As a master level social work student, I had the opportunity to visit the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota through an Immersion Program offered by the University of Southern California.
While the field of social work provides students avenues to explore different concentrations and interests, there still is a major lack of representation in academia for our Indigenous populations in North America. Colonialism and the lack of representation of the Indigenous population have led the public to believe Indigenous populations have “vanished”.
Our nation was built on Colonialism, assimilation, cultural genocide, and inevitably the widespread decimation of our Indigenous populations, yet this assumption allows society to turn a blind eye to the current socio-cultural-political environment of Indigenous populations.
Coming from the field of religious studies, I truly had to augment myself personally, professionally, and academically. The clash between my academic background and professional experience left me wondering if I was even in the “right” field. I struggled with the concept of intervening, implementing Western interventions, and just feeling forced to interact with people.
Eventually, my struggle was not with the concept of being a social worker, but rather with the fact I was being pigeonholed into a traditional social work environment with my current field placement. The trip gave me a taste of freedom within the field of social work and the interactions I had with the population left me wanting more. I knew moving forward that I had to return to the Reservation in South Dakota because I have been sitting on my hands throughout my entire MSW program.
I previously viewed my religious studies background and social work experience as autonomous and dualistic, but it never occurred to me that I could merge these two personalities together. The turning point in my academic and professional career monumentally shifted was when I went to South Dakota with USC. The experience was both personally and professionally transformative for me as a social worker because I struggled with imposter syndrome throughout the entire duration of the MSW program.
The interactions and moments that I shared with folks on the Reservation fully defined the concept of a social worker to me. For the first 7 months of my field placement, I was working with adolescents and young adults. To be honest, I had no idea what I was doing because I came from a completely different field and I was in the Children, Youth, and Families Department.
Also, I quickly started to feel burnt out because the subjects that I was learning in my classes didn’t align with the clients that I was assigned to. Since I never had the opportunity to work with children in my placement, I started to believe that maybe I didn’t want to work with children after all. This narrow-minded view of what I could do in the field of social work significantly changed after I met a child named C (renamed for article) on the Cheyenne River Reservation.
The funniest thing about children is that they choose you. From the minute C laid eyes on me, she chose me- even when I was unsure about my own ability to be a social worker. C and I proceeded to spend the afternoon creating lanyards and friendship bracelets. C was loving, abrasive, and unapologetic in her efforts to communicate and interact with the students on the trip. C’s mannerisms and stature significantly changed when we were approached by another student on the trip. The student was non-native and male. C immediately had an emotional reaction and felt the need to “protect me” from the male student. C’s affect and demeanor immediately changed from loving to protective.
The most shocking aspect of it all was that she was not acting out to defend herself, but rather to protect me. C believed with her entire heart that no men were to be trusted whatsoever and most needed to suffer the same fate as her father because of the violence he had inflicted on her mother in the past. C’s response toward the presence of another male in her immediate environment is simply a reflection of how America has forgotten and silenced Indigenous folks on Reservations.
The immersion experience with USC opened my eyes to the wide array of possibilities in the field of social work. As a white-appearing individual and outsider, I was welcomed and embraced by the Lakota. The members within the community shared their experiences, stories, and tears with me. After returning to Los Angeles, I felt like I left a piece of my soul behind on the Cheyenne River Reservation.
Upon my return, I was able to coordinate with my professors and the University to finish my last semester on the Cheyenne River Reservation. The next thing I knew, I was packing up my life in Los Angeles and I drove over 24 hours to return to South Dakota. This past summer, I was the first social worker to provide services at Camp Marrowbone in Eagle Butte, South Dakota.
The opportunity to live and work with the Lakota population would not have been possible without the integration of Indigenous Studies and Social Work. It is our responsibility as social workers to hold our academic institutions accountable in order to advocate for marginalized and silenced populations.
Simone D. Webster is a MSW graduate from the University of Southern California and holds a B.A. in Religious Studies with an emphasis in Indigenous Cultures in North and South America from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She has associated with advocacy groups and organizations such as Planned Parenthood, Californians United For A Responsible Budget, and Sex Workers Outreach Project in Los Angeles. She currently lives in South Dakota and continues to work closely with the Lakota.