Published in Indian Country Today in November 2011. This article was funded in part by a grant from the George Polk Program for Investigative Reporting.
In the days before Thanksgiving, mourners and protesters will participate in the Ninth Annual Memorial March to Honor Our Lost Children. The pilgrimage takes walkers from South Sioux City, Nebraska, over the Missouri river and into Sioux City, Iowa, where Native children have for years been swept up by the child-welfare system and even died in its custody. The route evokes the passage of Nebraska tribes, including Poncas, Omahas, Santees and Winnebagos, who came to the city looking for jobs after World War II, as did Sioux people from South Dakota and others.
“They were seeking a better life,” said Frank LaMere, Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and executive director of Four Directions Community Center, in Sioux City, which is organizing the march. “But it didn’t work out that way.” The consequences have been devastating for the Native children of Sioux City, surrounding Woodbury County and Iowa as a whole, according to LaMere, who is a national leader in child-welfare and juvenile-justice issues. “If you’re a Native parent in this county, you’re many times more likely to lose your kids than a white parent. In recent years, three of our Native children—Hannah Thomas, Nathaniel Saunsoci-Mitchell and Larissa Starr-Red Owl—have died after being taken from their families. We march to remember them and all the children who have been separated from their families and communities.”
The march has changed lives. Several years ago, an Internet image of the march inspired a Native boy to stand his ground. “The child had acquiesced to adoption into a white home after years of being told, ‘your people have forgotten about you, your people are drunks and no-goods,’” said LaMere, who was present at a final adjudication in the case. Then one day, the boy was clicking around the Web and saw a photograph of the march. “He was shocked. He told the court he’d been lied to. He said he saw hundreds of people looking for their lost children. ‘They were marching for me,’ the boy said. ‘They were looking for me.’ He balked at the adoption and was returned to his tribe.”
On another occasion, an adoptive family watching a television segment on the march happened to see a Native mother who’d lost her parental rights years before carrying a baby picture they recognized. “All excited, the adoptive mother called me and arranged to bring the child to be reunited with the birth mother,” recalled LaMere.
Events surrounding this year’s march—which is also supported other local groups, including the Community Initiative for Native Children and Families, a coalition of government agencies and nonprofits—begin November 22 with a prayer gathering at 7 p.m. at the Marina Inn, in South Sioux City. The next morning, November 23, at 9 a.m., the marchers progress, rain or shine, into Sioux City, where they stop at the Woodbury County Courthouse and the Department of Human Services. In both places, strangers decide the fate of Native people, according to LaMere.
The reception at each building is expected to be different than it was nine years ago, when a sheriff tried to stop marchers from entering the courthouse, said LaMere. This year, the group will be welcomed and will have an opportunity to read a letter calling for a national investigation into non-compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act. “There are no grey areas in ICWA,” said LaMere. “But racist judges, attorneys, guardians ad litem and more are feeding the sytem, making money off our kids with their decisions.”
Two special guests during the event will include Cade and Jace Courtright, 14-year-old Rosebud Sioux twins who’ve just been reunited with their mother with the help of LaMere and Four Directions program director, Judy Yellowbank, Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. Cade relies on a wheelchair, and Jace is blind, so LaMere suggested the twins meet the march at the Four Directions Community Center dinner that closes the event. However, the boys insisted on making the journey with the other marchers. “We’ll do whatever is necessary to make that happen,” said LaMere. “An elder once told us that the prayers of children are very powerful, more powerful than those of adults. Those boys’ presence during this time is a gift to us.”
Things are changing in Woodbury County, he added. “When it comes to Native child-welfare decisions, we have a place at the table now, along with the Department of Human Services. They even support our parenting and leadership programs. We can hold their feet to the fire on the issues, and no matter how heated the meetings get, we come away from them knowing we are going to move forward together, as collaborators. We in the Woodbury County Native community are winning the battle to keep our families together, one family, one child at a time.”
Recently, LaMere sat in on a meeting concerning an Omaha child. The judge announced that the tribe had intervened, and the child was going home. “Everyone’s jaws dropped, including mine. Hopefully, the good we see growing here will spread, and more of our children nationwide will be going—and staying—home.” c. Stephanie Woodard