This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Social work professor addresses UN forum

Published: August 18, 2005

Reporter Contributor

When Hilary Weaver first read her invitation to speak at the United Nations in May, she couldn't believe it was real.



The email came "out of the blue," she says. "I had to check and make sure they were legit and that they really wanted me to come speak to them. It was very exciting."

Weaver spoke at the fourth annual Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues as part of a presentation on "Indigenous Peoples in a Landscape of Risk: Responses in the Social Work Community." A Native American and associate professor in the School of Social Work, Weaver says her talk had a personal angle but focused on the ways social work had harmed Native Americans in the past and the ways it has changed-and can change more-to help that population and other indigenous people around the world.

Born in 1891, Weaver's grandfather was taken away from his parents and South Dakota reservation and sent to a boarding school in Virginia. She says he returned only briefly, as a government worker sent to help other Native Americans, and never lived with his parents or his tribe again. Her grandmother had a similar experience, but did not return home until her husband's death in 1973.

Those events, Weaver says, formed the background for her talk. The people who took Native-American children from their homes near the turn of the last century—an effort to give the children what at the time was thought to be a better life—often were well-meaning government workers who functioned as early social workers, she explains. And although the profession has tried to become first, culturally sensitive, then, in the past few decades, culturally competent, it still can improve it the way it deals with Native people and cultures, she notes.

"I spoke (at the United Nations) from (the point of view of) who I am as a social worker and as an indigenous person," she says. "I see that the social work profession could be so much better. Our values, the mission of our profession, could be very good for Native people."

Weaver says that even before she understood her grandparents' histories, she always had wanted to be a social worker. Working in a traditionally "Anglo profession," she specialized in cross-cultural issues during her undergraduate years at Antioch College. She received master's and doctoral degrees in social work from Columbia University, and began teaching in the social work program at the University of Idaho in 1988. She joined the UB faculty more than a decade ago.

"I try to keep my hands in social work and not just be a teacher," she says, adding that she serves on the board of a West Side organization called Native American Community Services of Erie and Niagara Counties. She points out that poverty and low education levels among Native Americans are driven by a number of factors.

Going away to college can be especially alienating for young Native Americans who grew up on remote reservations, Weaver says. Instead of being near the sacred places that generations have revered, and near family and friends, they have to go to cities that might be only 100 miles away but where they feel unsettled and out of place. Weaver believes this contributes to the high college-dropout rate among Native Americans, and to their small numbers in academia.

"I was able to be successful in academia because my grandparents were taken away and those cultural traditions were shattered," she says, explaining that Native Americans who are more tied to their reservations and sacred places than she was have a hard time succeeding in the outside world. And even as a person who grew up somewhat disconnected from her cultural traditions, Weaver says she has a hard time being away from the places that are sacred to her, located in the Dakotas and Wyoming.

"Being indigenous is not just being another ethnic minority," she says. "You are indigenous to a particular place. You are tied to the land."

Weaver says she sees the field of social work improving to meet the specific needs of indigenous people, adding that the U.N forum contributed to the view of indigenous people that's evolved since her grandparents were taken from their homes so they would not grow up as "savages." Speaking at the forum and meeting its participants—indigenous people from all over the world—was an "awesome" experience, she says.

She notes that of all of UB's graduate programs, social work boasts the most Native American students.

"We can do helping on our own terms, take the best of what the profession offers us and blend it with our own ideas about helping people," she says.