Lakota People's Law Project calls for U.S. "Truth and Reconciliation Commission" to follow example set by Canada
Chase Iron Eyes
Following a report issued by a Canadian government commission that found the nation had committed cultural genocide against its indigenous population, Lakota People’s Law Project, a South Dakota-based public interest law office and public policy organization is calling for the Obama Administration to assemble a commission similar to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada to explore our nation’s detrimental conduct toward our Native population.
“It is time for the United States Government to fully investigate, officially acknowledge and take active steps to overcome the consequences of the systematically criminal policies that it – and its state governments – have persistently perpetuated against our American Indian population,” said the Lakota Sioux Nation’s Chase Iron Eyes, the Chief Legal Counsel for the Lakota People’s Law Office. “Such a public reckoning is long overdue.”
On Tuesday, June 2, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released a 365-page report that officially found that the Government of Canada was guilty of having committed “cultural genocide” against seven full generations of their Aboriginal people beginning in the mid 19th century and continuing up to and including the present.
The Lakota People’s Law Project asserts that, much in the way of the Canadian Commission, it should not only seek to repair the past crimes of the federal and state governments, but also explore the many ways in which those crimes are adversely affecting Native people currently. For example, the American People do not know that, of the 3,141 Counties in the entire United States, of the 11 absolutely poorest counties, 7 of those 11 counties are located on the nine Lakota Sioux Reservations in the state of South Dakota.
“The United States needs to outline measurable goals and methods by which the Indian nations can be restored to their healthy, vibrant and flourishing state preceding the intercession of peoples of European descent,” said Chase Iron Eyes.
“For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious and racial entities in Canada,” the first line of the report reads. “The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as ‘cultural genocide.’”
The Lakota People’s Law Project asserts the same is true of the United States — the only difference being that Canada is further along in both acknowledging how its policies were genocidal whereas the United States continues to be mired in indifference and denial.
“Substitute the word United States for Canada and you have a picture of what happened to our people over the last centuries,” said Bryan Brewer, former President of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota. “The mistake most people make is thinking these crimes are relegated to the past. This is not true. The struggles and difficulties of my people continue to the present day as a direct result of the failed and racist policies of the United States government. Specific to the Lakota tribes in South Dakota, the state officials and institutions are so racially biased that they are continuing the cultural genocide of our great nation. This must be acknowledged in order for it to stop.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report directed special attention on the Aboriginal Residential School system of Canada, to which thousands of Aboriginal children were taken after having been kidnapped from their families and tribes in order to rid the area of the Native culture, religion, language and heritage by assimilating those children into the dominant Caucasian culture.
The report expressly recognizes that Canada designed and established this Residential School system based on the Indian Boarding School system established in the United States when a failed Conservative Party politician, one Nicholas Davin, was dispatched by the Canadian Government in search of a template for their program.
“Davin acknowledged that a central element of the education provided at these schools would be directed towards the destruction of Aboriginal spirituality,” the report states. “Since all civilizations were based on religion, it would be inexcusable, he thought, to do away with Aboriginal faith ‘without supplying a better [one].’ For this reason, he recommended that while the government should fund the schools, the churches should operate them.”
The report also found that the current child seizure crisis in Canada and other places where tribes live have their direct antecedents in the era of such boarding schools.
“The legacy of the schools remains,” the report states. “One can see the impact of a system that disrupted families in the high number of Aboriginal children who have been removed from their families by child-welfare agencies.”
The Lakota People’s Law Project, the only Indian-advocacy group that has worked actively, for 10 years, alongside tribes in South Dakota to put a stop to South Dakota’s systemic and persistent violations of ICWA, has demonstrated that the racist attitudes of the boarding school era linger in South Dakota today.
“The bottom line is that white people continue to believe their form of civilization is superior to Indian culture,” Sara Nelson of LPLP said. “We are witnessing rapacious natural resource extraction companies continue to plunder Mother Earth, contribute to climate change and imperil the very future of the human family. To claim superiority over a culture that commanded masterful husbandry of natural resources, lived sustainably, and left no footprint on this continent is absurd. If we are all going to survive on this planet, we must humbly face the crimes of the European/American model, correct the injustices and work together on sustainable models that respect the laws of nature.”
Despite the existence of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, which mandates state institutions need to undertake active efforts to keep children with their families and tribes, South Dakota has been systematically removing an average of 740 Indian children from their homes every year. Of the 740 children, 87 percent, or 9 in 10, are placed in non-Native foster care—in direct violation of ICWA.
“After they age out of the system, most of these children are homeless, in prison, or dead by the time they are 20 years old,” said James Hawk, a Rapid City-based organizer for the Lakota People’s Law Project. “That is a travesty.”
Recently, a federal lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union in South Dakota found that South Dakota State Officials, including their State Judges, their State Department of Social Services Officials and others had consciously conspired with top state officials to systematically deprive Indian parents of their constitutionally-guaranteed rights and their federally-guaranteed statutory rights under ICWA after their Indian children had been seized by the South Dakota Department of Social Services.
“Many Americans remain unaware of the policies in place that continue the pattern of cultural and physical genocide against Native peoples,” said Chase Iron Eyes. “They believe that Wounded Knee is just a place in the past, that exists simply as a shameful chapter lost in the dust of history books. But Wounded Knee is a very real village on the Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation here in the state of South Dakota and the atrocities that were visited upon our Lakota people in the past continue to inflict endemic trauma and damage upon our people. Physical abuse, sexual abuse, unemployment, poor health, poor nutrition, lack of education, lost identity, daily degradation and racism, daily legal injustice, ongoing stealing of resources and land, and, most horrible, the ongoing taking of the children. All these problems have come from the federal and state policies, and the boarding schools run by the churches. Pretending it isn’t true, refusing to address and correct the injustice, is refusing to heal, not only our Indian community, but the entire country.”
“We insist that President Obama establish just such an official Commission here in our country,” said LPLP attorney Daniel Sheehan, “so we can be as proud of our nation as the people of Canada are of their country, now that it has confessed the error of its ways and has agreed to correct the persistent policies that continue today.”
The Lakota People’s Law Project has been partnering with tribes and leaders in South Dakota since 2005 from its offices in Rapid City, SD and Santa Cruz, Calif. LPLP’s activities have included funding and supporting Native experts to provide technical assistance to the tribes on family and child welfare issues. The project combines public interest law, investigation, research, education and organizing into a unique model for advocacy and social reform.
The Lakota People's Law Project is sponsored by the nonprofit Romero Institute based in Santa Cruz, Calif. The Institute is named after slain human rights advocate Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. The Institute seeks to identify and dismantle structural sources of injustice and threats to the survival of our human family.