War Eagle, a Yankton Sioux chief in the 1830s, was a friend to the white man. Specifically, to the fur trappers who traded with the Yankton Sioux, Santee Sioux, Winnebago and other Native people at the confluence of the Missouri and Big Sioux rivers just outside Sioux City, in the northwest corner of what is now Iowa.
But War Eagle’s hospitality and desire for peace eventually paved the way for white settlers to move in and push Native people out.
Today, a monument to War Eagle, or Wambdi Okicize, stands on a bluff overlooking the Big Sioux River where the chief and his daughters were buried more than 150 years ago. It is a sacred place, locals say, from which one can see the expansive prairie that is South Dakota and Nebraska. Surrounding the monument is a park where high school kids converge after dark to smoke weed and do the things bored teenagers do.
But early in the morning, the day before Thanksgiving each year, a few hundred people gather around War Eagle’s feet to honor American Indian children lost to foster care, boarding schools and other institutions created to assimilate them into white society.
The trees are bare and the November dawn air is frigid as young women wrap themselves in brightly colored ceremonial blankets. They’ll need the extra warmth while they carry a banner, leading the Memorial March to Honor Lost Children through clapboard houses in working-class neighborhoods to the city center about four miles away. Because Sioux City sits right on the state line, many of the more affluent neighborhoods are actually out of state, in South Sioux City, Nebraska, or in suburbs in South Dakota, where taxes are lower.
In Woodbury County, Iowa, for which Sioux City is the hub, U.S. Census data show that almost 3 percent of the population identifies as American Indian. In Sioux City, 15 percent of the general population lives in poverty, and a little over 18 percent speaks a language other than English.
There are no reservation lands in Iowa, but historically, Native and non-Native people from farmlands, small towns and neighboring reservations have been drawn to the Sioux City area. First, it was to participate in trading made possible through the system of rivers; then, later, under U.S. Indian termination policy or by the promise of shiftwork in meat packing plants.
The Memorial March began here, in part, because Indian kids are much more likely to be in foster care than their white peers in Woodbury County – almost 12 times as likely in 2016. As of that year, a total of 19 percent of Woodbury County’s children in foster care were American Indian, though that group only represented 2 percent of the total population. In March 2019, there were a total of 119 Native children in foster care from Woodbury County, according to the state.
Long-haul truckers and commuters race to work on the interstate below the bluff, unaware of the solemn occasion above.
As the sun rises, a man plays a traditional flute, barely audible over the sound of traffic. Frank LaMere, a Winnebago activist and one of the march’s founders, welcomes the small crowd and reminds them why they’ve gathered by speaking the names of children whose deaths inspired the first march 16 years ago.
Hannah Thomas. Larissa Starr-Red Owl. Nathaniel Saunsoci-Mitchell.
They died in foster care, LaMere says. Standing next to LaMere is a young man from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, who, along with his twin brother, lives with blindness and other severe impairments as a result of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. LaMere rests a hand on the man’s shoulder while he talks.
“The prayers of the children are very powerful, and I believe the prayers of the children are what brought us here,” LaMere said during his opening remarks. “Our children feed the system, and all of us let it happen. We make it easy for them, but that time has to stop.”
After a prayer, LaMere’s son, Manape LaMere, also an activist, sings a song about War Eagle. His voice is clear and strong; a young woman standing next to me joins in softly. It is a song known by the people.
When the song concludes, the group begins to walk down a hill toward the first stop on the march nearly a mile away, the Jackson Recovery Center, where they will be met with hot coffee and snacks. Once there, LaMere is emphatic: “We have to heal,” he says, his voice rising.
More Than a March
Michael Patrick Wanbdi Gdeska O’Connor, Yankton Sioux, has participated in the march for about a decade. Now a social worker in the Native unit with the Iowa Department of Human Services, O’Connor was removed from his mother’s care as a toddler, after his father died in a drunk driving accident.
“I don’t practice Thanksgiving, but the walk is the most significant holiday to me,” O’Connor said. “While I’m walking, the grandmas and grandpas that came before me are with me, the children that are out there, that are feeling the way I felt, are with me.”
For O’Connor, it is not just an event that takes place one day a year. He stays connected to the march and the families it honors year-round.
“I feel them. I become braver, I become fearless, more compassionate. I become who my relatives were before everything happened, who I was always meant to be,” he said.
O’Connor was separated from his siblings as a child and says his experience in foster care has continued to impact his life in many ways. He remembers staring out the screen door as his brother and sister were taken, “with an aching in my heart that could never go away. I don’t remember anyone telling me where they were. That was when my heart became broken,” he said.
This fracturing of family is what some social services and advocacy professionals who work in the Siouxland region say is the primary cause of the suffering of generations of Native people. Being taken from their families and their traditions has stripped Indian people of the memory of their own dignity and greatness, they say.
“What’s the heart of our culture?” asks Al Pooley, a Hopi and Navajo who founded a program for Native American families called Fatherhood is Sacred. “Some say it’s our language, our food, our traditions. But it’s family. If our families are broken then we are dead as a culture and as a people,” Pooley said. His program helps people reconnect with what Pooley calls the sanctity of parenthood.
O’Connor is a certified Fatherhood is Sacred facilitator who trained with Pooley. In the early 1970s, when O’Connor and his siblings were parceled out to different families, the United States Congress had not yet passed the Indian Child Welfare Act, or ICWA.
Researchers in the 1960s had found that up to 35 percent of all Native children were being taken from their families and tribes and placed in white homes or institutions. ICWA, passed in 1978, aimed to curtail that practice, and to preserve Native culture and tribes by placing children with Native families when their biological parents could not care for them. A few states – including Iowa and Nebraska, where American Indian children are removed from their families at higher rates than their white peers – have adopted their own versions of ICWA.
In October 2018, a federal district court judge in Texas ruled ICWA unconstitutional for the first time in the law’s 40-year history. That ruling is being appealed with backing from hundreds of tribes, 21 states, numerous American Indian advocacy organizations and the U.S. government. But those looking to overturn the law say it’s irrelevant today, that it only harms Indian children by requiring that their cases be handled a certain way.
While warming up at the Jackson Recovery Center, O’Connor and I chat next to a gas fireplace in the lobby, where he tells me about his dream of starting a podcast, and his role in helping Native and non-Native people better understand each other.
Later, by phone, we talk about ICWA’s present-day relevance. The law’s passage coincided with a wholesale kidnapping of Indian children. Advocates in western Iowa have worked with the state for nearly 20 years to reduce the number of Native kids in foster care. In 2017, 133 of Iowa’s 5,940 youth in foster care (just over 2 percent) were identified as being Native American.
“ICWA is probably the reason I have this job,” O’Connor said. “It’s absolutely still needed. There still exist the cycles of poverty, alcoholism, abuse and intergenerational trauma that have never been addressed and that led up to the high rates of disproportionality in the first place. The foster care system is a symptom of the problem, and until we get down to the causes, it will continue to be that way.”
O’Connor, now 48, has his own history with substance use. He’s been sober for 24 years and says he is the only sober member of his family. He leads cultural trainings for social workers, government agencies and others working with Native families. He has accepted that he has difficulty trusting people, and is often unable to maintain relationships because he has issues with attachment.
But he feels he understands why it’s all been necessary: to give him the tools he needs to be who he must be – a bridge between Native and non-Native people – and to help them heal.
“There are so many services out there working tirelessly with Native people, but there’s a spiritual knowledge gap,” he said. Lacking even a basic understanding of how Native American belief systems differ from the dominant culture makes it difficult for non-Native social workers, judges and law enforcement to truly help.
Before we leave the center for the next stop on the march’s route, LaMere celebrates a group of young women who have completed a sobriety and parenting program, allowing them to avoid losing their children to the state. The crowd applauds when they stand, and I realize one of them was the woman who stood next to me earlier, singing the song about War Eagle.
Following Another Beat
Jay Medina, a 24-year-old Sioux City resident, knows nothing about the Memorial March, or the Indian Child Welfare Act, though he was raised in the Siouxland area and spent much of his life in foster care. As a child he saw his mother, who is Native and struggles with addiction, get beat up by her boyfriend. Medina called the police and that’s when he and his siblings were removed from her care.
Medina is Santee Sioux, but he’s not enrolled in the tribe and doesn’t feel a strong connection to his Native heritage at this point in his life. As he shares his story with me by phone, after the march, it’s clear he’s bright, articulate and self-aware. While building his music career, Medina works at the Sioux City Foundry – a place that first opened its doors while Chief War Eagle was still alive.
After being separated from his siblings and spending time on the streets, in shelters and a foster home, Medina was placed with a devout white Christian family in Sioux City when he was in seventh grade. He stayed there until he left for college. His family required that he go to church multiple times each week, and he wasn’t allowed to listen to music if it wasn’t Christian.
“I felt like I couldn’t be myself, like I had to hide myself,” he said.
Medina’s relationship with his foster care story, his foster family, and his blood relatives is complicated. Although he hated it growing up, and often saw himself as a victim of his circumstances, today he’s grateful for his time in foster care and believes it saved his life.
Medina estimates that 60 percent of his relatives have spent time in prison, or struggle with drugs and alcohol. He doesn’t know why his mother got mixed up with abusive boyfriends who sold drugs, but he heard stories that her father also used to sell drugs. That cycle is what he sees happening to most people he knows, and he is very aware of how likely it is that this would have become his life path, too, if not for his time in foster care. He chooses his friends carefully.
“People here don’t believe in much and don’t expect much,” he said. What he sees is that most people who want to do something with their lives get out of Sioux City and never come back.
But Medina doesn’t want to leave Sioux City. He wants to keep his roots in his hometown while succeeding as an artist, playing shows all over the Midwest. This vision began to coalesce after he watched a motivational video online wherein the speaker said something like, “If you’re halfway good at something, you better triple down on it.”
He remembers escaping to his friend’s basement where he first learned that he could write and make music, and how much that connection to his own creativity meant to him in dark times. “I just want to use my platform to inspire kids, especially kids in foster care. If I can do it – I was the definition of average. You can do anything, just put your mind to it.”
In talking with Medina and O’Connor, they both seem anything but average. Maybe it could be argued that their stories serve as examples of why some Native American kids should be removed from their families or tribes. But what I’ve learned from interviewing dozens of people, both Native and non-Native, about child welfare and the history of U.S. policy governing American Indian people, is that it’s important to approach the question of the Indian Child Welfare Act’s validity using a wider lens.
Far From Equal
Despite Sioux City’s relative diversity – home to people from Latin America, Asia and Africa in addition to Native American communities – O’Connor experiences racism frequently in his day-to-day life, and says people have only been emboldened by President Trump.
After recounting a recent incident outside the local library when a white man told him to go back to his tipi, he said, “I have to show a degree of compassion and patience that he is not being shown to me.”
Wanting to better understand the town’s social dynamics, I later reached out to Karen MacKay, Santee Sioux and executive director of the Sioux City Human Rights Commission. She was born and raised in the Sioux City area, and echoed O’Connor’s sentiments.
“This is a racist community, sadly. It just is,” MacKay said.
Her agency investigates discrimination claims in arenas like housing, employment and credit. As a largely blue-collar town of about 80,000 residents with a long history of stockyards and packing plants, MacKay says Sioux City attracts a variety of people, including immigrants from Latin America and Somalia. The 2010 U.S. Census estimated about 8,600 Sioux City residents were born outside the United States. About 1,600 are Native, many from three reservations within 100 miles of the town.
“Native families are especially struggling to meet basic needs,” MacKay said, pointing out that poverty is the biggest issue she sees facing those families.
While hourly work is plentiful in the meat packing plants, many people can’t afford cars and public transit to get them to work is scarce. She also sees many cases where slumlords prey on people who have no means of recourse, often taking their hard-earned money unlawfully and forcing families to return to reservations.
But she believes city leadership is aware of the issues faced by the city’s Native families, and thinks some members of the county board of supervisors are starting to understand it as well. There are a number of community-based organizations that have been focused on these issues for nearly two decades, and MacKay sees the fact that the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) now has a unit dedicated to Native families – the same unit where Michael O’Connor works as a social worker – as real progress.
By collaborating with tribes and community organizations, Woodbury County has seen an increase in the number of tribal child welfare cases transferred to tribal courts – as allowed by ICWA – as well as greater acceptance by the Woodbury County Juvenile Court of tribal orders for guardianship and adoption as permanency options. These two compliance issues are common across the nation, but states that have adopted their own versions of the Indian Child Welfare Act see better outcomes than those that have not.
According to the state, for the period of August 1, 2016 through July 31, 2017, Woodbury County found permanent homes for American Indian children through guardianship at a higher rate than almost any other group. Over the last several years, 55 to 75 percent of the county’s American Indian children who were served by the Woodbury County Native Unit and were placed in foster care were placed with relatives.
When the Memorial March began 16 years ago, MacKay said, it was seen as a protest against DHS. “The signs [people carried] were very negative; there was a lot of anger,” she said.
But now, as LaMere makes clear in his speeches along the way, it’s about honoring those who’ve been lost – even though the anger can still be heard in the voices of the people who speak throughout the day.
The march ends downtown at the Sioux City Public Museum with prayers and a dinner. While waiting to eat sacred foods alongside the spirits of their ancestors, the group heads outside to the lawn to release 116 yellow balloons, sending the spirits of the lost children home. People smile as the balloons rise, brilliantly yellow against a deep blue sky.
This journalism project was made possible by a fellowship from Marguerite Casey Foundation, which supports low-income families in strengthening their voice and mobilizing their communities to achieve a more just and equitable society for all.