RAPID CITY, S.D. – In the Lakota language, the phrase mitákuye oyásʼiŋ means we are all related. High school sweethearts Mike and Emily Beck may not have known the words yet, but they had already embraced the concept.
Sgt. 1st Class Mike Beck, a member of the South Dakota Army National Guard since 2001, and his wife, Emily, a cultural resources program manager with the SDARNG, who met in 8th grade, always wanted to build their family through adoption. They are now adoptive parents to seven American Indian children from the Lakota Tribe through three separate adoptions beginning in 2004.
"We chose adoption very early on because we knew there were a lot of kids who didn't have permanency, and we thought it was better to adopt those kids and give them a family, rather than just bring our own kids into the world," said Beck. "But we view adoption as not just bringing a child into your family, but the joining of two families."
Throughout the years, they have cared for 26 children in their home through Christian foster programs and with the Cheyenne River Lakota adoption agency. They adopted their first daughter in 2004 from the niece of a close family friend.
In 2008, they began caring for three Lakota siblings, ranging from 3 to 5 years old, whom they adopted three years later. In 2013, they began caring for three Lakota sisters from 8 months to 3 years old and adopted them.
But as the Becks brought the children into their home, they wanted to ensure they would not lose their rich culture.
"With all of my children being adopted from the Cheyenne River Lakota tribe, they have a cultured history of their own that we have integrated into our family," said Mike. "Keeping that culture alive is very important to us, and keeping that heritage alive in my children is as well."
They began learning the language with the placement of their first daughter. They took her to waćhípis, or powwows, to remain connected to the culture. The oldest four children, two of whom are related to Crazy Horse — who in the 1800s fought to preserve the Lakota way of life — have been featured waćhípi dancers at the Crazy Horse Memorial Monument. They also all attend Lakota language classes and immersive retreats.
"In our classes, we joke about thinking in Lakota," said Emily. "In the Lakota language, and the way a Lakota person formats their thoughts, it gives a very deep soulful meaning to the world around them."
Only about 2,000 people in the world speak the Lakota language fluently. Emily recalled a time she was approached by a Lakota woman at a waćhípi who thought she was dismissing her children's heritage. But when she responded to her in Lakota, the interaction quickly became one of mutual respect.
That mutual respect was reflected in 2009 when Mike and Emily were honored at a huŋká ceremony, which allows people who are not tribal-born to develop connections and relationships within the tribe, said Emily. Two Lakota elders honored the couple for their work in foster care and adoption and blessed the family.
In addition to their connection with their Lakota heritage, the Becks have immersed their children in their military community. Mike has worked as a youth camp counselor, and Emily works as a tribal coordinator.
"The military programs, especially the military youth leadership programs, have helped integrate the military aspect of our life into our home life," said Mike. "Our kids understand better what it is I do, what things are like for me when I'm gone on assignment or on deployment. So those programs have been really helpful for our family learning how to communicate and cope better."
The Becks' 14-year-old daughter said her favorite part about attending the programs was the kinship she found with other military children.
"It's just good to know that there are other kids out there going through what I'm going through, like deployments, and their parents going to drill and stuff," she said.
Mike said he sees a lot of similarities between the Lakota culture and Army values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor and personal courage. His oldest daughter, who learned the values at military youth programs, agreed. She is now 16 and considering a career in the South Dakota National Guard. She said her inspiration was patriotism and the bond she developed over the year with her families' Guard connection.
"I feel like I've gotten a lot of support from the military," she said. "I've put some of my military camp counselors down as job references before, and I know a lot of people from the Guard. … I can just walk into my parents' work and feel at home. It feels more like a family."