Greetings from the Cheyenne River Nation! Over the past couple weeks, you may have seen some of the news about our recent celebration of Wounded Knee Liberation Day’s 50th anniversary. The full weekend included a number of activities — including a ceremony, educational panels, the annual Four Directions Walk, and Warrior Women Project’s interactive exhibit on the women leaders of the American Indian Movement (AIM). Today, I urge you to watch our video narrated by my daughter, Marcella, featuring some of the weekend’s highlights.
Click above to watch: My relative and AIM compatriot Bill Means of the Oglala Nation addresses the many who attended this year’s Four Directions March in commemoration of Wounded Knee Liberation Day.
If you’ve been reading our emails, you’re already aware that what happened in the village of Wounded Knee a half century ago will live on forever. When law enforcement converged on the Pine Ridge Reservation and put us under a months-long siege, they unwittingly gave us an unparalleled media platform. We became a fixture on nightly news broadcasts, and suddenly our movement to win justice and promote the sovereignty of Native nations inspired solidarity across the world.
Today, that movement has only gained momentum, thanks to allies like you and new generations of Native leaders like Marcella, my granddaughter DeCora Hawk, Chase Iron Eyes, Chase’s daughter Tokata, and many more. And new forms of media now give us increased control of our own message. We have the agency and visibility to build alliances and resistance efforts and the means to amplify our concerns.
Your support is so critical to making sure Indigenous communities struggle less and thrive more. As far as we’ve come, too many Native People remain on the frontlines of the environmental justice battle. From mining and pipelines to cultural appropriation, we’re reminded every day that racism is real. So, as always, my deep appreciation and gratitude to you for all that you do to move us forward.
Wopila tanka — thank you for your friendship! Madonna Thunder Hawk Cheyenne River Organizer The Lakota People’s Law Project
How a UC Berkeley professor taught with remains suspected to be Native American
Mary Hudetz, ProPublica and Graham Lee Brewer and Alex Mierjeski, ProPublica and Ash Ngu, ProPublica
Sun, March 5, 2023 at 9:00 AM CST
This article was published in partnership with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive ProPublica’s biggest stories as soon as they’re published.
For decades, famed professor Tim White used a vast collection of human remains — bones sorted by body part and stored in wooden bins — to teach his anthropology students at the University of California, Berkeley.
White, a world-renowned expert on human evolution, said the collection was passed down through generations of anthropology professors before he started teaching with it in the late 1970s. It came with no records, he said. Most were not labeled at all or said only “lab.”
But that simple description masked a dark history, UC Berkeley administrators recently acknowledged.
UC Berkeley conducted an analysis of the collection after White reported its contents in response to a university systemwide order in 2020 to search for human remains. Administrators disclosed to state officials in May that the analysis found the collection includes the remains of at least 95 people excavated from gravesites — many of them likely Native Americans from California, according to previously unreported documents obtained by ProPublica and NBC News.
The university’s disclosure was particularly painful because it involved a professor who many Indigenous people already viewed as a primary antagonist, according to interviews with tribal members.
UC Berkeley has long angered tribal nations with its handling of thousands of ancestral remains amassed during the university’s century-long campaign of excavating Indigenous burial grounds.
UC Berkeley has been slow to do so. The university estimates that it still holds the remains of 9,000 Indigenous people in the campus’ Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology — more than any other U.S. institution bound by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, according to a ProPublica analysis of federal data.
That tally does not include the remains that White reported and relinquished in 2020.
For decades, White served as an expert adviser in the university’s repatriation decisions, sitting on committees that weighed whether to grant or deny tribes’ requests, according to a review of hundreds of pages of federal testimony and internal university documents.
White said the collection did not need to be reported under NAGPRA because there is no way to determine the origin of the bones — and therefore the law does not apply.
The collection has exposed deep rifts at UC Berkeley, pitting a prominent professor who said he’s done nothing wrong against university administrators who have apologized to tribes for not sharing information about the remains sooner.
For tribes the episode follows a familiar pattern of UC Berkeley’s delays and failures to be transparent with them.
“This is a major moral, ethical and potentially legal violation,” said Laura Miranda, a member of the Pechanga Band of Indians and chair of the California Native American Heritage Commission. She made her comments at a July hearing held by the commission, which oversees the university system’s handling of Indigenous remains.
UC Berkeley officials declined interview requests, saying “tribes have asked us not to.” In a statement, the university said White was no longer involved in repatriation decisions. There is now a moratorium on using ancestral remains for teaching or research purposes, according to the statement. The Hearst Museum is currently closed to the public so that staff can prioritize repatriation.
The university also acknowledged that, in the past, UC Berkeley had “mishandled its repatriation responsibilities.”
“The campus privileged some kinds of scientific and scholarly evidence over tribal interests and evidence provided by tribes,” the university said in the statement.
In an interview with ProPublica and NBC News, White said he’s been villainized for strictly adhering to the federal law, which he said requires balancing scientific proof with other evidence.
In the years immediately after Congress passed NAGPRA, UC Berkeley relied on White’s expertise as curator of the museum’s skeletal collection to challenge Indigenous people’s repatriation requests, according to testimony before a federal advisory committee.
Some tribal members accused him of demanding too high a burden of scientific proof for repatriations and discounting knowledge passed down through the generations. In the 1990s, he made headlines for fighting to use Native American remains as teaching tools, arguing that students should not be deprived of the opportunity to learn from them. He later sued to block the UC system from returning two sets of remains estimated to date from 9,000 years ago, saying they were too old to be linked to any living descendants.
NAGPRA does not require definitive scientific proof for repatriation, only that institutions report human remains that could potentially be Native American and consult with the affected tribal nations, said Sherry Hutt, an attorney who is a former program manager of the federal National NAGPRA Program. “It’s not a scientific standard. It’s a legal standard,” she said.
White often had the backing of university administrators in disputes over remains, but not anymore. At the July hearing before the California Native American Heritage Commission, UC Berkeley administrators cited an analysis by another anthropologist at the school, Sabrina Agarwal, that determined thousands of the bones in the collection were excavated from gravesites.
Given UC Berkeley’s legacy of raiding Native American graves, it is likely the collection White taught with contains the remains of Native Americans from what is currently California, said Linda Rugg, associate vice chancellor for research at the university.
“I want to apologize for the pain that we caused by holding on to this collection,” Rugg said at the hearing. “When we found out about it, we were dismayed ourselves.” A university spokesperson said staff and administrators are consulting with several tribes on next steps. Federal officials confirmed UC Berkeley has contacted them requesting guidance.
White, who retired last spring but is still a professor emeritus, said administrators knew about the collection, which was used to teach hundreds of students over the years. “It is very disappointing to find the Berkeley employees are making false allegations and misrepresentations,” he said.
Behind UC Berkeley’s reckoning is the century-long saga about a powerful, progressive institution that is finally confronting its past. Isaac Bojorquez, chairman of the KaKoon Ta Ruk Band of Ohlone-Costanoan Indians of the Big Sur Rancheria, called for accountability for the newly reported remains, but also for UC Berkeley’s decadeslong delays and denials of other tribes’ repatriation requests.
“We want our ancestors,” he said. “They should have never been disturbed in the first place.”
A painful history
With no documentation for the origin of his teaching collection, White surmised in a report to university officials in 2020 that it dated back to UC Berkeley’s early days and the university’s first anthropology professor, Alfred Louis Kroeber.
Kroeber, who joined the faculty in 1901, became a world-renowned scholar for his research on Native Americans in California, encouraging the excavations of Indigenous gravesites during his four-decade tenure.
His name recently was stripped from Berkeley’s anthropology building, in part for housing an Indigenous man found in the Sierra Foothills as a living exhibit at what would later become the Hearst Museum. Described as the last living member of his band of Yahi Indians, the man — whom Kroeber called “Ishi” — was studied and made to craft arrows and greet visitors for nearly five years, until his death in 1916.
The Hearst Museum continued for decades to voraciously collect Native American remains and funerary objects, trying to assemble a collection to rival the British Museum and Harvard University, said historian Tony Platt, a distinguished affiliated scholar at UC Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Law and Society. “To be a great university you’ve got to acquire stuff, you’ve got to hoard massive amounts of things,” Platt said.
The vast majority of UC Berkeley’s collection of remains came from sacred ancestral sites in California, according to ProPublica’s analysis of federal data. The collection included ancestors of the Ohlone, the tribe whose land was seized by the federal government to fund public universities, including UC Berkeley.
The university eventually amassed the remains of about 11,600 Native Americans, stored in the basement beneath its gymnasium swimming pool and in other campus buildings. But Platt said that number is likely an undercount because museum records often counted multiple remains excavated from the same gravesite as one person.
In the early 1970s, Native American activists’ long-standing resistance to the grave robbing started gaining momentum amid protests that stealing from Native Americans’ burial sites in the name of science was a human rights violation.
By then, the teaching collection that anthropology professors used had grown to thousands of bones and teeth that White said in his report to university administrators had been commingled with others donated by amateur gravediggers, dentists, anatomists, physicians, law enforcement and biological supply companies.
The remains were unceremoniously sorted by body part so students could study them. A jumble of teeth. A drawer of clavicles. Separate bins for skulls. For decades, anthropologists added to the collection, used it in their classes and then passed it along to the professors who came after them, White said.
It was this collection that White started teaching with when he joined UC Berkeley’s anthropology faculty in 1977.
UC Berkeley hired White, then 27, soon after he had obtained his Ph.D. in biological anthropology from the University of Michigan. He already was collaborating with a team to analyze “Lucy,” a 3.2-million-year-old human ancestor.
White published articles in prestigious journals and co-authored a textbook, “Human Osteology,” that boasted of UC Berkeley’s collection of human remains and called ancient skeletons “ambassadors from the past.”
Congress passed NAGPRA in 1990, recognizing that human remains of any ancestry “must at all times be treated with dignity and respect.” As UC Berkeley prepared to comply with the new law, the campus museum appointed White curator of biological anthropology, overseeing the university’s collection of human remains.
Almost as soon as tribes started making claims to ancestral remains under NAGPRA, Indigenous people accused White of undermining their efforts to rebury their ancestors, according to a review of hundreds of pages of testimony before a federal review committee tasked with mediating NAGPRA disputes.
Since NAGPRA only applied to federally recognized tribal nations, many tribes in California were not entitled to seek repatriation. (Of the 183 tribes in the state, 68 still lack federal recognition, according to the Native American Heritage Commission.) UC Berkeley’s collection of remains included those of thousands of people designated as unavailable for repatriation because they came from tribes lacking federal recognition.
Recourse under the law was limited, leaving tribal nations to file formal challenges with the federal NAGPRA Review Committee, an advisory group whose members represent tribal, scientific and museum organizations. It can only offer recommendations in response to disputes.
In the first challenge following the passage of the law, in February 1993 the Hui Mālama I Nā Kūpuna O Hawai’i Nei, a Native Hawaiian organization, took a dispute over repatriation of two ancestral remains before the federal committee. The remains had been donated to UC Berkeley in 1935, at which time a museum curator classified them as Polynesian. White disagreed.
Addressing the committee, White introduced himself as “the individual who is responsible for the skeletal collections at Berkeley.” He argued the remains might not be Native Hawaiian and could belong to victims of shipwrecks, drownings or crimes. They should be preserved for study, he added, making an analogy to UC Berkeley’s library book collection, where historians access volumes for years as their understanding evolves.
Edward Halealoha Ayau, then the Native Hawaiian organization’s executive director, pounded his fists on the table in outrage. “We do not have cultural sensitivity to books. We did not descend from books,” he said, according to a transcript of the meeting.
Ancestral remains are not research material, Ayau said, they are people with whom he shares a connection — a perspective that is central to Native Hawaiian culture.
White recently said that his analogy comparing human remains to books was taken out of context. “Both hold information,” he said. “I was obviously speaking metaphorically.”
Instead of recommending that both ancestors’ remains be repatriated directly to the Hui Mālama, the committee advised UC Berkeley to return one of them and send the other to the Bishop Museum in Honolulu for analysis, Ayau said. There, researchers finally agreed that the remains were Native Hawaiian — but only after conducting a scientific analysis over Ayau’s objections.
“I just started crying,” Ayau, who now chairs the federal NAGPRA Review Committee, recalled in a recent interview. “We failed to prevent one more form of desecration.”
The Bishop Museum declined to comment on its role in the 1993 repatriation, saying it happened too long ago for anyone to have knowledge of it.
For Ayau, the experience left him with a sense of loss over the treatment of his ancestors.
“To have someone disturb them is really bad,” he said. “But then to have them steal them and then fight you to get them back is beyond horrific.”
‘Berkeley should be ashamed’
White’s fight to use a set of Native American remains he had borrowed from the Hearst Museum for teaching purposes made headlines in the 1990s after he clashed with then-museum director Rosemary Joyce. She said when she was hired in 1994, it was common practice for White and other museum curators with keys to borrow ancestral remains and belongings without documenting what they’d taken.
“Just leaving aside NAGPRA, as a museum anthropologist, that’s an unacceptable thing,” she told ProPublica and NBC News. “When materials are not in the physical control of the staff of the museum, you need legal documentation.”
She changed the locks on the museum’s storage space. Heeding requests from tribes, she tried to recall a museum collection of Native American remains that White kept on loan in his lab and used for teaching. White refused to return them.
The vice provost for research of the UC system sent Jay Stowsky, then the system’s director of research policy, to mediate the dispute between White and Joyce. Stowsky agreed with Joyce, calling the lack of controls at the museum “terrible.” He said human remains were “just sort of thrown into boxes” with a label on them. “Berkeley should be ashamed of itself on so many levels,” Stowsky, now a senior academic administrator at UC Berkeley, said in a recent interview.
White filed a whistleblower complaint with the university in 1997 accusing the museum, under Joyce’s leadership, of seeking an unnecessary extension to NAGPRA’s reporting deadline. (Campus investigators found no improper activity, according to White.)
Joyce said she was simply trying to account for all the remains that would need to be reported under NAGPRA. “It’s really kind of insane to have to say, I did the thing that the law said I should do,” she told ProPublica and NBC News. Joyce said the complaints were found to be “meritless.”
White then filed an internal grievance against Joyce with the school’s Academic Senate, alleging that by asking him to relinquish the human remains she had infringed on his “academic privileges.”
The university brokered a deal: White could keep ancestral remains provided museum staff and tribes could access them to conduct inventory and report them under NAGPRA.
Joyce said the arrangement was untenable and she felt unsupported by the university’s leadership. White continued to teach with the remains.
A decade after NAGPRA
Myra Masiel-Zamora, now an archaeologist for the Pechanga Band of Indians, enrolled in White’s osteology class more than 20 years ago when she was 18 and a first-year student. But, she said, she withdrew from the course after a teaching assistant told her the human remains belonged to Native Americans.
“That was the first time I really truly learned that an institution could and can — and is — using real Native American ancestors as teaching tools,” she said. “I was really upset.”
Concern over institutions’ handling of Indigenous remains extended beyond the classroom.
Troubled by the slow pace of repatriations under NAGPRA, California lawmakers passed their own version of the law in 2001, aiming to close loopholes in the federal statute and allow tribes to claim remains regardless of whether they have federal recognition. But the state failed to fund an oversight committee established by the bill.
In 2007, without consulting tribes or offering public explanation, UC Berkeley abruptly fired museum employees who were responsible for NAGPRA compliance, and named White and others to a newly formed campus repatriation committee, according to tribal leaders.
That upset tribal members, who brought their concerns about the new committee to state senators. The firings “eliminated the only staff at the university that would stand up to Mr. Tim White and his offensive remarks regarding Native American tribes and our ancestral remains,” Reno Franklin, then a council member and now the chairman of the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians, said during a 2008 state legislative hearing.
In emails sent to ProPublica and NBC News, White sought to discredit the testimony by Franklin and others at the hearing by saying that it had been the result of a decadeslong effort by the university to use him as a scapegoat for its failures. White said he only held an advisory role and did not make final repatriation decisions.
Meanwhile, White’s career was skyrocketing after he led a team that discovered and excavated a 4.4-million-year-old hominid unearthed in Ethiopia. It was deemed the scientific breakthrough of the year in 2009 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and cemented his reputation in the field. It also landed him, along with the likes of Barack Obama and Steve Jobs, on Time magazine’s 2010 list of the world’s 100 most influential people.
Two years later, White and two other professors sued to block the repatriation of two 9,000-year-old skeletons to the Kumeyaay, 12 tribes whose homelands straddle the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego. White and the other professors wanted to study the remains, which had been unearthed in 1976 from the grounds of the chancellor’s house on the University of California, San Diego, campus.
They argued that there wasn’t enough evidence to support the Kumeyaay’s ancestral connection to the remains, and that the UC system had failed to prove that the remains could legally be considered “Native American.” Based on the professors’ interpretation of the law, human remains had to have a cultural or biological link to a present-day tribe to be considered Native American.
They said that not allowing them to study the remains violated their rights as researchers. An appeals court ruled against the professors, citing the Kumeyaay’s sovereign immunity, meaning they couldn’t be sued.
As tribes’ frustration with the lack of progress on repatriations grew, UC Berkeley convened a “tribal forum” in 2017. In the private gathering, tribal leaders and others expressed anger that university staff, including White, had resisted their requests to repatriate and that the university was requiring an excessive amount of proof to reclaim ancestors, according to an internal university report.
The following year, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ disbanded the campus’ NAGPRA committee that White had served on, records show. The university established a new one that did not include him.
Meanwhile, Berkeley prepared for its biggest repatriation to date: the return of more than 1,400 ancestors to the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, a small tribe whose ancestors’ remains were excavated from burial grounds along California’s coast and Channel Islands. According to the school’s NAGPRA inventory records, many of the remains had been taken by an archaeologist in 1901 whose expeditions were funded by Phoebe Apperson Hearst, wife of mining magnate George Hearst and namesake of UC Berkeley’s anthropology museum.
UC Berkeley held on to the Chumash remains and loaned some to White for research projects, before returning them to the tribe in the summer of 2018.
When the repatriation day finally came, Nakia Zavalla and other tribal members drove 300 miles to campus and entered a backroom of the anthropology building where UC Berkeley stored their ancestors.
“Going into that facility for the first time was horrifying. Literally shelves of human remains,” said Zavalla, the tribe’s cultural director. “And you pull them out, and there’s ancestors mixed all together, sometimes just all femur bones, a tray full of skulls.”
Zavalla said tribal members had to bring their own cardboard boxes to carry their ancestors home for burial — a complaint other tribal nations have made in dealing with the university. UC Berkeley officials said they were unaware of Zavalla’s “disturbing account” but have changed their policies to ensure they provide assistance “as requested by Tribes.”
Zavalla said the visit highlighted how the university had deprived the tribe of more than ancestral remains, she said. The university housed recordings and items that ethnographers and anthropologists had previously collected from Chumash elders.
For Zavalla, the information could have benefited her and other tribal members’ efforts to revitalize the Santa Ynez Chumash’s language and traditions — which government policies once sought to eradicate. But the information was not freely shared, she said: “They stole those items.”
‘They need to go home’
California state lawmakers passed a bill in 2018 to expand the Native American Heritage Commission’s oversight of repatriation policies and compliance committees within the UC system. The legislation called for an audit of all UC campuses’ compliance with NAGPRA.
The following year, UC Berkeley finally barred the use of Native American remains for teaching or research, according to the university.
The state auditor’s office announced the results of its review in 2020, singling out UC Berkeley for making onerous demands of tribes claiming remains.
The auditor also noted that UC Berkeley had identified 180 missing artifacts or human remains. In a statement, UC Berkeley said staff had searched for the missing remains and artifacts, some of which had been lost for more than a century.
Soon after the audit, the UC president’s office called for all campuses to search departments that historically studied human remains for any that had not been previously reported.
In August 2020, White reported the contents of the collection he taught with to university administrators.
White told ProPublica and NBC News that given the lack of documentation, it would be impossible to determine if they were Native American, much less say which tribe they should be returned to.
“There’s nobody on this planet who can sit down and tell you what the cultural affiliation of this lower jaw is, or that lower jaw is. Nobody can do that,” he said.
The Native American Heritage Commission, or NAHC, is continuing to press UC Berkeley for answers and accountability for its handling of the collection White reported.
Bojorquez, the tribal chairman and an NAHC commissioner, said it was “mind-blowing” that Berkeley still has not provided any documentation on the origins of the collection.
The university should have consulted tribes sooner, he said, to ensure the remains were handled respectfully and to help speed the repatriation process. “So much happened to these ancestors,” he said — they should not be in a box or on a shelf.
“They need to go home,” he said.
Separate from the teaching collection that White reported in 2020, he also notified administrators that he’d discovered remains with museum labels stashed in gray bins in a teaching laboratory. They later were identified as the partial remains of six ancestors of the Santa Ynez Chumash that were supposed to have been repatriated in 2018.
When UC Berkeley finally informed the Chumash six months later, it felt like a “blow to the chest,” said Zavalla, the tribe’s cultural director. Zavalla and other tribal staff members drove to Berkeley to retrieve the remains.
“I felt lied to,” she said. “They did not give us all of the ancestors, and they didn’t do their due diligence.”
The discovery of the missing remains outraged Sam Cohen, an attorney for the tribe, who called for probes into whether UC Berkeley or White had violated policies or laws.
“He is considered untouchable, I think, by Berkeley because he’s so famous in human evolution,” Cohen said of White. “He basically wasn’t going to voluntarily comply with anything until he was forced.”
White said he was unsure how the remains ended up in the teaching laboratory. He suggested they may have been mistakenly placed in his lab during a move years ago while he was overseas. He provided ProPublica and NBC News with a copy of an email from an investigator with UC Berkeley’s Office of Risk and Compliance Services, which said the office found no violation on his part regarding the Chumash remains. UC Berkeley declined to comment on the outcome of the investigation, calling it a personnel matter.
“I have accounted for everything that happened in granular detail,” White said in an interview.
Chancellor Christ apologized to the tribe in December in a letter and acknowledged: “We do understand that, given our history, it is difficult for tribes to have confidence in our university and Professor White.”
The apology was little consolation, Cohen said, especially since it came with yet another painful acknowledgement. University records show there are still more unreturned Chumash ancestors. So far, they have yet to be found.
Christ assured the Chumash that the university was committed to returning all Native American ancestors to all tribes. UC Berkeley officials estimate it will be at least a decade before that happens.
On the 47th anniversary of Leonard Peltier’s arrest in 1975, I wrote to you about this seminal American Indian Movement (AIM) activist’s fight for freedom. Today, I’m happy to say it’s time to take action! Please send your demand to President Joe Biden and tell him it’s long past time to free America’s oldest and most important political prisoner!
Please click, sign, send, and share. Let’s act together to free Leonard Peltier!
Of Lakota and Ojibwe lineage and an Indian boarding school survivor, Leonard was accused of participating in the killing of FBI agents and convicted on false evidence. It’s unconscionable that he’s been left to rot in a federal penitentiary for nearly half a century. (Of course, Leonard refused to give up hope. He’s stayed active and on-message, even running for Vice President of the United States from his prison cell.)
Over the past year, we’ve been working in solidarity with the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee to amplify their call for Leonard’s freedom. Those who have also asked for Leonard’s release include: the prosecutor who put him behind bars; Nobel Peace Prize winners Bishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and Rigoberta Menchú; a former U.S. District Court judge; Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT); Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ); and the 14th Dalai Lama.
This weekend, as our people celebrate the 50th anniversary of our standoff with oppressive colonial forces at Wounded Knee, it’s an appropriate time to send our message of solidarity with Leonard to the president, loud and clear. Leonard exemplifies our strength and resilience, and he’s never been afraid to stand up for Indigenous rights. His voice and courage helped pave the way for our ongoing resistance. This good man deserves our respect, and he deserves his liberty. Please tell President Biden to free Leonard Peltier today.
Wopila tanka — thank you for your compassion and solidarity. Chase Iron Eyes Co-Director and Lead Counsel The Lakota People’s Law Project
A couple weeks ago, you heard from my daughter, Tokata, about some of our allyship work with our Nüümü and Newe (Paiute and Shoshone) relatives in California. At that time, she mentioned I was also on the ground in Nevada, visiting the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony (RSIC) to help develop media and outreach strategies for their frontline effort to protect the sacred PeeHee Mu’Huh (Thacker Pass) from an enormous, toxic lithium mining operation.
I sat down with Reno-Sparks Indian Colony Chairman Arland D. Melendez to talk about mining’s threats to his ancestral homelands.
As you know, we Lakota understand what it looks like on the frontlines of Big Extraction. Not only did we inspire the world with our resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) at Standing Rock, but now we also face the same dangers as RSIC to our water and sacred lands because of lithium and gold mining in the Black Hills. At every turn, corporate interests show zero regard for our wellbeing and feel no obligation to gain our permission when their projects will rip up sacred burial grounds and deplete or poison our water.
This is why it’s critical that we continue to travel to Nüümü and Newe homelands, help strategize with their leadership about resistance approaches, and help amplify their message through media support. On that note, we’ve just completed a separate video for use by RSIC’s Tribal Historic Preservation office. Our plan going forward is to keep listening to our valued relatives at every turn and keep producing content that can help them win justice.
Wopila tanka — my deepest gratitude for helping us lend needed support! Chase Iron Eyes Co-Director and Lead Counsel The Lakota People’s Law Project
P.S. Lakota Law’s movement-building and legal savvy will be essential to the success of the Nüümü and Newe peoples’ effort to protect Thacker Pass. Please help fund our travel, media, and logistical expenses so we can assist our relatives at the highest level as they fight to safeguard their water, defend their sacred lands, and preserve their way of life.
Anpetu Wašte. As the Supreme Court considers whether to gut the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), two Native legislators in South Dakota are doing everything they can to preserve that critical law’s protections for our children at the state level. Predictably, though, it’s been a tough go. Just a week ago, the legislature failed to pass House Bills 1229 and 1168, both authored by Rep. Peri Pourier (from my home district of Oglala Lakota).
SB 1229 would have provided a set of instructions for placing any child, once removed from their home, within their community. SB 1168 would have increased the requirements for the state’s Department of Social Services (DSS) to keep Native children with their families and tribes. Those losses are hard to swallow, but I am happy to say that — thanks to another powerful, Native woman, State Sen. Red Dawn Foster — hope remains.
We’re extremely grateful to Sen. Red Dawn Foster (left) and Rep. Peri Pourier for their excellent work in the state legislature on behalf of our Lakota children.
On Feb.15, South Dakota’s Senate Health and Human Services Committee will hold a hearing on SB 191, a bill championed by Sen. Foster which would establish a task force to address the welfare of Indian children in South Dakota. It would require the DSS to act in culturally responsive and socially supportive ways in cases of removal involving Native American children and make every effort to keep them with other relatives.
We’re rooting for a better outcome this time! We also remain hopeful that the High Court will uphold all or a significant part of ICWA, but can we rely on justices who have already rolled back our civil rights in astonishing ways over the past year? The smart move is to ensure ICWA’s mandates using all available methods, and that’s why these efforts by Sen. Foster and Rep. Pourier matter. They’re valiantly fighting an uphill — but essential — battle.
As you know, it’s important that we augment their work in the Capitol with on-the-ground organizing in our communities to provide Indigenous-led programming centered around healing and restoration of family services. It’s our obligation to be well informed on all the issues that affect our children, and we must lead from the grassroots on their behalf. Our young ones deserve to be supported by the Oyate (people) and enveloped in their cultural identity through kinship care.
Please stay with us as we work to make that happen. With these rulings, it’s time to raise another battle cry for our children. We offer gratitude to Rep. Pourier and Sen. Foster, and we pledge to keep working hard, every day, with the same goal of a better future for the next generations.
Wopila tanka — thank you for standing with us! DeCora Hawk Field Organizer The Lakota People’s Law Project
As my colleague, Chase Iron Eyes, wrote to you earlier this week, February is a month of significant anniversaries here in Lakota Country. He told you about the 47th anniversary of the arrest of American Indian Movement (AIM) activist Leonard Peltier. Next comes a four-day celebration centered on the 50th anniversary of our AIM occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973 — an historic event that occurred a few years prior to Leonard’s unjust arrest.
Here’s what happened: 50 years ago, the American Indian Movement was called to action by the communities of the Oglala Lakota territory on the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota. That call resulted in a 71-day occupation of the town of Wounded Knee by AIM — and I was there, every step of the way. The resulting conflict with government agents, well chronicled in print and other media like the documentary “From Wounded Knee to Standing Rock,” is the stuff of legend. The occupation wasn’t without significant cost, but it also brought massive attention to our struggles as Native people.
Our gratitude to the Warrior Women Project, which is helping to organize and hosting a full calendar of events on their site.
From my perspective, it’s critical that we use part of the event to highlight the matriarchs who reached out to AIM in 1973. Fortunately, the Warrior Women Project has archival interviews of many of us, and we’ll take time during the four days to celebrate and honor the Wounded Knee veterans who are still here. The full event agenda also includes art and cultural celebrations, ceremonies, and a myriad of learning opportunities about the people and history of this movement.
We celebrate this moment in history with an eye toward our future. It’s important that we AIM elders take this opportunity to pass on our legacy to the younger generations. The standoff happened on the Pine Ridge Reservation, right down the road from where I live now at Cheyenne River. We must tell this story so it resonates with the communities and families on tribal nations in South Dakota today. As Chase mentioned, our Lakota Law staff is helping to organize numerous aspects of the event, including planned livestreams. We’ll let you know more about when and how to view those as we get a little closer, so please stay tuned!
Wopila tanka — my gratitude, always, for your solidarity. Madonna Thunder Hawk Cheyenne River Organizer The Lakota People’s Law Project
As you may know, I’ve been involved in the landback movement for quite some time. Several years ago, I began helping lead the effort to return the Black Hills to the Lakota People. Protecting our water and returning our most sacred lands to Native stewardship — and defending them from degradation at the hands of mining and pipelines — is of paramount importance to me. I hope the same holds true for anyone who cares about the future of Unci Maka, our Grandmother Earth.
This movement extends far beyond the boundaries of Lakota Country. Recently, a friend of mine shared an important opportunity to return land to Native care in what we now call California. Because it’s critical that we act in solidarity with one another whenever possible, today I share this effort with you. I’ll describe things below, and I also hope you’ll visit the Owens Valley Indian Water Commission (OVIWC) website to learn more.
Click the pic to watch OVIWC’s video about Three Creeks.
Located just east of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Central California, Payahuunadü — known in English as Owen’s Valley and translated as “land of the flowing water” — is part of the traditional homelands of the Nüümü (Paiute) and Newe (Shoshone) Native nations. They have now joined forces under OVIWC, a three-tribe consortium with an opportunity to acquire Three Creeks, a lush and beautiful five-acre property within Payahuunadü.
The tribes intend to utilize this oasis as a haven for cultural resurgence involving food sovereignty initiatives, ceremonial healing, revitalization of kinship, and art and education to address traumas caused by displacement. Those goals also go hand in hand with a desire to preserve and protect this sacred space amid aggressive attempts by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) to control the area’s water.
Over the past five years, 50 percent of Los Angeles’s water supply has come from Payahuunadü. The DWP has been taking and exporting its water since 1913 and owns 95 percent of the valley floor — while tribes share ownership of one third of one percent. This injustice must be addressed, and with an additional foothold in the area, the Nüümü and Newe Peoples will be better equipped to defend their homelands as a whole.
My dad, Chase, is also on his way to Nüümü and Newe lands in present-day Nevada to meet this week with the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and other Native leaders involved in the battle to protect PeeHee Mu’Huh (Thacker Pass) from lithium mining. You’ll hear more about that soon! Our family thanks you for joining us in showing solidarity with all Indigenous nations seeking to defend and return sacred lands.
Wopila tanka — thank you for your solidarity! Tokata Iron Eyes Organizer and Spokesperson The Lakota People’s Law Project
Today marks a shameful anniversary. It’s now been 47 years since our Lakota and Ojibwe relative, Leonard Peltier, was arrested after taking part in the 1975 American Indian Movement (AIM) standoff at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Wrongly convicted on false testimony for killing FBI agents, Leonard is now 78 years old and suffering with various health ailments in a federal penitentiary in Florida.
The good news is, the world has never forgotten Leonard, who during his lengthy incarceration has run for both President and Vice President of the United States. Today, “Rise Up for Peltier” events are happening in cities across the globe — including Paris, Rome, and Berlin. As part of this day of solidarity, our friends at the Red Nation Movement are also asking people to assist Leonard through their social media channels by sharing content and raising awareness.
Turtle Mountain’s Leonard Peltier, imprisoned in Florida, 1993. (Photo credit: Kevin McKiernan)
As Carol Gokee, co-director of the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, wrote to you via our Lakota Law platform a year ago, the list of people who have supported clemency for Leonard is long and impressive. It includes Nobel Peace Prize winners Bishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and Rigoberta Menchú; former Chief Judge of Tennessee’s U.S. District Court, Kevin Sharp; Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT); Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ); and James Reynolds, the chief prosecutor who originally put Leonard behind bars.
As we approach the anniversary of AIM’s Wounded Knee stand later this month, we’ll have much more to share with you. Lakota Law organizers Madonna Thunder Hawk and DeCora Hawk are on the ground helping to prepare a big event, and you’ll hear more from them this week. In addition, our video team is working on setting up live video feeds and our communications staff is working on an action you’ll be able to take to demand clemency for Leonard.
Greetings, and I hope your year is off to a great start! We’ve got a good video for you to watch today. It’s the twelfth chapter of our Dakota Water Wars video series, produced, as always, by us in partnership with the Standing Rock Nation and Great Plains Water Alliance. In this episode, we detail some new threats to the Mni Sose — the Missouri River — and highlight the importance of respecting both our water and treaty rights.
Watch: Lakota Law Standing Rock Organizer Phyllis Young shares her studied perspective on treaty law and passion to protect our water rights and environment.
Here’s the bottom line: the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie granted the Lakota people stewardship of the Mni Sose. When the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) appeared in our homelands, it threatened both our sole source of fresh water and our way of life. Now, to make things worse, other entities have made plans to take water from the Missouri and pipe it to places far away, like Colorado, and nearby, like Rapid City and the Black Hills.
That last part is particularly troublesome. Mining interests in the Black Hills will use even more water than a municipality, and those mines threaten to despoil an area filled with many of our most sacred sites. Plus, sending our water away for use by extractive industries is the exact opposite of what we should be doing in the midst of a climate emergency. Right now, we have to mitigate carbon emissions, halt the warming of our planet, and responsibly allocate our water.
As you know, Indigenous cultures traditionally live in harmony with our surroundings, with care for all our relatives (not just the human ones). As we said during the heyday of our NoDAPL stand, and as we continue to say today: mni wiconi — water is life! When the 1868 treaty granted us the ability to protect the Mni Sose, the state of South Dakota didn’t even exist yet. So we won’t back down on this. We’re not going to let the state, or any other man-made entity, threaten or take our water without a fight.
Wopila tanka — thank you for standing with us! Chase Iron Eyes Co-Director and Lead Counsel The Lakota People’s Law Project
With all of the talk about diversity, inclusion, and equity – I really don´t listen to the talk. I look at the actions. From where I am standing it does not appear that those words really mean anything in 2023 U.S.A. Those are just slogans, cliches: words to shout out to make one feel part of the pseudo-virtuous.
Now here is a 14-year-old girl in South Dakota who gets run over in a hit-and-run. Mark your calendar for February 17th. Demand justice. In the meantime, take time and examine the U.S. justice system. You will not like what you will find.
Han, Mitakuyepi. Today I write to you with some sad news — but it’s something we absolutely need to talk about. On October 14, 2022 in Rapid City, South Dakota, Nevaeh Rose Brave Heart, a fourteen-year-old Lakota youth, was tragically killed in a hit-and-run incident. Jordan Hare, a 27-year-old white man, has now been arrested in connection with the crime.
According to the Pennington County State’s Attorney’s Office, Hare fled the scene, leaving Nevaeh to die in the street of her injuries before medical help could arrive. He then allegedly washed his vehicle and painted his rims to hide the evidence. Now, he faces a maximum penalty of two years and/or a $4,000 fine for felony hit and run resulting in injury or death, and he’s free on $10,000 bail as the case proceeds.
Click the pic to watch: In October, Nevaeh Brave Heart’s community gathered for a candlelight vigil and to call for justice.
If those penalties don’t sound commensurate with the crime to you, you’re not alone. Nevaeh Brave Heart’s death, which occurred just as her life was beginning, is emblematic of the kind of tragedy we see far too often in the Deep North, as we sometimes call it here. Too often, our health, wellbeing, and existence are not valued, protected, or respected. That has a cumulative effect on our Native communities and families. Meanwhile, someone like Jordan Hare is able to walk free on a measly $10,000 bail? If Nevaeh wasn’t Native, might Hare be in a lot more trouble — such as an additional manslaughter charge, a higher bail amount, or both?
There have been far too many instances of blatant racism — taking many forms — in and around Rapid City for us to ignore the lack of justice for Nevaeh. You may recall that, just last year, a hotel in town instituted a policy prohibiting Native guests, prompting us to ask you to write to the Department of Justice and demand an investigation. The pattern is so bad that, among the BIPOC community here, Rapid City has earned itself the name “Racist City.”
So, what’s next? Hare is scheduled to appear in court for a status hearing on Friday, Feb. 17 at 3 p.m. I’m happy to say that because of public interest in the case — our community wants justice for Nevaeh! — the judge has moved this hearing to a larger courtroom. I’ll be there, and I’ll keep you informed. We must watch closely and be ready to act if Hare — who has pled not guilty — isn’t held accountable. In the meantime, please join me in honoring Nevaeh’s memory by saying her name and praying for her family.
Wopila tanka — thank you for your friendship with our community. DeCora Hawk Field Organizer The Lakota People’s Law Project
A very Happy New Year from me and my family to you and yours! In December, I wrote to you and asked you to help spread the word about passing the Remove the Stain Act. By rescinding 20 Medals of Honor awarded to soldiers who murdered nearly 300 Lakota women, men, and children at the Wounded Knee Massacre in December of 1890, we can more deeply recognize our ancestors. In this way, we honor the sacrifices they made so that we can be here today.
In that same email, I referenced the annual Chief Big Foot Memorial Ride, in which many of my relatives take to horseback to retrace the path our ancestors traveled before that horrific day. Today, I encourage you to watch our new video, in which I talk more about the annual tradition of this ride, the history behind it, and its deep meaning to our people.
My relatives honor our ancestors at the Chief Big Foot Memorial Ride.
Undertaking this journey and reminding ourselves of the reality of what our ancestors went through on that hard winter’s trail helps to ground and more fully connect us. It takes many days and resources to replicate on horseback the original journey from Standing Rock through my home nation of Cheyenne River to Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge Reservation. How hard it must have been for those families who did it on foot in 1890 — and directly on the heels of the murder of Sitting Bull.
Eagle Hunter, my brother-in-law, put it eloquently and succinctly: “Wasigla.” This is something that you don’t forget. We Lakota are a visual people, and the modern-day visual of following the trail to Wounded Knee is powerfully symbolic for us. We who are Indigenous to this land engage in ceremonial memorials because it’s part of who we are. We don’t usually write it down, we just do what’s in our ancestral memory. But today, I write to share this memory with you.
Wopila tanka — thank you for riding with us in spirit! Madonna Thunder Hawk Cheyenne River Organizer The Lakota People’s Law Project
On December 29, 1890, the 7th Cavalry of the United States committed an unconscionable act of genocide, killing nearly 300 Lakota women, children, and men at Cankpe’ Opi Wakpa, or Wounded Knee Creek. That number included 38 Hunkpapa and a larger number led by Lakota Chief Spotted Elk of the Mnicoujou band. Most of our people murdered that day were unarmed. Then, for taking part in the Wounded Knee Massacre, 20 U.S. soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor.
Click the pic and tell your reps to pass the Remove the Stain Act today.
Native People and the U.S. government both understand — to very different degrees — the gravity of what happened at Wounded Knee. In 1990, on the centennial of the massacre, both houses of the U.S. Congress passed a resolution expressing their “deep regret.” That gesture, of course, is far from adequate. In 2001, the National Congress of American Indians passed two resolutions demanding that the federal government rescind all Medals of Honor awarded for Wounded Knee. That same year, the Cheyenne River Nation, where I make my home, passed Tribal Council Resolution No. 132–01, asking for the same. Other organizations, such as Four Directions, have also taken up and amplified this call.
This is not ancient history in Lakota Country. The massacre’s memorial stands in stark relief against the plains and low hills of Pine Ridge — the location of Wounded Knee — every day. And each year in December, we honor our ancestors’ trek to Wounded Knee with a ride on horseback through the bitter cold, retracing the trail they left in their final moments on this earth. It’s our way of remembering and honoring the sacrifice they never should have had to make. Many people carry on this tradition and keep it alive, riding all the way from the homelands of Sitting Bull (Standing Rock) through Cheyenne River to the site of the massacre. Several organizations — such as my friends at the Horse Spirit Society — come together to provide horses, tack, feed, and other essentials for participants.
Our people dedicate their limited resources for this cause, asking nothing in return but that we remember those who were lost. So today, as we approach the anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre, I ask you to learn more about how we keep our ancestors’ memories alive. And please, tell your senators and House rep to pass the Remove the Stain Act. While nothing we can do will bring them back, in this way we can properly honor our relatives.
Wopila tanka — thank you for taking action! Madonna Thunder Hawk Cheyenne River Organizer The Lakota People’s Law Project
Greetings from Lakota Country, where two blizzards just dumped several feet of snow and knocked out power for many of our people. Here’s hoping you’re staying warm wherever you are! Of course, no matter the weather, we keep doing all we can to look out for our relatives — including our ongoing fight to end the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL).
Winning this battle is critical. Just last week, we received news of yet another pipeline disaster. One month after the Keystone pipeline increased the amount of oil it’s carrying, it ruptured and dumped 14,000 barrels — or nearly 600,000 gallons — of toxic tar sands crude in Kansas. So today, we bring you the eleventh chapter of our Dakota Water Wars video series, co-produced by the Lakota People’s Law Project, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and the Great Plains Water Alliance. Give it a watch, and you’ll see how hard we fought to keep the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) from doubling its flow rate, and just how far the oil company went to downplay the potential consequences.
Watch: Standing Rock member Winona Gayton addresses the North Dakota Public Service Commission during a hearing on DAPL nearly doubling its capacity.
This latest Keystone spill — its third major leak in the past five years — is the second largest domestic pipeline incident ever recorded. It’s going to be nearly impossible to properly clean up, And, because Keystone is now carrying more oil, the problem is exacerbated. In our video (at the top of the blog, which also contains all the other Dakota Water Wars chapters), you’ll hear a lot about “worst case discharge.” That sounds bad because it is. The math says that when a pipeline inevitably leaks, it’s going to be worse the more oil it’s carrying.
If DAPL spills where it crosses the Mni Sose — the Missouri River — just upstream from the Standing Rock Nation, it will threaten everything we hold dear: our drinking water, our pristine landscape, plants and animals, our way of life. That’s why we gathered by the thousands in 2016 and 2017 to prevent DAPL. And given the danger from increasing the oil flow, it should be easy to understand why we rallied again in 2019 to stop the doubling of its capacity to more than 1 million barrels per day.
We cannot accept this illegal and dangerous pipeline (the Army Corps of Engineers still has yet to produce a valid Environmental Impact Statement for DAPL, as mandated by the courts). We won’t stop raising awareness about how it imperils both people and planet, and we’ll continue — with your help — to fight using every available method until the Black Snake is defeated once and for all.
Wopila tanka — my deep appreciation for your solidarity! Chase Iron Eyes Co-Director and Lead Counsel The Lakota People’s Law Project
Are you ready for some good news? A few days back, on Dec. 9, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a big decision in favor of Native students who take pride in their communities. Its ruling ensures that Larissa Waln, member of Sisseton Wahpeton Tribe in South Dakota, can now pursue a civil rights suit against her former school district in Arizona.
In 2019, Larissa was forbidden to participate in her graduation ceremony for wearing a beaded graduation cap adorned with a sacred eagle feather and medicine wheel. Her school district had previously issued a rule prohibiting students from decorating or altering their commencement caps. But that very day, a different school in the same district permitted another graduating student to wear a commencement cap featuring a breast cancer awareness sticker.
In April of 2020, Waln and her family sued the school district in federal district court for violating their rights to freedom of religion and speech and denying her equal protection under various state and federal laws. Notably, the Waln v. Dysart School District lawsuit cited a 2019 report published by the Lakota People’s Law Project, which provided crucial context regarding the importance of regalia to Native peoples’ cultural expression.
Last week’s Circuit Court ruling overturns a 2021 dismissal by a district court, mandating that the lower court now hear Larissa’s case. When ruling in her favor, the 9th Circuit referenced Lakota Law’s report on the second page of its opinion, highlighting the report’s summary of the boarding school era and the longstanding U.S. assimilation policy of “kill the Indian, and save the man.” While one decision can never make up for the long and damaging history of Native erasure in America, we’re elated that Larissa will be able to pursue justice.
Through her lawsuit, Larissa is addressing Native self-determination from a different angle than the advocates defending the Indian Child Welfare Act in Brackeen v. Haaland, the case recently heard by the Supreme Court. Both cases are important. Thanks at least in part to her bravery and the activism of people standing in solidarity with Native students, Arizona changed its state law in 2021. The passage of AZ House Bill 2705 makes it illegal for state public and charter schools to prohibit Native students from wearing regalia at graduation ceremonies. So, today, I’m grateful to Larissa for taking a stand, to the 9th Circuit for making the right decision, and to you for standing by our side in the fight for justice.
Wopila tanka — thank you, as always, for your friendship. Chase Iron Eyes Co-Director and Lead Counsel The Lakota People’s Law Project
It’s been a big couple days for Indian Country in Washington, D.C. For the first time in six years, tribal representatives from across Turtle Island gathered together with U.S. leaders for the White House Tribal Nations Summit. After a four-year hiatus during the Trump presidency, President Joe Biden revived the event last year, but that was held virtually because of the pandemic. This year, a delegation from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe joined many other tribal citizens, making the trip to the nation’s capital to discuss the Biden administration’s promising agenda for Native America.
The administration made historic pledges of money and resources to tackle issues like infrastructure and climate. It also committed to protecting Spirit Mountain — a site sacred to several Native nations in and around so-called Nevada — and promised a new “respect for Indigenous knowledge and tribal consultations.”
Click the pic to watch: U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (Pueblo of Laguna) introduces President Biden at this year’s White House Tribal Nations Summit, and Biden gives his opening remarks.
In his opening remarks, Biden said monetary allocations to tribal nations will include a mandatory $9.1 billion for the Indian Health Service (IHS) and $135 million to help relocate 11 at-risk tribal communities. Specifically, the Department of the Interior, led by Secretary Deb Haaland of the Pueblo of Laguna, will provide $25 million each to three tribes on the frontlines of the climate crisis in Alaska and Washington State.
Of course, you know as I do that Indigenous populations — and other communities of color — suffer the effects of the climate emergency disproportionately. That’s not acceptable, whether it’s a majority-Black or Latinx neighborhood adjacent to a poisonous chemical plant, Standing Rock dealing with the existential threat of the Dakota Access pipeline, or the Quinault Indian Nation endangered by rising sea levels.
The money will help, as will enhanced agency cooperation and assistance. Still, to really solidify Native sovereignty, the government will need to make good on its promise to listen to tribal nations and gain consensus. While I would prefer to see the U.S. firmly adopt the standard of Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) set forth in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, I’m optimistic that we’re a step closer toward governmental recognition of the self-determination we deserve when it comes to our people and our homelands.
Wopila tanka — thank you for standing with us! Chase Iron Eyes Co-Director and Lead Counsel The Lakota People’s Law Project
Watch the video and share this action: Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. of the Cherokee Nation sat down with us to discuss the importance of seating Kimberly Teehee as the Cherokee Nation’s first congressional delegate.
To be clear, it isn’t a done deal. However, as NPR accurately reports, last week’s House Rules Committee hearing represents by far the biggest step the federal government has ever taken toward fulfilling a promise it made to the Cherokee way back in 1835’s Treaty of New Echota. And while we can’t celebrate prematurely, the U.S. government making progress toward doing what it said it would for any Native nation is historic and a reason for optimism.
Given the tenor of the Rules Committee hearing and the outpouring of support by people like you, Chief Hoskin is confident the Cherokee can make history for Native representation in the halls of power as soon as this calendar year. Let’s help him make it happen!
Wopila tanka — thank you, and I wish you a good day of connection. Chase Iron Eyes Co-Director and Lead Counsel The Lakota People’s Law Project
I had arrived in Bismarck, North Dakota. Scroll back to the beginning of this blog and you can read about the history of events at Standing Rock. Some things have changed, many things have stayed the same. The things I witnessed there made me profoundly angry and sad. I saw militarized police practicing with their new gear how to do crowd control. I experienced racism and hatred from the local population in town. I witnessed how some people infiltrated the camp and tried to cause destruction from within the movement. They were largely unsuccessful because of the people´s spirit. This was a sacred space. I talked to the spirits one freezing night. It was those spirits that I called on for help last year while I was being held against my will in the COVID-19 ward in the hospital. Yes, after traveling to such a sacred place you experience the power of the spirits.
In 2017, I left the U.S. and moved to Costa Rica. The history is very different here. They do not have an army. I wish everyone a holiday season when they remember the spirits and their ancestors and fight to maintain their freedoms and way of life. A way of life that is non-destructive of the environment and other people. These are dangerous times.
It’s a time of year for both reflection and action. As we approach our second annual Wopila Gathering on Giving Tuesday, Nov. 29, I invite you to watch our new video, in which my granddaughter, DeCora, and I talk about the meaning of wopila. Appropriately, this Lakota word signifies a giving of deep thanks and honoring of our best potential, every day.
Watch: My granddaughter, DeCora, and I talk about the meanings of Thankstaking and Wopila.
Now, let’s talk turkey. For many, this week’s “Thanksgiving” holiday signifies bounty and togetherness. But for us, this same holiday — known as Thankstaking in our family and many other Native ones — symbolizes the price paid by Indigenous communities once the pilgrims set foot upon these shores. As I’ve mentioned before, the Thanksgiving origin story taught in grade school is nothing but a harmful myth meant to obscure the realities of stolen land and the genocide of Native peoples.
Then there’s the commodification that follows the myth. Our consumer culture teaches us that as soon as we’re done filling our stomachs, it’s time to go shopping! “Black Friday deals” assault us everywhere we turn. Perhaps if we distract ourselves with enough stuffing and then enough stuff, we can forget all about the dark history that got us to this point.
But all that said, we do have much to be thankful for. For instance, I’m grateful that someone, somewhere created Giving Tuesday as a way to offset all the taking. I’m grateful that I get to make change happen with Lakota Law, and that our team created the Wopila Gathering as a way to give back to you. And I’m thankful to be in the company of so many talented Indigenous people working on this project. In addition to DeCora and I, this year’s event lineup also features Lakota Law co-director Chase Iron Eyes, our legal analyst Wašté Win Young, and her mother, my longtime partner in the fight for Native justice, Phyllis Young.
So please join us on Giving Tuesday at the Wopila Gathering! It’s going to be a special day and a valuable opportunity for us to advance the conversation on issues most important to the Indigenous communities who have given so much to this land and all her people.
Wopila tanka — thank you for being your best self and joining us on this journey toward justice! Madonna Thunder Hawk Cheyenne River Organizer The Lakota People’s Law Project
Yesterday morning, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Brackeen v. Haaland. Now, the justices will determine the fate of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). Depending on what they decide, Indigenous child welfare and sovereignty as we know it on Turtle Island could be seriously threatened.
The arguments from attorneys and questions from justices focused on two central legal questions, both involving ICWA’s preferences to place adoptive Native children with Native families. First, do ICWA’s placement preferences discriminate against non-Native people on the basis of race? Second, does ICWA fall within Congress’ plenary — or total — authority to legislate on Indian affairs to the exclusion of states?
Click the pic to listen to the full Brackeen v. Haaland audio feed from the Supreme Court.
Let’s be clear. First, under law, tribes are considered sovereign political entities — not racial groups — and striking down ICWA would violate centuries of legal precedent and imperil other legislation that properly respects our sovereign status. And since the ratification of the Constitution, the federal government has been recognized as the sole arbiter of Indian affairs, to the exclusion of state authority.
During pointed questioning, Justice Neil Gorsuch (a conservative) noted that the Constitution does, in fact, give Congress plenary authority to legislate Native issues. The policy arguments brought forward by the legal team seeking to overturn ICWA — including lawyers from Gibson Dunn, a law firm that represents the fossil fuel industry — “might be better addressed across the street” in the halls of Congress, Justice Gorsuch suggested.
I very much appreciate Gorsuch’s understanding and application of the law. But the truth is that if anyone should have complete authority over Native issues, it should be Native people. And while traditional congressional power to oversee Indian child welfare is a strong argument in defense of ICWA, it’s notable that a law made by the United States to protect our children is the exception, not the rule. It’s also worth mentioning that, even in 2022, no Native person could be found arguing or hearing the case. Instead, our people were literally outside the halls of power, demonstrating in the street.
Now, let’s talk a little history. For centuries, the U.S. government has enforced paternalistic and inhumane policies to separate Native children from their families. Through forced migration, the Indian boarding school era, and then their placement into non-Native foster care, our young ones have long been taken from their homes and homelands under the guise of assimilation, education, and Christianization. These policies, tantamount to genocide, have fractured lives and created generational trauma that plagues Indian Country to this day.
That’s exactly why, in 1978, after federal investigations found that public and private agencies had removed a third of all Native children from their homes and placed most of them in institutions or homes with no ties to American Indian tribes, Congress enacted ICWA. Lakota Law’s legal team remains proud to have drafted ICWA’s enforcement guidelines.
So now, we await the Court’s ruling. In addition to yesterday’s oral arguments, the justices have thousands of pages of legal documents— including our amicus brief — to consider. We remain hopeful that Chief Justice John Roberts will join Gorsuch and the Court’s liberal wing in preserving at least most of ICWA, despite his repeated questioning of ICWA’s “third preference.” It’s possible this portion of the law, which allows for a Native child who cannot be placed with either members of their extended family (the first preference) or members of the same tribe (the second preference) to be placed with members of another tribe, could be erased.
The Court has many angles to consider, and the potential opinions and outcomes are legion. We don’t expect a decision until well into 2023 — most likely in June. In the meantime, please continue to spread the word and share our action asking President Biden to intervene. Hope is always worth having, but we mustn’t solely rely on this majority conservative Court. Let’s stay vigilant and use every means at our disposal to preserve our kinship structures, our culture, and our sovereignty.
Wopila tanka — thank you for your friendship in this important fight for our future! Wašté Win Young Legal Analyst Lakota People’s Law Project
BARRE, Mass. (AP) — About 150 artifacts considered sacred by the Lakota Sioux peoples are being returned to them after being stored at a small Massachusetts museum for more than a century.
Members of the Oglala Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribes traveled from South Dakota to take custody of the weapons, pipes, moccasins and clothing, including several items thought to have a direct link to the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre in South Dakota.
They had been held by the Founders Museum in Barre, Massachusetts, about 74 miles west of Boston. A public ceremony was held Saturday inside the gym at a nearby elementary school that included prayers by the Lakota representatives. The artifacts will be officially handed over during a private ceremony.
“Ever since that Wounded Knee massacre happened, genocides have been instilled in our blood,” said Surrounded Bear, 20, who traveled to Barre from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, according to The Boston Globe. “And for us to bring back these artifacts, that’s a step towards healing. That’s a step in the right direction.”
“It was always important to me to give them back,” said Ann Meilus, president of the board at the Founders Museum. “I think the museum will be remembered for being on the right side of history for returning these items.”
Museum officials have said that as a private institution that does not receive federal funding, the institution is not subject to NAGPRA, but returning items in its collection that belong to Indigenous tribes is the right thing to do.
More than 200 men, women, children and elderly people were killed in the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Congress issued a formal apology to the Sioux Nation a century later for one of the nation’s worst massacres of Native Americans.
The Barre museum acquired its Indigenous collection from Frank Root, a traveling shoe salesman who collected the items on his journeys during the 19th century, and once had a road show that rivaled P.T. Barnum’s extravaganzas, according to museum officials.
Wendell Yellow Bull, a descendant of Wounded Knee victim Joseph Horn Cloud, has said the items will be stored at Oglala Lakota College until tribal leaders decide what to do with them.
The items being returned to the Sioux people have all been authenticated by multiple experts, including tribal experts. The museum also has other Indigenous items not believed to have originated with the Sioux.
Han, Mitakuyepi. I’ll start by thanking every one of you who supported our Oceti Vote event this past weekend. Your friendship helped to create something very special — a successful Native voter outreach campaign and also a true celebration of our Lakota culture. Today we’re submitting the many voter registrations we gathered, and we’ll have a lot more to share with you once we’ve all had a chance to look back at everything.
In the meantime, I’d like to draw your attention to something important from our sister org, Let’s Green CA! They’ve created a solidarity action to protect the Juristac — the ancestral lands of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, Indigenous People in what is now called Northern California. As Santa Clara County evaluates an environmental impact report on a proposed sand and gravel mining project, your input could help protect the sacred! So, because you live in California, today I ask you to stand with my relatives on the west coast of Turtle Island and tell the County: no mining at Juristac!
The Lakota People’s Law Project and Let’s Green CA! (which also just got a climate equity bill signed into law in California) take both environmental and Indigenous justice extremely seriously. The two are inextricably intertwined, because far too often, Indigenous communities wind up on the frontlines battling extractive industry which demonstrates no regard for Unci Maka, our Grandmother Earth, nor for us as this land’s first inhabitants and stewards.
The Amah Mutsun Band’s fight to protect the Juristac from being torn asunder by miners sounds a lot like our fight to stop gold, uranium, and lithium mining in our sacred He Sapa — the Black Hills. Our relatives in so-called Nevada have a similar fight on their hands with the lithium mining at Thacker Pass. And then there are all the oil pipelines — Dakota Access, Keystone XL, Line 3 — you have helped us resist.
It’s critical that we continue to stand in solidarity with one another every step of the way, each time any project imperils Unci Maka and the future we wish to create for the next seven generations. By widening our circle, we increase our power. So, please do keep tabs on the good work of Let’s Green CA! and show your support by submitting a comment to protect the sacred at Juristac. Rest assured that together, we can and will continue to win justice — for Indigenous People and for our Grandmother Earth.
Wopila tanka — thank you for your friendship and solidarity! DeCora Hawk Field Organizer The Lakota People’s Law Project
WARNING: This story contains disturbing details about residential and boarding schools. If you are feeling triggered, here is a resource list for trauma responses from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition in the U.S. In Canada, the National Indian Residential School Crisis Hotline can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.
This story and a two-part podcast are the result of a collaboration between ICT and Reveal to examine Indigenous boarding schools in the United States. The podcast, “Buried Secrets: America’s Indian Boarding Schools,” starts with part 1 that aired Oct. 15 and concludes with part 2 that aired Oct. 22.
PINE RIDGE INDIAN RESERVATION, South Dakota – Justin Pourier will never forget what he saw in the basement of Drexel Hall.
Pourier, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Tribe, was working as a bus driver and maintenance person for the Jesuit-run Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge reservation when sometime in the 1990s a supervisor asked him to go into the basement to look for a leak.
Pourier made his way down the rickety steps to the vast basement below Drexel Hall, former home to student dormitories and later a convent for nuns who taught at the school.
Back in a corner, past a wooden door that led into a small room with a dirt floor, he saw three small mounds of dirt. Evenly spaced, shaped like child-size graves, the mounds were marked with primitive crosses.
“Right away, I knew that wasn’t right,” Pourier told ICT and Reveal in May.
After learning of the discoveries of unmarked graves of children who attended residential schools in Canada, Pourier reached out to Red Cloud leaders earlier this year and told them his story.When he told his supervisor about his discovery, however, the man grew angry, demanding that he never discuss his findings with anyone.
And so, Pourier obeyed. Until now.
After learning of the discoveries of unmarked graves of children who attended residential schools in Canada, Pourier reached out to Red Cloud leaders earlier this year and told them his story.
By then, Red Cloud had already launched a Truth and Healing effort amid growing pressure to reveal the truths about the school’s boarding school past.
Red Cloud is a microcosm of the issues facing churches, government leaders and Indigenous people over the nation’s sordid boarding school history, and could provide a blueprint for other schools in years to come.Now a day school that provides education to about 600 Indigenous students from kindergarten through high school, Red Cloud is among the first of the former Indian boarding schools in the United States to actively work toward truth and reconciliation.
“It’s important we explore our history and own our past,” Red Cloud President Raymond Nadolny told ICT/Reveal. “This is a strong, fierce community. We’re excited to get these conversations on the table.”
Red Cloud is a microcosm of the issues facing churches, government leaders and Indigenous people over the nation’s sordid boarding school history, and could provide a blueprint for other schools in years to come.
The Truth and Healing efforts, so far, however, have uncovered more questions than answers.
A seven-month review of the Red Cloud school by ICT and Reveal found evidence of at least one unmarked grave and at least 20 student deaths, and harsh, dehumanizing treatment of students at a time when the Catholic Church was accumulating thousands of dollars in government payments and hundreds of acres of land at the expense of the Oglala Lakota people.
From 1903 to 1940, records show the church received the equivalent of nearly $18 million in today’s dollars via the U.S. government from Lakota trust and treaty funds for providing education to Indigenous students at Red Cloud, and obtained more than 700 acres of tribal lands for the mission and school, the ICT/Reveal review found.
Today, the nonprofit organization that now runs Red Cloud also operates another elementary school, six community churches and the Heritage Center art gallery. It reports $82 million in assets while based in a county, Oglala Lakota County, that ranks among the poorest 25 counties in the U.S.
And though Red Cloud officials have vowed to uncover the truths of their boarding school history, the Catholic Church’s openness with records has fallen short of expectations. The lack of transparency prevents researchers from determining how many children attended boarding schools across the United States and keeps family members from knowing what happened to their missing relatives, ICT/Reveal found.
“The Catholic Church needs to recognize that honesty, being forthright and vulnerable, are far more powerful and more healing than being reticent, restrictive and closed,” said Maka Black Elk, Oglala Lakota, who was hired in 2020 as executive director of Truth and Healing for Red Cloud.
ICT/Reveal also reached out for comment to Jesuit leadership internationally in Rome and in the U.S., the Vatican, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the head of the Bureau of Catholic Indian MIssions. Officials did not make themselves available for interviews.
And while Red Cloud is being lauded by some for its efforts, others question whether an independent investigation might be more truthful.
“How can we let them investigate themselves?” asked Dusty Nelson, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota tribe and a former student at Red Cloud who has been an outspoken critic of Jesuit leadership.
Some questions may be answered in coming weeks. Red Cloud is set to begin excavation on Monday, Oct. 17, in the Drexel Hall basement where Pourier believes he saw the small graves.
Ground-penetrating radar of the site in May was inconclusive on what might lie beneath the ground, and officials agreed to dig up the concrete slab that now covers the area.
The ICT/Reveal findings will be featured in a two-part podcast, “Buried Secrets: America’s Indian Boarding Schools,” that starts with part 1 on Saturday, Oct. 15, and concludes with part 2 on Saturday, Oct. 22.
Clad from head to toe in black habits and head coverings, the nuns arrived to greetings from Lakota leaders under the prairie’s unrelenting summer sun, with temperatures likely reaching into the 90s.
Seeing women for the first time with the Black Robes, as the Lakota people called the priests, the tribal leaders were curious.
“Are these your wives?” they asked Jutz, according to a written history by the Sisters of St. Francis that recounts the exchange. The diary was originally written in German but the archives include a version translated into English.
Jutz was apparently flummoxed into silence by the question, so one of the nuns responded.
“No,” she said. “[We’ve] come only for the sake of the Indians.”
Jutz had arrived in Lakota country to open Holy Rosary in 1887, two years before Congress created the Pine Ridge reservation in an effort to reduce the size of the Great Sioux Nation.
Catholic historians say that Lakota Chief Red Cloud invited church leaders to his country to educate Lakota children. Seeing the inevitable encroachment by the White man on his peoples’ lands and way of life, they say, Red Cloud saw the similarities between the church’s use of ritual and that of Lakota holy men.
Others disagree with the church’s perspective. Nelson, who said she is descended from Chief Red Cloud, believes the leader wanted to help his people navigate a major change in their society and lives. If he had known about the often-brutal assimilationist methods at the school and the goals of destroying Lakota culture and language, he never would have allowed them access to the children, she said.
Regardless of the long-ago motivations, the Catholic Church and its emissaries remain today on Pine Ridge, their existence intertwined with the fabric of the community for more than 130 years.
Much has changed at the school since the early days. The name was changed to Red Cloud Indian School in 1969, and the school stopped boarding students in 1980.
Its mission no longer includes destruction of Indigenous culture, spirituality and language, and now offers classes in Lakota language and culture. It employs tribal citizens as teachers and administrators.
And in keeping with the Jesuit reputation as rigorous educators, Red Cloud leads the nation in producing Gates Millennium Scholars per capita, with 72 students having received the honor as of 2016. An estimated 90 percent of graduates attend college.
That’s quite a feat in a community with a 70 percent high school dropout rate, and many Red Cloud graduates go on to attend Ivy League colleges and universities. Still, the school has rigorous admissions requirements and requires significant family support, which many students on Pine Ridge may lack.
“Since Red Cloud is a private school, they can set their own standards for entrance and attendance,” said Dayna Brave Eagle, director of the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s education department. “Tribal and public schools, however, don’t have that luxury.”
Nonetheless, there is a community of loyal Red Cloud supporters in Pine Ridge that includes generations of families who have graduated from the school and who take great pride in their ability to excel in the Jesuit’s demanding environment.
Jesuit leadership proudly points out that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito visited the school in 2011. And six of the current Supreme Court justices attended private Catholic schools, with Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh attending Jesuit schools.
The school’s latest effort, the Truth and Healing review, likewise has the support of the Jesuits, Nadolny said. They have allocated $20,000 to the school for the work and recently supported bringing in the ground-penetrating radar to search for graves on campus. The Jesuits have allocated another $50,000 to pay one year’s salary for an archivist to examine their boarding school records in St. Louis.
The radar found no evidence of graves under the school lawn, but the results in the Drexel Hall basement were inconclusive.
Unlike the discovery of unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, Canada, however, the potential for graves in the basement of Drexel Hall raise more sinister concerns. Tribal leaders and federal authorities will be on hand for the excavation.
“Red Cloud wasn’t a boarding school in the 1990s [when Pourier saw the graves] so we will be involving law enforcement, in addition to members of the community, when we excavate the area,” Black Elk said.
The revelation of Pourier’s findings has caused a stir in the community, with some calling for closure of the school while outside investigators search for evidence.
More than 1,000 graves have been discovered at Indian residential schools in Canada, where the searches continue, and more than 50 burial sites have been identified so far in the U.S. among the 500 Indian boarding schools that received federal funding.
The remains of more than two dozen children have already been returned to their tribes after being discovered on the grounds of the former government-run Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, and more than 170 are still buried there, records show.
The search is ongoing, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Rumors of missing students and unmarked graves have circulated around Indigenous boarding schools for years, including in the Pine Ridge community, and a number of other private schools across the U.S. and Canada are joining Red Cloud in searching their grounds for evidence of graves.
“These stories are rooted in horrific truths of the broader boarding school past,” said Black Elk.
The stories regarding Red Cloud school, however, have seldom included eyewitness testimony, at least until now, and the community is hoping for answers.
“This is a hard conversation for our community to have,” Black Elk said. “If our GPR work helps open the door to those conversations, then hopefully that leads people to healing.”
Nadolny did not dismiss the possibility of examining a larger area of the school grounds – an effort he estimated could cost millions of dollars.
“It’s something that might have to be done,” he said. “I think it’s important that the Truth and Healing work be Indigenously-led … As we have credible allegations of graves, we will address it.”
ICT and Reveal found evidence that at least 20 students died at the school – and another was sent home to die – in a review of documents at the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions Archive at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; at the National Archives in Kansas City, Missouri; and at Red Cloud school.
Data, however, is scant, and the handwriting is sometimes difficult to read. The records often do not include any indication of how the children died, and their tribal affiliations are often redacted.
Among those was Zora or Zona Ironteeth, 7, who died in 1915 of unreported causes and was buried in the Catholic cemetery next to the school, according to the written history maintained by the Sisters of St. Francis. The written account covers a 40-year period at Holy Rosary Indian Mission, from 1888 to 1929.
ICT/Reveal found Ironteeth’s name and the location of her grave on a large, handwritten map of the cemetery at Red Cloud school, but was unable to locate a marker for her grave at the designated site during a search of the grounds.
The nuns’ written history mentions several other student deaths at the school as well. Some entries include the names and causes of death, and others simply state the number of student deaths during select years.
In 1888-1889, the first year the school year was open, seven student deaths were recorded out of the 130 students who attended. Only the first child who died at the school is identified — Ignace Black Face, who died at the mission in 1888 or 1889.
Other students identified in the nuns’ history as having died at the school over the years include Etta or Ella Shangreauw or Shangrau, 1895; Clara Condelario, who died in 1915 from tuberculosis and other health issues; Harley Cook, who died in 1925 at age 16; and Lawrence Clifford, who died May 1, 1926, of double pneumonia.
ICT/Reveal found death records from the National Archives for Etta/Ella and Harley, and an additional child, Rosa Red Elk, who died in 1907 at the mission but whose name was not found in the written history.
Tim Giago, of the Oglala Lakota Nation and founder of Indian Country Today, now ICT, also recalled digging a grave for his friend Bozo Richards, who died at age 16 during the years Giago attended the school, from the late 1930s to the early 1940s. Giago spoke to ICT/Reveal in May, just a few months before his death in July 2022.
Official death reports on the Pine Ridge reservation are sparse, relying on information filed with the federal Indian agent by farmers who lived in districts on the reservation. The White farmers were paid to report the information, but seldom included age, cause or place of death, according to a Bad Lands Resource Study from 2006 by the National Park Service.
In searching the region’s newspapers, ICT found no information regarding deaths or obituaries on the reservation from late 1800s into the 1920s.
Further complicating the search for student deaths, moreover, is that the cemeteries associated with Christian missions served not only the schools but also the entire community.
According to the nuns’ written history, seriously ill children or the remains of those who died were often retrieved by their parents, since most of the children attending Holy Rosary were Lakota from the Pine Ridge reservation. Unlike federal schools that were usually located far from tribal communities, parents were better able to travel to Christian mission schools, frequently located on or near reservations, to collect their ill or dead children.
Records indicate children at both federal and Christian schools often died from contagious diseases exacerbated by overcrowding, poor living conditions and inadequate food.
At Pine Ridge, the nuns’ written history describes waves of illnesses moving through the school, including measles, mumps, flu, trachoma, “skin disease,” tuberculosis, smallpox and typhoid.
In 1911, a Catholic doctor told the nuns that the children were sleeping too closely together, and the nuns converted the kindergarten into a sick room, the history recounts. Another entry blames children for bringing disease into the school after they were allowed to return home for a visit.
Tuberculosis, often referred to as consumption, was a persistent problem, among the nuns as well as the children.
A 1910 entry in the nuns’ history describes a government doctor finding that one of the nuns had “consumption” and ordering her to stay away from the children.
And in 1914, parents at the Holy Rosary Mission complained to the Indian agent that their children had gotten consumption from the sisters, according to the written history. A government doctor visited the school and issued orders for the school to collect information on deaths and illness.
The sisters did not take kindly to the criticism, with an entry in the history complaining of excessive government interest in “corporal benefit of the Indians.”
The same year, the Pine Ridge Indian agent responded sharply to a government circular urging quarantine for contagious diseases.
“The position of agency physician on this reservation has been vacant for five months. We have no reservation hospital or other place for suitable isolation. There is considerable suffering among the Indians here,” he wrote.
Other health problems spread throughout the school. A government doctor making a 1913 visit found nearly 100 children had trachoma, now known to be a bacterial infection that can cause blindness. Later, three government doctors came to the school and conducted “operations” on the children’s eyes in the parlor, the written history notes.
“Nothing else could get done because of care being given to the children,” the author complained.
Some terse entries suggest poignant stories of death, suffering and abuse.
An entry in 1915 describes the short life of Clara Condelario, who appeared to be in her early 20s when she died. She is described as an orphan who came to the mission in 1890 after the deaths of her Mexican father and Indigenous mother.
“She asked to remain at the mission (after her schooling was completed) and live like the sisters; they accepted her work around the house,” the entry notes.
“One day whilst scrubbing in the church she slipped, knocked her elbow on a bench and broke her arm. She didn’t tell the sisters until the arm pained her so much she could hardly dress herself. They sent her to hospital in Omaha where they put her arm in a cask [sp]. After we removed it things were not as they should be so we prevailed on her to return to hospital.”
The doctor who examined her found several sores on her body, and concluded she also had appendicitis. When they operated, however, they found her intestines were decayed from “tuberculosis of the stomach,” which can cause abdominal pain.
“There was nothing they could do, she died a few days later,” the entry concludes. “A requiem was held. She was the first Sioux girl to make a vow of chastity. She is buried near the sisters in the cemetery.”
Physical abuse, especially in the earlier years, was ever-present, former students told ICT/Reveal. Basil Braveheart of the Ogala Lakota tribe recalls the strict environment when he attended Holy Rosary School more than 80 years ago. Braveheart, now 89, said teachers used corporal punishment for even the smallest violation of school rules.
In addition to beatings, Braveheart described the emotional and spiritual abuse of being separated from family and being forbidden to speak the Lakota language.
“The experience was very traumatizing to me as a child,” Braveheart said. “Our language is what defines our culture. Having it taken away was a spiritual violation.”
Physical punishment is also mentioned in the historian’s entries. One describes a parent known as a “troublemaker” who complained to government inspectors about heavy-handed punishment meted out by the nuns and priests. The complaint drew a response from the inspector.
“The inspector suggests we use a strap rather than a stick to beat the children,” the history notes.
Other mentions of student deaths at Holy Rosary appear mostly in passing. An entry from 1913 mentions that an 8-year-old boy died from eating “a great quantity” of elm blossoms.
An entry in 1918 reads, “the flu comes, many die, funerals every day, authorities keep Indians away from the mission.” And in 1920, “children sick from smallpox, forbidden to return home.”
An entry from 1927 notes there was “much sickness” at the school and on the reservation, noting that three children died at Holy Rosary and more than 300 “babies” died on the reservation.
Additional details are believed to be included in the school’s sacramental records, but church officials have refused to open them up for scrutiny over privacy concerns. And whatever grave markers may have existed have long since crumbled.
The Catholic Church benefited financially, however, for every child who attended the Pine Ridge school, receiving government, church and private funding.
Moreover, the church gained substantial political and economic influence in the U.S. through its work with Native peoples.
“The political weight of the Catholics in the nation and their successful lobbying for their interests in the Indian school question gave them a more widely accepted role in the national affairs, and it is no longer possible to think of management of Indian affairs without some consideration of Catholic views,” Jesuit scholar and priest Francis Paul Prucha wrote in 1979 in the book, “The Churches and the Indian Schools: 1888-1912.” He died in 2015.
For more than 65 years, until the 1970s, the U.S. government diverted Indian trust and treaty funds as direct payments for tuition to Christian boarding schools until funds grew depleted, according to the Marquette website. Catholics operated most of the schools and received the lion’s share of the funds, as well as other federal dollars.
Nadolny told ICT/Reveal that the possibility of paying reparations to the tribe is open for discussion.
“That’s a good conversation to have with the tribe,” he said. “Everything is on the table.”
Raymond Nadolny was tapped to be president of Red Cloud Indian School in 2019, the is the first non-Jesuit to lead the school. He is shown here in front of Drexel Hall on the Red Cloud campus. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/ICT)
Records indicate that Holy Rosary school received $108 per student as early as 1903, which would have meant a yearly payment of $21,600 – the equivalent of more than $700,000 in today’s dollars – for the 200 students typically enrolled at the time.
By then, government payments to churches for educating Indigenous students were routine.
The federal government began paying Christian missionaries to “civilize” and educate Indigenous peoples as early as 1789, based on a recommendation from then-Secretary of War Henry Knox.
Over the ensuing decades, in 120 of the 370 treaties made with Native people, the government promised to provide education and indicated that Christian missionaries could be paid to do it, according to research by Indian law experts Matthew Fletcher, citizen of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, and Wenona Singel, citizen of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, at Michigan State University’s Indigenous Law and Policy Center.
In 1819, Congress passed the Civilization Fund Act, creating a fund to pay Christian missionaries to establish schools in Indian Country in order to replace Native culture with Christian practices. In 1824, the fund supported 32 Christian boarding schools; by 1830, that number had risen to 52.
Funds from treaties, without consultation with tribes, were often used to help support the effort, according to the Native American Rights Fund.
“With respect to the history of missionary activities, it is probably enough to say that they date practically from the very beginning of the contact of the white man with the Indian. The policy of the government has always been to encourage missionary activities,” according to The Meriam Report, a 1928 study by what is now the Brookings Institution that surveyed conditions on Indian reservations in 26 states.
In 1869, Congress enacted President Ulysses S. Grant’s Peace Policy, which allowed the government to create its own boarding schools and authorized the coerced removal of Native children from their families to attend.
The policy institutionalized the concept of assimilation through boarding school education, but allowed church-run schools to continue to receive federal support.
Under the policy, Indian Country was effectively apportioned out to various Christian missionary groups, and Catholic leaders rushed to secure dominance on reservations with large trust funds, such as the Osage and Chippewa tribes, according to the archives at Marquette University.
The policy set off a conflict between Catholics and Protestants, leading to the creation in 1874 of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, a lobbying organization founded to protect and promote Catholic interests.
In 1908, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Quickbear v. Leupp that Native people could use their trust and treaty funds to pay for tuition in denominational schools, finding that the payments would not violate the separation of church and state because the funds belonged to tribes.
Catholics then set up a system in which Indigenous people could sign petitions, often with simple thumbprints, allowing the federal government to pay a portion of trust and treaty funds directly to the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, which in turn paid the individual schools.
Interestingly, the 1908 court describes the plaintiffs, who were Indigenous people of the Rosebud Sioux, as “citizens of the United States,” though Native people were not granted U.S. citizenship in South Dakota until the passage of the 1924 federal Indian Citizenship Act.
The court ruling made much of the Lakota people’s freedom of choice in its decision, but failed to note that Indigenous people at the time were prohibited from freely practicing their religion, selling their lands or spending their trust and treaty funds on food or supplies.
Year-by-year accountings of treaty fund payments were not among the archived documents, but a previous review of available records by ICT found that Indigenous people signed over more than $30 million in trust and treaty funds – adjusted to today’s dollars – to Catholic schools in just nine years scattered between 1910 and 1954.
Holy Rosary Mission School received Indian trust and treaty funds for at least 37 years, according to the ICT/Reveal review of available records.
ICT also found evidence of Catholic mission schools receiving additional federal monies, such as an additional $125 per child in trust and treaty funds for care and maintenance of neglected Indian children. Holy Rosary received those funds for 30 of its needy students in 1935, the equivalent of about $80,000 in today’s dollars, according to records at Marquette University.
Many schools also received children’s portions of federal rations for several years, according to the Marquette archives.
Additionally, Catholics were successful at private fundraising for the schools.
In 1884, the church created an annual Lenten collection to benefit the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions and African-American mission. Each diocese was required to send its funds from the collection to the bureau. The Lenten collection still generates funds for the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions.
Bureau Director William Ketchum also created The Indian Sentinel, an official fundraising magazine for the Society for the Preservation of Faith Among Indian Children. The magazine published three times a year until 1962 and featured first-hand accounts of missionaries.
From 1901 to 1914, the society raised $328,403 – or about $9 million in today’s dollars. In 1939, The Indian Sentinel generated $77,854, or about $1.5 million in today’s dollars.
In a notable example of Catholic fundraising success, the sisters at Holy Rosary reported in 1920 that they collected $40 from the citizens of the Pine Ridge reservation for starving children in Austria during the post-World War I years.
Nelson and others, however, complain that Red Cloud’s successful fundraising campaigns today imply that donations benefit a broad population on Pine Ridge, without mentioning the restrictions to get into the school.
“Red Cloud only takes the cream of the crop,” Nelson said. “Those with behavior or developmental problems or without family support can’t make it there.”
The Catholic Church also accumulated tribal lands from the U.S. government.
Under the Dawes Act of 1887, tribal lands held in common could be broken up into small parcels or allotments for individual heads of families and could be available free of charge to Christian missionaries.
Tribes lost more than 90 million acres of land because of the Dawes Act, according to the Indian Land Tenure Foundation. Unlike the lands allotted to individuals — which were held in trust by the government — churches were given tribal lands in a transfer known as “fee simple,” meaning the land could be used or transferred freely.
In his 1901 annual address, President Theodore Roosevelt described the act as a “mighty pulverizing machine to break up the tribal land mass.”
ICT/Reveal found documentation at the Marquette archives that the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions received more than 10,000 acres of allotted Indian lands to be used for schools from 1887 to 1934. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, documents show that the bureau divested itself of some of those lands by giving them to various Catholic dioceses and other entities.
The review of records recently by ICT/Reveal found that more than 7,000 acres of allotted Indian lands are still held by Catholic-affiliated organizations, including 1,118 acres held by the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions and 6,062 acres held by other Catholic entities.
The bureau transferred more than 700 acres of allotted lands to the nonprofit organization that ran the school, including the lands at Wounded Knee where hundreds of Lakota people were slaughtered in 1890 and left in a mass grave, according to bureau records at Marquette.
Red Cloud recently returned to the tribe about 40 acres, including the mass grave site. Records are unclear on the exact number of acres now held by Red Cloud.
ICT found that Holy Rosary purchased a number of other small tracts of land on Pine Ridge after allotment under the Dawes Act ended in 1934. According to a 1935 letter from the Department of the Interior to Rev. William Hughes, director of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, Congress issued an order allowing for sale of small tracts of restricted Indian lands to churches.
”I do believe that if tribal authorities wanted to sit down and have a conversation and demarcate all those properties, we’d be open to discussion,” Nadolny said, when asked if Red Cloud would consider giving more land back to the tribe.
“There are some unused parcels of property that I’d be happy to talk about with the tribal council,” he said.
Lack of transparency
Some details about boarding school history remain sketchy, however, because access to information has been limited by Catholic authorities.
Marquette University, a private Jesuit university in Milwaukee, is holding back decades of records showing student names, tribal affiliation, blood quantum and years of attendance at schools until information regarding blood quantum can be redacted.
Marquette archivists say portions of records are being scrutinized so they can black out some details to protect the privacy of long-dead students, but critics say it is a way to shield the church from uncomfortable realities.
Legislation is now pending in Congress that would help researchers get access to records at Marquette and other institutions. The bill would create a U.S. Truth and Healing Commission much like the one in Canada, with the ability to issue subpoenas for records for local churches and other government records related to attendance, illness, death, land and other correspondence.
The withholding of information has stymied a growing effort among tribes to locate the children who went missing or died while attending boarding schools, and access to Catholic Church archives remain a sticking point in uncovering the truths of what happened in the schools.
And although Catholics in Canada agreed to allow access to records under an agreement with that nation’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, many churches and orders continue to resist, citing privacy concerns.
Boarding school survivors and their ancestors here in the U.S. are finding similar resistance by churches.
Sacramental records, for example, which contain information about deaths and burials, are considered private by the church, protecting the past 100 years of data from public view. In some cases, however, sacramental records may be the only source of information about who lived and died at the schools.
An ordinance passed by the Oglala Sioux tribal council in the 1990s is being blamed for broad restrictions on Catholic boarding school reports made to the Bureau of Catholic Missions and to the U.S. government. In order to receive payment of trust and treaty funds to pay for tuition, each school was required to submit quarterly reports including names, tribal affiliation and blood quantum of students.
For reasons that remain unclear, the Oglala Sioux tribal council apparently passed an ordinance forbidding access in the 1990s to blood quantum information, according to Mark Thiel, former archivist at Marquette University and founder of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Mission archives.
Since that information is largely included in the same column as tribal affiliation in the archived records, however, the result is a restriction on access to important details that would help identify the students who died, ICT/Reveal found.
Tribal leaders told ICT/Reveal, however, that they were unaware of the ordinance or why it might have been passed. Tribal Council President Kevin Killer said he and the council will look into the history.
Marquette, meanwhile, has expanded the constraint beyond records for Oglala Sioux students, and now places the same restrictions on all of its records until archivists can redact the collection spanning more than 50 years.
Many of the government reports that should be in the National Archives, moreover, appear to have been lost.
In an earlier interview with ICT, Thiel said that fear of the unknown may be contributing to church leaders’ wariness about allowing open access to the archives. They don’t yet know what is contained in the records, he said.
“There are over 100 years of records in the collection,” Thiel said. “All of these secrets are locked into these filing cabinets and folders. It’s an amazing treasure trove.”
Amy Cooper Cary, head of special collections and university archives at Marquette, said the school takes its direction from the organization that donated the archival materials.
“None of our archives are closed to protect the Catholic Church,” Cary said. “They are closed in order to protect personal privacy.”
Nadolny said Red Cloud has recently hired a full-time researcher to help assemble the school’s history. He also pledged to investigate why certain records, such as sacramental records or school attendance logs, are being withheld.
Graduates at the Red Cloud Indian School in May 2022 received handmade quilts along with their diplomas. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/ICT)
The troubles of the past were mostly out of mind at the Red Cloud graduation ceremony in May.
Like most graduations, it was a mixture of jubilation and relief. But at Red Cloud, there was a tangible air of conquest among the students as they made their way across the stage and mingled with family afterwards.
Ruby Clifford, a diminutive elder from the Ute Indian Tribe, used a cane to make her way through the crowd to her grandson, Stryker Clifford. Stretching her arm to its full extent, she turned the tassel on his cap indicating he had graduated.
A tall, husky young man, Striker lowered his head for his grandmother.
It was a flash of tender vulnerability. His grandmother’s simple gesture offered a glimpse into a family moment that felt almost too intimate to bear. Months of grief, dogged struggle and love were concentrated into a few seconds, a flicker of exquisite pain that crowded the throat.
Someone handed Stryker a large photograph of a man who bore a strong resemblance to the young graduate. Stryker held the image close, high on his chest, as he and his grandmother posed for the cameras. It was a photo of his father, Robert Clifford, Ute, who had died from COVID-19 a few months earlier.
“He would have been so proud of you, grandson,” Ruby Clifford said.
Stryker smiled at the camera; yes, his dad would have been proud.
Families turned out for graduation day at Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, in May 2022, including Ruby Clifford, Ute, who posed for a photo with her grandson Stryker Clifford, Oglala Lakota/Ute. Stryker is holding a photo of his late father, Robert Clifford, who died in August 2021 just as Stryker was starting his senior year at Red Cloud Indian School. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/ICT)
It was a moment of truth for all the graduates and their families – that they could have the benefits of a Western-style college preparatory education with its inherent access to an elite world and keep their Indigenous culture, language and traditions.
That is the unspoken gift that comes with a private Jesuit education — the social acumen and connections to help students navigate life outside of the reservation, the kind of knowledge that spells power in the White world.
But it still doesn’t address the harms of the past. Although Pope Francis apologized to Indigenous people in Canada in July for the cultural genocide of the residential school system there, no public apology or acknowledgement has been forthcoming in the U.S.
No one knows how many Indigenous children attended boarding schools here, or how many died without ever making it home to their families. No one knows how many are still missing.
But doors, including those at Red Cloud, are slowly being opened.
U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, the first Indigenous person to sit in a presidential cabinet, ordered an investigation of the U.S. boarding school system, and the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative released its initial report earlier this year identifying hundreds of boarding schools that operated across the U.S.
Chieko Noguchi, director of public affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said discussions are ongoing in the United States between church officials and Indigenous leaders after the Pope’s visit to Canada.
“The Holy Father’s penitential pilgrimage to Canada offers a unique opportunity to engage in real and honest dialogue on the issue of boarding school accountability here in the United States,” Noguchi said, in an emailed response to questions from ICT, “and it is a vital part of the process to inclusively discern how to go forward together as the Catholic Church walks with the impacted communities on a path towards healing.”
Red Cloud is among the Catholic organizations now taking the lead to confront and address its own boarding school past. It won’t be easy — Indigenous people on Pine Ridge and elsewhere are demanding truth and reparations after decades of silence from church officials.
“I feel like they are trying to do the right thing, but it’s a very touchy process. People are going to get angry no matter what they do,” Jade Ecoffey, a senior at Red Cloud, told ICT/Reveal. “The most important thing is that they not try to hide anything.”
Davidica Little Spotted Horse, a former student at Red Cloud, said the church needs to give back some of what it has taken.
“The Jesuits should do something that has a lasting, broad impact for the tribe, like providing mental health services, housing or funding for education,” she said.
But can an institution whose mission was to eradicate Native language, culture and spirituality guide education today?
“Catholicism was all about wiping out Lakota culture and now they want to co-exist and teach us our language and spirituality,” Ecoffey said. “I understand how people are having an internal conflict about that. Our spirituality and our traditions are in our blood. We’ve always found ways to survive and keep our language and culture alive.”
Yet struggles remain.
Stryker Clifford’s mother, Farrah Oliver, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Tribe, said her son came very close to not being able to walk across the graduation stage with his classmates.
Oliver and Stryker’s father, along with several other siblings, attended Red Cloud and counted themselves as part of the “Red Cloud family.” Although they were divorced, they shared parenting responsibilities; Stryker lived with his father in the village of Wounded Knee.
Stryker’s father died in August 2021, just as the teen was starting his senior year.
“He was Stryker’s whole world,” Oliver told ICT. “His senior year was supposed to be this grand thing, you know? The feather-tying ceremony, the prom, graduation pictures and driving his dad’s Camaro.”
Stryker missed seven days of school and got behind in schoolwork. Then came the notice from school officials.
“At first they were understanding, but in October 2021 Stryker brought home a paper the school called a ‘Success Plan,’” Oliver said. “It called for no more unexcused absences, maintaining a certain GPA and other things.”
Noticeably lacking, however, was any input from Stryker or school plans to offer support.
Oliver met with school officials and reminded them that his father had died only weeks earlier, only to be told, “He’s not the only one to lose a family member this year,” she said.
But the family banded together to support him. Oliver quit her job in Rapid City and moved in with her son. Ruby Clifford moved back to Wounded Knee from the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in Utah to be with her grandson.
And by graduation, Stryker was about one-half credit shy of completing his high-school requirements, so Red Cloud administrators allowed him to participate in the graduation ceremony with the understanding that he would complete the work.
Oliver said it was a “huge accommodation” from school officials, but she is clearly disillusioned by the experience.
“If Red Cloud doesn’t embrace your potential, you just become a number to them,” she said.
Stryker is now nearly finished with one final online course and is planning to attend the University of South Dakota, Oliver said.
“He’s a really smart kid,” Oliver said. “Our family supports him 100 percent.”
Kathryn Styer Martinez at Reveal contributed to this report.
Reveal is a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. The Center for Investigative Reporting engages and empowers the public through investigative journalism and groundbreaking storytelling in order to spark action, improve lives, and protect democracy. It produces multimedia reporting, including the Reveal public radio show and podcast, and theRevealNews.org website.
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The Native vote has become increasingly influential, with the ability to determine whole elections in several states across the country.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski often credits her win to the Alaska Native vote. The Native vote swung the election for U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, Sen. Jon Tester in Montana, and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, said Jacqueline De León, staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund in a briefing panel Oct. 13. During the 2020 presidential election, the Native vote in Arizona came out to give President Joe Biden a victory, the first time in more than two decades that the staunchly red state went blue. It doesn’t end there. Elections in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and Nevada, can all be swayed by the Native vote.
“Native American votes are being excluded from the table because there is power in these votes,” De León said.
Historically, the Native vote has been under attack from unfair voting ID laws that disproportionately impact Indigenous communities, to gerrymandering, lack of polling locations in rural areas, and the use of at-large voting systems.
“Across the country, we have seen intentional and purposeful discrimination against Native American communities and we are banding together in order to fight back against that,” De León said. “We are also encouraging Native Americans across the country to get out, push past these barriers in order to vote. The reason that these barriers exist is because of the power and potential of the Native American vote.”
It is now less than 30 days until the midterm election.
The Republican Party was forecasted to gain seats in the House and Senate but the striking down of Dobbs v. Jackson, the landmark case that previously ensured a person’s right to abortion care, has made everything more unpredictable than it already was.
This is the first election with the new redistricted maps using the 2020 Census numbers. An unusual census count considering many Indigenous nations closed their communities to outsiders and tribal citizens who lived outside the community due to the pandemic. It made obtaining an accurate count more difficult to achieve. It is clear that once again, Indigenous communities were severely undercounted.
“In this cycle, there’s been a radical undercount of the Native American population and unfortunately, that just affects redistricting,” De León said. “When you’re drawing the maps, they use the census numbers.”
Redistricting has impacted the Native vote in states like New Mexico and South Dakota. Congressional and state legislative districts are redrawn every 10 years to give fair representation in Congress. However, gerrymandering or unfair voting systems (like the at-large system) can occur to impact the influence of the Native vote.
It has also affected Indigenous candidates running for office.
U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, Ho-Chunk, a Kansas Democrat, is in a more competitive district. The change is only slight, as noted by Jordan James Harvill, national program director for Advance Native Political Leadership.
“(Cook’s Political Report) has moved her partisan voter index from a plus two Democratic district to a plus one,” Harvill told ICT. “That’s not drastic and I don’t think it’s actually her biggest issue.”
The partisan voting index shows if a district leans Democratic or Republican compared to the rest of the country. In Davids’ district, it leans less blue, but Harvill said that’s not the problem for her.
Davids’ biggest issue is voter turnout during a midterm election year, which often sees lower voter turnout.
She needs to get as many of the 170,000 voters who voted for her in 2018 to head back to the polls during a midterm election. The year Davids was first elected, in 2018, brought record voter turnout, 53 percent of the citizen voting-age population. This percent is close to reaching a low voter turnout during a presidential election cycle.
The base of Republican voters who will come out and vote in every election for Kansas’ congressional district 3 is around 130,000. Historically, Democratic candidates were only getting about 90,000.
“When we’re trying to think about what turnout might be, it’s incredibly difficult to tell after a redistricting cycle,” Harvell said.
Redistricting, inflation, the Dobb’s decision and the president’s low approval rating all have impacts on the election.
In Kansas, voters came out to secure the right to access abortion care. The Cook’s Political Report has Davids’ district as a toss-up, meaning it could go either way. FiveThirtyEight has forecasted also as a toss-up but favoring Davids slightly.
“Sharice Davids is considered a game changer candidate for Victory Fund. She has an EMILY’s List endorsement,” Harvill said. EMILY’s List is the largest women’s political committee and resource in the nation. “She has a ton of institutional support and she is deeply competitive in her fundraising, which is really important right now. She’s going to need a lot of money in that district in order to keep turnout high.”
Davids is running against Republican Amanda Adkins. Adkins has been endorsed by other Republicans including U.S Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell, Cherokee, representing New Mexico’s congressional district 2.
In New Mexico, the Democratic trifecta has carved up the more conservative part of the state that was almost wholly in congressional district 2, the southern half of the state. With the new congressional map, the old district 2 is spread across all three districts, meaning the solidly blue districts in central and northern New Mexico have taken on more conservative voters from southern New Mexico.
(Photo by Yvette Herrell, campaign website)
This has turned the district from red leaning to a toss-up race. FiveThirtyEight has Herrell only slightly favored. Cook’s Political Report has the race as a toss-up. This will be a more competitive race for Herrell than in 2020, where she won with 20,000 votes over incumbent Xochitl Torres Small, a Democrat. In 2018, Torres Small won by a small margin, less than 4,000 votes, over Herrell.
Before that, Republican Steve Pearce held congressional district 2 for 14 years.
In April, a state district judge cleared the way for the Republican Party of New Mexico to challenge the congressional map that divvies up a conservative area of the state into three congressional districts, rejecting a motion by Democrats who sought to dismiss the case.
The lawsuit by the GOP and seven allied plaintiffs holds implications for a congressional swing district in southern New Mexico where Herrell is the incumbent. This case was ultimately dismissed.
“These Congressional maps were ramrodded through the Democrat-led legislature for political gain. This is not a political issue but a fairness issue—we want to ensure that all the voices of New Mexicans are protected and represented by these maps, regardless of their political beliefs,” Steve Pearce, chairman of the Republican Party of New Mexico, said in a press release. “The Court recognizes that we have strong evidence to support our claim of blatant illegal gerrymandering that rips apart communities of interest and disenfranchises voters across the state. RPNM will always stand for fairness, the rule of law, and the core principles of our democracy.”
Herrell is running against Democrat Gabe Vasquez and Eliseo Luna, a write-in candidate.
According to July campaign finance data, Herrell has raised over double what Vasquez has. A well-funded campaign has an influence on how well a candidate will do at the polls. In a competitive race like this one, it could make a difference on whether or not Herrell gets reelected.
In some states, redistricting is used as a way to limit the influence of the Native vote in counties with a high Native American population. In South Dakota, districting in Lyman County has consistently used an at-large voting system that limited the influence of the Native vote.
“Then came Lyman County,” said OJ Semans, co-founder and co-director of Four Directions Native Vote. “What they did was they have at-large districts. So, what they’ve been able to do for the past 100 plus years was keep every Native off the county commission.”
The Lower Brule Sioux Tribe sued Lyman County for this tactic that breaks up the Native vote ensuring that any candidate of choice could not be elected to the Board of Commissioners.
Lyman County was ordered to redraw the districts but wasn’t able to do it in time. Then, the county requested that the redrawing of the districts wait until 2026. This was denied and the county was ordered to comply with the Voting Rights Act by the next election in 2024.
OJ Semans (Photo courtesy of Four Directions)
“Although the order recognized the lack of time for a remedy this November, the Court’s order is a win for Native American voting rights,” Samantha Kelty, an attorney for the Native American Rights Fund, said in a press release. “Lyman County’s delays prevented a VRA-compliant general election this year. We look forward to the opportunity to win at trial to ensure Native voters will finally have a voice on the Lyman County Board of Commissioners.”
The at-large voting system is also being used in Benson County, North Dakota. Spirit Lake Tribe filed a complaint against the county earlier this month. For over two decades, the county has been under a consent decree and ordered to move from an at-large voting system to a by district voting system that would allow the Native vote to elect a candidate of their choice to two of the five commissioner seats.
In 2014, the county commissioners voted to keep the at-large voting system, disregarding the consent decree. Last December, the Benson County Redistricting Board voted to continue this legacy despite testimony from Spirit Lake chairman, Douglas Yankton, informing the board of the consent decree that has ordered the county to comply with the Voting Rights Act and North Dakota law that protects the rights of Native American voters.
Despite making up 46 percent of the county’s voting population, the Native vote could not elect a candidate of their choice due to the at-large voting system.
In northwest New Mexico, the Navajo Nation is suing San Juan County, where 40 percent of the population is Native American. Part of the Navajo Nation is located in San Juan County. The county packed all of the Native vote into one district where they would be represented by only one county commissioner.
“Like many regions with large populations of American Indian voters, New Mexico and San Juan County have a lengthy history of submerging and suppressing the participation of those voters in the political process,” the complaint read. “Despite comprising fewer than 40 percent of the County’s residents, Non-Hispanic White voters control the election outcomes in four out of the five Board of Commissioner districts.”
The Native American voting block should be able to elect two of the five county commissioners. As of right now, they could only elect one candidate of their choice.
The complaints in San Juan and Benson counties are ongoing.
“These redistrictings are always done to ensure that the non-Natives are able to keep control of the local and county and state government,” Semans said.
On the Wednesday edition of the ICT Newscast, an Osage elder discusses sovereignty and changing tribal constitutions. There’s a new Choctaw anthology sharing stories, essays and poems. Holly Cook Macarro breaks down Indigenous Peoples Day
Jim Gray was the youngest chief to be elected to lead the Osage Nation in Oklahoma. During that time, he worked through many issues that helped strengthen his government — and ultimately the Osage people. Today he’s a consultant with Gray Consulting.
The perspective of Choctaw matriarchs is being presented in a new anthology called, “Stories by Choctaw Women.” Ten women contributed stories that range from fiction and nonfiction, some essays, family letters and even poetry. The book is edited by Leslie Stall Widener and her sister, Celia Stall Meadows.
Many states have changed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. It is a movement that is decades in the making. ICT regular contributor Holly Cook Macarro weighs in on the politics of this name. She is a partner with Spirit Rock Consulting and she’s from the Red Lake Ojibwe nation.
A slice of our Indigenous world
The Interior Department has released a progress report sharing how it is tackling climate change. Last week, the agency’s 10-page report said it has made several investments. That includes committing $46 million in appropriations to tribal communities who are already feeling the impacts.
A powwow, parade and memorial walk were just a few of the events for Native American Day in Rapid City, South Dakota over the weekend. The arena for the Black Hills Powwow was full with over 15,000 dancers. This year’s parade grand marshal was Jackie Giago, the widow of the late Tim Giago. In 1989, Tim worked with Gov. George Mickelson to create Native American Day. The annual Remembering the Children memorial walk honored 50 children who died while attending the Rapid City Indian Boarding School.
In Canada, a Métis mother says a worker at her child’s daycare cut her son’s hair without permission. As a result, Jana Nyland pulled her son out of the daycare center. Here’s APTN’s national news team with the latest.
Several tribal nations in the U.S. are getting funding for internet access. The grants are coming from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and will provide thousands of people with high-speed broadband. In Alaska, the Kuskokwim region is one of the most underserved groups when it comes to internet connectivity. The Winnebago tribe in Nebraska is also benefiting from the funding.
Aboriginal Ngarrindjeri elder Major Sumner, shown here in a 2009 photo in traditional regalia, welcomes the return of Australian Indigenous peoples remains from London. Sumner was recognized for lifetime achievement and inducted into the South Australian Environment Hall of Fame in October 2022 for his work. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Around the world: Canada returns land to Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, a Ngarrindjeri elder is honored for protecting the environment, Maasai herders lose an eviction claim, Māori women boxers rank at the top of the world, Western Australia government reviews youth offender laws.
CANADA: Minister signs deal to return Mohawk land
The Canadian government has agreed to return nearly 300 acres of disputed lands with $31 million in compensation to the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte in Ontario, CBC News reported on Oct. 3.
The deal to return the lands to the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory – marked in a ceremonial signing by Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller – settles part of a bitter dispute over about 900 acres of land now largely held by private owners about 125 miles east of Toronto.
MBQ Chief Don Maracle told CBC News that the band has offered a financial settlement package to the adjacent town of Deseronto, but he couldn’t offer a timeline about resolving the rest of the claim.
“It’s willing seller, willing buyer,” he said, according to CBC News. “If somebody wants to sell their land, they’ll let us know.”
The disputed land, known as the Culbertson Tract, includes 448 separate parcels of land that cover most of Deseronto.
The deal will now move into the government’s complicated “additions-to-reserve” program that Miller called “morbid” and “broken.”
“The whole process itself is one that is vested in the Indian Act,” he said, according to CBC News.
The land dispute began in 1837 when the government illegally granted about 900 acres of unsurrendered Mohawk territory to John Culbertson, grandson of community founder John Deserontyon, CBC News reported.
AUSTRALIA: Elder honored for environmental work
Elder Major “Moogy” Sumner has been honored with a lifetime achievement award and induction into the South Australian Environment Hall of Fame, National Indigenous Times reported on Oct. 5.
Sumner, a cultural ambassador of traditional culture who has long fought for protection of the environment, was honored at the South Australian Environment Awards.
He has also championed the Ngarrindjeri people and other First Nations people, and campaigned against systems that allowed rivers to be drained and oil and gas drilling in the Great Australian Bight, a bay off the southern coast of Australia, NIT reported.
“Aboriginal people are very patient people, but when we see that things are being done wrong, like they are for the river, we’ve got to come together and say it’s wrong, and do something about it,” Sumner said in a statement on the Hall of Fame website.
Sumner has helped the First Nations people in South Australia, reigniting ceremonial fires along traditional Aboriginal trade routes and reconnecting the area with traditional Ngarrindjeri canoe building.
He is also an artist, with his works covering traditional dance and song, arts and crafts such as wood carving, and martial arts techniques using traditional shields, clubs, boomerangs and spears, NIT reported.
“Caring for country is a profound connection of listening and looking after our environment and people – it is healing for our spirit,” he said, according to CBC News. “We truly are a force of nature – we come from nature. To look after country is to look after community.”
Sumner was one of ten SA Environment Award recipients, five of whom received lifetime achievement awards.
TANZANIA: ‘Shocking blow’ to Indigenous land rights
A Tanzanian court has dismissed a lawsuit filed by Maasai herders who are fighting government efforts to forcibly remove them from their lands to make way for a luxury game reserve, The Guardian reported on Oct. 5.
The herders are appealing the ruling by the East African court of justice, which activists said was a “a shocking blow” to Indigenous land rights, The Guardian reported.
The Maasai say the Tanzanian government is trying to evict them to make way for a United Arab Emirates company to open a game reserve, according to The Guardian.
Donald Deya, lead attorney for the herders and chief executive of the Pan-African Lawyers Union, said the ruling “disregarded the compelling multitude” of evidence presented in court.
The legal fight started in 2017, when residents of four Maasai villages in northern Tanzania went to court to stop the authorities evicting them from about 580 square miles of land in Loliondo, bordering the Serengeti national park. The lands are home to more than 70,000 Maasai.
I’ll start with a big wopila to all of you who support Lakota Law and help advance our mission to amplify Native concerns. As you well know, representation matters. That’s why we’ve spent years activating Native voters. It’s also why we’ve organized nonstop over recent weeks to create a massive weekend of voter outreach and cultural connection — Oceti Vote Fest — in Rapid City, S.D. on Oct. 22-23. Getting Native people to embrace participation in democracy isn’t always easy — especially given the long history of broken promises to us from the U.S. government — but it makes a big difference for our communities and for Turtle Island as a whole.
Today, let’s talk about representation on a larger scale, and how Native women, in particular, have stepped up to embrace political leadership at a time when we so clearly need them on the national stage. In case they aren’t yet on your radar, I’ll point you to two ascending Indigenous leaders: Rep. Mary Peltola of Alaska and Lynnette Grey Bull of Wyoming.
Mary Peltola (left), is Alaska’s first Native congresswoman. Lynnette Grey Bull (right) is running to become Wyoming’s first.
Let’s start with Rep. Peltola, a Yup’ik Alaska Native who — as you can see from her title — is currently serving as her state’s first Indigenous congresswoman. She won Alaska’s sole House seat earlier this year in a ranked choice special election. Both of her opponents, former Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Nick Begich, whose father and grandfather were both politicians on the national stage, came into the race with far greater name recognition. But thanks to a genuine understanding of the issues and an inclusive and uniquely Alaskan platform of “Fish, Family, and Freedom,” she made history. Now, she’s running for reelection against the same pair.
Lynnette, a candidate for Wyoming’s at-large seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, I know personally. She’s Hunkpapa Lakota (her father is from Standing Rock) and Northern Arapaho (her mother is from the Wind River Reservation). She faces an uphill battle in a traditionally very conservative state. But that hasn’t stopped her from mounting a progressive campaign that highlights issues such as a transition of Wyoming’s energy-based economy to one focused on renewables and addressing the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People. Critically, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade, both Lynnette and Rep. Peltola are also committed to reproductive freedom. Both support codifying a woman’s right to choose what happens with her own body.
Of course, their groundbreaking candidacies follow those mounted by current Kansas congresswoman Sharice Davids (Ho-Chunk Nation) and former New Mexico Congresswoman Deb Haaland (Pueblo of Laguna). In 2018, they became the first two Native women ever elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Haaland then went on to become the first Native Cabinet secretary in the history of our union when President Biden tapped her to lead the Department of the Interior (after folks like you helped us put the pressure on him).
I have deep respect for all of these hardworking and talented women. And while Lakota Law, as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, does not endorse candidates or political parties, I will say it’s my personal hope that they will continue to advance their careers and lead this nation forward in the years to come. In the meantime, know that Lakota Law will keep working to make sure all Native people across this country are ready, able, and willing to cast a ballot every election season.
Wopila tanka — my deep gratitude for your friendship and support!. Chase Iron Eyes Co-Director and Lead Counsel The Lakota People’s Law Project
When I was teaching in Sacramento, I took my class to the convention for a field trip. We saw many beautiful items for sale in the marketplace, we got to witness a ceremonial dance. An elder told my class a story. Above all, my students were able to see all the many tribal representatives from all over the state.
Don’t Miss Your Chance to Register for the NCAI 79th Annual Convention & Marketplace!This October, join NCAI in Sacramento, California, for the 79th Annual Convention & Marketplace! Those who attend will have the opportunity to work together to protect and advance tribal sovereignty. Tribal leaders, NCAI members, Native youth, and partners from across Indian Country will gather in person to discuss critical issues, develop strategy, and embark upon a new era of Nation-to-Nation engagement. Additionally, attendees and the general public will be able to browse the NCAI Marketplace, which features a variety of booths ranging from artists, to federal job recruiters, and much more!
Exhibitor Registration Closes SoonThe NCAI Marketplace offers exhibitors a premiere opportunity to interact with tribal leaders, national Native organizations, and other key figures from across Indian Country. Exhibitor registration ends Friday, October 14, 2022. Become an ExhibitorAttend a Pre-Conference WorkshopThis free workshop will provide a walk-through on how individuals and organizations can prepare a Get-Out-the-Vote plan of action for their communities. Participants will engage in discussion about election protection, how to become a poll worker, and much more.Register Now
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Hello again, and I wish you well on the eve of Indigenous Peoples’ Day! Now seems an appropriate time to examine some history. Until now, our “Water Wars” video series has largely explored the present-day conflict around the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL). Today, I invite you to watch our tenth chapter — co-produced again by Lakota Law, Standing Rock, and the Great Plains Water Alliance — in which we explore more of what led to this moment in time. This edition highlights the decades of sacrifice forced upon tribal nations as the U.S. government repeatedly flooded our homelands and uprooted us by building dams to block our great relative, the Mni Sose (Missouri River).
Watch me and the great Phyllis Young, Chase Iron Eyes, and others to talk about the long history of sacrifice demanded of Native nations to make way for dams along the Missouri River.
It all started with the passage of the Flood Control Act of 1944, which gave rise to the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Program. Pick-Sloan would go on to wreak havoc on tribal nations over the next several decades. The Oahe Dam at Standing Rock was one of seven installed to block the river. Its construction resulted in Lake Oahe, which now sits on the northern border of the Standing Rock reservation. Today, DAPL crosses directly beneath it, posing a direct threat to the water that sustains our people.
Damming the Mni Sose changed our way of life. Before then, my mom, Lakota Law Standing Rock organizer Phyllis Young, vividly recalls living in a paradise in the bottomlands near the river’s edge. But when the verdant area where my family had lived — filled with timberlands, plants, medicines, and wildlife, all gone now — disappeared under water, my mom and many others were forced to move into starker territory with none of the natural bounty they’d always known.
All this loss is real and remembered. But, in the end, it has galvanized our spirit. When, in 2016, DAPL came to our doorstep, we created a movement — which I’m grateful you share. So now, we must stick together for justice and honor the fighting spirit of those who preceded us. In this moment, we can and we will overcome, just as we have so many times before.
Wopila tanka — my gratitude for your solidarity! Wašté Win Young Legal Analyst The Lakota People’s Law Project
AP FILE Leonard Peltier at the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan. Peltier, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, is how at a prison in Florida and is requesting clemency from President Joe Biden. (Joe Ledford/The Kansas City Star via AP, File)
Leonard Peltier’s name has become a story that reflects other stories. One narrative describes Peltier as America’s longest political prisoner, serving more than 46 years in a federal maximum security prison. In that telling, Peltier has become a humanitarian and a 78-year-old Turtle Mountain elder who has been incarcerated for far too long.
There is a long list of people, tribes and organizations that have called for Peltier’s freedom. The former prosecutor in the case. Members of Congress. Amnesty International USA. Pope John Francis. The Dalai Lama. The National Congress of American Indians. Dozens of tribal nations, including Peltier’s own tribe, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. And, as of this month, the Democratic National Committee.
That’s one version. A contrary account casts Peltier as the lead character for the crimes committed by the American Indian Movement during the Wounded Knee era, including internal community violence, and he is described as a remorseless murderer.
That last story is still promoted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on its website. But Peltier is not in prison for murder. The government could not justify a murder case, so it switched gears and today Leonard Peltier is Inmate #89637-132 serving at the United States Penitentiary, Coleman, in central Florida, on charges of “aiding and abetting” the murder of federal officers, plus a seven-year sentence for an escape attempt.
Indeed Peltier has already served a longer sentence than most principals in murder convictions. There is no way to look at the evidence and come away with any conclusion other than Peltier is being punished for crimes that could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.
Kevin Sharp is a Nashville attorney, and former U.S. District Court judge, who is representing Peltier pro bono with a petition to President Joe Biden calling for clemency. That petition questions the role of the United States government saying “the FBI redoubled their efforts to secure a conviction,” including dropping other charges, so that the “weight of the Federal Government could be directed against Leonard Peltier.”
One of the problems is that even if guilty, Peltier has overserved.
“He’s overserved any sentence he should have,” Sharp said. “You got your pound of flesh. If that’s what you wanted, you got a guy who was there and you, he’s now 78 years old, and he’s got 46 years behind bars. What else do you want? Except for him to die. And we stopped talking about him that way, but that’s the worst thing that can happen because now you don’t start, stop talking about him. Now you’ve got this guy that you allowed to die in prison. It gets louder, not softer.”
Over the years the government first said Peltier shot the agents. Then later the prosecution switched the story to “we don’t know who killed the agents, but we know Leonard was there,” Sharp said.
“Okay. Congratulations. There were 40 other people there with weapons. There were lots of other people there that day. There were 150 agents there. One of them killed Joe Stuntz, a 21-year-old Native boy. We don’t know who killed him. We know it was one of the agents that they never went to figure it out. So those are the facts that we know. And if that case was tried today, there is no way it stands.”
Sharp said the Peltier’s trial would not stand scrutiny today.
“There aren’t even two sides,” he said. “We know that the witnesses were intimidated. We know that witnesses were threatened. We know that affidavits knowingly false affidavits were submitted to the courts. We know that when the trial took place and the prosecutor said, we only have this one piece of evidence, this shell casing, this ties Leonard to, to this shooting. We know now that they knew that wasn’t true. And we only learned years later after his conviction, that there had been a ballistics test that showed it wasn’t his weapon.”
In the White House petition Sharp argues that Peltier “remains a casualty of this country’s cruel and lawless war against American Indians his continued incarceration, moreover, is a constant reminder to Native communities that they are disposable in the eyes of the U.S. government and unworthy of the most basic protections afforded by our Constitution.”
It’s the failure of basic constitutional protections that power Sharp’s message: He left the federal bench because of what he saw as structural issues in the criminal justice system.
“I was forced because of mandatory minimums to sentence a young man to two life sentences,” Sharp recalled. “It was very frustrating to me because in order to become a federal judge, you’re vetted and investigated by the FBI, vetted and investigated by the White House, the Department of Justice, the Senate Judiciary committee, and they have their own investigators all for one reason … and that’s to satisfy themselves that you have the intellect and the temperament and the judgment to rule on these most important items in our country and that is dealing with somebody’s liberty.”
Sharp sent Chris Young to prison. And that crossed a line for him. So after six years as a federal judge, Sharp shifted gears and set out to defend justice. “That led me to the Trump Oval Office and working with Kim Kardashian to help free this young man. His name was Chris Young … and Chris is free today. We actually were able to secure clemency.”
AP FILE: Leonard Peltier in 1999 at the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan. (AP Photo/The Kansas City Star, Joe Ledford)
It was in that context that Sharp became interested in Leonard Peltier.
He received a package from Connie Nelson, the former wife of Willie Nelson. “And I sat down with this package and it was the trial transcripts from Leonard’s trial,” he said. “It was newspaper articles, court opinions, photographs, and I just started going through it and I am sucked in.”
Sharp saw holes in the government’s story.
“It was easy for me to see what happened, the misconduct by the prosecutors, by the investigators, the rulings by the court that would never stand today because the standard of review is different. All of that was easy for me,” he said. “What then has sucked me in for years since I first opened that package is the ‘why?’”
Why are there so many constitutional violations? What was going on? What led to this point?
“It was the context. That’s what sucked me into this and has aggravated me, has, you know, made me angry, made me sad, made me confused. ‘What are we doing? And why are we here? And that’s why Leonard Peltier is so important.’ This isn’t about people with guns on Pine Ridge, you know, South Dakota on June 26th, 1975. That’s part of it. But the real story is the why. And as, as one of the courts said in one of the court opinions, the United States government needs to take responsibility for what happened there that day.”
Sharp said there is no way that Peltier’s trial would meet today’s minimum standards of justice.
In 1986 the 8th U.S. Court of Appeals found that the government had failed to disclose evidence favorable to Peltier. This is what’s known as a “Brady violation” and it’s enough to require a new trial. But in Peltier’s case the rule was ignored. The district court “held that the October 2, 1975, teletype, evaluated in the context of the entire record, would not have affected the outcome of the trial and that, therefore, Peltier was not entitled to relief.”
Or consider the story of a self-proclaimed racist juror. Three women in Fargo slipped a note to the trial judge, Paul Benson, that said they were friends with the juror and she told them that she was really prejudiced against Indians. The judge asks her about the statement. “Yep, I said it. But I told you when you were asking me questions that I would set any prejudice I had. I’d be fair.” The judge says, “Thank you very much.” And the trial continued on and Juror Number 10 voted “guilty.”
That fact alone would be enough to reverse a trial.
“If that happened today, he gets a new trial,” Sharp said. “So it’s those things that drive me crazy. When I talk about, look, I, I believe in the Constitution, those are all constitutional violations. We get a new trial.”
The government’s prosecutors changed their theory in 1985 – after Peltier’s conviction. As the prosecutor Lynn Crooks told the appeals court, “we can’t prove who shot those agents.” Thus, Peltier was not actually convicted of murder instead he’s been in prison since 1977 on “adiding and abetting” the murder of federal officers.
Another former prosecutor in the case, James Reynolds, has called for clemency. In a letter to the president, Reynolds wrote that with the benefit of hindsight “I have realized that the prosecution and continued incarceration of Mr. Peltier was and is unjust. We were not able to prove that Mr. Peltier personally committed any offense on the Pine Ridge Reservation.”
One other story told about Peltier is not directly related to his aiding and abetting conviction – and that’s the tie to the Anna Mae Aquash murder investigation. The American Indian Movement at first blamed the FBI for Anna Mae Aquash’s murder in February of 1976. But later information surfaced that she was murdered by AIM because she was suspected of being an informer. Aquash’s family said Peltier was involved and was aware of her killer. Two former AIM members, Arlo Looking Cloud and John Graham, were convicted of killing Aquash.
Sharp points out that Peltier has never been charged in connection with Aquash.
In a statement this week, Thalia Carroll-Cachimuel, executive director of the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, said “there has been an extraordinary volume of misinformation spread regarding Leonard Peltier. Leonard Peltier’s conviction and perverse length of his incarceration are emblematic of the racist mistreatment of American Indians by law enforcement that existed throughout Indian Country for decades. If there is evidence that has never before been produced, then we encourage its unveiling if the true motive is justice. If the motive is simply to support Mr. Peltier’s unjust imprisonment, the bar must be set much higher.”
Peltier’s petition for clemency will be up to President Biden. Just this month a resolution enacted by the Democratic National Committee said the party’s platform already says the president should use clemency “to secure the release of those serving unduly long sentences.”
And, in Peltier’s case, “given the overwhelming support for clemency, the constitutional due process issues underlying Mr. Peltier’s prosecution, his status as an elderly inmate, and that he is an American Indian, who suffer from greater rates of health disparities and severe underlying health conditions, Mr. Peltier is a good candidate to be granted mercy and leniency; and … it is highly appropriate that consideration of clemency for Mr. Peltier be prioritized and expedited, so that Mr. Peltier can return to his family and live his final years among his people.”
Peltier’s petition says the time for clemency is now because his health is fading. “Leonard suffers from a variety of ailments, including kidney disease, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, a heart condition, bone spurs in his feet, a degenerative joint disease, constant shortness of breath and dizziness, and painful injuries to his jaw. A stroke in 1986 left Leonard virtually blind in one eye,” the clemency petition says. “Prison doctors advised Leonard that the condition required surgery, but the maximum-security prison where he is incarcerated does not have the capacity to treat the condition. Leonard’s physical condition is dire, and he cannot physically defend himself in prison, let alone threaten anyone with harm.”
Buffalo represents Fargo in the legislature, the city where Peltier’s trial originally took place. She said has heard from constituents “regardless of party affiliation” supporting clemency because of the constitutional violations.
“One thing that has kept us going is so many of us unfortunately have relatives and loved ones who are currently in the criminal justice system or who have thankfully made it out of serving time behind bars,” she said. And so Peltier’s long prison time is “something an issue that definitely hits home for many of us.”
She said Peltier should come home.
“I know there’s so many people who have been praying since the seventies for Leonard’s release,” Buffalo said. “And so we know that there’s many grandmas and elder women at Turtle Mountain who pray for Leonard on a daily basis.”
This whole case is a reflection of injustice, she said, and it must be resolved in order to heal communities. She said: “Leonard’s release is one sure way to make sure that we are on a path towards healing.”
Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, is ICT’s editor-at-large. On Twitter: @TrahantReports Trahant is based in Phoenix. The Indigenous Economics Project is funded with a major grant from the Bay and Paul Foundations.
Lakota Law livestreams are back, y’all! Continuing in the tradition of “Cut to the Chase,” I’m organizing informative panels hosted by our Lakota leaders and featuring Indigenous guests from across Turtle Island and beyond. Co-produced by Indigenous Peoples Movement and Last Real Indians, “In Critical Times” streams will be available to view live or later on social media, and they take place every other Wednesday at 7 p.m. Eastern. This week, we had a trio of great guests join host Chase Iron Eyes for a deep dive on the Doctrine of Discovery. I encourage you to watch the whole discussion here!
Click the pic to watch this informative discussion led by Lakota Law’s Chase Iron Eyes.
Our guest experts for this episode — Shawnee/Lenape scholar Steven Newcomb, Indigenous Peoples Movement co-founder Jen Martel, and Sicangu Lakota Treaty Council Executive Director Phil Two Eagle — really brought some fantastic perspective on the Doctrine, which forms the horrifyingly racist underpinning for the Christian colonial world’s justification for expanding into Indigenous territory.
The Doctrine, which stems from a papal bull written in the late 1400s, argued that Christian monarchies should be able to subdue non-Christian lands, at will, under divine right. The fact that this dangerous foolishness still influences public international law and Federal Indian Law should disturb every one of us. This 84-minute conversation is well worth the watch — all the way through. I think you’ll likely learn some new things and understand even more deeply why your friendship means so much to us.
Shonabish Chi — thank you for tuning in! Earth Hadjo Online Events Coordinator The Lakota People’s Law Project
As we near this year’s midterm elections in November, I’m pleased to report that good things are happening that bode well for Native participation in our democracy. If you’ve been following us for a bit, you may recall that the Lakota People’s Law Project has been participating as a plaintiff in a landmark lawsuit against the State of South Dakota for its repeated noncompliance with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA, also sometimes called the “motor voter” law). A while back, we let you know we were close to a settlement that would make access to voting much easier for residents — especially Native People — in South Dakota. Today, I’m happy to announce that we’ve won! The case is officially closed, and we achieved everything we set out to do. You can check out the article in Native News Online right here.
Click above to read the story in Native News Online.
As the news story above indicates, voters all across South Dakota (but especially Native People, who have been disproportionately affected by the state’s violations of federal law) will greatly benefit from the settlement. The Federal Court found that, among other violations, South Dakota failed to automatically update voter registration addresses of voters who change their driver’s license address; refused to provide voter registration services to individuals who lack an existing driver’s license number or Social Security number; failed to forward completed voter registration applications to county election officials in a timely way; didn’t properly train state employees or conduct internal oversight sufficient to ensure NVRA compliance; and failed to ensure that driver’s license “issue sites” — common in Indian Country and other rural areas in South Dakota — provide voter registration services.
The settlement ensures that, over the next three years, South Dakota will implement policies and practices to fully comply with the NVRA. Among the key elements are a provision that the state designate a statewide NVRA coordinator to oversee compliance with the law by all relevant state agencies. It also mandates that the state develop a comprehensive NVRA curriculum to provide annual training to county election officials, employees of driver’s license offices, and public assistance agency workers on their voter registration responsibilities. Importantly to South Dakota’s Native residents, the state must also amend its voter registration application form to allow voters without a postal address to provide a description of the physical location of their residence.
Thanks to this lawsuit, over the coming years, Native People in South Dakota should be given a fair shake at election time. That will be crucial in building the change we want to see. So now, it’s time to make sure my relatives exercise their right to vote. And on that note, I’m very excited to announce that Lakota Law’s 2022 Native vote campaign is just about ready to launch! Keep an eye on your email next week, because we have a big announcement coming your way. We think you’ll be as excited about it as we are. Please stay tuned!
Wopila tanka — thank you, always, for standing up for Indigenous rights. Wašté Win Young Legal Analyst The Lakota People’s Law Project
Lakota People’s Law Project 547 South 7th Street #149 Bismarck, ND 58504-5859
The Wounded Knee Memorial and cemetery, shown here in a 2018 file photo, marks the site where more than 250 Lakota men, women and children were massacred by U.S. soldiers in 1890 in South Dakota. The memorial land was already owned by the Oglala Sioux Tribe, but the tribal council voted Sept. 7, 2022, to join with the Cheyenne River Sioux to buy the remaining 40-acre parcel of the historic landmark from a non-Native owner. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/Indian Country Today)
It was the last resolution of the day but it was a stunner.
The Oglala Sioux tribal council voted in an historic decision Sept. 7 to purchase 40 acres of Wounded Knee land from Jeanette Czywczynski for $500,000 – a move that now puts the entire Wounded Knee National Historic Landmark site under ownership of the Oglala Sioux.
Sold for far less than the $3.9 million price demanded by her now-deceased husband, James Czywczynski, the land now includes a covenant to preserve it as a sacred site and memorial without commercial development.
The vote passed with 15 members voting yes, three voting no and one member not voting. Those opposing the resolution expressed concern over allowing the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe 49 percent ownership of the land.
“Our tribes have come together through war and times of need. It’s not just our relatives buried there (on Wounded Knee land),” said council member Julian Spotted Bear, who supported the purchase.
According to the resolution, the Oglala Sioux tribe will pay $255,000 and the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe will pay $245,000 for the site, and agree to petition the U.S. Department of the Interior to take the land into trust on behalf of both tribes. The title to the land will be held in the name of the Oglala Sioux tribe.
The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe made the decision to participate in the purchase about a week ago, according to Chairman Harold Frazier.
“Many of those massacred at Wounded Knee were from the Minneconjou band on Cheyenne River,” Frazier said.
“When I heard about it, I said, ‘We have to buy it; let’s buy it. That’s our ancestors’ resting place. We need to respect them,'” he said.
The agreement ends a decades-long dispute over land that is the site of the historic Wounded Knee massacre of 1890 in which hundreds of Lakota men, women and children were killed by U.S. soldiers of the 7th cavalry using machine guns in an attempt to suppress the Ghost Dance, a Lakota religious movement. Victims were buried in a mass grave in a nearby Catholic cemetery.
American Indian Movement leaders join in a solemn moment in 1973 just before the signing of a statement ending the bloody standoff between federal forces and the AIM members at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. (AP File Photo/Jim Mone)
The property, which includes a portion of the Wounded Knee National Historic Landmark, has become a potent, painful reminder of brutal federal violence used to suppress Indigenous peoples.
Jeanette Czywczynski became sole owner of the property after her husband, James, died in 2019. James Czywczynski purchased the property in 1968.
The Czywczynski family operated a trading post and museum there until 1973, when American Indian Movement protesters occupied the site, destroying both the post and Czywczynski’s home.
The family moved away from the area and put the land up for sale, asking $3.9 million for the 40-acre parcel nearest the massacre site. The land, including an additional adjacent 40-acre plot, had been assessed at $14,000.
The issue of Wounded Knee ownership became a national symbol of a century of unscrupulous treatment of Native people by the U.S. government and non-Natives.
For a time, Czywczynski toyed with the idea of partnering with developers to build a motel and gas station near the site. He later offered the land to the Oglala Sioux tribe for sale but grew bitter and frustrated over negotiations.
Some tribal members wanted to develop the site for commercial purposes and some opposed such a plan, maintaining that it should be shielded from development and maintained as a sacred site.
In 2013, film star Johnny Depp announced a plan to buy the property and donate it to the Oglala Sioux tribe. Depp, who played the role of Tonto in a remake of the film, “The Lone Ranger,” was criticized for trying to capitalize on the film and for his misappropriation of Native culture. He was also criticized for making unsubstantiated claims of having Native ancestry. Depp did not follow through on the purchase.
In 2016, Lakota journalist Tim Giago, founder of Indian Country Today, announced plans to purchase the Wounded Knee land for $3.9 million and went to work fundraising the purchase price.
Giago, who grew up in the town of Wounded Knee, said he wanted to put the land into trust for the entire Sioux Nation. Giago’s plans, however, fell through. He died in July 2022 at age 88.
The Oglala Sioux tribe already owned the land containing the Wounded Knee cemetery and mass grave of the 1890 massacre victims. Red Cloud Indian School recently returned about one acre of land to the tribe where Sacred Heart Church once stood.
Leaders from the Oglala Sioux tribe did not respond to ICT’s request for comment. ICT was unable to reach Jeannette Czywczynski.
Our stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories are worth your support. Contribute $5 or $10 today to help ICT (formerly Indian Country Today) carry out its critical mission. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter.
One in six children in California’s Central Valley have asthma. It’s a clear environmental injustice, one that our sister program, Let’s Green CA!, is working hard to correct. Now, they’re on the doorstep of a big win.
Earlier this year, Let’s Green CA! partnered with legendary activist Dolores Huerta and her foundation to reduce toxic air pollution and cut greenhouse gas emissions by increasing access to clean cars. And the great news is that their clean car equity bill, SB 1230, just passed the California State Assembly; it will soon head to Governor Newsom’s desk for his signature. Today, I invite you to take a look at Let’s Green CA’s new video, which examines the human impact of toxic air pollution in California’s Central Valley, then send a message to Gov. Newsom in support of SB 1230. Newsom’s signature is the last step on SB 1230’s journey to becoming law, so it’s time to rally together and get this done!
Click the image to watch LGCA’s new video (featuring the one and only Dolores Huerta) and take action for clean air.
Toxic air pollution is making children and families sick, and the climate crisis only exacerbates this injustice. The Let’s Green CA! team understands that climate action is one of the best ways we can protect frontline communities — and all communities. So I encourage you to send your message to the governor and stand in solidarity in this fight for environmental justice today.
Wopila — my thanks for your awareness and action. DeCora Hawk Field Organizer The Lakota People’s Law Project
P.S. I’m proud of my colleagues at Let’s Green CA! Help push their bill across the finish line by urging Governor Newsom to sign SB 1230 into law today.
As we all find ways to escape the summer heat, I want you to look at the picture below. That’s Jenny Gulch at Pactola Lake, one of the most beautiful spots in the sacred He Sapa — known to settlers as the Black Hills of South Dakota. The people of the Oceti Sakowin were this land’s original stewards and protectors. But, because the federal government won’t adhere to the treaties it made with us, these pristine headwaters of the Rapid Creek watershed are now controlled by the National Forest Service. And instead of protecting this sensitive ecosystem, that agency is accepting mining applications and permitting dangerous, toxic drilling.
Jenny Gulch is one of South Dakota’s natural gems. This beautiful spot at the Rapid Creek headwaters in the sacred He Sapa should never be defaced and polluted by miners.
Fortunately, the Forest Service doesn’t just get to rubber stamp their approval on this one. The public comment period is open for another few weeks, and we need to make all the noise we can. We’re not alone in this fight. As I wrote to you a couple months back, just like the Oglala Nation, the good people of the Black Hills Clean Water Alliance are working overtime to raise awareness. Even the City Council for Rapid City voted to pass a resolution in opposition to the Forest Service’s finding of no significant environmental impact at Jenny Gulch.
No significant impact? The history of mining and exploration in the Black Hills tells a very different story. Mining here over the past seven decades created the need for four separate toxic Superfund sites — polluted locations which require a long-term response to clean up contamination from hazardous materials including arsenic, mercury, and cyanide. About $100 million of public money has already been spent to try and fix just one of those sites, with no end in sight.
So I hope you’ll get to know more about mining in the Black Hills, join the Oglala Nation’s call (and ours), and share all this information with your family and friends. It’s going to take pushback from all quarters to stop the new gold rush in the sacred He Sapa, but it’s worth every second of our time to do so. Because I think you’ll agree: We have to protect Unci Maka, our Grandmother Earth, and some things are worth more than gold.
Wopila tanka — thank you for protecting our homelands! DeCora Hawk Field Organizer The Lakota People’s Law Project
WARNING: This story contains disturbing details about residential and boarding schools. If you are feeling triggered, here is a resource list for trauma responses from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition in the U.S. In Canada, the National Indian Residential School Crisis Hotline can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.
The excavation is part of what the school calls its own search for truth and reconciliation as the U.S. and Canada continue to search for unmarked graves at former Indian residential or boarding schools.
“We are committed to the process of being transparent,” said Maka Black Elk, executive director for Truth and Healing at Red Cloud Indian School. Black Elk is a citizen of the Oglala Lakota tribe.
“We will investigate places that have been identified by eyewitness testimony (of the presence of graves),” Black Elk said.
Drexel Hall, a former dormitory on the Red Cloud Indian School campus on the Pine Ridge reservation, is more than 100 years old. School leaders will begin excavation of a corner of the basement in October 2022 to search for unmarked graves after ground-penetrating radar was inconclusive. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/ICT)
In May, Marsha Small, Northern Cheyenne, and technicians from Ohio Valley Archaeology Inc. used ground-penetrating radar to conduct an analysis of the front lawn of the school as well as an area in the basement of Drexel Hall, a former student dorm.
According to the radar report, there were no indications of graves in the area of the school’s lawn.
Rumors of unmarked graves and missing students have circulated in the Pine Ridge community for years but have seldom included eyewitness testimony, until now.
A former worker at the school came forward recently to report he had seen what looked like small graves in the basement in the 1990s – with small crosses marking each one.
“These stories are rooted in horrific truths of the broader boarding school past,” Black Elk said.
Red Cloud Indian School was originally opened as Holy Rosary Mission in 1888 by Jesuits, a Catholic order of priests. The name was changed to Red Cloud in 1969. In 1980, the school ceased offering boarding and now functions as a day school serving about 600 students.
Red Cloud now operates as a nonprofit organization describing itself as “a Lakota Jesuit Catholic Institution administered by the Jesuits and Lakota people.”
Unlike discoveries of unmarked graves at Canada’s Indian residential schools, however, where hundreds of bodies have been discovered at several former school sites, the allegations of graves in the basement of Drexel Hall raise more sinister concerns.
Drexel Hall was built more than 100 years ago, serving first as a student dorm and later as a convent for nuns who worked at the school. Today, the building houses offices for school staff and the Heritage Center, an art gallery and gift shop.
Marsha Small and technicians from Ohio Valley Archaeology Inc. use ground penetrating radar to scan the basement of Drexel Hall on the Red Cloud Indian School campus in May 2022. Officials decided to dig up the concrete and excavate the area after radar findings were inconclusive about whether unmarked graves may be underneath. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember/ICT)
“Red Cloud wasn’t a boarding school in the 1990s when the graves were first discovered, so we will be involving law enforcement in addition to members of the community when we excavate the area,” Black Elk said.
“This is a hard conversation for our community to have,” he said. “If our GPR work helps open the door to those conversations, then hopefully that leads people to healing.”
Not everyone in the Pine Ridge community is confident in the school’s show of transparency.
Dusty Lee Nelson, of the Oglala Lakota tribe, describes the school’s truth and healing efforts as a charade, saying that letting the Catholic Church and Red Cloud lead its own investigations into wrongdoing is the opposite of transparency.
“It’s all about mitigating damage control,” she said.
She said most efforts have been focused on a small group of Lakota Catholics.
On Aug. 16, for example, Jesuit Father General Arturo Sosa visited the school, but his presence was not widely publicized in the community.
Sosa, whose office is in Rome, is the leader of the Society of Jesus, the largest religious order of priests and brothers in the Catholic Church. Red Cloud was founded by Jesuit priests, as was St. Francis Indian School on the Rosebud Reservation. St. Francis has been tribally controlled since 1979.
“On behalf of the Society of Jesus, I apologize for the ways in which St. Francis and Holy Rosary Missions and boarding schools were for decades complicit in the U.S. government’s reprehensible assimilation policies, trying to eradicate your culture,” he said. “I ask for your forgiveness for that and for any other abuses that your ancestors may have suffered.”
In response to ICT’s inquiry about why the broader community was not notified of Sosa’s visit, Black Elk said, “I think the feeling was to keep his visit intimate. So we informed our community and parents. But didn’t do anything big with press.”
A video of Sosa speaking at Red Cloud was posted on the school’s website shortly after ICT inquired about the visit.
Sosa promised to take demands from leadership of both the Oglala Lakota and Rosebud Sioux tribes for the Catholic church to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery to Pope Francis. The letter, signed by Kevin Killer, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, was posted on the tribe’s Facebook page.
Demands have escalated in recent months to rescind the doctrine, a foundational document guiding Catholic and Christian occupation of the Americas. The doctrine is composed of bulls or orders handed down in the 1400s by Catholic popes authorizing agents of European monarchs to dominate Indigenous lands and people by any means necessary. The doctrine helped shape the entirety of the White settler relationship with Indigenous peoples in the Americas and is the genesis of U.S. federal Indian law.
But the issue is dividing the community. Since speaking out publicly about Red Cloud’s truth and healing efforts, Nelson said she has become a target for community members who disagree with her.
“I’m tired of being the one to say things,” she said. “God bless the [Indigenous Youth Council]. They are organizing and approaching these issues. Activism has been demonized here.”
School leaders said in a statement posted to the school website that the next round of work in the Drexel Hall basement is set for this fall.
“We will be working again with Marsha Small and OVAI to follow their recommendations,” the statement said.
“The removal of concrete and excavation will take place in October 2022 where law enforcement, spiritual advisors and the community member who brought forward the testimony will be present.”
Our stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories are worth your support. Contribute $5 or $10 today to help ICT (formerly Indian Country Today) carry out its critical mission. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter.
A couple weeks back, I was honored to join a delegation to Washington, D.C. led by Standing Rock Chairwoman Janet Alkire. We met with congressional reps and other decision makers to inspire action to stop the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL). As the pipeline’s legally mandated Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) continues to stall despite the clear and present danger to Standing Rock and the Mni Sose — the Missouri River — this was mission critical. You can click here to watch our latest Water Wars video, produced in conjunction with Standing Rock, the Oceti Sakowin, and the Great Plains Water Alliance, which highlights our productive meeting with Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.).
Watch: I joined Standing Rock Chairwoman Janet Alkire (right) for her delegation to Washington, D.C. We had several excellent conversations about DAPL, including one with Rep. Rashida Tlaib (left).
You may recall that, in 2021, members of the Squad — progressive millennial women leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives including Tlaib, AOC, Ayanna Pressley, Cori Bush, and Ilhan Omar — joined us and other Indigenous justice leaders in Minnesota to combat the Line 3 pipeline. And, of course, in 2017 AOC visited Standing Rock to take part in the #NoDAPL resistance, inspiring her run for Congress. These true leaders recognize the dangers of pipelines and care about what happens to us. Their support remains critical, but frankly it isn’t enough. We need other lawmakers and the executive branch to recognize DAPL’s danger and help us stop the oil before it spills and creates an emergency for our people.
As we pointed out during our meetings in D.C., the Army Corps of Engineers has repeatedly failed to provide Standing Rock with an adequate emergency response plan for DAPL. It has only shared a redacted version, which prevents us from planning on our own. This is particularly concerning now, because extremely low water levels in the Mni Sose have made accessing potential leak sites a logistical nightmare. We pray that something will be done before it’s too late.
In the meantime, please take a few minutes to watch our video and stay ready to take action. Eventually, the Corps will have to release its sham EIS. When it does, your voice will be critical. The public comment period will offer us an opportunity to stand strong together — again — for the water, for the people, and for our future.
Wopila tanka — thank you, as ever, for standing with Standing Rock and the Oceti Sakowin. Chase Iron Eyes Co-Director and Lead Counsel The Lakota People’s Law Project
This hideous brochure was handed out to Oglala youth at the Pine Ridge Nation. Once our Tribal Council was alerted, it took emergency action by passing an ordinance (since rescinded) banning all missionary work on our reservation. The ordinance was rescinded a few days later, mainly because folks had events — such as weddings and funerals — scheduled. Still, previous law requiring review and registration of religious entities will now be enforced with greater vigor, and my community is once again reckoning with the living history of colonization, particularly by western faith organizations. As you probably know, our relationship as Native People to the Catholic Church is long and, for the most part, horrific. To this day, Federal Indian Law still cites the Doctrine of Discovery — which originated in the Catholic Church in the 1490s — as a justification for our subjugation. For five centuries, European powers “discovered” and colonized Indigenous lands using the legal argument that, because Christians didn’t yet inhabit them, those lands were fair game. Of course, we all know what happened in the wake of this colonization: forced migrations, broken treaties, the Indian boarding school era, and the continued taking of our children by state agencies. And last week, while Pine Ridge was confronting yet another manifestation of the colonial mindset, Pope Francis took a trip to Canada to apologize for the Church’s role in the boarding school era — later even acknowledging it as genocide. I, for one, am happy to see progress; but I’ll be happier when he rescinds the Doctrine of Discovery.
Pope Francis dons a ceremonial warbonnet during his apology tour in so-called Canada. Ugh. Photo from the AP. Obviously, we still have a long way to go and many truths to tell before we, as Native peoples, can heal from the generational trauma inflicted by centuries of colonization. It’s going to have to be one step at a time. In the meantime, I’m proud of my friends — the activists who brought their concerns to the attention of our Tribal Council at Pine Ridge. I actually helped to establish the Oglala Lakota chapter of the International Indigenous Youth Council, which spearheaded that organizing. I’m hopeful that we can move forward with better understanding. Churches will now have to register with the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and existing religious establishments will have until Oct. 24 to clear their activities with the Tribal Council. It’s a start. Wopila tanka — thank you for your understanding and solidarity. DeCora Hawk Field OrganizerThe Lakota People’s Law Project Lakota People’s Law Project 547 South 7th Street #149 Bismarck, ND 58504-5859
MASKWACIS, Alberta, Canada — Mavis LongJohn sat with her sister at the top of the arbor bleachers where just moments earlier Pope Francis had offered apologies for the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s residential school system.
The crowd was dispersing quickly as the Pope’s helicopter disappeared into the overcast sky on its way back to Edmonton.
LongJohn had traveled from Sturgeon Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan to Maskwacis First Nation as part of her own healing journey. She went to the St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Duck Lake, Saskatchewan, and she carries not only her own story but those of her parents and her late sister.
“I cried,” she told ICT about hearing the Pope’s apology. “I was looking down on the ground because my deceased parents were residential school survivors as well. I had an older sister who passed away in 1996, who is not able to hear what the pope has said. My mom passed away two weeks ago — she was 91 — and she was unable to experience this event, but hopefully she is looking down from the spirit world.”
The Pope’s apology drew applause from the thousands of people gathered Monday at Maskwacis on the site of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School, but it also drew tears among many in the crowd.
For some, the apology was not enough for the generations lost to the trauma of residential schools, some of whom remain in unmarked graves on school grounds. For others, it was a start toward healing that would begin with forgiveness.
“I am deeply sorry,” the Pope said Monday, in his first visit to Indigenous lands in Canada. “In the face of this deplorable evil, the church kneels before God and implores his forgiveness for the sins of her children.”
The Pope also acknowledged that his apology – and his recounting of the harsh conditions and abuse many of the students suffered after being forced from their families to attend school – would stir bad memories.
“The memory of those children is indeed painful,” he said. “We want to walk together, to pray together, to work together, so that the sufferings of the past can lead to a future of justice, healing and reconciliation.”
He continued, “It is necessary to remember how the policies of assimilation … were devastating for the peoples of these lands,” he said, citing the “physical, verbal, psychological and spiritual abuse” of the children.
Wilton Littlechild, a Cree chief who served as grand chief of the Confederacy of the Treaty Six First Nations who served as a member of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said the apology was important for many residential school survivors like him. (Photo by Miles Morrisseau/ICT)
Wilton Littlechild, a Cree chief who served as grand chief of the Confederacy of the Treaty Six First Nations and who is a residential school survivor, heard testimony from hundreds of survivors while serving as a member of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
For many, he said, the apology mattered.
“This is the been a journey for many Indigenous peoples who wanted to see this day happen, in tears, sometimes in anger, who said to me, ‘I just want to hear three words from the Pope in front of me, ‘I am sorry,” for what happened to me as a child,” Littlechild told ICT.
“I was just following their instructions all these years making sure he made that commitment. And sure enough, here we are.”
‘Pain and remorse’
More than 150,000 Indigenous children in Canada were taken from their families and forced to attend government-funded schools in an effort to isolate them from their families, traditions and language.
The Catholic Church’s missionaries operated more than 60 percent of the 139 residential schools in Canada that received government funds, and more than one-fourth of the more than 400 board schools in the United States. Thousands more attended church-run schools.
The schools were designed to assimilate the children into mainstream society, so their hair was cut, they were beaten for speaking their language, and they often suffered physical or sexual abuse. Many of them died at school, never to return home.
In 2008, Canada issued a formal apology for its role in operating the residential schools, and formed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to create a historical record of the history and enduring trauma. The commission’s harshly worded report issued in 2015 concluded the school system amounted to cultural genocide.
The commission was part of the $1.9 billion Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement reached in 2006 between the government and 86,000 Indigenous people who attended the schools as children between 1870 and 1997.
The push for an apology intensified in May 2021 with the discovery of 215 remains of children in unmarked graves around the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. The finding set off a search for additional graves across Canada and the United States that is ongoing.
The Pope’s apology Monday came after a delegation of survivors, elders, knowledge keepers and youths met with him in April at the Vatican. He made several references in his speech Monday to the meeting, which he said revived his own “deep sense of pain and remorse” over the brutal school system.
It was then he launched six-day “penitential pilgrimage” that will take him to the homelands of Canada’s three Indigenous communities — First Nations, Métis and Inuit.
The long-awaited apology, however, brought renewed calls for reconciliation and reparations for the wrongs that were done.
Three national Indigenous leaders held a news conference after the Pope’s speech to call for maintaining a unified front in dealing with the boarding school history.
“When we were in Rome, we demonstrated that unity and how we can work together on something that has impacted all of our families and communities,” said Métis National Council President Cassiday Caron.
Three national Indigenous leaders held a news conference after the Pope’s speech to call for maintaining a unified front in dealing with the boarding school history. They are, from left, Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald; Métis National Council President Cassiday Caron; and Natan Obed, national president of the Inuit Tapirit Kanatami. (Photo by Miles Morrisseau/ICT)
Natan Obed, national president of the Inuit Tapirit Kanatami, was among the estimated 65-70 Inuits who made the journey to Maskwacis.
“I appreciated the remarks for being comprehensive and the sincerity that the remarks were given really resonated with me,” he said. “I hope that others felt that as well. But also, the understanding that this was about taking away our cultures, our languages, ripping families apart, there was a place for that in the speech and the recognition that that happened.”
Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald was disappointed the Pope did not renounce the Doctrine of Discovery, which has allowed nations to usurp tribal lands as “discoveries.”
She said she did not hear the apology that she and others had wanted to hear.
“I didn’t hear him specifically say that he was apologizing and saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ on behalf of the Catholic Church,” Archibald said. “He talked again about evils committed by Christians, he talked about being out of sync with the teachings of Jesus, but I didn’t hear it clearly… I really was hoping that those words would come out, that ‘I am sorry for what the Catholic Church as an institution has done to destroy your communities and your families,’ and I didn’t hear that.”
She continued, “I know that this today is about forgiveness for some people and there are people have come with that love and forgiveness in their arms, and there are other people who just don’t feel like we quite got there today. I’m one of those people.”
The focus now appears to be shifting to what comes next.
The National Congress of American Indians, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of tribal governments and communities, issued an open letter to the Pope calling on the church to release records that could help identify the children who attended, including those who died, and make a similar pilgrimage to the United States.
“The Catholic Church holds important records about Federal Indian boarding schools that can help bring the truth to light,” wrote NCAI President Fawn Sharp. “We cannot hold abusers accountable, seek redress for harm or reconcile with the Church, government institutions, and in some cases, our own communities and families, until we know the full, unadulterated truth – truth the Catholic Church is actively withholding. It is crucial we have church support and partnership in working to bring the truth to light.”
Sandi Harper, of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, who attended the papal event in honor of her late mother, a former residential school student, said healing will take time. Some Indigenous people are not yet ready for reconciliation.
“It’s something that is needed, not only for people to hear but for the church to be accountable,” she said. “We just need to give people the time to heal. It’s going to take a long time.”
The Pope finished his day greeting followers at the Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples in Edmonton.
This article contains material from The Associated Press.
Earlier this week, I wrote to you about the exciting progress we’re making with my grandmothers’ group toward creating a tribally-run Child Welfare Department here at the Cheyenne River Nation. I also mentioned that our legal team was on the verge of completing the draft of an amicus brief for the Supreme Court that will help protect the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), a federal law that keeps Native foster children in Native homes. Today, I’m happy to report that our draft brief has been completed and submitted for feedback to partner organizations who are part of the Tribal Supreme Court Project.
Protecting ICWA at the Supreme Court level goes hand-in-hand with my work to keep our children within kinship circles in my community.
Winning justice for our next generations and expanding tribal sovereignty will depend on a coordinated approach. Because ICWA’s fate will be determined by a dangerously conservative Supreme Court, our legal arguments must be well-measured and synced with our partners. Additionally, our work inside the courtroom must be paired with a continued focus on grassroots organizing in partnership with the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribes to shore up tribally controlled foster care and adoption programs — especially in the event that ICWA gets struck down or modified later this year.
But the first line of defense is doing everything we can to preserve what we already have: ICWA is a good federal law that protects kids. The chair of our Advisory Board is former South Dakota Senator James Abourezk, who also happens to be ICWA’s primary creator. Now, Sen. Abourezk is co-authoring our amicus brief to the Supreme Court. We’re helping to communicate his detailed knowledge to the justices, and we believe his powerful testimony can help create key swing votes in our favor.
My deep appreciation to you for standing in our corner. Together, we can meet this pivotal moment. I’ve been active on the front lines of Native justice for five decades, and Lakota Law has worked to defend ICWA for more than 20 years. There’s nothing we haven’t seen, and there’s no fight we can’t win if we stay unified, work smart, and fight hard.
Wopila tanka — thank you for being a protector! Madonna Thunder Hawk Cheyenne River Organizer The Lakota People’s Law Project
Good news! Here at the Cheyenne River Nation, things are on track toward our goal of creating a tribally-run Child Welfare Department. Just last week, we held our second hearing in Eagle Butte, our reservation’s largest community. We recorded powerful testimony from several families, which we will ultimately present to the Cheyenne River Tribal Council.
I encourage you to watch our new video, in which Virginia White Feather — one of my fellow grandmothers in Wasagiya Najin, our Standing Strong grandmothers’ group — and I talk about the importance of our efforts to keep Native children in Native care.
Watch: My grandmothers’ group, Wasagiya Najin, is standing strong to create a tribally-run Child Welfare Department at Cheyenne River — and we’re making good progress!
We grandmas lead this charge because we’re the best ones to do it. We have deep respect from our communities, and in a culture that greatly values and relies upon kinship connections, we’re often the ones who step in to caretake for our grandchildren. Our connections run deep. That’s extra important when trust can be hard to come by, given that our children and families have been let down time and again.
As you likely know by now, South Dakota’s child welfare system doesn’t hold proper respect for our kinship ties, and our children are routinely taken from us. Our people, therefore, tend to be skeptical of anyone offering solutions, but they know that we grandmothers — who spend every day organizing within our communities and caring for the next generations — mean business.
We want wrap-around services for our children and caretakers. We intend to make sure they can remain together, here in a safe place, and that our families have what they need. We won’t stop organizing, and we’ll have even more to report soon. Our next target is editing video from our various hearings to present at Tribal Council and motivate them to act. It’s exciting, because we have a golden opportunity to create a far better system that recognizes the old ways in service of our next generations.
Meanwhile, Lakota Law’s legal team just submitted our draft amicus brief for review by sister organizations in the Supreme Court case about the Indian Child Welfare Act. The Court will hear the case in October, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. We’ll have much more to report on that project soon, as well. Please stay tuned!
Wopila tanka — thank you for standing strong for our children. Madonna Thunder Hawk Cheyenne River Organizer The Lakota People’s Law Project
As many of you know, the Lakota People’s Law Project is a proud ally of Standing Rock. We provide media, fundraising, organizing, and lobbying support to the tribal chairwoman’s team, especially on environmental causes like the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). In this capacity, we’re traveling next week to Washington D.C. to support Chairwoman Janet Alkire as she meets with key decision-makers about the ongoing injustice of DAPL.
More on that soon — but for now, we’d like to share our new video with you, made in collaboration with Chairwoman Alkire’s team, the Oceti Ŝakowiŋ, and the Great Plains Tribal Water Alliance. It brings tribal leaders together from all over South Dakota to speak about the necessity to protect Unci Maka (Grandmother Earth) from Big Extraction’s misdeeds, like Dakota Access.
Watch: Janet Alkire and Oceti Ŝakowiŋ camp leaders reflect on the importance of the #NoDAPL movement to protecting Unci Maka (Grandmother Earth).
The stakes of our environmental movement remain as high as ever for all humans, plants, and animals. The year 2022 is on track to be one of the hottest on record. To make a difference we must act locally while thinking globally. Local for me means the Dakotas, where Standing Rock’s water supply (and that of 17 million others) is still in jeopardy from an illegal oil pipeline without a permit.
Why is it operating without a permit? Because the company hired by the federal government to do the environmental impact statement (EIS) was among those who joined a lawsuit against Standing Rock early in the NoDAPL movement. Of course, Standing Rock’s leaders won’t accept this, so there is a standoff at the moment with the feds. The Army Corps of Engineers has now postponed the release of their flawed EIS until next year, and that gives the tribe more time to fight back and demand that a decent company conduct a new assessment.
As you’re aware, Big Oil has a stranglehold on American politics. Wind power is the cheapest energy source available today — there’s enough wind in just the Dakotas and Texas to power the entire United States. But instead of shifting aggressively to clean technologies, this nation is allowing the fossil fuel industry to bully us into greater investments in our own destruction. Indigenous voices must remain strong to counteract forces of greed and narrow self-interest that plague our nation and world at this time. We will continue doing what we can, with your support!
Wopila tanka — thank you for your ongoing determined support Chase Iron Eyes Co-Director and Lead Counsel The Lakota People’s Law Project
Our partnerships make us strong, so I’m excited to announce a new collaboration between the Lakota People’s Law Project and the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. We’ve been invited by Cherokee Chief Charles Hoskin to work with his tribe to push Congress to honor a promise made in treaties to the Cherokees, first in 1785 and then repeatedly afterwards. The pledge was to appoint a non-voting Cherokee Nation delegate to the House of Representatives.
Watch the video featuring Chief Hoskin Jr. on the long standing quest of the Cherokee Nation to hold Congress to its promise to seat a delegate; above is Kimberly Teehee, the Cherokee Nation’s chosen representative.
The Cherokee Nation is a federally recognized Indian tribe with more than 385,000 citizens across the country that spans almost 7,000 square miles in northeastern Oklahoma.
The Cherokee Nation’s right to a congressional delegate is affirmed by all three of the tribe’s federal treaties: the 1785 Treaty of Hopewell, the 1835 Treaty of New Echota, and the Treaty of 1866. The Treaty of New Echota states that:
“The Cherokee Nation, having already made great progress in civilization… shall be entitled to a delegate in the House of Representatives of the United States…”
The only thing needed for the delegate to be appointed is for the House Appropriations Committee to pass the measure and for the full House of Representatives to then vote yes.
In 2019, Chief Hoskin selected Kimberly Teehee as the congressional delegate for his tribe. She earned a JD from the University of Iowa College of Law, and she served as senior policy advisor for Native American affairs in the administration of President Barack Obama. In February of 2020, she was named by Time Magazine as one of sixteen leading activists fighting for a “More Equal America.” She also served as the first deputy director of Native American Outreach for the Democratic National Committee and director of Native American outreach for President Bill Clinton’s 1997 inauguration.
This week, the Supreme Court issued an odious trifecta of decisions limiting three precious things: a woman’s right to choose, the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to combat the climate crisis, and tribal sovereignty in Oklahoma. I’m here to tell you, we must battle back. Here on the frontlines of environmental racism, we know exactly how far the colonizers will go to preserve their own power and profit. Breaking or changing laws is nothing new, and neither is marginalizing Native tribes. But we can and we must restore justice.
Watch: Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Harold Frazier joins other leaders from the Oceti Sakowin to talk about how DAPL ignores both tribes and laws.
Over the past five centuries, since European settlers first invaded the shores of Turtle Island, our Indigenous voices have routinely been silenced. Treaties have always been broken. Despite promise after promise, we’ve been further marginalized, year by year. State and federal governments alike seemingly couldn’t care less about the dire consequences for our People when projects like the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) are railroaded through our homelands. And conservative politicians, like South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, are especially eager to reduce our influence and make us invisible.
Whenever we’re the ones most affected, industry and government seem to have no qualms ignoring their own laws, too — as has happened with DAPL. During Standing Rock’s lawsuit to stop the pipeline, the presiding judge had to tell the Department of Justice it was flouting the National Environmental Policy Act with its argument that tribal input doesn’t matter.
The fact is, we do matter, and your solidarity with us ensures that our voices increasingly become part of the conversation. As Lakota Law Standing Rock organizer Phyllis Young says in the video, it’s up to us to make sure government agencies take a new approach that prioritizes “mutual respect, mutual participation, and mutual benefit.” Please continue to stand with Standing Rock and the Lakota People’s Law Project. As our rights and protections are rolled back, it’s more important than ever that we unite and fight — hard.
Wopila tanka — thank you, always, for your friendship and solidarity. Chase Iron Eyes Co-Director and Lead Counsel The Lakota People’s Law Project
The United States Supreme Court has limited the scope of its historic McGirt decision.
In a 5-4 vote, the high court ruled in Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta that the state of Oklahoma has concurrent jurisdiction and the ability to prosecute non-Natives when the victim is Native and the crime is committed on tribal land.
“From start to finish, the dissent employs extraordinary rhetoric in articulating its deeply held policy views about what Indian law should be,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s opinion reads.
Justice Kavanaugh wrote the majority opinion and was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Amy Coney Barrett in the majority. Justice Kavanaugh wrote that the views of the justices in the dissent were contrary to previous Supreme Court precedents and other laws.
“The dissent goes so far as to draft a proposed statute for Congress. But this Court’s proper role under Article III of the Constitution is to declare what the law is, not what we think the law should be,” Justice Kavanaugh wrote.
Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the dissenting opinion and was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Gorsuch, the author of the historic McGirt decision, wrote that tribes were promised to be free from interference by state authorities.
“Where this Court once stood firm, today it wilts,” Gorsuch wrote. “Where our predecessors refused to participate in one State’s unlawful power grab at the expense of the Cherokee, today’s Court accedes to another’s.”
Kolby KickingWoman, Blackfeet/A’aniih is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is from the great state of Montana and currently reports for the Washington Bureau. For hot sports takes and too many Lakers tweets, follow him on Twitter – @KDKW_406. Email – firstname.lastname@example.org
Today, it happened. The Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. This horrifying decision eliminating our right to choose what we do with our own bodies is an affront to birthing people everywhere, and it will needlessly create a healthcare crisis with an outsized impact on women of color. It’s also sadly symbolic of this nation’s long history of disregarding our rights and our lives.
On that note, you may recall that, just over a year ago, we published a hard-hitting blog discussing the horrifying discovery of 215 unmarked graves of First Nations children on the grounds of former Canadian residential schools. Then, a few months back, my Unci Madonna shared with you our own family’s harrowing journey through U.S. boarding schools set up to convert Native children to the ways of the colonizer.
According to the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania was just one of 408 institutions designed to “kill the Indian and save the man” run or supported by the United States between 1819 and 1969.
If you can set aside the time and are willing to sit with difficult material, I encourage you to read the entire 105-page Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report. It pulls no punches in its descriptions of the horrifying conditions the children faced in these institutions — even the “hunting” of them if they dared to run away back to their family homes.
The schools were, of course, there to help accomplish what the report describes as a twin policy of “Indian territorial dispossession and Indian assimilation, including through education.” Here’s how the U.S. Senate put it, as quoted in the report: “Beginning with President Washington, the stated policy of the Federal Government was to replace the Indian’s culture with our own. This was considered ‘advisable’ as the cheapest and safest way of subduing the Indians, of providing a safe habitat for the country’s white inhabitants, of helping the whites acquire desirable land, and of changing the Indian’s economy so that he would be content with less land. Education was a weapon by which these goals were to be accomplished.”
The report also states that at least 500 children are known to have died in these halls of “education,” a count that will no doubt rise significantly with further research. The investigation has “identified marked or unmarked burial sites at approximately 53” of the 408 schools across the Federal Indian boarding school system. The specific locations have not been released.
It’s important to remember that this report focuses only on federal Indian boarding schools. But there were many more of these institutions — where children were forced to perform manual labor, perform military drills, speak only English, undergo corporal punishment, and discipline younger students. We are still only scratching the surface of how widespread the government’s attempt was to wipe out our Native cultures.
Given the scope of the violations, and the lasting generational trauma inflicted on our communities, it’s critical that we find a path that helps us move forward in a good way. Right now, to help begin that process, Congress is considering passing truth and healing legislation. Your solidarity can make a difference, so if you have not already done so, I ask you to email your reps, tell them to pass the bills before both the Senate and the House, and share this action with your loved ones.
Wopila tanka — thank you, always, for being in our corner! DeCora Hawk Field Organizer The Lakota People’s Law Project
Greetings! If you’ve been with us for some time, you already know I helped found this organization to make sure our Lakota children thrive. Since 2004, we have never stopped working to keep Native kids in Native care, where they can learn our cultural heritage from their elders and kinship circles.
Allow me to share a little more with you about these efforts. First, as we near the deadline to submit our ICWA amicus brief to the Supreme Court, our legal team has been interfacing with other organizations who are also writing briefs for the Brackeen v. Haaland case. By coordinating, we’ll ensure all important arguments are made in the best possible way, and our participation is key because we’re writing in conjunction with former S.D. Sen. James Abouresk, the primary author of the original bill. Our brief will be complete soon, and our public relations team is planning some novel methods to spread the word and put pressure on people in D.C. Powerful lawyers aligned with Big Oil have attacked the constitutionality of ICWA with all they have, and this means the stakes couldn’t be higher for Native kids and tribal sovereignty.
Meanwhile, my own organizing focuses right here in my community at Cheyenne River. As a tangible contribution to defend the spirit of ICWA, our team is moving forward to create a tribal child welfare department. Last week, we hosted more than a dozen tribal members at an official hearing where family members testified about losing children to the system in South Dakota. With no tribally-administered Child Protective Services program on our rez, foster care and adoption is administered by the state, which has an abysmal track record of abiding by ICWA. Right now, 90 percent of Native children taken from their families in South Dakota still end up in non-Native foster care. That’s completely unacceptable, and it’s why we’re working directly with tribal officials to establish an entity that will keep them safe with those who love them.
Finally, some great news from our kinship care home at Standing Rock. It now has a name — Chantewašte House (chon-tay-wash-tay, meaning to be happy, content, cheerful, or joyful) — and it is currently sheltering three children. We had a 1-year-old stay for a while earlier this year, and our foster parent, Vanessa Defender, continues to do wonderful work providing a safe haven for the little ones.
Please stay tuned for more updates on all of the above. Once again, I thank you for being there with us through this journey. It’s incredible stuff we’re accomplishing. Together we’re aiding the renewal of our next generation and those who will follow.
Wopila tanka — my gratitude for all you do! Madonna Thunder Hawk Cheyenne River Organizer The Lakota People’s Law Project
Today, we give you the fourth video from our “Water Wars” series, co-produced with Standing Rock, the Great Plains Water Alliance, and the Oceti Sakowin, highlighting why we resist the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL). When the oil company forced DAPL through our homelands, it claimed that we, the Native People on the frontlines, had been consulted. But that term has come to mean less than nothing to us. What’s required under international law and what should be standard operating procedure with projects like DAPL is something much more substantial than “consultation” — and that’s our Free, Prior, and Informed Consent.
Watch: “Consultation” isn’t an adequate standard. We never gave our consent for DAPL to threaten our water and homelands.
No matter what they think over at the oil company headquarters, this isn’t the wild wild west anymore. There are rules. This pipeline is operating illegally, without a federal permit. Here in the modern era, I think most of us will also agree that no means no, and gaining consent from those affected before taking action is critical. The concept of Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (or FPIC) is, in fact, codified in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. And Under President Obama, the United States promised to recognize the right we hold as the Nation’s first inhabitants to have a definitive say in what happens to our homelands.
“Consultation” is a sham. Sending us emails notifying us that a pipeline is about to be drilled under our sole source of fresh drinking water is inadequate, and expecting us to stand aside and let that happen is just plain foolish. I’m grateful that, as our partner in this movement, you’re resisting with us. Please continue to stand with the Oceti Sakowin, and together, let’s defeat DAPL once and for all.
Wopila tanka — Thank you for supporting Indigenous justice! Chase Iron Eyes Co-Director and Lead Counsel The Lakota People’s Law Project
Today I write to share some really wonderful news with you. In a huge win for voting rights and Native justice, on May 26, a federal judge in South Dakota ruled in Lakota Law’s favor that the state has repeatedly violated the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). This judgment is a giant step forward in the battle to make sure Native voices are properly heard at the ballot box — especially in a state where we make up a whopping nine percent of the total population!
With this judgment, we expect to hear a lot less of this from Native voters in South Dakota. Photo credit: Daniel Logo from Flickr Creative Commons.
If you’ve been following our work for some time, you may remember that Lakota Law joined the suit last year as a plaintiff alongside our friend, Standing Rock Sioux tribal member Hoksila White Mountain. Together with the Oglala and Rosebud Sioux Tribes and Rosebud Sioux tribal member Kimberly Dillon, we sued South Dakota Secretary of State Steve Barnett and a trio of agency heads after an investigation uncovered the state’s pattern of noncompliance with the NVRA. Of course, this lack of compliance has had an outsized effect on Indigenous communities.
The court agreed with our group’s contention that, too often, potential South Dakota voters — especially Natives — encountered systemic problems when trying to register to vote at state-run public assistance offices and the Department of Transportation. The state has effectively disenfranchised us by failing to adequately provide legally required training, forms, and services.
We thank our partners from the Native American Rights Fund and Demos for their dedication and excellence in litigating this case. It exemplifies just how much we can accomplish when we work together to create positive change, and it will set a precedent that other tribal governments, Indigenous voters, and voters of color can use to defend the guarantees of the National Voter Registration Act long into the future.
Wopila tanka — thank you for supporting our mission for justice! DeCora Hawk Field Organizer Lakota People’s Law Project
On March 10, 1973, more than a week after American Indian Movement activists occupied the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, Oglala Sioux tribal members and AIM members march to to the cemetery where ancestors were buried following the 1890 massacre at the site. Third in line is Carter Camp, Ponca, one of the AIM leaders. (AP Photo/FILE)
WOUNDED KNEE, South Dakota — Madonna Thunder Hawk remembers the firefights.
As a medic during the occupation of Wounded Knee in early 1973, Thunder Hawk was stationed each night in a frontline bunker in the combat zone between Native activists and government agents.
“I would crawl out there every night, and we’d just be out there in case anybody got hit,” said Thunder Hawk, Oohenumpa band of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, one of four women assigned to the bunkers.
Memories of the Wounded Knee occupation — one in a string of protests from 1969 to 1973 that pushed the American Indian Movement to the forefront of Native activism — still run deep within people like Thunder Hawk who were there.
Madonna Thunder Hawk, 83, shown here in early February 2023, was one of the four women medics during the occupation of Wounded Knee, which started on Feb. 27, 1973 and ended May 8, 1973. She wears her “Never underestimate an old woman” shirt proudly. (Photo by Kalle Benallie/ICT)
Thunder Hawk, now 83, is careful about what she says today about AIM and the occupation, but she can’t forget that tribal elders in 1973 had been raised by grandparents who still remembered the 1890 slaughter of hundreds of Lakota people at Wounded Knee by U.S. soldiers.
“That’s how close we are to our history,” she told ICT recently. “So anything that goes on, anything we do, even today with the land-back issue, all of that is just a continuation. It’s nothing new.”
Other feelings linger, too, over the tensions that emerged in Lakota communities after Wounded Knee and the virtual destruction of the small community. Many still don’t want to talk about it.
But the legacy of activism lives on among those who have followed in their footsteps, including the new generations of Native people who turned out at Standing Rock beginning in 2016 for the pipeline protests.
“For me, it’s important to acknowledge the generation before us — to acknowledge their risk,” said Nick Tilsen, founder of NDN Collective and a leader in the Standing Rock protests, whose parents were AIM activists.
“It’s important for us to honor them. It’s important for us to thank them.”
Akim D. Reinhardt, who wrote the book, “Ruling Pine Ridge: Oglala Lakota Politics from the IRA to Wounded Knee,” said the AIM protests had powerful social and cultural impacts.
“Collectively, they helped establish a sense of the permanence of Red Power in much the way that Black Power had for African-Americans, a permanent legacy,” said Reinhardt, a history professor at Towson University in Towson, Maryland.
“It was the cultural legacy that racism isn’t okay and people don’t need to be quiet and accept it anymore. That it’s okay to be proud of who you are.”
A series of events is planned in South Dakota to recognize the 50th anniversary of the occupation of Wounded Knee, starting on Friday, Feb. 24, in Rapid City, and building to a 50th anniversary pow wow on Sunday, Feb. 26, in Porcupine, South Dakota, and a Four Direction Walk and Ride on the actual anniversary, on Monday, Feb. 27.
The women of Wounded Knee will also be honored on Saturday, Feb. 25, in Porcupine, and another pow wow is set for Saturday in Rapid City. The documentary film, “From Wounded Knee to Standing Rock,” will be shown on Sunday, Feb. 26, in Kyle, South Dakota.
‘Thunderbolt’ of protest
The occupation began on the night of Feb. 27, 1973, when a group of warriors led by Oklahoma AIM leader Carter Camp, Ponca, moved into the small town of Wounded Knee. They took over the trading post and established a base of operations along with AIM leaders Russell Means, Oglala Lakota; Dennis Banks, Ojibwe; and Clyde Bellecourt, White Earth Nation.
Within days, hundreds of activists had joined them for what became a 71-day standoff with the U.S. government and other law enforcement.
American Indian Movement members and other activists are shown during the occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, which lasted 71 days – from Feb. 27 to May 8, 1973. The sign over the door reads in part, “Independent Oglala Nation.” (Photo via Creative Commons)
It was the fourth protest in as many years for AIM. The organization formed in the late 1960s and drew international attention with the occupation of Alcatraz from 1969-1971. In 1972, the Trail of Broken Treaties brought a cross-country caravan of hundreds of Indigenous activists to Washington, D.C., where they occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters for six days.
Then, on Feb. 6, 1973, AIM members and others gathered at the courthouse in Custer County, South Dakota, to protest the murder of Wesley Bad Heart Bull, Oglala Lakota, and the lenient sentences given to some perpetrators against Native Americans. When they were denied access into the courthouse, the protest turned violent, with the burning of the Chamber of Commerce Building and damage to other buildings and vehicles.
Three weeks later, AIM leaders took over Wounded Knee.
“It had been waiting to happen for generations,” said Kevin McKiernan, who covered the Wounded Knee occupation as a journalist in his late 20s and who later directed the 2019 documentary film, “From Wounded Knee to Standing Rock.”
“If you look at it as a storm, the storm had been building through abuse, land theft, genocide, religious intoleration, for generations and generations,” he said. “The storm built up, and built up and built up. The American Indian Movement was simply the thunderbolt.”
The takeover at Wounded Knee grew out of a dispute with Oglala Sioux tribal leader Richard Wilson but also put a spotlight on demands that the U.S. government uphold its treaty obligations to the Lakota people.
By March 8, the occupation leaders had declared the Wounded Knee territory to be the Independent Oglala Nation, granting citizenship papers to those who wanted them and demanding recognition as a sovereign nation.
American Indian Movement leaders observe with a ceremonial peace pipe as the U.S. Department of Justice begins to remove government forces from around Wounded Knee, South Dakota, with a ceremonial peace pipe smoking shown here on March 10, 1973. Shown are, starting with the fourth person from the right, AIM leaders Clyde Bellecourt, Dennis Banks, Russell Means and Carter Camp. (AP Photo/FILE)
The stand-off was often violent, and supplies became scarce within the occupied territory as the U.S. government worked to cut off support for those behind the lines. Discussions were ongoing throughout much of the occupation, with several government officials working with AIM leaders to try and resolve the issues.
The siege finally ended on May 8 with an agreement to disarm and to further discuss the treaty obligations. By then, at least three people had been killed and more than a dozen wounded, according to reports.
Two Native men died: Frank Clearwater, identified as Cherokee and Apache, who was shot on April 17, 1973, and died eight days later; and Lawrence “Buddy” LaMont, Oglala, who was shot and killed on April 26, 1973.
Another man, Black activist Ray Robinson, who had been working with the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization, went missing during the siege.The FBI confirmed in 2014 that he had died at Wounded Knee, but his body was never recovered. A U.S. marshal was also shot and paralyzed, but died many years later.
Camp was later convicted of abducting and beating four postal inspectors during the occupation, and served three years in federal prison. Banks and Means were indicted on charges related to the events, but their cases were dismissed by a federal court for prosecutorial misconduct.
Today, the Wounded Knee National Historic Landmark identifies the site of the 1890 massacre, most of which is now under joint ownership of the Oglala Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux.
The purchase, from a descendant of the original owners of the trading post, included a covenant requiring the land to be preserved as a sacred site and memorial without commercial development.
And though internal tensions emerged in the AIM organization in the years after the Wounded Knee occupation, AIM continues to operate throughout the U.S. in tribal communities and urban areas.
In recent years, members participated in the Standing Rock protests and have persisted in pushing for the release from prison of former AIM leader Leonard Peltier, who was convicted of first-degree murder despite inconsistencies in the evidence in the deaths of two FBI agents during a shootout in 1975 on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
A new generation
Tilsen, now president and chief executive of NDN Collective, an Indigenous-led organization centered around building Indigenous power, traces the roots of his activism to Wounded Knee.
His parents, JoAnn Tall and Mark Tilsen, met at Wounded Knee, and he praises the women of the movement who sustained the traditional matriarchal system during the occupation.
“I grew up in the American Indian Movement,” said Tilsen, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation. “It wasn’t a question about what you were fighting for. You were raised up in it. In fact, if you didn’t fight, you weren’t going to live.”
NDN Collective founder and CEO Nick Tilsen at the NDN Collective headquarters in Rapid City, South Dakota. (Photo by Kalle Benallie/ICT)
Tilsen credits AIM, and those who weren’t part of the movement, for most of the rights Indigenous people have today, including Indian gaming, tribal colleges, the Indian Self-Determination and Education Act and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.
He said the movement showed the world that tribes were sovereign nations and their treaties were being violated. And when AIM and spiritual leaders such as Henry Crow Dog, Leonard Crow Dog and Matthew King joined the fight, it became intergenerational.
“It became a spiritual revolution,” he said. “It also became a fight that was about human rights. It became a fight that was about where Indigenous people aren’t just within the political system of America, but within the broader context of the system, of the world.”
Tilsen appreciates that his parents were willing to participate in an armed revolution to achieve one of their dreams of establishing KILI radio station, known as the “Voice of the Lakota Nation,” which began operating in 1983 as the first Indigenous-owned radio station in the United States.
They wanted to communicate and organize with the people as well as create transparency in tribal government, he said.
His own organization, NDN Collective, is based on what the American Indian Movement achieved, he said.
“It’s why NDN has the balanced approach that it does,” Tilsen said. “We defend, develop and decolonize.”
The Dakota Access Pipeline protest in 2016 came to be a defining moment for him and his brother. They had wondered, he said, what would be their Wounded Knee?
But though Standing Rock grew from the Wounded Knee occupation, it also had its differences, he said.
“What made it so powerful and what made it different was that you actually had grassroots organizers and revolutionaries and official tribal governments coming together, too,” Tilsen said. “I think that Standing Rock in particular actually reached way further than Wounded Knee because of how the issue was framed around ‘water is life.’”
AIM is the catalyst that started it all, however, he said. He wants the 50th anniversary of Wounded Knee to be a time to reflect on what still needs to be learned about the movement and to know more about the people who weren’t in the spotlight at the time.
“[It] created the pressure,” he said. “It held the mirror up to the United States government in a very powerful way.”
Alex Fire Thunder, deputy director of the Lakota Language Consortium, said the occupation of Wounded Knee and other activism helped revitalize Indigenous language and culture. His mother was too young to have participated in the occupation but he said she remembered visits from AIM members in the community.
“The whole point of AIM, the American Indian Movement, was to bring back a sense of pride in our culture,” Fire Thunder, Oglala Lakota, told ICT.
“A huge aspect of our culture and essence of our whole cultural identity is in the language,” he said. “A lot of language programs, educational programs, and the element of language in education itself and the whole status of the language, improved as a result of the awareness of the value of culture and the sense of pride that our people had.”
Fire Thunder, who now teaches the Lakota language, said he owes a debt of gratitude to AIM and the warriors at Wounded Knee.
“I show respect to anybody and everybody that stands up for our way of life, our culture, our language, our spiritual ways, our philosophies and worldviews,” he said. “ We’ve been oppressed, we’ve been silenced…
“We’ve been pushed aside and overlooked, I guess invisible to the mainstream American society,” he said. “And so, I like to pay respect and acknowledge anybody and everybody that stands up for our people in that way.”
For Thunder Hawk, the issues became her lifelong work rather than momentary activism.
She joined AIM in 1968 and participated in the occupation at Alcatraz, the BIA headquarters, the Custer County Courthouse and Wounded Knee, as well as the Standing Rock pipeline protest in 2016.
She said work being done today by a new generation is a continuation of the work her ancestors did.
“That’s why we were successful in Indian Country, because we were a movement of families,” she said. “It wasn’t just an age group, a bunch of young people carrying on.”
She hopes her legacy will live on, that her great-great-grandchildren will see not just a photo of her but know what she sounded like and the person she seemed to be.
Frank Star Comes Out, shown here in February 2023, is president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. (Photo by Kalle Benallie/ICT)
It’s something that she can’t have when she looks at a photo of her paternal great-grandparents.
“Hopefully that’s what my descendants will see, you know?” she said. “And with the technology nowadays, they can press a button, maybe, and it’ll come up.”
Frank Star Comes Out, the current president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, also believes it’s time for the previous generation’s work to be recognized.
He will be at the 50th anniversary events and will speak at the Wounded Knee site. He is aware of the irony that he now leads a government created through the Indian Reorganization Act and opposed by AIM.
But he has family members who were strong supporters of AIM, including his mother and father. He said it’s important to fight for his people who survived genocide.
“That’s why I support AIM, not only on a family level,” he said. “I have a lot of pride in who I am as a Lakota … Times [have] changed. Now I’m using my leadership to help our people rise, to give them a voice. And I believe that’s important for Indian Country.”
Stewart Huntington contributed to this report.
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Kalle Benallie, Navajo, is a reporter-producer at ICT’s Phoenix bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @kallebenallie or email her at email@example.com. Benallie was once the opening act for a Cirque Du Soleil show in Las Vegas.