Racism in the Heart of America:
The DOJ must do more to expose the systematic discrimination against Native Americans in South Dakota
Following the Lakota People’s Law Project’s comprehensive study demonstrating widespread corruption in South Dakota’s state government, the Department of Justice filed a civil rights lawsuit against the state’s Department of Social Services for racist hiring practices.
“Our investigative report and the DOJ’s lawsuit mark the beginning of the public revelation of the racism and financial corruption that characterize the state of South Dakota’s treatment of Lakota people,” said LPLP Attorney Chase Iron Eyes. “Several state officials have worked in close association with members of the private sector to enrich themselves while tearing apart Indian families in direct and willful violation of federal law. We urge the Department of Justice to deepen and expand their legal action.”
LPLP's latest 30-page report, The New Boarding Schools, outlines the means by which South Dakota’s government collected millions of federal dollars by circulating Lakota children through state-run foster care systems.
State officials funnelled a significant portion of that federal money to pharmaceutical companies, which provided powerful psychiatric drugs to Indian children who were given questionable diagnoses after being forcibly removed from their homes. These forcible removals have amounted to more than 740 Indian children being taken annually from their homes, families, culture, language and heritage in direct violation of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978.
“There is no enforcement provision in ICWA. States like South Dakota can ignore federal law without worrying about the consequences,” said Madonna Thunder Hawk, LPLP tribal liaison and co-founder of Women of All Red Nations. “Along with the inherent racial prejudices present in South Dakota’s treatment of Natives, our investigations reveal a perverse incentive causing state officials to use Indian children to acquire federal dollars to keep their general fund flush.”
The following information detailed in the report demonstrates prevalent conflicts of interest in state government, and reveals inappropriate close ties between industry and government:
“The cozy relationship between the highest ranking state officials and members of private enterprise is unsavory at best and criminal at worst,” said former president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe Bryan Brewer. “You have the DSS ripping apart Indian families, flagrantly violating a federal law that was intended to protect and preserve our heritage, so that they can provide raw materials to a mill that runs on displaced Indian children.”
Two recent court cases have proven that LPLP’s meetings with the DOJ in Washington D.C. regarding systemic racism have been fruitful.
First, in the case of Oglala Sioux Tribe v. Van Hunnik, a federal judge found that South Dakota Family Court Judge Jeff Davis was routinely violating the 48-hearing provision of ICWA. Davis, who neglected to inform Indian parents whose children were seized by the DSS of their rights, was also found to have violated the 14th amendment of the United States and “due process of law” on a routine basis in his dealings with Indian parents. Indian families were given “hearings” to defend themselves that lasted less than three minutes.
The DOJ asserted in an amicus brief that Judge Davis and other named members of the DSS were failing to place children with members of the tribe or the tribe itself.
Davis was also the subject of a recent South Dakota Supreme Court Case, where a court overturned his ruling that stated members of the Pine Ridge Reservation could not sit on local juries.
“Judge Davis is emblematic of how the justice system treats Native Americans in South Dakota,” said Chase Iron Eyes of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. “This is not some isolated problem in a corner of South Dakota. This is representative. This is epidemic throughout the system.”
Now, as the DOJ files suit against the DSS asserting the agency engaged in discrimination in its hiring practices, the allegations LPLP has leveled for more than a decade are becoming harder to deny.
“Is it any wonder the DSS went out of its way to not hire Native American candidates regardless of qualifications?” Madonna Thunder Hawk said. “South Dakota has built a system based on shameless exploitation of an impoverished people without political clout. It seems obvious that they would prevent representatives of the people from coming into the DSS and seeing the degree of corruption and prejudice embedded at every level of their operation.”
LPLP and their allies, A Positive Tomorrow, continue to seek federal planning grants for the nine South Dakota Tribes to plan and run their own Child and Family Service Programs. This Title IV-E program is the structural solution to the seizure of Lakota children, an injustice that has gone on for 150 years.
The Lakota People’s Law Project is set to release a new report, which will form the basis for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission tasked with investigating the impact of federal and state policies on the Lakota Sioux Indians.
“Thanksgiving is a time for families to celebrate the historic occasion when Native Americans made it possible for European settlers to survive here in the United States,” said Dr. Paul Lee, the chairman of the board of the nonprofit Romero Institute, sponsor of the Lakota People’s Law Project. “There is a deep irony that descendants of those settlers now actively participate in the erosion of Native culture and the destruction of Native families.”
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, CA. 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 non-profit Romero Institute based in Santa Cruz, California. 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.