Lakota Law Project Annual Report

Lakota Law

Kola iyuha iciciyapi. As you know, Lakota Law’s team protects Indigenous sovereignty in myriad ways, including defending ICWA, supporting #NoDAPL efforts at Standing Rock, and amplifying vital Native perspectives. And while there’s much left to do on our shared journey toward justice, it’s important to periodically reflect back on some of our key accomplishments together. In that spirit, I encourage you to review the impact we made during 2022 by reading through our just-released Annual Report.

Read the Report!

To view the full 2022 report, click the banner above.

As you may know, the Lakota People’s Law Project is part of the Romero Institute, a 501(c)3 umbrella organization with a 45-year record of fighting in the courts for social justice. The Institute also runs Let’s Geen CA!, a groundbreaking climate initiative in California. Thanks to big-hearted generosity and friendship from you and so many others, we’re able to take on big, strategic challenges with precision. You have our deep gratitude for all you’ve given, and the best is yet to come!

The report details a range of the Romero Institute’s efforts, financials, and accomplishments. In the Lakota Law section, you’ll see an outline of our history, mission, and highlights from last year. Then, we break down some key impacts you helped make possible. I’m happy to say that includes more than 220,000 actions signed by friends like you — including advocacy campaigns to protect ICWA, demand an end to whitewashing of history in schools, and defend PeeHee Mu’Huh (Thacker Pass) and the sacred He Sapa (Black Hills) from mining.

Thank you, always, for supporting the Lakota People’s Law Project. We’re grateful you continue to walk with us, and we look forward to keeping you informed. The actions you take have real meaning and impact, with far-reaching effects here in Lakota country, across Turtle Island, and around our world.

Wopila tanka — thank you for your support of Indigenous and environmental justice!
Chase Iron Eyes
Co-Director and Lead Counsel
The Lakota People’s Law Project

Stop DAPL: Call To Action

Lakota Law

As you’ve seen over the course of the past several months through our Dakota Water Wars video series, the Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation) has reunited to stop the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL). Our latest chapter, which you’ll find by scrolling down to the topmost video on the series page, takes you inside a recent pipeline strategy meeting at Standing Rock. Produced as always by us in partnership with the Great Plains Tribal Water Alliance and the Standing Rock Nation, the video shows tribal leaders and water protectors gathering to discuss a coordinated offensive, including a lawsuit and public comments campaign to challenge the soon-to-be-released Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for DAPL. 

Watch: Standing strong together, tribes are preparing a new legal offensive to stop DAPL.

You likely remember when tens of thousands of people gathered at Standing Rock’s resistance camps in 2016 and ‘17. That indelible moment in time demonstrated the power of standing strong together, capturing worldwide attention and giving rise to a powerful movement for Native and environmental justice. Suddenly, our Indigenous struggle to protect water on the frontlines of the climate crisis became frontpage news.

Now, the tribes are preparing to renew our legal fight to end DAPL. Once again, we must act with unity and purpose. Just last week, Standing Rock held another meeting with Michael Connor, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, and we now know the EIS will become available for online public comment toward the end of June.

Just like the formation of the original camps, this moment will be pivotal. We hope you’ll join us and take action by flooding the Army Corps with demands for a new, valid EIS. As we’ve communicated to you previously, we don’t even need to see the current EIS to know it’ll be deeply flawed. After all, the company hired to prepare it, a member of the American Petroleum Institute, previously argued against Standing Rock at a hearing and recommended expansion of the pipeline’s capacity.

It’ll be up to all of us to pressure the government to make the oil company comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and end this illegal pipeline’s operations. Our battle here in the Dakotas is the same one Indigenous communities face all over the world. We are here to protect our natural surroundings, and it’s no coincidence that Big Extraction targets our lands for exploitation. Centuries of genocide have, at times, left us short of the resources necessary to fight — but this time we’re punching back! United, we must protect our communities and the Earth we share. Please continue to stand strong together with Standing Rock and the Oceti Sakowin.

Wopila tanka — thank you always for standing with us!
Chase Iron Eyes
Co-Director and Lead Counsel
The Lakota People’s Law Project

Action: Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA)

Lakota Law

As the current, ultra-conservative U.S. Supreme Court continues its deliberations in the Backeen v. Haaland case, it’s all too clear that the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) is in serious jeopardy. While we remain hopeful it won’t, the High Court could easily overturn ICWA or portions of the law, eroding tribal sovereignty and eliminating the federal mandate to keep Native children in kinship care with their relatives.

That’s why it’s critical we protect all the important tenets of ICWA — and, in turn, the heath, safety, and cultural identities of our youngest and most vulnerable — at the state level. As we approach Mother’s Day, in solidarity with Native moms, uncis, and caretakers across this land, please tell your state leaders to codify ICWA at the state level

Take Action!

Please click above to tell your state to codify ICWA and enforce current ICWA-like laws on the books, where they exist.

Should the Supreme Court overturn or gut this critical law, not only will our children suffer from being placed with non-Native foster care families, but a critical blow will have been struck against our tribal sovereignty. Foster care and adoption is the new method for conservative states to prolong our history of forced assimilation, with evangelical Christianity often motivating Department of Social Services (DSS) workers and foster families to reshape the minds and hearts of our children. 

To this day, 90 percent of Native children seized by South Dakota’s DSS are placed into non-Native homes and institutions, and similar statistics exist in Native nations throughout the rest of the country. Dismantling ICWA would take us backward, continuing the genocidal pattern of broken treaties, land grabs, and Indian boarding schools. In this era of judicial overreach, we must exhaust every method to protect Native youth, so please do your part to assist us in this important endeavor!

Wopila tanka — thank you for your solidarity!
Chase Iron Eyes
Co-Director and Lead Counsel
The Lakota People’s Law Project

P.S. It’s critical we use all avenues at our disposal to protect the tenets of the Indian Child Welfare Act. Please tell your state leaders to codify ICWA and protect Native children, families, and sovereignty.

Let's Green CA!

Lakota People’s Law Project
547 South 7th Street #149
Bismarck, ND 58504-5859

The Lakota People’s Law Project is part of the Romero Institute, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) law and policy center. All donations are tax-deductible.

Return of Cultural Items

Richard Arlin Walker
Special to ICT

There was something wrong, Victoria Compton thought, about the items being sent out into the world in a Store-Closing-Everything-Must-Go sale.

The ancestral objects shouted “Indigenous” in “very British” Victoria, the capital of the Canadian province of British Columbia, whose opulent Empress Hotel, Parliament building and street names are reminders of the British Empire’s expansion in the 19th century.

Among the ancestral objects up for sale: hand-woven baskets, one a century old and made using tule, feathers and porcupine quills; moccasins with an intricate, beaded flower design; fur-lined leather mittens; a carved serving spoon; and a baby carrier.

These beaded, fur-lined mittens were among several Indigenous artifacts that Victoria Compton of Washington State bought at a store going out of business in Victoria, British Columbia. She is now working to repatriate the items to their tribes of origin as early as May 2023. (Photo courtesy of Victoria Compton)

These beaded, fur-lined mittens were among several Indigenous artifacts that Victoria Compton of Washington State bought at a store going out of business in Victoria, British Columbia. She is now working to repatriate the items to their tribes of origin as early as May 2023. (Photo courtesy of Victoria Compton)

Each object was a work of art, intricately woven or carved using techniques and materials that had been employed by Indigenous people in the Northwest for millennia, Compton said.

“As a mom, the baby carrier was particularly heartbreaking to me,” said Compton, about seeing the objects in the soon-to-be-shuttered store.

“This antique object had been one family’s way of caring for their baby,” she said. “It was loved, well-used, well-crafted. Someone clearly worked hard to make this into a beautiful and durable object. It resonated with me …

“The baby carrier represented to me the unimaginable loss of generations of Native American children, and their mothers’ grief,” she said.


Compton, an economic development agency director on San Juan Island in northwest Washington state who is not Native, said she was able to buy 12 objects. Once home, she said she realized she couldn’t keep them.

“They don’t want to live here,” she told ICT. “They want to live with the people who crafted them.”

Compton then embarked on a journey to return the objects to their Indigenous nations of origin, one of a growing number of private collectors seeking to repatriate objects of cultural, historic, or traditional importance.

Some collectors, like Compton, want to repatriate the items because they believe ancestral objects belong with the cultures from which they originated. Some want to repatriate objects that have no clear provenance — or history of ownership — leaving open the possibility they were obtained by unscrupulous or illegal means.

Under the 1990 federal law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, known as NAGPRA, museums, universities and government agencies that receive federal funds are required to return human remains and culturally significant and sacred objects to the tribal nations or lineal descendants.

So far, more than 83,000 human remains and 1.7 million funerary objects have been repatriated, according to a February 2022 report from the Government Accountability Office.

But for private collectors and others who have no obligation under NAGPRA to return ancestral objects to their cultures of origin, knowing how or where to start can be a puzzle.

“I understand that repatriation is a huge issue and expense for tribes and I don’t want to add to that burden if it’s not an item that should be returned,” said Mary Klinkel, a non-Native resident of Green Valley, Arizona who is seeking to repatriate a beaded leather case, believed to be from the Southwest, that she has in her possession.

“If there is a group of Indigenous experts that can look at photos and make decisions about whether items need to be repatriated or not, that could be a big help in the process.”

Seeking guidance

A good place to start is a local tribal museum, said Emily Miller, senior curator of the Tulalip Tribes’ Hibulb Cultural Center and Natural History Preserve on the Tulalip Reservation near Seattle.

The National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers website, has an online directory of 74 tribal museums and cultural centers in 23 states, and museums may be able to consult by email using photographs and background information about the object, Miller said.

The Power of Indigenous Knowledge

Lakota Law

Greetings from Pine Ridge. I’ll keep this email short and sweet — but only because I want you to spend your reading time on today’s blog! I’ve also recorded a short video, which you’ll see near the top of the blog page. What’s my topic? I’m highlighting the importance of Indigenous knowledge in tackling the climate crisis in the wake of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report and convening of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

Click above to watch a short video and read my blog about the importance of Indigenous knowledge when it comes to solving the climate crisis.

Please do read the blog, but here’s one of my key points. The climate crisis is real, it’s serious, and it’s existential — but that’s not a reason for pessimism. In order to win this fight, we must listen to one another, celebrate the good work being done, and tap into our resilience as human beings. We should recognize the victories we’re achieving now and incorporate both science and the understanding Indigenous communities have had for Unci Maka — our grandmother Earth — for thousands of years. 

We know about resilience, and we aren’t scared of the apocalypse. In the era of colonization, we’ve already been living through it for generations. We haven’t lost our faith or our capacity for optimism, and we’re not going to give those up now. I invite you to hear my perspective and take on this challenge with me so the generations to come can tell an inspiring story of reconnection and recovery.

Wopila tanka — thank you for caring for Unci Maka!
Tokata Iron Eyes
The Lakota People’s Law Project

No More Native Mascots

Lakota Law

I’m Lily Joy Winder, and I write to you today to introduce myself as a friend and dedicated advocate for Indigenous health, joy, and excellence. I bring good news! As a 20-year-old Diné and Southern Ute activist currently attending Stanford University, I also focus on my campaign #PeopleNotMascots to enact policies that retire racist Native mascots in United States public schools. A few months back, knowing our goals were aligned, I reached out to Lakota Law — and from there, an exciting partnership was born. I’m happy to announce that in 2023 and beyond, we’ll support one another’s efforts to end appropriation, increase Native agency in media, and win Indigenous justice.

Thanks to Teen Vogue for this joyful article and triptych!

Just this week, New York officially banned Native mascots in K-12 schools that do not have specific tribal consent! This is an incredible victory for the Native children of New York and the growing national movement for Native mascot bans across the country. Currently, People Not Mascots is working toward introducing federal legislation and also working in Massachusetts, Minnesota, and with the Lakota Law team in California to pass Native mascot removal policies. We are at a real opportune and crucial moment in continuing to build this movement. We’re in the midst of exciting change!

People Not Mascots holds a special place in my heart as it also touches on other Indigenous issues I’m passionate about. All the work I do strives to create an America that sees my Native kin as human beings. At school, I research environmental racism through an Indigenous lens, which contributes to my passion for ending the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People epidemic. As you likely know, clear ties exist between Big Oil and violence against my Indigenous relatives. 

I also share what I know about Indigenous issues on my social media platforms — most notably on my TikTok (@sheshortnbrown), which has gathered around 300k followers. My budding acting career lends yet another platform. Ultimately, I hope not only to remove negative imagery of Native folks, but to create imagery and media where we are centered and cared for. I hope you’ll follow along, and I’m grateful to you for your compassion and advocacy.

Ahéhee’ — thank you for your friendship!
Lily Joy Winder
Via the Lakota People’s Law Project

DAPL and the BAD MAN Clause

Lakota Law

To make the United States honor treaty law and shut down the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL), Standing Rock and our allies are taking a long look at a new legal offensive based on the Bad Man (or Bad Men) Clause in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. Check out our blog, and at the top you’ll find the latest chapter of our Dakota Water Wars video series — co-produced as always by Lakota Law, Standing Rock, and the Great Plains Water Alliance — which takes you inside our recent strategy meeting at Standing Rock.

Watch: I joined Chairwoman Janet Alkire at Standing Rock to address our colleagues about pursuing a more aggressive NoDAPL strategy.

As you’re likely aware, DAPL parent company Energy Transfer has a terrible safety record. Today, we share with you testimony from me, Standing Rock Chairwoman Janet Alkire, Great Plains Tribal Water Alliance Director Doug Crow Ghost, and legal and technical experts. You’ll hear about Energy Transfer’s dangerous behavior, including 23 felony citations, and what we plan to do about it.

The clause states that when “bad men among the whites, or among other people subject to the authority of the United States” commit crimes against tribes or our property, the United States must take punitive action against the offenders. Energy Transfer definitely qualifies. To make things worse, DAPL currently operates without a workable emergency response plan in violation of the Clean Water Act, without an easement in violation of the Mineral Leasing Act, and without a valid Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.

The government should respect its own rules — including treaties, which are some of the original laws of this land. It’s time to hold Big Oil accountable and stop letting fossil fuel giants endanger our people and our world. Very soon now, after much delay, the Army Corps of Engineers will release DAPL’s deeply problematic EIS. They know that when they do, they’re going to hear from us en masse. Please be ready to act, because this fight isn’t over. Through the courts and public pressure, we can still beat the bad men at their own game.

Wopila tanka — thank you, always, for standing with us!
Phyllis Young
Standing Rock Organizer
The Lakota People’s Law Project

Keep Attention on the Law

Lakota Law

The U.S. Supreme Court just keeps getting things wrong. In late March, it declined to review attorney Steven Donziger’s appeal of his criminal conviction for contempt of court. If Donziger’s name sounds familiar to you, that’s perhaps because he’s a good man who helped win a landmark $9.5 billion judgment against Chevron on behalf of thousands of Indigenous People in the Ecuadorian Amazon. More than a decade ago, the oil giant was found guilty of causing disastrous health problems via its brazen environmental pollution of the world’s largest rainforest.

Lakota LawPhoto credit: Steven Donziger from the Free Donziger website.

Chevron, represented by Big Oil law firm Gibson Dunn, relentlessly contested Donziger’s legal victory in Ecuador, eventually securing a challenge in U.S. federal court. You’re probably also familiar with Gibson Dunn — the same firm now representing the plaintiffs seeking to dismantle the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) at the Supreme Court. We feel that’s no coincidence, and it’s one reason we met with Mr. Donziger while he was confined at a halfway house about a year ago.

A few other things make this case particularly concerning. Atypically, after the federal prosecutor in Manhattan declined to bring criminal contempt charges against Donziger, a federal judge — who held investments in Chevron at the time of his decision — appointed a private law firm to prosecute anyway. A second federal judge delegated to oversee that prosecution served on the board of the Federalist Society, a far-right think tank known for helping stack the federal judiciary with conservative judges and regularly receiving donations from, you guessed it, Chevron.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Donziger was subsequently convicted. He ended up serving nearly two months behind bars and spent another two and half years under house arrest. In 2021, during his incarceration, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called for Donziger’s release, stating that his pre-trial detention was illegal.

Donziger appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court, but the justices, in March’s 7-2 decision, denied his petition. It may surprise you to learn the two dissenting justices who supported hearing Donziger’s case were Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch. These two deeply conservative men raised concerns about judicial overreach and constitutional protections requiring separation of powers, while the liberal wing of the Court strangely remained silent.

It’s critical that we continue to pay attention to the Supreme Court, and not just on ICWA. It’s difficult to fathom the rationale behind some of their recent decisions, but in other cases, it may be entirely too clear. This court seems eager to roll back our freedoms despite years of precedent, as it did when it overturned Roe v. Wade. And, as it has done here, it appears willing to allow new degrees of overreach by activist judges with obvious conflicts of interest.

Wopila tanka — thank you for paying attention and standing for justice!
Chase Iron Eyes
Co-Director and Lead Counsel
The Lakota People’s Law Project

Goodbye to the Doctrine of Discovery

Lakota Law

As you may have heard, last Thursday marked a momentous decree. After nearly 500 years — and decades of repeated calls from Indigenous activists including my fellow Lakota Law organizer Phyllis Young — the Vatican finally renounced the Doctrine of Discovery.

The legacy of the Doctrine, a papal bull from the 1400s justifying Christian colonialism worldwide, includes westward expansion through the Americas, Manifest Destiny, and the Indian boarding school era. It also continues today through federal Indian law and a Supreme Court dominated by conservative Catholics who will soon rule on whether to dismantle or overturn the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).

Watch: We interviewed Indigenous scholar Steve Newcomb about the Doctrine of Discovery.

Signed into federal law in 1978, ICWA helped fulfill a great and urgent need to protect Native children from centuries of state-sanctioned genocidal practices. By the 1960s, the boarding school era was nearing an end. Religious institutions masquerading as schools had been assimilating Indigenous children and annihilating their cultural identities since the 1800s. As you likely know, remains of these young victims who underwent horrendous treatment and unfathomable brutality are still being unearthed today. 

Government agencies then quickly discovered a new way to systematically take apart our families and cultures. Child welfare agents, emboldened by racial bias and religious motivations, stole children from their homes at ghastly rates. As the Lakota Times reported, “According to a 1969 report by the Association on American Indian Affairs, between 25% and 35% of all Native children were placed in adoptive homes, foster homes, or institutions; and about 90% of those children were being raised by non-Natives.” 

That’s why ICWA matters. It’s the best solution we currently have to the diabolical and prolonged period of mass kidnapping, which has robbed Native children of their communities, cultural practices, and Indigenous identities. It’s no coincidence that the Brackeens — plaintiffs in the lawsuit to dismantle this critical law at the Supreme Court — are avowed evangelicals. We remain hopeful for a positive outcome in the case, but it’s entirely possible rightwing Catholic justices will side with those seeking to Christianize a Diné (Navajo) child. 

Your advocacy makes a difference! Only by standing together for the rights of our young ones — to preserve our Indigenous families, sovereignty, and cultures — can we shatter the embedded patterns of the past. I’ll have more to say on all of this soon in my blog series, and I hope you’ll keep an eye out. In the meantime, thank you, sincerely, for your friendship. If we can get the Church to disavow the Doctrine of Discovery, anything truly is possible!

Wopila tanka — My deep appreciation for your solidarity with our children and families.
Tokata Iron Eyes
The Lakota People’s Law Project