The original question for this paper was “How has the Indian Child Welfare Act affected the death rate of children living in Indian Country?” However, data concerning deaths of children placed under the Indian Child Welfare Act is difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. Tribal governments are not required to collect or share the outcomes of children affected by the Indian Child Welfare Act, and after extensive research, it is doubtful a comprehensive database with this information currently exists. According to the National Indian Child Welfare Association, “…incidents of child maltreatment that occur under a tribe’s exclusive jurisdiction and where tribal services are provided are not necessarily reported to the state and included in national data systems” (NICWA 2015). Janet Franson, retired homicide investigator and founder of ‘Lost and Missing in Indian Country,’ wrote in reference to children missing within the last decade, “…there were all kinds of missing N/A people in Indian Country [that] were not getting the attention they deserved. Not from law enforcement and not from any national entity for missing persons. My belief is that at least 50% of those missing are homicide victims” (Franson, 2106).
In an April, 2016, interview with The Chronicle of Social Change, Administration on Children, Youth and Families Commissioner Rafael López confirmed the absence of ICWA data, stating, “Not being able to articulate very clearly what’s happening to all children, let alone American Indian and Alaskan Native children, is unacceptable.’ (Kelly 2016). In 2015, the ACF initiated database collection for all children of tribal heritage who present before a court for foster care, but it didn’t go far enough. “HHS had determined that it did not have jurisdiction to collect information on Native American youth through the enforcement authority regarding ICWA and, therefore, was not able to make the requested changes or additions to the AFCARS data elements regarding ICWA” (Kelly 2016)
However, since then, “…legal counsel re-examined the issue and determined it is within ACF’s existing authority to collect state-level ICWA-related data on American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) children in child welfare systems…” (Kelly 2016) All 50 States have now received guidelines pertaining to the data they are to keep. Obviously, it will take time for the ACF to collect and evaluate the data. Complicating matters, several tribal entities are now claiming “data sovereignty,” with the right to govern how data concerning their membership is collected and used, leaving an open question of manipulation and accuracy. That all said, reporting on what is known in the immediate remains necessary, as the effect of ICWA on children today remains critical. With this reality in mind, we will sidestep the original research question and instead ask, “Have children who fall under the jurisdiction of the Indian Child Welfare Act been consciously placed by courts and social services into dangerous living situations?” To do this, we will identify some correlations that suggest causation, using data from the very sources that support and promote the ICWA.
“Have children who fall under the jurisdiction of the Indian Child Welfare Act
been consciously placed by courts and social services into dangerous living situations?”
In 1978, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act, “declar[ing] that it is the policy of this Nation to protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes. . .” Since that time, there have been numerous anecdotal and occasionally documented reports of children removed from admittedly safe homes outside of Indian Country, only to be placed in questionable homes within Indian Country where they have been abused or sometimes murdered. Many of the children affected by the ICWA are multi-heritage and have never lived in Indian Country prior to being placed under the jurisdiction of the ICWA. Many come from families who left Indian Country over a generation ago due to a high level of crime and corruption on their home reservation. The national dilemma has become whether the “best interest” of children, along with their right to safety, privacy and choice, is of less priority than tribal sovereignty and the future of the tribe.
Every state has statutes addressing child protection, foster care and adoption, under which children of every heritage could receive the same standard of protection. However, children deemed eligible for membership in a federally recognized tribe are exempt from these state mandated protections. Through the prevalence of accounts from individuals and families affected by ICWA, there appears to be a troubling percentage who have been drastically harmed following intervention and placement through the ICWA. It is probable an unacceptable percentage of children have been hurt by the Indian Child Welfare Act.
White papers concerning the benefits of ICWA are readily available from tribal governments, organizations, and the federal agencies that support tribal governments. Finding documented information concerning children who have been negatively affected by the ICWA is much more difficult. This is because tribal governments are the primary aggregators of statistics concerning their memberships and they are not required to report all of their data to federal agencies.
Rather than ask the question of how the Indian Child Welfare Act has affected the ‘best interest’ of children – which is too subjective for measurement – we seek an answer to as to whether children have been deliberately placed as a result of ICWA intervention into homes known for violence, sexual abuse or criminal activity. The answer could be used to establish equal protection for all United States citizens, no matter their heritage or age.
Search terms will include:
• Indian Child Welfare Act
• Native American Indian Reservation
• Indian Child
• Sexual abuse (as is sometimes associated with death)
• Child abuse
• Indian child foster care
• Indian child adoption
Procedures to ensure a comprehensive balance will include literature published by tribal entities and organizations, state and federal agencies, foster and adoptive care organizations, non-profit advocacies, health organizations, and letters from affected individuals and families. It is important to include non-tribal entities in the study in order to ensure a comprehensive balance, as many of the children affected by ICWA have never lived in Indian Country and come from multi-heritage families.
Search engines, databases, and scholarly journal publications to be used:
• Indian Health Service
• State child protection agencies
• U.S. Census
• National Indian Child Welfare Association reports
• Administration for Children and Families reports
• Local obituaries
• Christian Alliance for Indian Child Welfare
Toddler Lauryn Whiteshield was murdered a little over a month after her arrival to her grandfather’s home in the spring of 2013. She and her three-year-old twin sister were taken from a safe, loving home in Bismarck and placed with their grandfather and his girlfriend, a woman known to have been abusive to children in the past. This happened during a period when both the BIA and US Attorney’s office had taken over law enforcement and social services on the Spirit Lake Reservation due to a rash of uninvestigated child homicides and were supposedly monitoring placements to prevent further murders. This case did get media attention in North Dakota, and as a result, the perpetrator was quickly arrested, tried, convicted and imprisoned all within five months. However, none of the officials who were responsible for placing her in the home were held accountable. Jeanine Russell, the non-native foster mom the girls were taken from, read a victim’s impact statement for the sentencing of the murderer of Lauryn. She asked the judge to hold the perpetrator accountable, but also hold the broken system accountable. The federal government, she said, allowed it to happen, and “ICWA can be an evil law when twisted to fit the tribes wants or needs” (CAICW 2014).
From the Goldwater Institute concerning Lauryn, “The forced transfer from a safe, loving foster family to a home that posed great and obvious danger to the girls did not happen in a third-world country but in the United States. It did not happen 40 or 60 years ago but in 2013. And it did not happen because the court ignored the law but because it followed it. Had any of the child custody laws of the 50 states been applied, in all likelihood Laurynn would be alive today. That is because state laws require consideration of the “best interests of the child” in determining termination of parental rights, foster placements, and adoptions. That bedrock rule protects all American children—except children of Native American ancestry, like Laurynn. Although she had never lived on a reservation, because of Laurynn’s ancestry, she was made subject to the Indian tribe’s jurisdiction, which determined it was better to “reunify” her with a grandfather with whom she had never lived instead of the non-Indian foster family who had raised her from infancy and wanted to adopt her.” (Bolick 2015).
Who are the children
Patrice Kunesh, in a report published in the South Dakota Law Review, noted there was “a steady and substantial increase in the American Indian population in the past century, from a low of 250,000 in 1900 to 524,000 in 1960, to 1.96 million in 1990, and over 4 million in the year 2000. (Kunesh 2007, 7) The largest tribal government in the year 2000 was the Cherokee Nation with 729,533 members, and the Cree Nation was the smallest, with 7,734 members. The States with the heaviest AI/AN populations are Alaska, Oklahoma, Arizona, New Mexico, North & South Dakota, and Montana” (Indian Country Child Trauma Center 2005).
A reading of varied Indian Country sources of statistics can be confusing and at times contradictory. According to the Northwest Frontier Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network, the 2000 Census indicated “American Indians make up one to two percent of the United States population, with greater than 500 American Indian tribes and 250 Alaska Native villages.” (NW Frontier ATTC 2003). The Indian Country Child Trauma Center, also citing the 2000 census, related that “38% of the AI/AN population is under the age of 18; 9% of the population is under the age of 5,” “4.1 million U.S. residents identified as American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) alone or in combination with one or more races,” and “2.5 million who reported as American Indian or Alaska Native alone represented 0.9% of the population” (Indian Country Child Trauma Center 2005). These last statistics reflect the high percentage of multi-racial families – and therefore the high percentage of non-tribal extended family.
The Center for Native American Youth correctly reported 566 federally-recognized tribes located in 35 states in 2014, but appears to have erroneously claimed the 2000 census put 47 percent of AI/ANs on reservations or other US Census-defined tribal areas” (Center for Native American Youth 2011). Most sources agree statistics show over 75% of Native Americans live outside of Indian Country, with many families having left the reservation system a generation or more ago. In fact, the CNAY has quoted the 2011 estimate by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Minority Health (OMH) that only “22% of AI/ANs lived on reservations or other US Census-defined tribal areas” (Center for Native American Youth 2014). CNAY also mishandled numbers when referring to AI/AN’s below the age of 18, stating, “The ‘media’ [sic] age of this group is 29.7 years” (Center for Native American Youth 2011).
However, CNAY did clarify a point other sources omit: “According to the 2010 Census, there are approximately 5.2 million self-identified American Indian/Alaska Natives (AI/ANs) living in the US, of whom 2 million qualify for federal services” (Center for Native American Youth 2014). This statement indicates that while many tribal entities use the larger, ‘self-identified’ census number when wanting Indian Country to appear as large as possible, the enrolled, federally recognized AI/AN population is not 5.2 million, but only “an estimated 2 million” – those being the ones eligible for federal services. The balance may self-identify as Native American, but are not enrolled in a federally recognized reservation. This could be for any number of reasons, including that they have heritage, but do not meet the qualifications for enrollment; that they have heritage, but consciously choose not to enroll; or they have no actual heritage, but have been told they do, believe they do, or wish they did.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs confirms the smaller numbers with a set of consistent but older statistic: “According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, the estimated population of American Indians and Alaska Natives, including those of more than one race, as of July 1, 2007, was 4.5 million, or 1.5 per cent of the total U.S. population. In the BIA’s 2005 American Indian Population and Labor Force Report, the latest available, the total number of enrolled members of the (then) 561 federally recognized tribes was shown to be less than half the Census number, or 1,978,099. (BIA 2016)
Still, most tribal entities currently quote the larger number (now 5.2 million) when discussing the size of the tribal population nationwide, and use comparable numbers when discussing the number of children under the authority of the ICWA: “Currently, 5.2 million American Indians and Alaskan Natives reside within the United States a number constituting 2% of the American population (US Census Bureau, 2011). (Hyland 2014, 4) The CNAY, although having confirmed there are only about 2 million enrolled tribal members in all the nation, goes on to claim “There are currently over 2.1 million American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/AN) under the age of 24 living in the United States” (Center for Native American Youth 2014). The ICWA only pertains to children eligible for enrollment.
Poverty as source of child trauma
There are over 2 million children and young adults in the United States who have been identified by others as having AI/AN heritage, but most have never experienced reservation life. Tribal organizations appear confused as to whether that is good or bad in relation to poverty. When explaining the catalyst for social problems on the reservation, poverty is almost always cited. According to the NCAI Policy Research Center, “The poverty rate among AI/ANs in 2010 was 28% (OMH), and 32.4% of the population under-18 lives in poverty” (Center for Native American Youth 2014), and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment rates for AI/ANs in 2011 were at 14.6% “…Some tribal communities report persistent rates of unemployment above 80%” (Center for Native American Youth 2014).
The organization ‘National Relief Charities’ explains that major health issues among the population are due to poverty, reporting “Life expectancy for American Indians has improved yet still trails that of other Americans by a few years. American Indians have a diabetes epidemic — the highest in the U.S. The tuberculosis rate for American Indians is 7 times higher. Cancer-related disparities for American Indians are higher than for any minority group in the U.S., mainly due to poverty and lack of access.”9 (NRC 2009). Even the office of the United States President has weighed in on the effects of poverty in Indian Country, stating, “…Native children and youth grapple with a number of extraordinary challenges that stem from severe poverty. Schools that serve them are often not equipped to address these complex needs—mental health, nutrition, wellness, substance abuse, family life issues, exposure to bullying and violence, housing shortages, and other critical needs. (Executive Office of the President 2014, 20)
The Department of Justice agreed, reporting, “Today, a vast majority of American Indian and Alaska Native children live in communities with alarmingly high rates of poverty, homelessness, drug abuse, alcoholism, suicide, and victimization,” an advisory committee created by former Attorney General Eric Holder to study violence against AI/AN children said in its November 2014 final report” and “’Domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse are widespread,’ the co-chairs of the committee said in the report’s cover letter. ‘Continual exposure to violence has a devastating impact on child development and can have a lasting impact on basic cognitive, emotional, and neurological functions. We cannot stand by and watch these children—who are the future of American Indian and Alaska Native communities—destroyed by relentless violence and trauma’” (Flatten 2015).
That same year, another organization reported, “One-quarter of Indian children live in poverty…” (Horwitz 2014) This is much less than the Center for Native American Youth had reported. Further, one could see that percentage as a glass ¾ full – in that the majority of children of heritage do not live in poverty, and could reflect the reality that most children who are counted in that 2.1 million do not live in Indian Country – where the federal government has confirmed extreme poverty is affecting a possible 640,000 reservation children.
But inexplicably, despite the serious, grim reports by the office of President Obama, DOJ, and others concerning the appalling effects of poverty on these children, when tribal leaders and their supporters are defending ICWA and the quality of life in Indian Country, poverty becomes a non-issue. David Simmons, the government affairs director for the National Indian Child Welfare Association, said “it is unfair to use white, middle-class standards to judge Indian parents. Poverty and crime are rampant in many areas on and off Indian land, but that does not mean individual families in those areas would not make good parents” (Flatten 2015).
Documented levels of violence
He is absolutely correct. Poverty does not equate bad parenting, nor does it cause all the social ails it is accused of. Money is not the sole measure of productivity or success, nor is it essential to happiness. Many low-income families thrive, leading loving, productive and content lives. The more likely source of despair within Indian Country is not poverty, but crime, alcoholism, and the sexual abuse and violence faced by many children in Indian Country.
Reports dating back years cite the high rate of violence against children in Indian Country. According to a 1999 report by the Department of Health and Human Services, “AI/AN children make up 2.5% of all confirmed maltreatment cases nationally (highest incidence ratio of any racial group on available data nationwide- DHHS, 1999). NICWA admitted the high number of deaths, stating, “Neglect endangers AI/AN children 4 times more often than physical abuse and results in numerous child fatalities (NICWA, 1999), and the Department of Justice said, “There is one substantiated report of child victim of abuse or neglect for every 30 AI/AN children age 14 or younger” (Department of Justice, 1999).
The Center for Disease Control stated in 2004, “AI/AN women report more domestic violence than men or women from any other race” and “One study found AI/AN women were twice as likely to be abused (physically or sexually) by a partner than the average woman” (CDC 2004) (University of Oklahoma 2013, 16). This statistic for women has relevance for children, when at the ‘First Hearing of the Advisory Committee of the Attorney General’s Task Force on American Indian/Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence,’ it was admitted that studies show “…batterers are more than four times more likely than other men to sexually abuse their children or step-children” (Hallie Bongar White 2014, 3). According to Lonna Hunter, Project Coordinator for the Council on Crime and Justice, “Co-occurrence is looking at the issue of maltreatment, but it’s also connecting this to the rate of child sexual abuse. The rate of child sexual abuse by a batterer is four to six times higher than a non-batterer. So, those dynamics of child sexual abuse occur largely when there is domestic violence present in those families.
When we look at the high rate of child sexual abuse in Indian Country and violence against Native women, it suggests that the rates could be even higher when considering the correlation to under reporting” and “This is echoed in the testimony by Elsie Boudreau, a Yup’ik survivor and child advocate from Alaska. Boudreau says that in 2010, 40 percent of children seen at Child Advocacy Centers for child sexual abuse were Alaska Native, even though we only represent 15 percent of the entire population in the state of Alaska. That is just strictly unacceptable” (Hallie Bongar White 2014, 27-28)
Ms. Hunter also said, “I traveled to Rosebud with the Tribal Law and Policy Institute to look at the co-occurrence of domestic violence and child maltreatment to do a site visit there and what I understood from interviewing child welfare workers, domestic violence advocates, survivors, and law enforcement, was that every child had witnessed violence or it was believed that every child had witnessed violence on the Rosebud Reservation” and “There were 25,000 calls to law enforcement in one year and there were 25,000 folks who live in Rosebud, and at least two children a day were victims of crime. That is astronomical. That is off of the charts compared to the co-occurrence of child maltreatment and domestic violence in the mainstream” (Hallie Bongar White 2014, 26).
Darla Thiele, Director of a diversionary project within the Spirit Lake Juvenile Court System, stated, “We have many youth on our reservation who have stories to tell. We have young ladies who on weekends are at home taking turns with their siblings holding the door shut while the party is going on in the living room. And they take turns holding the door shut to make nobody comes in to bother any of the siblings. (Hallie Bongar White 2014, 55)
Thomas Sullivan, former Regional Administrator of the Administration of Children and Families in Denver, stated in his 12th Mandated Report concerning the Spirit Lake Reservation to the ACF office in DC, February 2013, “In these 8 months I have filed detailed reports concerning all of the following:
• The almost 40 children returned to on-reservation placements in abusive homes, many headed by known sex offenders, at the direction of the Tribal Chair. These children remain in the full time care and custody of sexual predators available to be raped on a daily basis. Since I filed my first report noting this situation, nothing has been done by any of you to remove these children to safe placements.
• The 45 children who were placed, at the direction of Tribal Social Services (TSS), BIA social workers, BIA supervised TSS social workers and the BIA funded Tribal Court, in homes where parents were addicted to drugs and/or where they had been credibly accused of abuse or neglect. Since I filed my first report noting these placements, nothing has been done to remove these children to safe placements. I trust the Tribal Court, with the recent resignation of a judge who failed a drug test, will begin to be responsive to the children whose placements they oversee.
• The 25 cases of children most of whom were removed from physically and sexually abusive homes based on confirmed reports of abuse as well as some who still remain in those homes. Neither the BIA nor the FBI have taken any action to investigate or charge the adults in these homes for their criminally abusive acts. Many, of the adults in these homes are related to, or are close associates of, the Tribal Chair or other Council members.
“Since I filed my first report detailing these failures to investigate, charge, indict, prosecute those adults, my sources and I have observed nothing to suggest this has changed. Those adults remain protected by the law enforcement which by its inaction is encouraging the predators to keep on hunting for and raping children at Spirit Lake. (Sullivan 2013)
Despite Mr. Sullivan having been fired by his DC superiors in May, 2016, for continuing to report the abuse, there doesn’t appear to be any disagreement among reporters that abuse is rampant. “Indian children suffer the second-highest rate of abuse or neglect of any ethnic group, behind African Americans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention” and “Indians also have the second-highest rate of homicide deaths and infant mortality, behind African Americans” (Flatten 2015).
In 2014, the CNAY reported, “Violence, including intentional injuries, homicide and suicide, account for 75% of deaths for AI/AN youth age 12 to 20” (SAMHSA). (Center for Native American Youth 2014). “Types of crimes that Native Americans are likely to be victimized by include: murder, assault, drug trafficking, human trafficking, and gang violence” (Tighe, 2014).(Hyland 2014, 4). “Adolescent AI/ANs have death rates 2 to 5 times the rate of whites in the same age group (SAMHSA), resulting from higher levels of suicide and a variety of risky behaviors” (Center for Native American Youth 2014). “Recent research shows that while the US child mortality rate for children ages 1 to 14 has decreased by 9% since 2000, it has increased by 15% among AI/AN children (National Court Appointed Special Advocate Association)” and “Alcoholism mortality rates are 514% higher than the general population” (Center for Native American Youth 2014).
NICWA appears somewhat confused in its rendering of the deaths of the children. While on the one hand reporting in 2014 that “Available data collected by state child welfare systems shows that AI/AN child fatalities occur at the same rate as the national average, with 2.2 AI/AN child fatalities reported per 100,000 AI/AN children in the population (Department of Health and Human Services [DHHS], 2013)” (NICWA 2015). NICWA also stated that same year that “unique to AI/AN families are incredibly high rates of deaths by accidental injury. These types of deaths, which include car and pedestrian accidents, firearm accidents, drowning, fires, and suicide/homicide, account for 75% of all deaths of AI/AN children (Centers for Disease Control [CDC], 2003, p.1). Combined, the rate of death due to injury for AI/AN children is twice the national rate at 48.4 versus 24.0 per 100,000 (CDC, 2003, p. 2). Compared to Caucasian and African American/Black children, AI/AN children have the highest injury-death rates for motor vehicle crashes and pedestrian events as well as suicides (CDC, 2003, p. 3)” (NICWA 2015). While they were using two different sources – which were ten years apart – for their data, they reported on all of it in the same year: 2015.
Having said all that, NICWA then discredits its own statement that most fatalities are due to accident rather than abuse or neglect, by saying “These figures must be considered alongside the data describing child fatalities and incidence of child maltreatment in AI/AN families. This data is in line with data showing that AI/AN families are more likely to have child welfare involvement due to neglect and suggests a unique risk factor specific to AI/AN child fatalities. Given the multitude of potential responders, differences in how entities may determine child fatalities, and limited framework in Indian Country for investigating child fatalities, questions arise as to whether some of these accidents may be related to child neglect as opposed to tragic accidents. It is with these realities in mind that solutions to identify, respond to, and prevent child abuse and neglect fatalities in AI/AN families and communities must be crafted. (NICWA 2015, 5)
Further, NICWA then asserts the statistics are likely underreported, saying, “According to this data, 11 AI/AN children died in 2012 due to child abuse and neglect (DHHS, 2013). This data reflects only those child fatalities that have been reported to state authorities. However, because incidents of child maltreatment that occur under a tribe’s exclusive jurisdiction and where tribal services are provided are not necessarily reported to the state and included in national data systems, this number is likely a slight underestimate (Earl, 2001, p. 8)” (NICWA 2015).
Lastly, some of NICWA’s testimony appears simply confused: “National statistics show that of the U.S. children who die due to maltreatment, 69.9% suffered from neglect and 44.3% suffered from physical abuse, either exclusively or in combination with another maltreatment type (DHHS, 2013). Thus, a much higher proportion of children who die due to child abuse and neglect have been subjected to physical abuse than children involved in the child welfare system generally (44.3% versus 18.3%). This data suggests that AI/AN children involved in the child welfare system who face higher rates of neglect than physical abuse may be at slightly less risk of death than their counterparts. (NICWA 2015)
Other reporters can be just as confusing. Lonna Hunter, Project Coordinator for the Council on Crime and Justice, stated in hearing testimony, “The co-occurrence between domestic violence and child maltreatment…occurs between 50 and 70 percent. So 50 percent to 70 percent of children who are in homes where they’re witnessing domestic violence, that is the rate of child maltreatment that they are experiencing” and “…we do not know those very specific statistics for Indian Country. The rate of violence against Indian and Alaska Native women by an intimate partner is upwards to 30 to 40 percent. And so, considering the rate of violence against American Indian/Alaska Native women, the high co-occurrence rate suggests that it’s critical that we study or at least look at the research on this issue in Indian Country” (Hallie Bongar White 2014, 25).
Nevertheless Ms. Hunter again confirms the lack of reliable data as well as the issue of underreporting: “Data from the Wind River Reservation estimates that at least 66 percent of families have history of domestic violence and at least 20 percent have been sexually abused and those are low numbers. We have to remember that under reporting is largely in the population of Alaska Natives/American Indian families because there is just basically no research.” Ms. Hunter stated more, “The issue of co-occurrence of domestic violence and child maltreatment has been studied in mainstream since the late probably ’80s into the early ’90s; however, in Indian Country, we are only beginning to realize the magnitude of this issue. I would have liked to present the statistics on the studies of the co-occurrence in Indian Country for children witnessing domestic violence; however, there is little to no research on this issue.”
Studies indicate that witnessing violence may be as harmful as suffering physical abuse oneself.
Despite these undisputed statistics, tribal leaders and their apologists argue Indian Country is the best and only place of healing and health for children of heritage, even arguing children who leave Indian Country are afflicted with a syndrome called “split-feather,” which could place them “at great risk of long-term psychological damage as an adult” (Locust 1998).
How do physically and sexually abused children respond when told their life of trauma is not only best for them, but that there are no alternatives?
Documented levels of suicide
“Subjects with a history of any type of maltreatment were 3 x more likely to become depressed or suicidal than those with normal treatment history” (University of Oklahoma 2013, 15). “According to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 16 percent of students at Bureau of Indian Affairs schools in 2001 reported having attempted suicide in the preceding 12 months” (Center for Native American Youth 2011). “Young Native Americans taking their own lives — more than three times the national average, and up to 10 times the average on some reservations” (Horwitz 2014). The chorus concerning the epidemic of suicides goes continues: “Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death – 2.5 times the national rate – for AI/AN youth in the 15 to 24 age group (SAMHSA). In the US, between 1 in 9 and 1 in 5 AI/AN youth report attempting suicide each year (Suicide Prevention Resource Center)” (Center for Native American Youth 2014). “Indians have the highest child suicide rate in the nation, according to the CDC. The suicide rate for Indians 15-34 years old is 2.5 times higher than the national average. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for that age group” (Flatten 2015)
The office of the President reiterated the same information: “Suicide is the second leading cause of death—2.5 times the national rate—for Native youth in the 15 to 24 year old age group” (Executive Office of the President 2014, 5), while NICWA, that same year, shared a different rate, “Native teens experience the highest rates of suicide of any population in the U.S.—at least 3.5 times higher than the national average.11 (NICWA, SAMHSA 2014)
Some areas have declared states of emergency. “Suicide among Native American youth is 9 to 19 times as frequent as among other youths, and rising. From Arizona to Alaska, tribes are declaring states of emergency and setting up crisis-intervention teams” (Woodward 2012). Two examples this year; “The Yurok Tribe has declared a state of emergency after seven young tribal members took their own lives over an 18-month span” (Greenson 2016). “Since September, 101 people in the Attawapiskat First Nation, a remote aboriginal community with about 2,000 residents, have attempted suicide” (Austen 2016).
“It feels like wartime,” said Diane Garreau, a child-welfare official on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, in South Dakota. “I’ll see one of our youngsters one day, then find out a couple of days later she’s gone. Our children are self-destructing.” So dire is the alarm that of 23 grants the U.S. federal government awarded nationally to prevent youth suicides in September, 10 went to Native American tribes or organizations, with most of them receiving nearly $500,000 per year for three years” … “Our kids hurt so much, they have to shut down the pain,” said Garreau, who is Lakota. “Many have decided they won’t live that long anyway, which in their minds excuses self-destructive behavior, like drinking—or suicide” (Woodward 2012).
“…After a cluster of suicides in 2001, the White Mountain Apache Tribe wanted to develop a prevention program. It mandated reporting of all suicides and attempts on their Arizona reservation, discovering that between 2001 and 2006, their youth ended their lives at 13 times the national rate.” …” Because suicide is so common in some Native communities, it’s become an acceptable solution for times when burdens build up, said Alex Crosby, medical epidemiologist with the CDC’s injury-prevention center:” “…In some communities, suicide has become so ordinary that boys in particular may dare each other to try it, said Ira Vandever, a Ramah Navajo chef in western New Mexico. (Woodward 2012)
Further, “Children from violent homes learn it’s ok to hurt the ones you care about: whoever has the most power gets to win and that abuse and violence are acceptable techniques for use in conflict resolution. The effects of being raised in these settings may be visible right away or may lay dormant and resurface later in life manifesting itself as depression, eating disorders, inability to develop close-trusting relationships, addictive behaviors and controlling and/or violent behavior. Many children, adolescents and young adults who were witness to or subjected to abuse in their homes attempted suicide. (Hallie Bongar White 2014)
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, it has been said, “In Indian Country children are considered sacred beings—gifts from the Creator and carriers of the tribe’s future” (NICWA 2015, 2)
Documented levels of denial
While abuse and neglect are the most likely cause of the engulfing despair, most reporters of the abuse blame ‘historical trauma’ and the federal and state government for what is happening to the children. NICWA maintains there are at least four “distinct forms of trauma” that have been identified in Indian Country, “which can be experienced in a single event, as a prolonged experience, through interpersonal violence, from a historical event, or via a personal event that occurs over time through several generations” (NICWA, SAMHSA 2014).
• Cultural Trauma
• Historical Trauma
• Intergenerational Trauma
• Current Trauma
According to the CNAY, “As a result of historical trauma, chronically underfunded federal programs, and broken promises on the part of the US government, American Indians and Alaska Natives experience many health, educational and economic disparities compared to the general population. (Center for Native American Youth 2011) (2014).
“We need vital resources that allow us to be at the forefront, special demonstration funding that addresses the co-occurrence of domestic violence and child maltreatment,” said Ms. Hunter. Requests for money are repeated in most if not all hearing testimony, along with the references to historical trauma. (Hallie Bongar White 2014, 35). Lonna Hunter stated in testimony to the Justice Department, “The issues of domestic violence, child sexual abuse, and child maltreatment must be addressed through understanding of the complexity of historical and intergenerational trauma” and “This is about a political relationship to the United States government. And when we see these astronomical numbers, we understand the full extent of the historical trauma and realize the full frontal crisis we find ourselves in Indian Country with our women and children. It is imperative to understand the context of historical colonization, battering, dominance, and oppression in our villages, communities, and tribal nations in Indian Country. It is imperative because it removes the lens of “victim blaming (Hallie Bongar White 2014, 30)
The media parrots this line of reason as well, “Native youngsters are particularly affected by community-wide grief stemming from the loss of land, language and more, researchers reported in 2011. As many as 20 percent of adolescents said they thought daily about certain sorrows—even more frequently than adults in some cases… (Woodward 2012)
However, according to the Indian Health Service TeleBehavior Health Center at the University of Oklahoma, “Factors that Affect Children’s Responses to Violence” include a child’s immediacy to the violence; age of child at time of exposure; availability of adults to emotionally protect the child; the child’s disposition; and the severity and continual nature of the violence” (University of Oklahoma 2013, 17). Historical trauma isn’t included in the list.
The reality, of course, is that all people groups throughout history have experienced severe trauma. Some have passed that trauma on to the next generation, others have not. Nevertheless, the premise of inevitability that all persons of Native American heritage suffer from historical, cultural and intergenerational trauma has been disproved by the much higher percentage of persons of Native American heritage who are not experiencing violence, addiction, health, educational or economic issues. Many of those who appear not to have not been experiencing trauma – (but not all) – live outside of Indian Country and have never been connected to the reservation system.
Documented levels of Alcoholism
The more likely reasons for the high incidence of violence, child sexual abuse, and child maltreatment within Indian Country revolves around the high incidence of drug and alcohol abuse found on many reservations, which has been well documented in numerous studies over the years. A 1999 survey conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (NCASA), found “76% of social welfare professionals cited substance abuse as one of the top three causes for the rise of child abuse and neglect since 1986” (Roe Bubar 2007, 13 (9)). The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found “…meth-addicted parents (fathers more frequently than mothers) are more likely to abuse their children when using the drug, while neglecting them as the high wears off (Hogan, Myers & Elswick, 2006; [HHS], 2003). As noted by NCASA (1999), “the powerful lure of this addiction competes with parents’ bonds to their children, and can diminish their ability to meet the demands of child welfare officials and to regain their children despite an abiding love for them” (Roe Bubar 2007, 17).
In 2003 it was noted, “Mortality rate associated with alcoholism is nearly four times that of other races. Alcohol contributes to four of the top 10 leading causes of death for American Indians and Alaska Natives, including accidents, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, suicides, and homicides. The majority of accidents, including motor vehicle accidents, are alcohol related” (NW Frontier ATTC 2003).
In 2004, “tribal service providers and law enforcement agencies began reporting that parents were selling their furniture, personal belongings, family heirlooms and regalia, cars, homes, and in some instances prostituting their children in order to obtain cash to continue their addiction to methamphetamines (meth). Criminal Justice Act grantees also were reporting dramatic increases in interpersonal violence, crime, and death, in which meth was a contributing factor (D. Payne, personal communication, April 10, 2006). However, Indian country lacks both a macro and micro study of child abuse and meth use. Furthermore, a systematic examination into the impact of the meth crisis on emergency services, social services, law enforcement, and schools has not taken place on a tribal basis, much less on a pan-tribal level. (Roe Bubar 2007, 7) Note: this list of methods to raise money for drugs included prostituting one’s own children, and again mentions the lack of solid data.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) estimated in 2005 that “methamphetamine use had grown to 1.7 percent in the Native population” (McSwain, 2006). “According to Trends in Indian Health, produced by the Indian Health Service in 2000-2001, American Indian and Alaska Native populations have seen a 164% increase in the number of drug-related deaths from 3.9% in 1979-1981 to 10.3% 1998. The North Dakota Drug Threat Assessment of 2002 concluded that meth use and distribution was a problem in all reservations within the state, including Turtle Mountain, Standing Rock Nation, Fort Berthold, Spirit Lake Nation, and Lake Traverse (U.S. National Drug Intelligence Center [NDIC], 2002). “It is believed that most of these reservations have been targeted by Mexican drug traffickers who bring the drugs in wholesale from California or Mexico and then use Native distributors for both on and off reservation trafficking (NDIC, 2002)” (Roe Bubar 2007).
“According to newspaper accounts…U.S. and tribal law enforcement agencies have witnessed a large increase in violent crimes stemming from meth use. Furthermore, there have been reports of tribal elders and family members being involved with meth distribution. … According to media reports coming out of the Wind River reservation in Wyoming, the tribal community had been targeted by Mexican drug cartels in an attempt to create a market for meth that dwarfs the demand for alcohol and marijuana. As a result, …social services agencies have seen a large increase in child neglect cases. The addition of meth-exposed children to an already strained network of social services in tribal communities almost guarantees additional complications in educational, social, and medical services on the reservation. Requests through the Indian Health Service (IHS) for drug rehabilitation services for meth addicts increased from 137 in 1997 to 4,946 in 2004. … (Doney, 2006; U.S. Commission on Civil Rights [USCCR], 2003). (Roe Bubar 2007, 15-17)
“Professionals working in these tribal communities report increases in the incidence of child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, and sexual assault as a result of meth. They also expressed an awareness of increases in child abuse allegations and out-of-home placements that involved a meth-related investigation. Furthermore, these professionals believe that meth involvement increases the difficulty of family reunification. In addition, there are serious concerns regarding the impact of methamphetamines on children, including attempted or completed suicides, meth-impacted births, and exposure to chemicals within the home environment. Many of the perceptions provided by tribal professionals in this survey are supported by recent data gathered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Office of Justice Services from 96 Indian country law enforcement agencies that suggests meth is the greatest threat in their communities. These law enforcement agencies also identified increases in domestic violence, assaults, burglaries, and child abuse and neglect cases with the increased use of meth” (Roe Bubar 2007, 10).
The children are also mimicking their parents. In an early study, “Wallace and Bachman (1991) found that almost half of Native American youth under the age of 17 drank alcohol or smoked marijuana, with a higher substance abuse rate for boys than for girls” (Roe Bubar 2007). “16% of AI/AN youth ages 12 and older report substance dependence or abuse” (NICWA, SAMHSA 2014).
“Native youth also face substance abuse problems and some have co-occurring mental and substance use disorders. In 2013, among persons aged 12 or older, the rate of substance dependence or abuse was higher among American Indians/Alaska Natives than any other population group. That same year, an estimated 38.7 percent of Native adolescents aged 12 to 17 years had a lifetime prevalence of illicit drug use. Compared with the national average for adolescents aged 12 to 17, Native adolescents had the highest rates of lifetime tobacco product use, marijuana use, nonmedical use of pain relievers, and nonmedical use of prescription-type psychotherapeutics. From 2003-2011, American Indian/Alaska Native were more likely to need alcohol or illicit drug use treatment than persons of other groups by age, gender, poverty level, and rural/urban residence. In 2012, almost 69 percent of Native youth ages 15 to 24 who were admitted to a substance abuse treatment facility reported alcohol as a substance of abuse compared to 45 percent for non-AI/AN admissions. Among other issues, underage drinking increases the risk of suicide and homicide, physical and sexual assault, using and misusing other drugs, and is a risk factor for heavy drinking later in life. (Executive Office of the President 2014, 25-26)
Further, “Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders among AI/AN population indicate some of the highest rates” (University of Oklahoma 2013, 14). It has been suggested that the biggest ‘elephant in the room’ in reference to Indian Country is the reality that a high percentage of those remaining on the reservation suffer from alcohol related birth defects, which has resulted in progressive generations of fetal alcohol adults raising fetal alcohol children.
Documented levels of mental and physiological health issues
Others have pointed to the long-term effects of repeated exposure to violence. “… No matter what you do, if that child can’t be at that basic level feeling safe, feeling secure, being fed, that kind of a thing, how are they going to be at a higher level? (Honolulu, Hawaii) (NIEA 2006, 22-23)
“Trauma at a young age often leads to higher rates of behavioral health disorders in adolescence. [While] research shows there is little comprehensive data on rates of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder for AI/AN youth… a study of Native American sixth graders from one reservation found that 75% had clinically significant levels of PTSD” and “Researchers have reported a 14% prevalence rate of Major Depressive Disorder among AI/AN adolescents” (NICWA, SAMHSA 2014). “Indian children experience post-traumatic stress disorder at the same rate as veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and triple the rate of the general population” (Flatten 2015).
“I would venture to say over 80 percent of our children are traumatized at an early age; and so, therefore, their ability to learn and comprehend is affected very severely. How do we link that? How do we link the early childhood trauma? Where is the research and where do we find the research dollars to make that link; and, in that, what are the methods that can help our children transcend that and move into a place where they can get beyond that and they’re able to learn? (Green Bay, WI) (NIEA 2006, 23)
Additional funds to prove the connection between the trauma children experience on many reservations and their subsequent inability to learn are not necessary. A multitude of studies have already proven the links. It is time now to act. “This whole No Child Left Behind or other education endeavors deals with academics and learning; but, as long as we don’t address the other issue of hurt children and hurt children cannot learn — we all know that, don’t we? Hurt children cannot comprehend. We know that. And, most importantly, children in unhealthy homes, it affects their attendance and it does contribute to their dropout. Early childhood trauma is also the precursor to long-term alcohol and substance abuse. The research is connecting all that up. (Green Bay, WI) (NIEA 2006, 23)
Indian children respond to the impact of violence exactly as children from every heritage do. According to the HIS center at the University of Oklahoma, “The brains of traumatized children develop as if the entire world is chaotic, unpredictable, violent, frightening, and devoid of nurturance…Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D” (University of Oklahoma 2013, 23).
As a society, we need to stop being afraid and do what needs to be done to factually help affected children and stop the cycle.
“The combination of repeated childhood trauma and the absence of parental nurture, support and protection can result in the development of multiple psychiatric and neuropsychiatric disorders. … four categories of symptoms:
(1) trauma-related neurological symptoms,
(2) trauma-related psychological symptoms,
(3) developmental difficulties brought on by poor parenting, and
(4) other associated difficulties.
“Each of these categories or clusters of symptoms cause children considerable emotional distress and impair their ability to function, and the distress and dysfunction are even more severe when they are combined. Although these four sets of difficulties are hard to “cure,” appropriate mental health treatment can act as a buffer against them and their effects, especially when such treatment is initiated during childhood (Cicchetti and Toth, 1995; Toth and Cicchetti, 1993). In the absence of treatment, however, trauma-related difficulties and their effects tend to persist into adolescence and adulthood and become difficult to reverse (Perry et al., 1995; Schore, 2001). (Richard G. Dudley 2015, 4-5)
“Studies have shown that, when children are repeatedly exposed to trauma, the amygdala — the area of the brain known to activate the physiological stress response — overdevelops. This overdevelopment increases the fear and anxiety these children experience and causes them to be hyperresponsive to frightening situations in both their physiology and their observable behavior (Pollak, 2008; Shin, Rauch and Pitman, 2006). At the same time, the development of the hippocampus — the area of the brain known to turn off the stress response — is inhibited, decreasing its capacity to control the response (Bremner et al., 2003) … Trauma-related neurological and psychological difficulties interact so as to exacerbate each other” (Richard G. Dudley 2015, 5-6).
“…it is estimated that 35 percent of children exposed to domestic violence will develop trauma-related difficulties (Moretti et al., 2006). …Similarly, it is estimated that between 42 percent and 90 percent of child victims of sexual abuse will develop trauma-related difficulties (De Bellis, Spratt and Hooper, 2011). …statistics related to both these issues are thought to be underestimates (Leventhal, 1998; Wilt and Olson, 1996). It is therefore likely that the actual prevalence of PTSD stemming from both childhood sexual abuse and exposure to domestic violence is greater than stated above. More difficult to estimate is the number of children repeatedly exposed to or even directly threatened by various forms of neighborhood violence” (Richard G. Dudley 2015, 9).
Some believe these issues result “in our kids not knowing who they are and emulating other races by trying to be people that they are not. And they’re doing this because they lack a basic knowledge of who they are and where they come from. And we, as Dacotah people, we are spiritual people. We have a belief in Wakan Tanka, and we know that prayer is a daily part of life” (Hallie Bongar White 2014, 56).
Application of the Indian Child Welfare Act
All of these statistics have been known, thoroughly documented and reported by supporters of the Indian Child Welfare Act for many years. Yet, while admitting there aren’t enough safe, healthy foster homes on all reservations, many of these same reporters vehemently oppose the use of foster homes outside of Indian Country. “About 2 percent of US children are American Indian/Alaska Native, but AI/ANs represent 8.4 percent of the children in foster care. (NICWA, & Kids Are Waiting, 2007)” (Center for Native American Youth 2011). “The National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA) reports that AI/AN children are overrepresented in foster care – at more than 2.1 times the general population – and 2 to 4 times the expected level are awaiting adoption” (Center for Native American Youth 2014).
Further, “[n]on-binding guidelines published by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs in February, 2015, stated that courts should not consider the best interests of the child in determining foster care or adoptive placements. Placement in an Indian home is presumed to be in the child’s best interests” (Flatten 2015). In June 2016, the federal government took it a step further and published the guidelines in the federal register as now mandated rules for all courts. Every child in the nation who presents to a court in need of care now must be vetted for tribal heritage, and if heritage is found, the relevant tribal government must be notified and given the option to intervene and take over jurisdiction of the child. These new rules have been written to prevent children and families from ducking the ICWA and avoiding tribal jurisdiction. “The law forbids judges from blocking placement in an Indian home based on poverty, substance abuse, or “nonconforming social behavior” in a particularly Indian community or family, according to the BIA guidelines. That can force children with even a slight Indian heritage into environments where poverty, crime, abuse, and suicides are rampant” (Flatten 2015).
One organization even called it a “positive’ event when children are unable to find a permanent, loving home, with stable adults they can call ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad.’ From the ICCTC: “AI/AN children currently appear less likely to be adopted compared to White children. This positive finding, reported by CWLA (1999), may be due to the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA)” (Indian Country Child Trauma Center 2005).
“The ICWA was enacted to stem the outflow of Indian children from their tribal communities and to statutorily recognize tribal authority over child placement decisions. The Act is based on the fundamental assumption that it is in the Indian child’s best interest that its relationship to the tribe be protected.” The ICWA Commission’s hearings, which were held on the reservations throughout the State and in Sioux Falls and Rapid City, were ‘the most in-depth assessment of ICWA compliance ever undertaken in South Dakota.’ Testimony from all of the Indian communities reported a high rate of removal of Indian children from their families on the reservations. The primary reasons for the removal of Indian children were two-fold: a high rate of alcohol and drug abuse and …abuse and neglect. In either situation, the predominant reason for the removal was children being at risk of abuse and neglect and could not be maintained safely in their homes. Removing a child from his or her home requires placement in foster care or a temporary custody arrangement with a member of the family. However, as the study revealed, when placement with extended family is not an option, neither the State nor the tribes have a sufficient number of qualified foster homes available to place Indian children in what often becomes a long-term custody arrangement”(Kunesh 2007, 28).
Many tribal entities also claim only tribal governments and tribal organizations can help children who have any amount of tribal heritage. Says a representative of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, “To prevent child abuse and neglect in Indian Country and the senseless deaths that it sometimes produces, the Commission must turn to those who have the most knowledge of the needs of these children: national Indian child welfare experts, tribes, and AI/AN practitioners. These experts can best help the Commission understand challenges to AI/AN children’s safety and work with the Commission to formulate solutions that support healthy, safe children and families. (NICWA 2015, 2)
The argument is further buffered in most if not all hearings and testimony by the mention of treaties and land, although no treaty gives any tribal government the right of jurisdiction over the children of non-Indian families who are not connected to the reservation system, let alone parents and tribal members who have deliberately taken their families and left Indian Country.
“AI/AN nations have always had systems of government that addressed internal conflict and provided for the needs of their families. Historically, these systems were informal, unwritten, and based upon a holistic philosophy which sought to encourage a balanced way of life. These governing systems are acknowledged in the U.S. Constitution, hundreds of treaties, and some of the earliest Supreme Court cases. Over the course of time, a fundamental contract between AI/AN nations and the federal government has been created. AI/AN nations ceded millions of acres of land and enabled the U.S. to expand its territory, and in return, AI/AN nations were given a guarantee that their continued existence and inherent right to self-government will be protected. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of our history, this relationship was not honored by the federal government, which actively worked to extinguish tribal self-governance and in some cases tribal people” (NICWA 2015, 2)
“Sandy White Hawk, a woman of Sioux heritage who was adopted by a non-tribal family in the 1950s, voiced a commonly accepted belief when she said, “We know that the children who grow up outside of their culture suffer greatly… Non-native homes cannot give an adopted Indian child their culture” (Kaplan 2015).
The term ‘Split-feather syndrome’ came into parlance in the late 90’s with a pilot study under the direction of Carol Locust, a training director at the Native American Research and Training Center at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. According to Locust, “The pilot study conducted by this investigator indicated that every Indian child placed in a non-Indian home for either foster care or adoption is placed at great risk of long-term psychological damage as an adult” (Locust 1998).
Locust is said to have identified “unique factors of Indian children placed in non-Indian homes that created damaging effects in these children’s lives.” The Minnesota Department of Human Services noted “an astonishing 19 out of 20 Native adult adoptees showed signs of “split feather syndrome” during Locust’s 1998 study (DHS 2005).
“Unfortunately,” according to Bonnie Cleaveland, PhD ABPP, “the study was implemented so poorly that we cannot draw conclusions from it.” Only twenty Native American adoptees – total – were interviewed. Further, according to Cleaveland, “Locust asserts that out of culture removal causes substance abuse and psychiatric problems. However, she uses no control group. She doesn’t acknowledge the high rates of trauma, psychiatric and substance abuse among AI/AN people who remain in their culture and among the population of foster children. These high rates of psychosocial problems could easily account for all of the symptoms Locust found in her subjects. (Cleaveland 2015) Cleaveland concluded, “Sadly, because many judges and attorneys, and even some caseworkers and other professionals, are not familiar with the research, results that may be very wrong are leading to the wrong outcomes for children” (Cleaveland 2015).
The data is clear and agreed upon by reporters across the board. Emotional and physical dangers for children are much greater within Indian Country than they are without.
Some of the reports given by tribal entities and organizations have phrased the data to make it appear that these dangers are implicated on the basis of heritage. But many more children of Indian heritage live outside of Indian Country than live within, and many of these children and their families, while they may report elements of their heritage to the U.S. census, are not eligible for federal Indian benefits, do not participate or have any connection with Indian Country, and are not countable in the statistics gathered by Indian Health Services or other reporters of tribal health and welfare statistics. They do not use Indian Health Services or programs offered by tribal governments, are not available to be counted, and cannot be included in many of the studies concerning youth of Indian heritage.
The dangers being reported pertain much more to children within Indian Country, under the auspices of tribal governments, the federal Administration of Children and Families, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and other federal ‘help’ agencies, than they do to children in the mainstream who are unconnected to Indian Country.
The documentation of children being physically abused, sexually abused, and even dying at an extremely high rate within Indian Country is solid and has been so for at least two decades. Despite many hearings, reports and billions of dollars, the situation appears to have only been getting worse. The theoretical implication of this data, which has been reported as true by tribal government entities and their supporters, is that children who are taken from homes known and proven to be safe, stable, and emotionally and physically healthy outside of Indian Country, and placed into a home within Indian Country, are more likely to be placed into situations less safe, stable, and emotionally and physically healthy than the home they have been taken from.
Further, these theoretical implications should be obvious to tribal and federal governments as well as organizations servicing Indian Country, as they are the ones reporting the data.
Therefore, children who fall under the jurisdiction of the Indian Child Welfare Act – meaning children who a tribal government has deemed to be members and who have been brought before a judge for a custody hearing, regardless if they and their families have been connected to Indian Country – are being consciously placed into dangerous living situations by tribal, state, and/or federal government officials who know – or should have known – the environment is dangerous to them both physically and emotionally.
Unfortunately, ICWA statistics – including how many children are affected by the ICWA every year, what percentage of those affected were taken from long term homes where they felt safe and loved – then placed into tribal foster homes, what percentage had never lived within Indian Country or been acquainted with the culture, and what the long-term emotional and physical health outcomes for the children have been – were not mentioned in any of the reports or studies examined in this review and don’t appear to exist.
Nevertheless, a concerned community does not wait for additional studies to act on an obvious, fully and immediately known danger. We don’t wait for a study to rush a child out of a burning building. When a child is bleeding to death, we know to immediately put pressure on the wound and get the child to a hospital. Unwillingness to deal effectively with the immediate needs of children suffering extreme physical or sexual abuse from their extended family or neighborhood casts doubt on tribal and federal government assertions that the best interest of the children is of paramount importance.
The real racism – is the attitude that the documented and immediate needs of certain children of a particular heritage can wait a few more years so as to not interfere with the desires and demands of political leadership. While claiming to be “raising the standard” for children of heritage by allowing them to stay in a documented dangerous environment, or to return to a dangerous family setting prematurely, or to take them from an environment known to be safe and deliberately place them in danger – standards have in fact been lowered to the point of cruel negligence. Many children of tribal heritage are, in fact, not being given protection equal to what other children are legally mandated to receive. Our federal government has reduced our children to the status of a mere “resource’ and chosen to please political leaders rather than save children’s lives.
“…there is no resource that is more vital to the continued existence and integrity of Indian tribes than their children and that the United States has a direct interest, as trustee, in protecting Indian children who are members of or are eligible for membership in an Indian tribe…”
—Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978
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While the vast majority of comments and feedback about the book, ‘Dying in Indian Country’ have been extremely supportive – (an untold number of Americans [both tribally enrolled and not] have experienced and felt the same things we have) – there are still a few out there repeating the same stuff thrown at us in the 1990’s.
Today, a woman claimed my husband and I were “extremists” when we became politically involved years ago.
According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, ‘extremism’ is “the belief in and support for ideas that are very far from what most people consider correct and reasonable.” Cambridge Dictionary defines it similarly as “someone who has beliefs that most people think are unreasonable and unacceptable.”
For those who have been paying attention to the situation of a 6-yr-old girl named Lexi . who was moved from her home due to the Indian Child Welfare Act this last week, it is clear most people in America feel what happened to her was both unreasonable and unacceptable. By the above definitions – it was the tribal ‘establishment’ that was extreme.
“Extremists” are groups of people trying to force their points of view and way of life onto others. Those who fight back are not the extremists. They are the defenders.
All parents have a right to defend their families – no matter what their heritage.
Extremists and racists – when it comes to federal Indian policy – are those who think they have a right to claim jurisdiction over the children and grandchildren of others simply due to heritage, and then attempt to vilify parents who stand up for themselves.
Roland and I first began speaking out against the ICWA in 1995 or so. We were never “extremists” – we were simply parents sticking up for ourselves. Others who agreed began contacting us because of the letters I wrote to the editor.
When the livelihoods of our friends and neighbors were threatened amidst other issues, we did what we could to support them as well, joining their groups when asked to. That’s not being an extremist, that’s being part of a community.
Tribal corruption also became an issue we spoke against. At the time, Roland’s tribal government had just been convicted in federal court for embezzlement and ballot box stuffing,
As time went on, more people who had been hurt by extremist’ (by definition) tribal governments and federal Indian policies – heard what we were saying and joined us. It’s as simple as that.
We learned more tribal members live off the reservation than on – many trying to raise their children away from Rez crime and corruption.
But then, that’s all in the book.
The end of this story has not yet been written. The next book will delve further into federal Indian policy and the rewards certain people in both tribal leadership and federal government get from it.
Remember – Lobbyist Jack Abramoff went to prison in 2006 for taking money from tribal governments and buying Congressional votes with it – but none of the people who gave him money went to jail, and neither did the people he gave money to.
It didn’t stop just because one man went to prison.
So – were we “extremists” for wanting to protect our children from the Indian Child Welfare Act (should anything have happened to us)?
Were we “extremists” for wanting to help all the families that contacted us as years went by – both tribal enrolled and not – who had children in circumstances like Lexi’s?
…Were we “extremists” for fighting the same kind of corruption most of America is painfully aware of and currently debating and fighting this campaign season?
Not by definition.
Federal Indian Policy of the United States of America derives from process philosophy embodied in Marxism. While many tribal members might not see Marxism within the policy and others might argue it isn’t a process forward that they desire, but a process back to what was in the past, our federal government has perceived and handled federal Indian policy in a manner consistent with process philosophy and Marxism, concentrating their solutions on materialsm, historicism, and socialism (Martin, 2006, p. 148). Glenn Martin in his text, “Prevailing Worldviews, wrote, “What we have in Marxism is the most intense effort to date to be absolutely consistent with the presuppositions of process philosophy…” (Martin, 2006).
According to American Indian Movement member Jimmy Durham, the United States government has known all along it was supporting a communist political system within Indian Country. Durham wrote a 1974 white paper,
“…Our societies were and are “communistic” societies. The U.S. government has always understood that very well. It has not branded us all these years as communists because we tried to form labor unions or because we hung out with the IWW or the Communist Party but because the U.S. government correctly identified our political system. It did not make that a public issue because that would have been dangerous, and because it has been far more efficient to say that we are savages and primitives…
“Marx used our societies as examples of what he meant by communism on two different occasions in his writings. He said that we are “Primitive Communists.” …We do need to join forces with world Marxism-Leninism, because that is the liberation movement for the world. But we will not come into that world community as a “primitive” younger brother. Our struggle has always been not only to maintain our own lands and culture, but to fight the political system of capitalism itself. (Durham, 1974)”
A primary example of Marxist philosophy in Indian Country is the handling of property within the boundaries of American Indian reservations. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote in their Communist Manifesto in 1848, “In this sense, the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.” (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, 1848). This is exactly what has been done to tribal members within the United States, including our 31st vice-president, Charles Curtis, who was a member of the Kaw tribe. This aberration of constitutional rights continues to this day with little notice or concern from fellow American citizens.
Worse, callous groups have risen up within Indian Country voicing intent to force change upon their neighbors whether they wanted it or not. Durham stated in his white paper that force might be necessary to get the majority of tribal members to cooperate with what AIM knew to be best. He said,
“There are about a dozen American Indians in the U.S. today who say they are Marxist-Leninists. There are quite a few more who are in Marxist study groups. But the very large majority are, to differing degrees, verbally, “anti-communist” whilst their actions are communistic. But we need to be able to use the tools of Marxism-Leninism if we are to see effectively and fight our enemy. I do not believe that we have time to “let nature take its course,” or to have that kind of liberal “faith in the people” which means escaping one’s own responsibility for leadership and action.
Disorganization, lack of perspective and clarity, and everyone “doing their own thing” are American phenomena which are destructive to our struggle. Lack of strategic unity plays right into the hands of the enemy. A Marxist-Leninist analysis of the detailed realities of our situation, I believe, is the only way to combat such phenomena. (Durham, 1974)”
Yet, despite not only promising violence to force change but at times having carried it out, AIM met sympathy and embrace from the non-tribal public. Despite mistreatment of other tribal members and even murder, court cases against the American Indian Movement for their violence were dismissed. There was almost a nationwide acceptance of their brutality as being somehow necessary for change.
Change has been occurring as a result of their violence and demands. A primary example is the Indian Child Welfare Act. Six years after AIM’s attack on the people of Wounded Knee, Congress gave tribal governments jurisdiction over all children of heritage, whether or not their families lived on the reservation or wanted to be part of Indian Country.
According to the last two U.S. censuses, 75% of tribal members do not live within Indian Country. Many have left due to the crime and corruption and do not want tribal leaders involved with their children. But the philosophy that all people of heritage belong to the tribe and children will suffer emotionally if not connected to Indian Country has been imbedded in the minds of United States citizens, who have forgotten the concepts of constitutional rights and self-governance in respect to this segment of their neighbors.
Durham, J. (1974). AMERICAN INDIAN CULTURE: TRADITIONALISM AND SPIRITUALISM IN A REVOLUTIONARY STRUGGLE. Retrieved October 1, 2014, from History Matters: http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6904/
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. (1848). The Communist Manifesto. Retrieved September 15, 2015, from University of Massachussetts: http://courses.umass.edu/pols294p/documents.html/communist-manifesto.pdf
Martin, G. R. (2006). Prevailing Worldviews. Marion: Triangle Publishing.
He died in a car wreck on Sept. 22, 2014. Just five hours earlier, he was talking to us on the phone, telling us he had tape recorded his meetings with BIA social services and tribal court because he finally wanted his story to be public.
Lavern “Bundy” Littlewind was a BIA policeman and Spirit Lake tribal member. He wanted people who don’t live on the reservation to understand why child abuse is endemic on so many reservations. Many Tribal social services don’t protect kids. They protect tribal sovereignty.
The latest: Toddler Jastin Blue Coat was murdered October 18, 2014, in Eagle Butte, SD. Because of his heritage, he wasn’t allowed protection.
After a series of child murders at Spirit Lake, our federal government – in the form of the BIA, FBI and U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon – was called in two years ago to oversee, improve care, and protect the kids. Federally funded programs such as Casey Family Services and ACF were also supposed to be improving care. But that money has been poured down the drain.
There is no serious intention to protect children if the only real solutions are perceived to threaten tribal sovereignty. Protect tribal sovereignty at all costs – even at the expense of children.
Power and money have corrupted nations from time immemorial.
In all our years of going to DC about this, Representative Kevin Cramer has been the only Congressman to take real action. This year, he pushed for an oversight hearing and called the BIA on the carpet. His office asked Bundy to testify at the June hearing as well, but Bundy was nervous, thinking tribal government might use his kids against him if he spoke up. That’s understandable – many have seen that happen.
The U.S. Government has set up a system that allows crime and corruption to occur without repercussion in Indian Country. We are very grateful to Rep. Cramer. It takes real courage to address something other Congressman have been afraid to touch. We need him to remain in office, pursuing protection for kids at Spirit Lake as well as across the country.
October 12, 2014
The American Indian Movement (AIM) and its federal supporters used deceptive, unethical and at times violent methods to achieve their end goal. While purporting to be a non-violent entity focused on the well-being and betterment of the people they said to represent, ‘tribal sovereignty’ was the primary and prized goal – at the expense of individuals, children and families
The federal government acquiesced following Wounded Knee in attempt to placate and stem violence from this very small percentage of tribal members. ICWA was proposed soon after Wounded Knee and signed into law within five years.
AIM, purported to have been established to help poverty-stricken Native American families, has had a deep and unrecognized destructive and oppressive impact on families of all heritages across America.
In July of 1968, Native Americans from Minneapolis, Minnesota gathered to organize and form AIM as a way to “fight mistreatment by police and to improve prospects for jobs, education, and housing. (Durham, 1974)”
Initially, they did this. For the first few months, they were successful in cutting down on police harassment by monitoring police radio and arriving to an event before the police did. This resulted in a dramatic decrease in incarcerations for tribal members, and AIM members were widely accepted by the grateful community.
Honorable intentions to begin with – the leadership quickly decided this wasn’t enough. While they continued to maintain the initial stated objectives in public, behind closed doors, the motivation and goals had changed. Presenting the original stated goals made the best sound bite and comforted the ‘white’ public, anxious to alleviate societal guilt. However, AIM’s actions in the next few years went far beyond a legitimate push for justice, jobs and housing.
In the fall of 1972, AIM sponsored the “Trail of Broken Treaties.” About 900 people traveled from the west coast to Washington, DC, stopping at reservations along the way. After arriving in DC, they took over the BIA building and presented federal government with a 20-point proposal for sovereignty (Abourezk, 1972). Publicity from the “Trail of Broken Treaties” event rewarded the group with public sympathy and financing from the far left. Questions remain as to how they were so easily able to take over a federal building with little or no repercussion.
In 1973, AIM members violently took over the small town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota and conducted a siege that lasted from February 27 to May 8, 1973. While media played down criminal actions perpetrated on the very citizens AIM claimed to represent, people of Wounded Knee were intentionally robbed, beaten, and sometimes killed during the 71-day ordeal.
An amenable media smoothed things over for the “victimized” Native American organization. In one example, the media trumpeted that AIM had saved the town from an unscrupulous, predatory white grocer. In Robin Hood fashion, they relieved said grocer from his home and ill-gotten possessions and spread the plunder – including the store inventory – amongst themselves. The truth was this grocer had been known in the community for being extremely generous and AIM leaders imprisoned him and his wife – who was a tribal member – in their own basement. (Trimbach, 2007)
The stated goals of housing and jobs, while possibly initial goals of some members and branches of AIM, were not the end goals of its leadership. The stated goals of job and home were never reached and the leadership never seemed to give genuine effort to obtain them.
Instead, their factual push was for “tribal sovereignty” – the ability for certain tribal leaders to control other persons of Native American heritage as well as tribal-owned resources and assets. In a memorandum written to a colleague, AIM Executive Director Dennis Banks stated the ultimate AIM goal was to “free Indian people throughout the Americas from white man’s oppression and racism so as to create free Indian states that reflect self-determination of free peoples” (AIM, 1968).
AIM member Jimmie Durham went further, stating in a 1974 memorandum to AIM leaders,
“The Founding Fathers of the United States equated capitalism with civilization. They had to, given their mentality; to them civilization meant their society, which was a capitalist society. Therefore, from the earliest times the wars against Indians were not only to take over land but also to squash the threatening example of Indian communism. (Durham, 1974)”
Unfortunately, by the very nature of the group there was a power struggle from the start. Wide disagreement existed in the native community concerning AIM and its agenda. AIM’s young radicals from the cities, who had no power but wanted it (called “progressives” by the media), had to fight what the media called “traditionals” (leaders who already had power on the reservations and didn’t want to lose it). Further, while most of the nation was oblivious to the crime and murder committed by AIM at Wounded Knee, the people who lived through it were not.
Federal government leaders had begun to treat AIM leaders as legitimate authorities speaking for community members, but many Native American families saw AIM as thugs. By 1980, AIM declined as a leading organization. Many people saw no change in their day-to-day struggles and never benefited from AIM’s militant efforts. AIM leaders, much like the Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons of the world, had gotten their gold and were not showing much interest in the ongoing problems of their communities.
Tribal sovereignty, which was not on the radar of most people in the 1970’s, was now widely assumed reality – despite the legal term for Indian Reservations factually being “Domestic Dependents.” Today, AIM leaders, while still honored by federal government and international organizations, are never heard to speak up for better jobs, education, and housing, let alone speak up when a child is raped or murdered on the reservation.
What AIM pushed for all along was power and control. A draft memo written by a Nixon White House aide in 1974, following the Wounded Knee occupation, points this out, stating,
“…some individuals propose ‘the ultimate sovereignty: i.e., the external sovereignty of an independent nation, outside the jurisdiction of the United States, entirely. This option, while probably being ruled out as somewhat extreme by many persons, could have substantial support. It has, in fact, been suggested by some Indian groups, as evidenced by the recent action of members of the American Indian Movement to attempt establishment of diplomatic relations on behalf of tribal governments, with the United Nations foreign nations, and the United States, itself.” (Spaith, 1974)
AIM didn’t manage to achieve power and control over the reservations for themselves, but they started the heavy ball of tribal sovereignty rolling for elected leaders on the reservations and over the years, sovereignty has picked up speed, crushing tribal and non-tribal U.S. citizens alike in its path.
Due to the tribal sovereignty movement, several organizations were established to push back and protect the legal rights of individuals. Among them are Shawano County Concerned Property Taxpayers Association (SCCPTA), Upstate Citizens for Equality (UCE), Dakotans for Equal Rights (DER) and Aloha for All.
In this paper, we will examine how the AIM movement used media to spread militant propaganda to the point it was able to achieve dramatic support across the United States for tribal government control over powerless citizens. So successful was their effort that by 1978, a law was even passed to give tribal government’s authority and control over other people’s children. We will examine what their purposes might have actually been as well as how they went about it.
Some argue that ends justify the means. If one were talking about saving the life of a busload of children, that argument could potentially have merit. However, what was saved was tribal sovereignty at the expense of children. Granted, with rape and murder of children within the reservation system far outdistancing that of their neighbors off reservation, it is obvious some in authority genuinely believe this was a justified trade (Ombudsman, 2013).
The mistreatment of average tribal members who stood in AIM’s way is reminiscent of Marxists who had marched through Greece in the mid 1900’s. This is telling, as Marxism appears to have been an influence on at least some of the AIM members. AIM member Jimmy Durham wrote in his white paper concerning culture, revolution and the movement,
“…young white Marxists who have never been in real situations of struggle in a working-class movement, who in fact have seldom worked with anyone except fellow-students, and who come to us as though we were ignorant “lumpen proletariat” in need of being “taught”, not only Marxism, but the realities of our own struggle. . . (Durham, 1974)“
He goes on to say,
“…we have always defined our struggle not only as a struggle for land but also as a struggle to retain our cultural values. Those values are “communistic” values. Our societies were and are “communistic” societies. The U.S. government has always understood that very well. It has not branded us all these years as communists because we tried to form labor unions or because we hung out with the IWW or the Communist Party but because the U.S. government correctly identified our political system. It did not make that a public issue because that would have been dangerous, and because it has been far more efficient to say that we are savages and primitives.
“Marx used our societies as examples of what he meant by communism on two different occasions in his writings. He said that we are “Primitive Communists.” The word “primitive” means “first,” but people who have skimmed through Marx often decide, because of the connotations of the word “primitive” which come from political manipulation, that Marx meant that we were backward or “childlike” communists. Marx was, nonetheless, very Eurocentric, and he assumed that European history was the main body of humanity’s history.
“We do not need Marx’s words to teach us how to live our lives in our own society. We do not need to go through an industrial revolution so that we can come out as communists on the other side.
“We do need Marxism-Leninism as a method and system for knowing the human world as it is today and for knowing how most effectively to fight our oppressor. We do need to join forces with world Marxism-Leninism, because that is the liberation movement for the world. But we will not come into that world community as a “primitive” younger brother.
“Our struggle has always been not only to maintain our own lands and culture, but to fight the political system of capitalism itself. (Durham, 1974)”
There, in the words of founding AIM members, is the true purpose and goal of the AIM movement. Clearly, the American Indian Movement deceived its audience by concealing its true purpose and position, oversimplifying complex situations, and pretending certainty when valid and important questions remained unaddressed.
Adolf Hitler said in Mein Kampf,
“…in the ‘big lie’ there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying..”
Such is the case with the American Indian Movement and Tribal Sovereignty. Deception, propaganda and demagoguery appear to have been persuasion techniques skillfully used by AIM leadership.
Special Agent John Trimbach (SAC-Minneapolis), author of the book, “American Indian Mafia” tells the true story of what happened at Wounded Knee that spring in 1972 as they “tore a path of destruction through the Pine Ridge Reservation on their way to personal gain, fame, and fortune…” (Trimbach, 2007).
Among the deceptions, AIM leaders:
- Robbed citizens of Wounded Knee, the very people they claimed to be helping
- Extorted funds from federal government, varied organizations, and unsuspecting supporters – keeping much of the money for themselves.
- Persuaded public officials into excusing their criminal behavior by through invention of claiming “indigenous immunity” – thereby encouraging violence against other tribal members.
- Conspired to murder opponents, including their own members.
According to Special Agent Trimbach,
“The 1970s legacy of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota is haunted by the forgotten suffering of innocent victims and a falsified history found in almost every library in America. Sadly, what should have been a needed voice for Native America became a criminal enterprise on the reservation, where property was destroyed and lives were lost. A record founded in falsehoods and distortions completed the betrayal and denied the reality of lost opportunities, shattered lives, and a Movement hijacked by its leadership. Today, the perpetrators are known as “brave warriors” and “selfless activists,” while many of their crimes against Indians are minimized, or not mentioned at all. (Trimbach, 2007)”
This social movement went beyond persuasion into coercion. According to Senator James Abourezk,
“We got into the Indians’ perimeter and there’s all these Indian Vietnam vets who were there with AK-47’s Kalashnikovs, I don’t know where they got them all, but they had them. And we were driving slowly right, and they were following us, just like that. And the tension, I’m telling you was thick enough to slice,” (Abourezk Shares Means & McGovern Memories, 2012).
While violent tactics draw attention in the form of influence and are not persuasion (Larson, 2013), veiled by duplicity, AIM leaders were skillful in the presentation of their goals and activities. Despite the radical nature of their movement, they were able to present to the world an image of ethos and credible sincerity and persuade Congress to pass legislation favorable to tribal sovereignty.
Using the peripheral route of elaboration, AIM leaders aimed for the heart of non-tribal Americans, playing on what is popularly known as “white guilt.” Many dressed in traditional attire for photo-ops, or the very least wrapped themselves in a blanket, giving the impression to citizens on the east coast that many tribal members still dress in traditional manner on a daily basis.
Leaving out mention of the AK47’s as well as a video of Russell Means telling tribal leaders well beforehand that AIM intends to take over the village of Wounded Knee and wants their support (Wounded Knee – Occupation ’73, 1972), Senator Abourezk in a forward to his Library collection on Wounded Knee characterized the event as an unplanned and reasonable protest, stating that about 200 AIM members “…enroute to Porcupine, South Dakota, stopped at the village of Wounded Knee” and just happened to take over “the trading post, museum, gas station and several churches.” AIM considered Wounded Knee to be of “historically significance and deemed the village an appropriate location from which to voice the concerns of AIM and the Oglala of the Pine Ridge Reservation (Abourezk, 1972).”
This recounting of events brings more questions than answers. Setting aside the fact they were not asked to take over the village by either the people of Wounded Knee or most of the Pine Ridge residents, what were 200 people traveling together to Porcupine South Dakota for?
Senator Abourezk waxed poetic about their altruistic purposes, saying AIM leaders supported:
“…reformation of tribal government as well as bringing attention to Native American grievances. Means, as an AIM spokesperson, requested congressional investigations into conditions on all reservations and the corruption of the BIA. Means specifically wanted a hearing to take place concerning treaties and treaty rights, along with an investigation of the BIA and the Department of the Interior at all agency and reservation levels. (Abourezk, 1972)”
AIM leaders spoke of past atrocities and the robbing of land. “Broken treaties” became a brand phrase – although it has remained unclear whether all treaties were broken, or just a few, or whether it was an entire treaty or particular points. This was rarely, if ever, specified. Another point that has gone unmentioned in relation to the breaking of treaties was that no treaty ever promised federal money into perpetuity. Most, if not all, state that federal monies were to last only 20 years.
Further, while it is true that some lands were stolen, it is also true that non-members homesteaded some lands long before the land around it was deemed reservation land by the federal government, and tribal members who were intelligent, capable, and pleased with the sale legally sold some land to non-members. It is an extreme and demeaning insult to portray every tribal member who ever sold land as uneducated and incapable. In 1929, our U.S. Vice President, Charles Curtis was a Kaw Nation Native American Indian. Clearly, he was not the only tribal member in the United States able to understand and negotiate a contract.
However, these facts would involve the recipients of AIM’s persuasion and rhetoric to use careful and thoughtful consideration of the issue merits – the “central route” of information processing – and that it not the route AIM leaders chose to use for their publicity campaign.
They chose well. The American people listened to what was said, reacted with emotion, and did what they thought they could to alleviate the suffering of tribal members. Yet, years later, despite the efforts of AIM, federal government funds, and legislation increasing tribal control over persons of heritage, nothing has gotten better. In fact, some say things have gotten much worse. According to FBI Special Agent John Trimbach, the Pine Ridge Reservation continues to suffer from “many social malignancies such as unemployment near 90%, life expectancy of approximately 56 years, rampant alcoholism, and widespread child sex abuse (Trimbach, 2007).”
Richard Two Elk, a former resident of Wounded Knee, agrees. He has stated,
“After the occupation ended, the objectives had not been achieved” and “When AIM took over Wounded Knee village in 1973, they hijacked the legacy of that community and Lakota people for their own gain. Since 1973 to present, AIM has exploited and cashed in on the notoriety of their take-over. However, nowhere along the line have they bothered to share with the residents of Wounded Knee village any of their so-gotten gains. ( The Stolen Legacy of Wounded Knee, 2009)”
Introducing fear is another tactic used in persuasion, and despite the smooth explanation given by Senator Abourezk, AIM introduced fear to both the non-tribal community as well as those they professed to represent.
Former Special Agent for the FBI, John Trimbach wrote,
“Aquash was dragged from the trunk of a car near the reservation town of Wanblee, South Dakota, and shot in the head in December 1975. The alleged triggerman, AIM member John Graham, will stand trial in state court although no date has been set. Graham’s accomplice Arlo Looking Cloud was convicted in federal court of aiding and abetting the murder in 2004. Following a series of interrogations, AIM leaders falsely accused Aquash of being an FBI informant. One of her interrogators was convicted killer Leonard Peltier. At an AIM conference in June 1975, Peltier put a loaded gun in Aquash’s mouth to administer “truth serum.” The trail of evidence could lead to Peltier’s former boss, AIM co-founder Dennis Banks.”
Two Elk also makes several comments addressing this,
“Russell Means does say, “Spies will be shot”
“…After AIM leadership was acquitted of all charges stemming from the take-over, they ran free-rein throughout the reservation. In the ensuing civil war between AIM and the goons, certainly there were more than 60 dead on both sides of that fence. Too many of these belonged to neither side, but were simply innocent victims caught in the cross-fire; such as the residents of Wounded Knee.”
“One death which occurred at Wounded Knee, which producers of [PBS program titled, ‘Wounded Knee,’] were made aware of but failed to mention, was the death of black civil rights activist, Ray Robinson. Failure to mention this at all is a clear indication to me that this is another public relations program for AIM.”
“The program further asserts that AIM’s demise came about due to the government trying to tie it up in the courts. The producers of this program would like us to believe in fairy-tale fashion, that as a result AIM fell into disarray and violent infighting and simply lost their way. The fact is, AIM leadership flushed it down the toilet two years after Wounded Knee by ordering the interrogation and murder of Anna Mae Pictou Aquash because they suspected her of being an FBI spy. As the news of her murder rippled through Indian Country, the risk of falling into AIM crosshairs seriously diminished its following.”
“…members of AIM have been charged, convicted, and have upcoming trials in the murder of AIM member Anna Mae Pictou Aquash. ( The Stolen Legacy of Wounded Knee, 2009).”
In fact, it was only in February 2014, that the FBI finally confirmed the death of Robinson. According to documents, a witness told agents “Robinson had been tortured and murdered within the AIM occupation perimeter, and then his remains were buried ‘in the hills.” (AP, 2014)
Tribal member had good reason to be wary of AIM. Jimmy Durham had inferred in a white paper early on that force might be necessary to get the majority of tribal members to cooperate with what AIM knew to be best for the tribes. He said,
“There are about a dozen American Indians in the U.S. today who say they are Marxist-Leninists. There are quite a few more who are in Marxist study groups. But the very large majority are, to differing degrees, verbally, “anti-communist” whilst their actions are communistic. But we need to be able to use the tools of Marxism-Leninism if we are to see effectively and fight our enemy. I do not believe that we have time to “let nature take its course,” or to have that kind of liberal “faith in the people” which means escaping one’s own responsibility for leadership and action.
Disorganization, lack of perspective and clarity, and everyone “doing their own thing” are American phenomena which are destructive to our struggle. Lack of strategic unity plays right into the hands of the enemy. A Marxist-Leninist analysis of the detailed realities of our situation, I believe, is the only way to combat such phenomena. (Durham, 1974)”
Non-tribal members were first frightened by the take-over of the BIA building in Washington DC and more so by the take-over of the village of Wounded Knee. Believing that the rage of AIM members must have a valid source (much as many believe of Palestine today) ‘white’ Americans wanted to do whatever necessary to make things right. Two Elk notes,
“AIM’S takeover of Wounded Knee was a public relations battle for American hearts and minds they are still waging to this day. ( The Stolen Legacy of Wounded Knee, 2009)”
Narrative story telling might be viewed as cultural tradition. Some see it as a well-honed skill. It’s been said many tribal members have long enjoyed spinning stories for melanin-deprived visitors from the east, laughing privately at the subsequent responses. Some say that enjoyment continues. Many non-tribal members who’ve never lived on or near a reservation but have had a regular diet of Hollywood over the years are interested in descriptions, testimony and anecdotes of reservation life. This played very well into AIM’s method of persuasion and post hoc fallacy.
One persuasive symbol that came out of the fight for tribal sovereignty is children. Children were said to be the “lifeblood” of the tribe – necessary for the purposes of tribal sovereignty and the continuation of the tribe. Since then, the concept of children of heritage being the possession of tribal government has been widely circulated and accepted.
According to founding AIM papers,
“A major objective of the movement is to regain the young. Once the BIA is eliminated and individual tribal states are created schools will not be a major problem. However, until such times as this goal is realized AIM must plan, support and execute the following school activities. (AIM, 1968)”
By 1978, Senator James Abourezk had become Chair of the Senate Indian Affairs committee, a committee that Senator Abourezk had been largely responsible for establishing. This committee was given jurisdiction over all legislation concerning Indian Affairs, including any socio-economic, healthcare, political, or trust issue involving Indian Country or its members.
The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), sponsored by Senator Abourezk in 1976, was passed in 1978 with the specific intention of giving tribal governments authority in the custody decision of any child they deem to be a tribal member – whether or not the child’s parents or grandparents want tribal government to interfere in that custody decision. The intent, Congress said, was to “protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families. (Haga, 2013)”
More specifically, the ICWA intended “… to give Native American tribes a strong voice in child custody issues with an ultimate aim of ensuring tribes rights to maintain and preserve their language and culture. (5 Sioux Tribes Applied to Fund Their Own Foster Care Programs, 2014)”
Some would add – ‘and power and money.’ While calling for recognition of tribal sovereignty, AIM and tribal government leaders simultaneously demanded increased federal funding. Assertions that the children are theirs and federal government must totally abstain from interference are followed by claims that federal government does not adequately fund foster care on reservations. From oversight hearings to back room discussions to press releases, leaders have asserted that they are sovereign nations with the right to foster their own children, but it is incumbent on federal taxpayers to fund it.
“The solution to this hostile attitude toward the basic intent of ICWA is to give direct federal funding to the individual tribes to set up their own foster care, with adequate oversight, and get the state completely out of it,” said Daniel Sheehan, general counsel for the Lakota People’s Law Project. (Harriman, 2013)
Leaders insist on increased and perpetual federal funding – while simultaneously asserting sovereignty. Following the 2013 Supreme Court case, “Adoptive Couple vs. Baby Girl,” when the Court ruled and affirmed that a non-Indian, unwed mother has a right to decide the best interest of her child without interference from tribal governments, Senator Abourezk, the driving force behind the ICWA, responded,
“It’s an attack on tribal sovereignty through the children. I can’t believe they did this.” “The ICWA is in line with similar laws to bolster tribal sovereignty. That was our aim. We did everything we could to increase tribal sovereignty. That includes the Indian Child Welfare Act…” (Harriman, 2013)”
AIM Leader Clyde Bellecourt, using familiar emotional buzzwords, agreed and said the Supreme Court decision “is legalizing the kidnapping, theft of children and division of Indian families once again by states and churches. Churches have a lot to do with this. (Harriman, 2013)”
Peter Lengkeek, a former member of the Crow Creek Tribal Council, also agreed the 2013 ruling on ICWA threatens tribal sovereignty. “We have to fight on a daily basis for protection and strengthening of our sovereignty. When things like this happen, it weakens it even more.”
It is clear that control of the children was integral and first step for those seeking power over other members. One of AIM’s plans from the start was that they would implement and run a National Center providing basic teaching aids such as reading, cultural materials and lore to other people’s children – most of whom were and are multi-racial. AIM stated it would begin with pre-school and elementary education as “most behavior characteristics are learned within the first 5 years (AIM, 1968).”
Rhetoric aside, what has been overlooked is that according to the last two U.S censuses, 75% of tribal members do not live in Indian Country (U.S. Census 2010, 2011). Many (not all) have purposefully taken their children and moved away due to high crime on reservations and tribal government corruption. Further, most of the children and families affected by ICWA are of more than one heritage. As much as tribal leaders have wanted control of the children in order to preserve sovereignty, many parents of enrollable children did not want tribal government interfering with their families.
Nevertheless, this is not what the public was told. Instead, they were given the impression that most, if not all, persons of tribal heritage are in agreement with statements by AIM and tribal leaders. The general public has been told that meddling social services, abusive foster homes and unscrupulous adoptive parents were stealing all the children.
The words “stealing,” “stolen,” “kidnapping,” “theft,” “Trail of Tears” and “genocide” are all used quite often to play on perceived white guilt. The imagery of defenseless children stolen from their beloved family for the purpose of money and power was all that was needed to persuade a willing public that something needed to be done. The most common reaction seemed to be, “We took their land, now we are taking their children? Certainly, these were the tribe’s children and they belonged with the tribe.” For many, allowing tribal leaders control over the children seemed the right thing to do, bringing atonement and alleviating guilt.
Other members of the public and some Congressmen, faced with uncertainty over land titles and possible economic loss, unfortunately looked at the ICWA as a faux compromise, thinking they would have security and cognitive dissonance if tribal governments settled for jurisdiction over children rather than asking for land back.
Unbeknownst to this willing public, once ICWA was passed some tribes began taking defenseless children from their beloved family for the purposes of money and power (Tevlin, 2013). Further, land titles are not something some tribal governments are – or ever were – willing to compromise on.
While the words “stealing,” “theft,” “Trail of Tears” and “genocide” played on white guilt, they also stoked strongly held beliefs and anger in many tribal members – gaining more internal AIM support for a time. There is a human tendency to want to believe a powerful force is behind overwhelming problems, making those problems beyond one’s ability to manage. In this case, some tribal members were open to believing that a powerful white society was at root of all troubles on the reservations.
For other members, the organization fulfilled security, affiliation, and prestige needs. Another persuasive technique successfully used on fellow tribal members by AIM leaders was speaking to an inner longing for “Eternal Return” – a rejection of concrete historical time as it really happened and substituting a return to an interpretation of history as one wishes it might have been.
There was no social media in the 1970’s, but AIM leaders used the spoken word, written word and film effectively to spread their message. They printed their own newsletters and spread them to various reservations through what they called a “railroad” – runners traveling (by car) from one reservation to the next, delivering newsletters, flyers and other information. Using this method, they hoped to prevent their opponents from accessing their material as much as possible. For public broadcasts, they used local and national news agencies. Creating attention-getting events was critical to getting the media attention they needed.
On their later website, they omitted mention of violence or crime initiated by AIM members and used wording that would play at heartstrings of tribal members and non-members alike. Despite a published video of Russell Means talking to tribal leaders prior to Wounded Knee, telling them of the planned takeover and asking leaders for their support (Wounded Knee – Occupation ’73, 1972), AIM wrote as if the event was unplanned and altruistic,
“In 1973, more than 2,000 American Indians came to Wounded Knee…following a courthouse disturbance. At this historic site where a massacre of Indians by U.S. cavalry soldiers in 1890 ended years of armed conflict, the demand for hearings on sovereignty rights was met with a siege by FBI forces, Federal marshals, and BIA police (AIM, 1968).
Using these persuasive techniques, AIM accomplished three of the five states of campaign development: Identification, legitimacy, and participation. They stopped short of penetration and distribution when their unpredictability and violence became too much for most tribal members – although Senator Abourezk, Rep. Nancy Pelosi and other elite ‘left of center’ persons on the national and international level inexplicably continued to associate and interact with the AIM leaders.
Senator Abourezk was so fond of Russell Means; he hired him as a staff person in his DC office. Means was the only convict in history to work for a Senator while serving prison time (Russell Means: About, 2014).
In the Social Movement Model of persuasion, AIM went quickly from “Social Unrest” to “Maintenance” and then “Termination” mode as many supporters lost faith and patience.
The American Indian Movement and its supporters used deceptive and unethical persuasion methods throughout most of its existence. While purporting to be a non-violent entity focused on the well-being and betterment of the people they represent, they were in fact focused on controlling the people – at times through violence.
Tribal sovereignty was the primary and prized goal – at the expense of individuals, children and families.
The American Indian Movement was initially established in Minneapolis, Minnesota, for good reason and helped poverty-stricken Native American families at its start. However, as they garnered and felt the pleasure of attention and support, they quickly switched to a national, militant focus resulting in deep and unrecognized destructive and oppressive impact on families of all heritages across America.
AIM’s actions over the next few years went far beyond a legitimate push for justice, jobs and housing. In 1973, AIM members violently took over the small town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota and conducted a siege that lasted over 2 months. People of Wounded Knee claim that during the event, many of them were robbed and beaten, and some were killed.
The stated goals of justice, housing and jobs, while possibly initial goals of some members and branches of AIM, were not the end goals of its leadership. Instead, there was a factual push was for “tribal sovereignty” – the ability for certain tribal leaders to control other persons of Native American heritage as well as tribally owned resources and assets.
Unfortunately, there was a power struggle within the first couple of years. Tribal leaders already in power on reservations were not willing to give it up to this young new group. Wide disagreement existed in the native community concerning AIM and its agenda, especially after reports of violence against members began to surface.
As tribal supporters fell away, AIM declined as a leading organization. Yet, while many Native American families saw AIM as thugs, federal government officials inexplicably began to treat AIM leaders as legitimate authorities speaking for community members.
Tribal sovereignty, which was not on the radar of most people in the 1970’s, was now widely assumed reality. AIM didn’t manage to achieve power and control over the reservations for themselves, but they started the process for obtaining it for elected leaders on the reservations. Within a short time, sovereignty picked up speed, crushing tribal and non-tribal U.S. citizens alike in its path. So successful was the tribal sovereignty movement that by 1978, a law was passed giving tribal government’s authority and control over other people’s children.
The American Indian Movement and its supporters used deceptive and unethical persuasion methods throughout most of its existence. This has been apparent to many in law enforcement, if not the public. Senator Abourezk himself was monitored and investigated by the Denver police in the 1990’s while they investigated AIM’s activities.
Evidence of criminal activity aside, inconsistencies in claims and reasoning have been abundant.
It is recommended that readers look deeper into the protests and writings of tribal members and families affected by the Indian Child Welfare Act to learn how tribal government sovereignty has hurt them as individuals and families.
5 Sioux Tribes Applied to Fund Their Own Foster Care Programs. (2014, June 26). Retrieved from Lakota People’s Law Project: http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2014/06/26/5-sioux-tribes-applied-fund-their-own-foster-care-programs-155501
A Pilot Study of Compliance in North Dakota, (December 2000) by NICWA and Casey Family Programs
Abourezk Shares Means & McGovern Memories. (2012, October 24). Retrieved October 5, 2014, from Keloland.com: http://www.keloland.com/newsdetail.cfm/abourezk-shares-means–mcgovern-memories/?id=138966
Abourezk, J. G. (1972). THE OCCUPATION OF WOUNDED KNEE, 1973 – American Indian Movement. House of Representatives. Wounded Knee: U.S. Government. Retrieved October 6, 2014
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Domestic and Sexual Violence outside the Reservations in North Dakota get lots of attention from the ACF. (September 2013) Email Correspondence between ACF Officials
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HONORABLE BJ JONES **- CHIEF JUDGE PRAIRIE ISLAND INDIAN COMMUNITY TRIBALCOURT, S.-W. O.-T. (2007). Legislative History of the Indian Child Welfare Act. Retrieved from Christian Alliance for Indian Child Welfare: http://caicw.org/family-advocacy/legislative-history/#BJJonesHistory
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This letter was printed in the Grand Forks Herald and Bismarck papers Thursday, June 12, 2014, and read on air during the Jay Thomas radio show Friday, June 13, 2014
To the Editor.
Concerning the upcoming event featuring President Obama and Senator Heitkamp at the Standing Rock Reservation on Friday, June 13th:
North Dakotans are a gracious and forgiving people and will politely welcome the president to our wonderful state.
However, before he gives his speech concerning the wonderful “Nation to Nation” relationship he has with tribal leaders and announces what further moneys and authorities he will bestow upon them – he needs to learn facts from those whom his edicts directly affect.
- One: According to the last two U.S. censuses, 75% of tribal members DO NOT live in Indian Country – and many have deliberately taken their children and left in order to protect their families from the rampant crime and corruption.
- Two: The abuses at Spirit Lake here in North Dakota are well known, but it is also known that Spirit Lake is just a microcosm of what’s happening on reservations across the country.
- Three: These abuses are rampant on many reservations because the U.S. Government has set up a system that allows extensive abuse to occur unchecked and without repercussion.
- Four: Many, many times more children leave the reservation system in the company of their parents, who have mass exited – than do children who have been taken into foster care or found a home in adoption. But tribal leaders can’t admit parents are consciously taking their kids out of Indian Country in attempt to get them away from the reservation system and corrupt leaders. It makes a better sound bite to blame it on evil social services
President Obama, please listen to those who do not have a vested financial interest in increasing tribal government power, and learn about the physical, emotional, sexual and financial abuse of tribal members by other tribal members and even many tribal leaders.
STOP supporting corrupt tribal leaders and corrupt systems and pretending all is okay in Indian Country.
Every time power to tribal leaders is increased, tribal members – U.S. citizens – are robbed of civil freedoms under the constitution of the United States.
More power given to tribal leaders means less freedom, safety and constitutional rights for tribal members.
A woman was advocating for rights of tribal members and freedom from tribal gov’t tyranny, while telling me that the only way tribal members can be free from alcohol is through traditional religion.
So… while on the one hand she decried being dictated to and controlled by tribal gov’t, she was attempting to dictate to and control other tribal members when it came to spirituality.
This is a very important point about freedom for tribal members. Some tribal governments do try to dictate that people need to follow traditional religion, not any other. When Roland was testifying in Seattle, a member of the NICWA told us that reservations have a right to keep Christians off their property – and Christians have no right to speak to tribal members about their religion. We asked “What if an elder who has lived there all his life and becomes a Christian wants to talk to his grandchildren about it?” The NICWA representative answered that the grandfather had no right to speak to his grandchildren about it and would have to move.
This is not an unusual point of view within some tribal circles, nor was it unusual in many historical dictatorships that one religion was chosen for the entire country and all had to abide by it. This was why many settlers came to America and why our constitution addressed religion.
Then comes the Indian Child Welfare Act, used by some tribal governments to dictate the religion Indian children are to be raised in. Some times exposure to powwows and traditional Indian religion is mandated by courts and tribal governments as a condition of their foster care. Other times they aren’t even allowed to stay in Christian homes. This can happen even if the parents and grandparents want the children raised as Christians.
In other words, individual freedom is robbed by some tribal governments as well as federal government in applying the ICWA.
My husband and I knew who we wanted to be guardians of our kids if we were to die. We chose a man from our church. His race didn’t matter to us – his spirituality and heart were all that mattered. This is our right as parents to choose. No one else’s.
NO ONE else in America is underneath a law that dictates how you are supposed to spiritually raise your kids. The 1st amendment says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”… but the ICWA Congress enacted comes dangerously close to doing just that.