“That’s the same cup my parents have,” I remember telling Shana King, while holding up the tall grey mug with intricately carved flower patterns along its sides for her to see.
The familiar cup, along with her natural warmth makes me feel comfortable even though I’m seated in a stranger’s home in Minnesota, a thousand miles from home and anyone else who knows me. It’s one of the funnier things about journalism, the total suspension of social rules and basic stranger danger.
Here I am sitting in the living room of someone I’ve never met in person before, asking her about the worst and best moments of her life. And here she is, telling me.
I’m there to report on the foster care system in Minnesota and its impact on Native mothers like Shana, but we spend hours enmeshed in conversations about our worldviews, religion, history and culture. There’s something about sitting across from someone at a kitchen table who’s as interesting as Shana, that makes me eager to talk about more than the questions in my notepad.
I think it helps us both feel at ease around each other. And when it’s time for me to interview her, I hope I seem less like a stranger pressing her for information and more like a guest in her home trying to understand her.
It’s important to me that my interviews don’t feel forced or extractive. And there’s really nothing more natural than sitting in someone’s living room talking about life, even though moments from now I’ll have to hit record on my phone.
I like to think of every difficult moment someone shares with me in an interview, especially when it’s sensitive, as a gift, and it’s my job to honor that gift through my storytelling. It doesn’t mean I’m uncritical, but I do feel like I owe those stories the respect of retelling them accurately and with compassion.
So, when Shana begins to tell me about her childhood, and the moments that led me to speak with her, she has my undivided attention.
Related coverage: Minnesota’s Foster Care System Perpetuates the Legacy of Racist Boarding Schools, Native Mothers and Experts Say | ‘Kill the Indian … Save the Man’: Tracing the Government’s Long, Racist History of Uprooting Native Children
Shana is a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara nation, a Native American tribe whose ancestral home was primarily in the foothills of what is now North Dakota. Her home is filled with beautiful tapestries of those foothills, and even the mining project outside her window is reminiscent of their jagged peaks.
Growing up wasn’t easy for Shana, who is half-Black and grew up with her Native mother and white stepfather.
Shana remembers her mother would hide her when her stepfather would fly into fits of rage, but that she would also badmouth her to some of the very people Shana looked to for help.
She ended up spending her teenage years in the foster care system, after suffering, she says, from years of abuse. She doesn’t remember her mother ever visiting her.
After we talked about her childhood, I asked her if she needed a break. During interviews, I often ask people if they need time after they tell me something heavy — for their well-being, but also, selfishly, for mine.
A powerful reminder of why I do this work
While in Minnesota, someone else asked me if I saw myself being a reporter years from now. I told him, honestly, that usually, I did, but that sometimes hearing the worst moments of other people’s lives made me feel like I was drowning, and I didn’t always know if I could handle it.
After a pause, we’re both ready for the rest of the story. In her mid-30s, Shana, then a mother of five, ended up on the other side of the foster care system. After suffering an accidental overdose, Shana’s children were removed from her care. It took her two years to get them back.
Shana says her youngest son, who has cerebral palsy, was put on 33 different medications in foster care that impacted the functioning of his liver and kings. He remained addicted to many of these medications over a decade later, she told me.
Throughout our conversation, she goes to attend to him. He has trouble breathing, and needs help clearing his throat and lungs. He’s seated in his wheelchair in front of a large flat screen TV in the living room playing a cartoon, which Shana checks repeatedly to make sure he enjoys.
She hadn’t slept through the night in days when we spoke because she had to stay vigilant in case he needed her. Although most people would have shown signs of exhaustion, she’s clear and deliberate throughout our conversation, while never fully taking her attention away from her son.
It’s in the moments when she goes to care for him that I see how painful the separation must have been for them both.
In December, two months after our interview, he passed away. Now, all I can think about is her loss, and the time they lost together.
Something about the memory of seeing them together in those little moments makes the story hit even harder for me, and it’s important to me that other people feel that too.
Shana’s story is all her own, but it’s emblematic of much more. In Minnesota, where Shana lives, though American Indian children make up roughly 1 percent of the population, they comprise nearly 25% of children in foster care.
I dug into this reporting because I wanted to tell stories like Shana’s and give readers insight into why those disparities existed and the context to potentially understand how to address them.
Eight months and over 20 interviews later, stories like Shana’s have combined with data and history to coalesce into a clear picture: Native American mothers are living in a state of fear, and many of the same harms which took place in the boarding school system are perpetuated today.
This story and the relationships I formed with my sources in Minnesota helped me get closer to the kind of reporter I want to be. Sitting in my sources’ homes, favorite restaurants, and workplaces helped me see the severity of the stakes these women were fighting for when they decided to speak with me.
I like to think that in honoring the gift of these women’s memories, I was able to shed light on an issue that deserves our attention. And in the future, I’d love to continue to build relationships that lead to undeniably human stories like this one.
Note: Support for this reporting was provided by the USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism National Health Journalism Fellowship.
I want to thank the incredible journalists who guided me through this process, including Holly Ojalvo, Sonny Albarado, Tiffany Arnold, Erica Hensley, and many others.