The Roots of Tragedy: Lakota People’s Law Project Challenges New York Times “Poverty’s Poster Child” OpEd by Nicholas Kristof
Nicholas Kristof’s portrait of the Pine Ridge Reservation in his piece for the May 9th New York Times “Poverty’s Poster Child” is shocking and sympathetic, but, according to the Lakota People’s Law Project, it does not address social and economic structures of oppression in South Dakota. While he implies that regular economic investment models could help Native American communities, he does not depict the reservation system’s perpetuation of conquest and Native American self-destruction. The Lakota People’s Law Project states that Mr. Kristof has completely overlooked South Dakota’s systematic abduction of Lakota children from their families, continuing the 150 year policy of destroying the Lakota People’s family and societal structures. This omission is more puzzling considering NPR’s Peabody Award-winning three-part expose of the South Dakota foster care system last October by Laura Sullivan.
Without fundamental structural change within the South Dakota government, the Lakota People’s Law Project sees no way for there to be comprehensive or lasting relief for the symptoms Mr. Kristof aptly describes.
May 30, 2012
Mr. Kristof did not address the core causes of poverty and social dysfunction among the Oceti Sakowin Oyate — the People of the Seven Council Fires — a people we know as the “Sioux,” claims the Lakota People’s Law Project. (According to Native American linguists, the name “Sioux” is actually an insult meaning “little snakes” and was given to the Dakota by the Ojibwa People. The People of the Seven Council Fires are divided into three groups according to their dialect: Dakota, Nakota, and Lakota.) Mr. Kristof mentions various symptoms at the Pine Ridge Reservation that deter investment and economic prosperity. One is the fact that the land is held in common and frequent changes in tribal government leave investors at a disadvantage. Another is that according to Mr. Kristof and most other observers, the land itself cannot support many types of economic development, as demonstrated by the fact that white communities in the region and throughout rural America are contracting or even disappearing. While gambling and other ventures have worked as sources of income for some reservations, Mr. Kristof states, “But here in the prairies, those riches are only rumors.” In addition, Mr. Kristof quotes Robert Brave Heart who runs the Red Cloud Indian School, “‘People here still have to develop good work habits, even getting to work on time,’ Brave Heart said. ‘And people here have constant family crises that cause them to miss work.’”
The Lakota People’s Law Project finds it perplexing that a journalist of Mr. Kristof’s standing and achievement would overlook certain basic anthropological findings regarding the conquest of indigenous peoples. The People of the Seven Council Fires should be wealthy, but they were denied their treaty rights to gold in the Black Hills. The 2011 Indian trust lands case Cobell v. Salazar (Case No. 1:96CV01285 (D.D.C.) ) found that “the federal government violated its duties by (a) mismanaging trust funds/assets, (b) improperly accounting for those funds, and (c) mismanaging trust land/assets” (Indian Trust Settlement Summary Notice ). Preliminary estimates of what the tribes are owed are in the billions of dollars. We will never know the full amount because no records were kept by the Department of the Interior according to court records in the Cobell case.
Lakota People’s Law Project consulting anthropologist, Randolfo Pozos, PhD. asserts that “The structure of the tribal governments was imposed as a way to break up the fundamental clan and family structure of the People of the Seven Council Fires. Tribal governments have been plagued by a lack of transparency, corruption, and dysfunction as seen in a recent series of indictments. Assimilation efforts motivated the wholesale kidnapping of generations of Native children and their detention in boarding schools from the late 1800s to the early 1960s.”
Nevertheless, the Lakota People’s Law Project sees ethnic bleaching still persisting in the form of policies and practices by South Dakota that defy the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act. As Laura Sullivan reveals in her NPR report, “Nearly 90 percent of Native American children sent to foster care in South Dakota are placed in non-native homes or group care.” This violates the Indian Child Welfare Act which mandates that all active efforts necessary be undertaken by state D.S.S. officials to place Indian children removed from their Native parents’ homes with their closest Indian relatives. The Lakota People’s Law Project investigation asserts that over the last ten years, Lakota children in South Dakota have been systematically removed from their Lakota parents under factual circumstances under which white children would never have been taken away from their white parents. Thus, without fundamental structural change within the South Dakota government, the Lakota People’s Law Project sees no way for there to be comprehensive or lasting relief for the symptoms Mr. Kristof aptly describes.
The Lakota People’s Law Project sees the 2011 Cobell case, which has awarded Native communities $3.4 billion in federal money for past mismanagement of Indian trust lands, as a step in the direction of healing past wrongs against Native Americans. Nevertheless, the Lakota People’s Law Project advocates increasing the settlement significantly to represent an amount closer to the true value lost to Native people.
“Our trust lands and our children must no longer be a cash cow for state governments” states director of the Lakota Grandmother’s Project, Madonna Thunderhawk, “The efforts of the Lakota grandmothers to hold the state of South Dakota accountable for its defiance of the Indian Child Welfare Act and the disappearances of our grandchildren are only the first drumbeats of a political and cultural resurgence by the Lakota people. There is a small but growing movement among the Lakota grandmothers to create our own tribal Child and Family Services and Foster Care funded by the Federal government, without state involvement.”
For the complete story on the South Dakota State violations of the Indian Child Welfare Act and Native American rights, please listen to Laura Sullivan’s Peabody Award-winning NPR story “Native Foster Care: Lost Children, Shattered Families,” which ran last October.
According to the leaders of the Lakota People’s Law Project, the national outrage as seen in the hundreds of comments posted on NPR, Facebook, and Twitter in support of the Native Lakota in response to the NPR expose has caused a sharp counter attack by the governor and attorney general of South Dakota, including criminal indictments against Lakota child welfare advocates attorney Brandon Taliaferro and court appointed special advocate Shirley Schwab. The Lakota People’s Law Project has documented the State’s counter strike in a special report “Justice as Retaliation: How the State of South Dakota is Attempting to Punish Native American Child Advocates and Protect Child Abusers – The Mette Case.” To read the full Special Report, please visit: http://www.lakotalaw.org/special-reports/justice-as-retaliation
Over the last seven years the Lakota Peoples Law Project’s has worked with the Lakota to develop a long-term, holistic vision for change. What emerged were seven long-term objectives:
1. Return Lakota children to their families and tribes
2. Reclaim and steward the ancestral lands
3. Revive the traditional government of the Seven Council Fires
4. Birth a new Oyate economy of self-reliance and sustainability
5. Ensure access to education for all Lakota children in traditional spirituality, wisdom, and knowledge
6. Rebuild the kinship system
7. Protect the gifts of the Spiritual Elements (natural resources)
The Lakota People’s Law Project believes that the first and most important of these is to rescue the children. Any genuine attempt at renewing Lakota society must begin there. Without the children there can be no future and no real solution to the material poverty and spiritual despair Mr. Kristof described.