Art therapy is more than simply filling in a coloring book. Cherokee Nation’s Indian Child Welfare department is expanding its art therapy endeavor for tribal foster children over the next year thanks to a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Cherokee Nation is one of only four Oklahoma entities to get NEA funding this year and will use the funding to support weekly art classes and one-on-one art therapy sessions for about 55 foster children.
Beginning our third year of art therapy service, the tribe will be able to double the number of children able to participate because of this funding. I want to thank our ICW team as well as our grants team for finding creative and progressive ways to expand critical services to our most vulnerable citizens. Participation in art therapy, as well as other therapies, helps young minds process the experiences they’ve had. It better prepares them to return home when the family is ready and healthy enough to reunify and move forward together. Fifty percent of our children return home, which says a lot about the successful nature of our Cherokee foster program.
Art therapy creates a nonverbal path to communication. Words can be hard to express no matter one’s age, but it can be especially difficult for those who have experienced trauma. Our team of caseworkers, along with a certified art therapist, are providing young children who have suffered and survived abuse a way to safely deal with their anxieties and fears. Working through trauma recovery can often prompt feelings or memories that cannot easily be put into words. Art therapy resolves this by providing a unique means of self-expression.
In addition to the one-on-one art therapy, group art therapy is also used in the program, including Cherokee history and traditional Cherokee art forms, from basket weaving and pottery to painting and drawing. This builds pride in Cherokee culture along with a stronger sense of self. These young people can begin to see themselves as bearers of Cherokee culture.
The education the children receive includes our history of relocation, survival and revitalization. For foster children who may not have had a stable home life, this is common ground. They can survive and thrive just like our ancestors, relying on the strength of the tribe because we are stronger together.
Using the artistic process helps children explore challenges and different things they’re facing in their life. While these young children may come from a dysfunctional home life, this therapy reassures them they will always be connected to something deeper and more powerful: their Cherokee heritage. Participants receive positive support from our professional staff and hear — perhaps for the first time — that they are creative, talented and worthy.
It lets them know that no matter their background or difficulties, they have an extended family in the Cherokee way that will always be there to support them. No matter who you are or what your circumstance is, you will always have a home in this tribe.
Bill John Baker is the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.