State of the Native nations: Iowa commission meets in Des Moines

This article was published in Indian Country Today in 2011. It was funded in part by the George Polk Center for Investigative Reporting. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....
ICNAA flag by Iowa governor's office.

“Keeping our families intact is a priority,” said Judy Yellowbank, Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and vice-chairperson of the Iowa Commission on Native American Affairs. “So much relates to that.” Yellowbank, who presided over ICNAA’s October meeting in Des Moines, said the group spent two days discussing problems facing the state’s Native community. Primary among them were ongoing difficulties implementing ICWA (the Indian Child Welfare Act).

           “We set up a subcommittee, which I’m part of, to address ICWA issues,” said Yellowbank, who is also program manager of Four Directions Community Center, a Sioux City organization that has long focused on child welfare and juvenile justice. “We have both state and federal ICWA laws here, but they aren’t necessarily enforced.”

           Said ICNAA’s chairperson, Judy Allen, Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, “There are simply no consequences when the courts or other players don’t comply with the law—when they don’t notify tribes in time to become involved in the placement of a child, for example. And once our people are in ‘the system,’ whether it’s child welfare or the prisons, they are quickly lost to us.”

            Yellowbank noted some progress in Iowa child welfare, including the work of the Sioux City group, Community Initiative for Native Children and Families (CINCF), which reports its minutes to the commission. CINCF (pronounced “sink”) brings together government officials, NGOs and community members to address the disproportionate number of Native children in the child-welfare system; the group provides training sessions for social-services workers and court personnel, among other activities.

            One improvement, said Yellowbank, was the hiring of a Native American social worker for the unit of the human-services department that serves Woodbury County’s relatively large Native population. (Though the group is commonly referred to as the “Native unit,” it didn’t have a Native American professional on staff until then, though it did have two Native American community liaisons.) Going forward, ICNAA hopes to see more Native units in more Iowa counties and the hiring of more Native American professionals, Yellowbank said.

            Other matters ICNAA took up at its October meeting included stalled state approval for a policy to protect Native American prison inmates’ access to spiritual activities, an effort led by Judy Morrison, Cherokee/Osage and the Native liaison to the corrections department, and difficulties getting a capitol-building display set up to increase awareness of the Native population, an endeavor headed by ICNAA commissioner Tom Cornwell, Cherokee.

            “We feel Native people are on the bottom of the list in Iowa,” said Allen. “But no matter how many setbacks, ICNAA figures out ways to get things done. As a new commission—set up by the governor in 2008—we’re still learning the ropes and developing allies. We see there are legislators willing to work with us. Most important, we just don’t quit.”  

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photo courtesy of the Iowa Commission on Native American Affairs.

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