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Native Sun News: Rally in support of Indian Child Welfare Act

The following story was written and reported by Christina Rose, Native Sun News Staff Writer. All content © Native Sun News.

Mothers and grandmothers gathered in support of the lawsuit against South Dakota's Department of Social Services.

Rally for Indian Child Welfare Act
Tears are shed as Lakota foster children tell their stories
By Christina Rose
Native Sun News Staff writer

RAPID CITY — Rallying supporters of the Indian Child Welfare Act carried signs calling for an end of human trafficking of Indian children and waited in the cold for the historic filing of a class action lawsuit against the State of South Dakota.

Oglala Sioux Tribal Attorney Bernice DeLorme said that the unwillingness of the state to comply with ICWA has surprised her. Having worked in social services and as a tribal attorney in Washington for the Puyallup Tribe, DeLorme expressed astonishment at the Pennington County Court. “In Washington, the state developed its own ICWA law and worked with tribes from all over, including Canada,” she said, noting that Washington was not the only state to have a state ICWA law.

DeLorme said, “The ACLU monitored Pennington County Court for a year and saw that the rights of parents and the children were being violated and they did not have an opportunity to be heard. In the last year, 700 kids, 90% of whom are Oglala, were removed from their home by South Dakota Department of Social Services.”

Among the rallying crowd, many well-known warriors in S.D.’s ICWA battle were there to lend support. Victims of foster care shared their tragic testimony; some had lost children, and others, like Mary Black Bonnet, had struggled to remember where home was.

Black Bonnet’s short speech left many with aching hearts as she described being removed from her traditional home setting where her grandparents lived with her family and the only language she knew was Lakota. Adopted at the age of 18 months, she and a sibling were placed with a white family who said her family hated her and that she would never see them again. “But I knew that I was loved and I knew this white world was not something I was a part of,” she said at the microphone, standing strong as big tears rolled down her cheeks and her small daughter hugged her knees. Through sheer determination, Black Bonnet kept the knowledge of who she was as a guarded secret until she could return to the Rosebud Reservation. “I knew my real family was out there and I knew I had to get back to them. I fought for 24 years to get back here, and then found out my mother had died.”

“Educate yourself,” Black Bonnet advised families at risk for losing their children. “Don’t listen to the crap they tell you, because that is the only way we are going to win. We have a lot more resources on our side now. This fight is much more equal this time. It’s 2013 and this should not be happening. They need to keep their hands off of our children.”

Oglala Sioux Tribe Councilwoman Lydia Bear Killer offered advice about what a family should do when dealing with Social Services. She said that if they come to take your child: “Contact the tribe immediately—never waive your rights—do not sign anything you do not understand. You have a right to request someone to explain any documents. Once the child is in the system, your home will be assessed and reviewed by social services, and everything will be used against you. No matter what happens or how they put it, never waive your rights or the tribe cannot help you.”

Bear Killer said, “What’s really sad is when parents terminate their rights. If they do that, the tribe can no longer step in. DSS will tell you they will bring the family back together but very few get returned. The rest get lost in the system.”

According to Bear Killer, the lawsuit is contesting the 48 hour hearing during which time families have not been allowed to take any active efforts to search for placement with relatives. “Many times the hearing takes place and the family didn’t even know. We hope filing this lawsuit will have an effect on social services and how they handle our children. The most important thing is that parents don’t waive their rights, no matter what they tell you.”

Diane Garreau, ICWA director of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, added that families who have lost their children can file to give the tribe jurisdiction of their child. She said to contact the tribe’s ICWA agency for forms.

According to Garreau and others, what was happening at Thursday’s rally was completely separate from other actions that have been taken by the Lakota Law Project. An ICWA Commission had been formed by Governor Rounds in 2004, and this action involved many who had sat on that commission.

“We have been working towards this lawsuit for a year and a half. This lawsuit is being filed by the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the Rosebud Tribe, but all the tribes are supporting this. We are all for one and one for all,” Garreau said.

Bob Walters, who served on the commission for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, said, “We took the ICWA Act and put more teeth in it. Governor Rounds set up the commission to see if the state courts were compliant with the law, and they were found to be out of compliance, and still today it is still happening.”

Walters added that one of the most infuriating aspects of DSS actions was the way Lakota are misjudged by the system and that the values of finance over family has long been a problem. He said, “The children are being removed because Lakota standards are not respected.”

Frustration with the state was the call of the day as speakers at the rally described the process of trying to hammer out an agreement with the state. Jaunita Sherrick, ICWA director for the Oglala Sioux Tribe, lamented, “We had been working with the state for compliance but it was clear they had no intention of changing. They did not want to correct anything. There were 78 cases of non-compliance and they did nothing about it. The majority of those cases should be placed with relatives.”

Sherrick said that the state receives 24-40 notices a day from all over the state and that there are currently 100 to 200 cases currently open within the system.

Further complaints included that the state has had a financial incentive to remove children. Amidst signs and banners held by crowd members, OST President Bryan Brewer addressed the protesters, saying, “They have made millions on our people. This is only the beginning of the battle. In May, the BIA will be taking testimony. We have lost 4,000 children to the state. They are lost.”

ACLU Attorney Steven Pevar, who sat in courtrooms for a year and watched as hundreds of cases were mishandled, filed the lawsuit and addressed the crowd. He said, “You have suffered for decades.”

“How can anyone cut these ties from grandmother to child, mother to child? Who can sever Tunkasila's rights? We have to do this as the whole Sioux Nation, all of South Dakota and North Dakota,” OST Councilman Larry Eagle Bull said. “The people are the backbone of this and the state knows they are wrong. We are bonding together and that’s what it is going to take. We need to be whole—one—and together we can do this.”

(Contact Christina Rose at

Copyright permission by Native Sun News

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