Alumni Profile: Nakina Mills '98

posted on August 16, 2012

1. Talk a little bit about your childhood: where you grew up, where you went to school, how many years you attended Red Cloud, etc.

I was born in Omaha, NE with my triplet sisters Heather and Elena. I was raised on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation with my sisters, two older brothers David and Kenny, and my younger half-brother Terran. My parents are David Mills and Rhoda Mills-Jacobs. My Lakota name is Tate Cik’ala Win, which means Little Wind Woman.

I will always remember the first day I attended Red Cloud School. I was three years old and going into the pre-kindergarten, and my mother said that I just so excited for our first day that I just took off right out of the car and didn't turn back. I remember thinking how big this place was and all the kids I could play with. I also remember at that time that my nickname was "motor-mouth" as I was always talking.

So to make a long story short, I attended Red Cloud from age three until I graduated at 18 in 1998. I have so many memories, stories, and lessons that I should write a book about it one day!

2. What have you been doing academically and professionally since graduating from Red Cloud? What have been some of the high points?

After graduating as class salutatorian in 1998, I attended Creighton University. During my time at Creighton, I participated in several student organizations, primarily the Native American Association where I was also voted vice-president one year and president the next. I also helped in doing Native American recruitment, in which I would travel back to high schools in my area and talk to students about Creighton and college in general, as well as support systems available to Native students.

I majored in sociology and received my Bachelor’s from Creighton in May of 2002. It was at this time that I received one of the prestigious rewards given at graduation called the Spirit of Creighton award for my efforts and accomplishments at the university. After graduating, I returned to the reservation and started applying for jobs so that I could start trying to help in my home community.

3. Please describe what are you currently doing academically or professionally.

As I returned to the reservation intending to give back to the community, it turned out that my first job was at Red Cloud. I worked there for three months and helped in the development office. I then applied for a caseworker position with the Department of Social Services, in the division of economic assistance. There, I was responsible for determining food stamps and Medicaid for children and families.

I was in this position for over a year and then applied for a DSS case manager position in the area of Child Protection Services. In this role, I assessed child abuse and neglect referrals and provided services to children and families that were dealing with issues in their home environment. It was in this job that I realized I could really help my people and community by working to advocate for children and their families.

I worked for Social Services until December of 2004, and was then hired for another case manager position with Casey Family Programs. In this position, I worked more with older youth in the foster care system and helped in their transition to adulthood. It was during this time that community members and elders were pushing a plan wherein our Tribe would develop and implement our own Tribal Protection Services. The state of South Dakota had been controlling this arena since the 1970s, and our tribal members were getting frustrated with the loss of our children to the system, as they were constantly adopted out of their families and communities, thus suffering the loss of their family, community ties, language, and culture.

During my time with Casey Family Programs from 2004-2008, I was asked to continue to be part of the work being done in this direction, and given another job opportunity in the area of Family Development. In this position I recruited, trained, and licensed foster families for children in need of homes.

One of our greatest accomplishments during this time was that the new Tribal Child Welfare agency was approved, and the Oglala Sioux Tribe Child and Family Code was passed in May of 2007. This authorized the agency to enter into a formal agreement with the state of South Dakota. The agency was called Lakota Oyate Wakanyeja Owicakiyapi, (LOWO) which means Lakota people helping the children.

Since LOWO was a creation of the community, the policies, procedures, and practice standards were developed with a cultural approach. There were many sweats and other Lakota ceremonies that occurred in the development of this agency, and finally in February of 2008, LOWO assumed the role of providing this service to our own people.

From 2009 to the present, I worked in different roles within the agency, and ended up being a supervisor for 2½ years. It was in this position where I was able to provide oversight to the staff who worked directly with the children and families that were in need, thus helping guide them to provide the best possible services to our people. In this way, we were truly able to progress in the important work of keeping our children within their own families.

4. Describe the path you took to get from graduating from Red Cloud to where you are today. How did you develop an interest in what you are doing nowadays, and how did you make your dream a reality?

Part of my work involved going above and beyond in locating relatives for children in need of temporary homes. If there were not any relatives available, then we tried to match the children up with the best licensed foster home. Without a doubt, this job and experience has had its ups and downs, challenges and successes. In my ten years in this field, I have learned a great deal not only about the arena of child welfare but also about myself.

I believe that the person I am today is due to a variety of different individuals, places, and experiences. My parents and others at Red Cloud and LOWO have taught me the importance of education, beliefs, faith and community. However, I didn't truly understand this until my years of working in the child welfare.

5. What obstacles did you have to overcome, or what were the greatest roadblocks you encountered?

I can only really think of two experiences where I encountered an obstacle that I felt I wasn't able to overcome. The first one was in high school, and to make a long story short, I made a stupid decision because I was upset and disappointed in myself. I took some pills, and thankfully it was not enough to do any damage, and I simply woke up sick the next day. I think back to that time and wish someone had taught me better coping skills in dealing with disappointments. In life, there are always going to be some. You just have to work through them, accept them and move on.

The other was that during my sophomore year at Creighton, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had to go through radiation and chemotherapy, and there came a point where I thought I might have to take a break from my education to take care of her. However, when I started to have that conversation with her, she stopped me and said, “No, that is not even a option. You’re going to stay and finish school.” That was the end of that conversation. That year was the hardest year for me emotionally. Luckily, I had a very good support system at home and at Creighton to help me get through that year and into my junior year.

In regard to my work with LOWO, I would say that change is a hard thing for everyone and we had our fair share of challenges. For each challenge, however, there was a success story about a child being reunited with their parents or relatives, or about siblings who hadn’t seen each in years getting to visit each other. It was those stories that help me through the many different roadblocks that I encountered in that line of work.

6. What do you see yourself doing over the next year? The next five years? Ten years? What are your greatest hopes and aspirations for yourself?

Recently, I made another career decision and accepted the position of Director of Alumni Support and Advancement at Red Cloud School. I have reached a point in my life where I desired something new, and when I saw the advertisement. I just had a feeling that I needed this. I felt that this was my opportunity to be able to give back to the Red Cloud community, since they had given so much to me in my years there.

I am so excited for this new endeavor! I cannot really speak to where I will be ten years from now, but more than likely I will still be trying to help my tribe, my people and my community. One thing I do know is that I would like to obtain my Masters degree within the next five years. Prior to my decision to work at Red Cloud, I was planning to pursue a Masters in social work, but now I am uncertain of what it will be.

7. How did your educational experience at Red Cloud prepare you for the life you live today, in terms of skills, values, attitudes, etc.

I would have to say that most of all, my time at Red Cloud taught me about the importance of education. When I was growing up, I was told that education is the key to being able give back to the community. They say that to be educated is to be one step closer in success, and I truly believe that. I would also say that the value of giving back to one’s community, which the Jesuits at Red Cloud taught, is another important merit. This virtue is also a part of our Lakota faith. So these similarities helped in guiding me to where I am today.

8. How does Red Cloud continue to be a part of your life?

Red Cloud continues to be part of my everyday life as I am stepmother to four children, and all four attend Red Cloud. I have also had many other relatives attend the school. In addition, I have had the privilege to be on the Red Cloud Board of Directors for several years. At present, I am greatly looking forward to my new position, and to developing the alumni support and advancement program.