Platitudes are not enough for genocide…

Si Pih Koh, Cree, who sang an emotional protest to Pope Francis with tears streaming down her face in Maskwacis, Alberta, Canada on July 25, 2022, was at peace by the time she followed the Pope to Lac Ste. Anne on Tuesday, July 26, 2022. (Photo by Miles Morrisseau/ICT)

Miles Morrisseau

LAC STE. ANNE, Alberta, Canada — She is glowing as she stands near the shores of Lac Ste. Anne, wearing the same white buckskin dress and beaded headband that captivated the world.

But this time Si Pih Ko didn’t break into song in Cree as she did Monday in Maskwacis, with tears streaming down her face — a symbol of protest at Pope Francis’ first public appearance on what he calls a “penitence pilgrimage” across Canada.

Instead, on Tuesday, she stood beaming as the sun sparkled on her beadwork and her smiles at the sacred waters of Lac Ste. Anne. It was as though the weight of the world had been lifted from her shoulders.

“I’m on my healing journey,” she told ICT.

Her emotional rendition of “Our Village,” in Cree, which was mistaken for the Canadian National Anthem, “O Canada,” drew an explosion of comments on Facebook and other social media.

“Indigenous rising, listen to this call!” one woman posted on Facebook.

“Give ‘em hell, lady,” another posted.

The song is yet another example of cultural elements stolen from Indigenous peoples and corrupted by colonizers, she said.

“They use that,” she told ICT. “They tried to translate that song and use it for their anthem. It doesn’t belong to them.”

On a mission

Si Pih Ko, who is Cree, traveled to Alberta from the remote mining town of Thompson, Manitoba, to come face to face with the Pope and deliver a message to him and to the world.

She delivered the song in such a powerful way that it will likely be interpreted for years to come.

She told ICT she came for her brother, who died in police custody in unknown circumstances.


“Holding my brother’s jacket with me, he would have been right beside me too, yesterday and today,” she said Tuesday. “Still to this day, there’s no answers. And I’m here actually to heal for that.”

On a six-day swing through Canada, the Pope made his first public appearance Monday in Maskwacis, delivering an historic apology for the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s ugly residential school system that forced Indigenous children into boarding schools where they were isolated from their families, culture and language.

Their hair was cut and they were beaten if they spoke their Native language. Many suffered physical and sexual abuse, or died at the school, never to be returned to their families.

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called the system “cultural genocide” in its 2015 report on the residential school system. The issue drew international attention in May 2021 with the announcement that 215 remains of children had been found in unmarked graves at the former site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.

On Monday, Si Pih Ko stepped into the international spotlight in Maskwacis — singing in a language that would have been forbidden in residential schools — after the Pope issued his apology and received a ceremonial headdress.

She walked directly to the front of the stage, with the Pope seated just a few feet away, and began to sing a song that sounded very much like “O Canada.” But it wasn’t.

“It’s “Our Village,’” she told ICT Tuesday, then proceeded to break down the song word-for-word, translating carefully from Cree to English.

Our land.

Our village.

For the love of your children.

You have made the people of the North proud.

Capturing the pain

The images and sounds of Si Pih Ko singing with so much emotion captured the pain and anger that many Indigenous peoples felt about the Pope’s visit.

For some, the visit and apology represented an opportunity for healing and reconciliation, a message the Pope has continued to voice at additional appearances. For others, watching the head of the Catholic Church receive a traditional headdress from chiefs was unacceptable.

“I seen them chiefs behind him and not behind me,” Si Pih Ko told ICT. “That’s pure evil you’re standing behind and you won’t stand by me.”

She said she wanted to send a message to the chiefs as well as the Pope.

“I said, ‘I know who I am. You need to be reminded who you are and not bow down. We’re looking for a place to heal, not to kneel,” she said.

She also delivered a final message of taking back power.

“In order for us to heal you need to remove what you brought here,” she said. “That law. Because it doesn’t belong on these territories – our law does.”

A message in song

Si Pih Ko was at peace on Tuesday at Lac Ste. Anne, where hundreds gathered to hear the Pope speak of healing at the Feast of Saint Anne.

As the words of the Pope echoed across the lands and the sacred water — his words also spoken in a language that few in the audience could understand — Si Pih Ko stood far from the gathering crowd and smiled.

People around the world, she realized, were beginning to understand what she had said.


Miles Morrisseau

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.”

Read more:
Apology at last in Canada
Pressure mounts for papal apology
Pope takes first step toward apology

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 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.

Two Spirits

Two Spirits, One Heart, Five Genders

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.

Long-awaited recognition

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)

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.”

Looking ahead

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.

Help Protect the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA)

Lakota Law

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

Child Welfare Department at Cheyenne River

Lakota Law

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

Standing Rock: Action

Lakota Law

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

Action: Cherokee Representative to Congress

Lakota Law header

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. 

Please add your voice by sending a message to your representatives demanding a Cherokee delegate in Congress. The Cherokee representative would be identical to those for American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. While the delegate would not have a right to vote on proposed legislation, s/he would have floor privileges and be able to vote in a committee of which s/he is a member and thereby introduce legislation.

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. 

Change comes one step at a time. We here at the Lakota People’s Law Project will always push for the sovereignty and empowerment of Native citizens. If you haven’t already, please send a letter to your federal representatives backing the inclusion of a Cherokee Nation delegate in Congress!

Wopila tanka — thank you for your friendship and active support.
Shaun Little Horn
Social Media and Marketing Specialist
The Lakota People’s Law Project

Keep Informed and Active!

Lakota Law

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.

That’s the subject of the fifth chapter in our “Dakota Water Wars” series, Ignoring Tribes and Ignoring Laws, co-produced by us in conjunction with Standing Rock, the Oceti Sakowin, and the Great Plains Water Alliance. Please give it a watch.

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