Why we must Honor the Lost Children of Turtle Island

Christine Nobiss, MA (Religious Studies), Plains Cree/Saulteaux of the George Gordon First Nation and Decolonizer with Seeding Sovereignty is adding to the collective voice of Indigenous people all over the country fighting to keep their children within their own families and communities. Her work with Seeding Sovereignty is focused on dismantling colonial-imperialist institutions and replacing them with Indigenous practices created in synchronicity with this land.

Every year, for the past sixteen years, the day before Thanksgiving, the community of Sioux City, Iowa comes together to march the streets in honor of Indigenous children that have been taken from their families and placed into settler imposed institutions. It is called the March for Lost Children where hundreds gather to memorialize Native American youth who have been taken from their families and placed in the country's child-welfare system. The goal is to “raise awareness and ultimately reunite displaced Native American children with their home tribes and families.”

Stuffed animals and treats were laid out on blanketed chairs to show love and concern for Indigenous children lost to the the child-welfare system.

Stuffed animals and treats were laid out on blanketed chairs to show love and concern for Indigenous children lost to the the child-welfare system.

The history of how we have so many lost children of Turtle Island is harsh and disturbing but still largely whitewashed from settler descendant society. Countless Native American children were initially lost during the first wave of invasion known as bio-warfare. Disease brought from Europe by invaders swept across the land and decimated the Indigenous population before actual contact. Afterward, invasion continued with war (16th - 19th centuries), treaties (1608-1830), removal (1830-1850), reservations (1850-1871), assimilation (1871-1928), reorganization (1928-1942) and, termination (1943-1968). All these periods of enforced assimilation through government and ecclesiastical policy had a direct effect on the health and safety of Indigenous children. Again, countless numbers of Indigenous children were lost forever directly from war, the loss of their homeland and brutal assimilation tactics. Not to mention, “frontier-culture” emerged as a result of westward expansion where settler vigilantes and colonial militias maniacally and indiscriminately tortured and killed Indigenous children. There are stories of men ripping unborn babies out of their mothers stomachs or torturing children to death in front of their parents. Indigenous children were considered less than human and not held sacred in any way in the mass consciousness of the settler invaders.

Boarding schools played a massive role in the process of assimilation, “beginning in 1887, the federal government attempted to “Americanize” Native Americans, largely through the education of Native youth. By 1900, thousands of Native Americans were studying at almost 150 boarding schools around the United States.” (History Matters) Richard Pratt, founder of Carlisle Boarding School, clearly portrayed this American sentiment in his famous 1892 paper. He wrote, “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” (History Matters) Due to such “insight” and motivated by the ideology of manifest destiny or the doctrine of discovery, children were torn from their homes and forced into horrifically abusive situations where they were beaten, molested, and even murdered while being reshaped into the image of European Christians.

Manape LaMere (Sioux Nation of Indians), Sunrose Ironshell (Sicangu & Oglala Lakota), Frank LaMere (Winnebago) and Christine Nobiss (Plains Cree/Saulteaux) gather for a photo during the feast after the March to Honor Lost Children. Frank LaMere, a long time activist and community leader, is one of the co-founders of the march.

Manape LaMere (Sioux Nation of Indians), Sunrose Ironshell (Sicangu & Oglala Lakota), Frank LaMere (Winnebago) and Christine Nobiss (Plains Cree/Saulteaux) gather for a photo during the feast after the March to Honor Lost Children. Frank LaMere, a long time activist and community leader, is one of the co-founders of the march.

Many settlers romanticized and coveted Indigenous People’s culture, identities and ties to the land, which has further perpetuated the crisis of lost Indigenous children. The reason for this mentality can be distilled down to the fact that settler invaders were desperate to feel like the land actually belonged to them and there were “god given” reasons why they should carry out such outrageous actions to kill and assimilate the Indigenous people of Turtle Island. For instance, when Mormonism emerged in the 1830’s from seer stones that were placed in Joseph Smith’s hat, they espoused some of the most inconceivable and racist mythologies to date about the origin of Native Americans. They are of the opinion that the Indigenous people of the Americas are the descendants of the Hebrews or the ten lost tribes. They refer to Native Americans as Lamanites. For this reason, Mormons have long taken overzealous interests in fostering, adopting and placing Native American children into their homes and boarding schools in an attempt to assimilate them into the western lifestyles and to indoctrinate them with Mormon dogma. In Mormon homes, schools and churches Indigenous children were abusively forced to suppress their family ways and adopt Mormon/American customs. Till this day, Mormons still covet and infiltrate Native American communities through “mission” work in order to convert them into their fold. According to Radiowest, “from 1947 to 2000, the LDS Church ran the ‘Indian Student Placement Program.’ It took 50,000 native children from reservations and placed them in Mormon homes.” (Radiowest) Mormons are one of many groups and individuals that have carried out this disturbing behavior, which is why the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) has played such a pivotal role in protecting Indigenous children.

By the 1930’s, the era of Native American self-determination began to emerge with the eventual rise of the Red Power social movement of the 1960’s and 70’s that led to the “restoration of tribal community, self-government, cultural renewal, reservation development, educational control, and equal or controlling input into federal government decisions concerning policies and programs.” (Native American Self-Determination). Out of this era, to combat the the high number of children being taken, Native Americans pushed for ICWA which was written into law in 1978. The National Indian Child Welfare Association has stated that

“the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was enacted in 1978 in response to a crisis affecting American Indian and Alaska Native children, families, and tribes. Studies revealed that large numbers of Native children were being separated from their parents, extended families, and communities by state child welfare and private adoption agencies. In fact, research found that 25%–35% of all Native children were being removed; of these, 85% were placed outside of their families and communities—even when fit and willing relatives were available.” (NICWA)

This practice resulted in a deep distrust of governmental systems, on the part of Native Americans, because the children that are so easily taken from their homes are very hard to get back. Like many say, the system is set up for failure.  

The organizers of the March to Honor Lost Children pose for a picture. From left to right: Erin Binneboese, Frank LaMere, Kim Jenkins, Matt Ohman, Kim Wilson, Tom Bouska, Kellie Snow, Micheal O’Connor, Val Uken.

The organizers of the March to Honor Lost Children pose for a picture. From left to right: Erin Binneboese, Frank LaMere, Kim Jenkins, Matt Ohman, Kim Wilson, Tom Bouska, Kellie Snow, Micheal O’Connor, Val Uken.

This past October, U.S. District Judge, Reed O’Connor, sided with the state of Texas and ruled that ICWA is unconstitutional (because it violates the Fifth Amendment’s equal protection guarantee) in a case where a non-Native American couple, Chad and Jennifer Brackeen, sued for the right to adopt a Cherokee toddler they had fostered for more than a year. Along with Texas, the states of Louisiana and Indiana also “argued that the law unconstitutionally discriminated on the basis of race and infringed on states’ rights to oversee their own child welfare proceedings.” (The Texas Tribune) The Brackeen’s have since adopted the toddler and their case will not be overturned, however, at the beginning of December, a higher court ordered a stay on the judge’s ruling which means that ICWA is still in effect in all states. The temporary stay was put in place due to the appeal of four intervening First Nations--the Cherokee, the Oneida, the Quinault Indians and the Morongo Band of Mission Indians. The events in Texas are alarming as they could set a precedent on an already long debated law and in a system where Native American children are still highly targeted by the child-welfare system at disproportionate rates. According to Rebecca Nagle,

“Even with ICWA in place, Native children are still over-represented in state child welfare systems. Annually, the Cherokee Nation intervenes in state court on behalf of 1,300-1,500 of their children in foster care. In South Dakota, Native Americans are less than 15 percent of the state’s population, but Native kids represent 50 percent of all children in foster care, with almost 90 percent of them being raised in non-Native homes. In Minnesota, Natives Americans are only 1.4 percent of the population, but Native kids represent 23.9 percent of the kids in the state foster care system.” (Indian Country Today)

The entrenched racism in the child welfare system may in fact be a contributing factor to the crisis of missing children in Indian country. Indigenous children that are forced into foster or adoptive homes, stripped of their culture and communities are more likely to suffer from mental illness and become involved in abusive situations that will lead to their disappearance. Many run away and some are never seen again due to the predatory circumstances surrounding Indigenous people who suffer from the highest missing and murdered rated in the country. In many ways, the American consciousness still considers Indigenous Peoples to be less than human and in some cases, a form of prey. This mindset doesn't just apply to the Indigenous children of Turtle Island but to the Indigenous immigrant children who are being imprisoned and abused in detention camps or being sprayed with harmful chemicals at the US/Mexico border as they plead for asylum. This mindset applies to the African-American communities where children are being murdered, imprisoned and disenfranchised by institutionalized white supremacy.

Statistics tell us that 1 in 130 Native American children are likely to go missing this year compared to 1 in 157 non-Native. However, this number is by no means accurate as cases for these children are severely underreported because there is still no centralized reporting system on reservations and in urban communities. The number is probably much higher. It was not until 2017 that the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs passed the Amber Alert in Indian Country Act. This legislation, sponsored by Senator John McCain expanded “the AMBER Alert child abduction warning system on Native American reservations by clarifying that Indian tribes are eligible for Department of Justice (DOJ) grants that help assemble AMBER Alert systems for law enforcement agencies.” (John McCain) Two percent of the American child population is made up of Native American youth, however, five percent of the Amber Alerts issued 2016 were identified as Native Youth.

Kayla Thomas cares for her newborn during a break from serving food at the feast after the March to Honor Lost Children.

Kayla Thomas cares for her newborn during a break from serving food at the feast after the March to Honor Lost Children.

The history, the facts, and the figures contextualize why, sixteen years ago, the Native American community in Sioux City began their first March to Honor Lost Children. The pain in our Indigenous communities regarding the treatment of children and the disregard for family structures is held with deep sadness within our DNA and intensely sharp in the present moment. This year, as I watched the ceremony unfold I asked some of the participants why they were there. Kayla Thomas, who has three daughters and six sisters, wants to be an activist for women and children, saying, “I’m standing for other women that are in recovery. And I’m standing for our children--giving them voice. Our men are falling behind so us women need to step up more.” When asked why she attends the march every year, Candace Payer (Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, Bear Clan member) said,

“For our children. I think it’s something that our children need to know, no matter where they are or wherever they are at, in the system--whatever stage they are at in the system--that we’re here, that we’re fighting for them. And, it’s important, for our children to know that the things we are trying to change today might not happen overnight but it might protect their children and our grandchildren. So that’s why we do what we do.”

Candace Payer (Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, Bear Clan member) spoke eloquently about why the yearly March to Honor Lost children is so important.

Candace Payer (Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, Bear Clan member) spoke eloquently about why the yearly March to Honor Lost children is so important.

Candace’s words describe the unwavering dedication of the local community that the march expresses every year. And, every year the Native American community raises more awareness and reunites more displaced Native American children with their home tribes and families. For instance, this past year, the community moved one step closer to getting Indian Health Services to build proper infrastructure for Indigenous people to heal from colonization trauma, which will keep more families together. They, along with the other First Nations of Turtle Island, are tenacious and will continue to face the legal, social, cultural and emotional challenges to protect what is held most sacred--the children.

Christine Nobiss