In a historic move for the Native American community, two tribes of the Lakota Sioux Nation in South Dakota Indian Country have been awarded planning grants by the Department of Health and Human Services. The action marks a historic moment in the ongoing effort to stop what activists describe as an illegal state seizure of Lakota children that has never improved, despite the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act in the mid-1970’s.

The Indian Child Welfare Act was passed to prevent Native American families from being torn apart, according to the Lakota People’s Law Project, who is helping lead the fight for Lakota Sioux families:

In the mid-1970s, Congress established the American Indian Policy Review Commission. James Abourezk, the United States Senator from South Dakota at the time, led the Commission in its charge of investigating conditions in Indian Country and making recommendations as to what steps were necessary to improve those conditions. During the course of their work the members of the Commission were presented with indisputable evidence that when Indian children are involuntarily removed from their families or tribes and placed in non-Indian foster care settings, a majority of them who age out of the system end up homeless, in prison, or dead. In response to this shocking revelation, Senator Abourezk personally authored—and Congress ultimately enacted—the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA).

An average of 742 Native American children are removed from their homes in South Dakota on an annual basis, according to the United States Children’ Bureau’s “Child Welfare Outcomes: Reports to Congress.” South Dakota ranks third in the nation for the highest number of children taken into custody by the Department of Social Services. This is true even though the state has a total population of only 844,000 residents.

Child protective policies are disproportionately applied to wrest Native American children their homes in South Dakota. Despite only being 13.5 %  of the child population in South Dakota, Native American kids make up 54% of the youth foster care population. South Dakota has allegedly continued to ignore stipulations in ICWA that mandate placement of Native American children in Native American homes, placing about 87 % of Native children in non-Native homes, according to  the Lakota People’s Law Project.

The Lakota Sioux community believes it’s about state greed and federal funding.

“The state of South Dakota operates under a perverse incentive, where they actually stand to gain additional federal funding for their social services programs by taking Native kids from their homes and placing them in state-run foster care services,” said Sara Nelson of the Lakota People’s Law Project. “Most of the group homes are now psychiatric institutions, because they can charge the federal government three times as much per day.”

These policies will now start to change. Both the Oglala Sioux Tribe at Pine Ridge and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe were awarded $300,000 planning grants by the United States Health and Human Services Agency, according to an HHS announcement released last Friday. The monies will be used to create an independent tribal-run family services program administered for Lakota, by Lakota.

“This is a tremendous development,” said Oglala Sioux President Bryan Brewer. “ Credit goes first to all the tribes for our hard work, and second to A Positive Tomorrow, whose expertise in grant applications of this specific kind has been indispensable to this achievement, and finally to the Lakota People’s Law Project who has worked for years with us for this structural change.”

According to the Child Welfare League of America’s latest official report, between 2001-2007 Native American children constituted between 61% and 68% of the children who were involuntarily seized and placed in out-of-home care each year by the State of South Dakota’s Department of Social Services—despite the fact that Native Americans constitute only 13% of the state’s total population.

The Lakota People’s Law Project says this was due to a loophole of sorts in the way the law was written: The problem persists due to a serious flaw in the language of ICWA. Congress failed to edit several sections of the law, and because of the oversight, several states’ courts and departments of social services consistently and “flagrantly defy ICWA’s requirements for the preferential placement of fostered Indian children with their Indian relatives or tribe.”

The result has been a policy of federally-institutionalized trauma. The website describes the painful dealings that troubled families on Lakota Sioux lands have had to cope with as a result of the failed policies:

The now officially-declared state of powerlessness on the part of the federal courts to intervene has resulted in a virtual epidemic of trauma inflicted upon thousands of Native American children—the very trauma Congress intended to prevent. During the administration of George W. Bush alone, over 6, 000 Native American children were seized and removed from their Indian parents.2 Approximately 2,544 still remain in non-Indian foster care settings or in one of the “other state institutions” to which they have been involuntarily moved. And, despite this shocking statistic, according to the most-recent Resource Report of the South Dakota D.S.S., only 9% of the foster care homes that have been officially-licensed by the State over the past ten years are Native American homes. Furthermore, these Native American foster care homes presently house fewer than 12% of the Indian children being held by the D.S.S.

The federal grants of $300,000 are distributed to each tribe by mid-October and will allow Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and the Oglala Sioux Tribe at Pine Ridge, to begin planning and building capacity with a final goal of establishing foster care systems. The programs that will be run by the tribes, not the state, and collective efforts will continue this month to achieve planning grants for the Yankton, Crow Creek, Cheyenne River, Flandreau, and Lower Brule Sioux tribes.

“It is crucial that we wrest control of our children’s future away from members of the state of South Dakota, who have proven over and over again that they do not have the best interests of our children and families at heart,” said Cheyenne River Grandmother Madonna Thunder Hawk. “ Our children are not cash cows for federal money coming into the state economy, they are sacred and precious beings, our most valuable resource.”

“The people best situated to care for our children are our own families and extended family network, which we call Tiospaye,” said Phyllis Young, Standing Rock Councilwoman and important initiator of the historic BIA Summit on Lakota Foster Care in 2013. “We have taken good care of our children for thousands of years. We have to heal from the trauma of the past 130 years and begin to build a positive future for our people.”

The Lakota People’s Law Project (LPLP) has been working on foster care issues relative to the Native American children of South Dakota since 2005, partnering with tribes and leaders in South Dakota.

Yvonne Ito of A Positive Tomorrow, who worked diligently with seven tribes to ensure create the proposals for the grant applications, joined Iron Eyes in expressing a sense of triumph while cautioning that much work remains. “We are pleased that these two tribes will embark on a journey of sovereignty, and we will continue to fight for the other five Sioux tribes to receive their planning grants as well.”

Jesse Taken Alive, former Chairman of Standing Rock says this is just the beginning of a fight for more sovereignty. Many changes are needed to improve the quality of life on reservations, and federal laws often get in the way of solutions on the community level.  “ We will be working on our constitutions, our customary laws and traditions, our Court system, our codes, our available buildings, our kinship and foster care networks, our educational access to Masters Degrees, our creation of these permanent jobs, and our trauma and parent training based on our own values. This effort will strengthen our families and build tribal capacity across our structures.”

  • Briar

    My goodness! Can we finally stop abusing these people?? It certainly sounds like South Dakota is up to no good with this sick plan and I’m happy that the tribes are finally getting it taken care of.

    • Versinel

      I see this happening over and over again until someone with some legit authority can find a good way to put a stop to it. Trying to explain what happened in the past to kids is hard, but it is harder to try and explain why things like this are still happening.

  • William A. Ferguson

    I had a friend back in High School who was one of those Lakota children snatched off the reservation and sent all the way to California.