SALT LAKE CITY — Over the summer, Shari Pena’s 3-month-old foster son chuckled for the first time when his older sister sneezed, kicking off a new family tradition.
The Penas gathered to celebrate the giggle, a milestone in the child’s Navajo culture. They shared a chicken and rice dish in their West Valley home and took a pinch of salt from the baby’s palm, a gesture symbolizing his generosity.
As the federal law governing child welfare cases for Native American children has withstood recent legal challenges in Utah and in other states, the Penas are among those cheering the victories. The Indian Child Welfare Act sets special standards in the adoption and foster care proceedings and gives preference to Native American families — part of an effort by Congress to correct historical bias against them.
“It’s important that these kids stay in native homes,” Pena said. “We understand one another, our past and our ancestors.”
Pena, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, said certain aspects of Navajo culture mirror her own upbringing in Oklahoma, including a strong focus on family. For newer factors like the first laugh party, she seeks guidance from the child’s biological grandmother and his four foster siblings.