ALUM | Samantha Janis, 2007

Samantha Janis did not reach this point in her life by travelling in a straight line, and that turned out to be a very good thing. Samantha’s path has equipped her with a wide and nuanced base of knowledge that she applies to the complex task of protecting children on the Pine Ridge Reservation through her work with Child Protective Services. Her work ethic, for which she credits her family and Red Cloud, has carried her through challenging professional experiences in suicide crisis intervention, early childhood education, and chemical dependency counseling. Samantha’s sights are now on combining these hard-earned skills and a degree in Forensic Psychology to be an advocate for the safety and well-being of the children on Pine Ridge.

Can you tell us a bit about your childhood and how you found your way to the Red Cloud community?

I was born in Pine Ridge, SD in December of 1988. I grew up with my grandparents, north of Manderson, SD. We had a ranch, raised cattle and horses; it was really fun. I worked at the ranch, went to school, helped at home. That was predominantly my entire life circle at that point.

I started school at Red Cloud in Montessori, then kindergarten, then continued for first through twelfth grades. My dad graduated from there, and my grandma went to school there. My daughter is also currently in school there, in the third grade at Our Lady of Lourdes! 

Wow, it sounds like Red Cloud has become a family tradition! What impactful relationships did you build while at Red Cloud?

I remember my elementary school physical education (PE) teacher Travis. At first, I absolutely hated him because he made me run and work out, which I really didn’t want to do! Then I ran into him outside of school when I was a little bit older. Even though I remembered him as someone who pushed me to do things I didn’t want to do in PE class, whenever I ran into him after that, he asked me how I was doing, how my grades were, how school was going. I always remember that no matter how badly I treated him back when he was teaching our PE classes, he ended up being the nicest person ever. He turned out to be a really cool mentor while I was growing up. He passed on about a year or two ago, and it was really hard and sad because he was really one of my biggest supporters.

What did you learn at Red Cloud that was helpful in your transition to college after graduation?

Being a student at Red Cloud helped me build my work ethic. While I was a student at Red Cloud, I had lot of homework. My family always made me do all of my homework before I could hang out with friends. When I got to college, before I would go out and hang out with my friends, I would get all of my work done. Over all the years, that work ethic was ingrained in me, and I have to thank Red Cloud and my family for that!

Where did you head after graduation from Red Cloud and what was that transition like?

After graduating from Red Cloud, I started at the University of South Dakota and focused my study on business administration. I lived on a co-ed dorm floor, and I never realized that I would have to live with a lot of people in a small area. There were people of all different ethnicities, bunched together on one dorm floor. It was just culture shock, because you’re so used to being surrounded by Native Americans and the few other people who venture onto the reservation, then you go away and you’re the minority.

After your freshman year, you returned home to Pine Ridge, which was an important moment of change in your life. Can you tell me about the work you did when you returned to Pine Ridge?

During my freshman year, I became pregnant and my grandparents wanted to help me, so I went home to Pine Ridge and started working. I started by working for the tribal council, doing community development with youth, as well as public safety and relations within communities. I worked there for four years. I then started going to school for social work at Oglala Lakota College (OLC). During this time, I was side-contracted to do HIV prevention education in the communities. I was giving people their medication for HIV and going and visiting patients and checking on them in my spare time. While I did that, I was still in school at OLC.

Then, I had an entire career change. There was an epic moment during my experience in the HIV community that changed my focus towards children. At that time, I began working with Sweetgrass Suicide Prevention. I worked there for two and a half years, basically saving kids’ lives. Our organization did a lot of interventions and post-suicide work with families. We tried to do prevention education, so we were teaching kids in the classrooms and responding with police officers whenever a kid attempted suicide. At that time, we were in the middle of a bad suicide epidemic. I was still trying to complete school, but only doing one class at a time because I was on call constantly.

How did you manage the emotional intensity of this kind of work?

Actually, it really took a toll on my family, especially my daughter, because I was always gone. When you’re in the middle of an epidemic, you’re needed. My grandma would tell my daughter, “She’s saving kids’ lives, you need to be patient”, but it took a toll on my daughter and so I quit.

Through everything, when things were at their most stressful, I would just look back at who I am. The Lakota culture in general is really calming and peaceful. We were a war society, of course, but we were also in tune with nature. I still own a ranch, so I go out horseback riding, hiking in the hills with my daughter, four-wheeling, or berry-picking. We go out into the nature and find calm and peacefulness. Sometimes we just turn off all the lights in the house, light candles, open doors and windows and just sit there in silence. It’s something I can go back to all the time. My grandparents are basically fluent in the Lakota language on both sides of my family, so if I ever needed to pray or felt something was wrong, I was able to go in my own language and talk to my creator. My spirituality and who I am basically keeps me grounded to do what I do.

How did your first-hand experience working in the midst of the devastating suicide epidemic influence your next career choices?

While at Sweetgrass, I decided to do a major change in school because I realized that there were similar scenarios present in almost every suicide attempt. So, at that time I decided I wanted to become a federal prosecutor and prosecute people for hurting kids. I began a law program at National American University. I then decided to stop pursuing my law degree and change my focus to early childhood development. I became a Head Start teacher for a year, followed by working for WellFully, which is a juvenile treatment facility. I worked as a case manager and chemical dependency counselor, so I ran groups and counseled kids in chemical dependency. I did that for a year, and really enjoyed it.  

Now, I’m working with Child Protective Services (CPS) and I am in school online through Arizona State University for Forensic Psychology. So, hopefully I stick to this one. I believe I will because once I complete this degree, I can work in the social work field or the law field.

What is a typical day like for you working with CPS?

It varies! Right now, I’m actually at the prosecutor’s office as I’m talking to you. We try to maintain positive relationships and keep families together. We try to do family building, and help the family members work to be better parents. It’s really case to case, and I currently have 76 cases that I’m working. I’m going to go transport a kid tomorrow, and pick a kid up in the city I’m transporting to, about 7 hours away, and bring that kid home. It’s a lot of different things, but in the end, it’s just to protect the children. I tell the parents of my clients all the time, I’m not on the mother’s side, I’m not on the foster parents’ side, I am here for the child and the child’s well-being. That’s all that matters to me.

What advice would you share with current Red Cloud seniors?

A lot of it is about consistency. Eventually you can find what your calling is, but even if you miss a semester, or get a F, or something happens, just continue moving forward. Continue living life. Don’t get stuck. There are a lot of people that get stuck. Life goes on and you keep moving forward, no matter what setbacks you believe you have. Just keep going because life keeps going. Just work hard. 


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last updated: July 19, 2017