement, Wind River Cares told Wyoming Public Radio the program will end. The clinic still has a Maternal Child Health department and they will try to maintain the services. They didn't specify how they would do that.

Meanwhile back in the classroom, Charging Crow said there are many issues parents face on the Wind River Reservation that have persisted since she was a young mother.

"I wish that we had this when I was carrying my children. I know we would have a healthier community right now," she said.

She said she just interviewed for a new job and looks forward to keeping up with the families she's helped with Family Spirit.

Taylar Dawn Stagner is a central Wyoming rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has degrees in American Studies, a discipline that interrogates the history and culture of America. She was a Native American Journalist Association Fellow in 2019, and won an Edward R. Murrow Award for her Modern West podcast episode about drag queens in rural spaces in 2021. Stagner is Arapaho and Shoshone.
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