AP Images/Rapid City Journal, Kristina Barker
Madonna Pappan hugs her 4-year-old daughter Charlie Pappan before speaking at a press conference at the Adobe Eco Hotel in Rapid City, South Dakota, on Thursday, March 21, 2013. Pappan is one of three mothers represented by the American Civil Liberties Union in a class action suit filled by the ACLU on behalf of the Rosebud Sioux and Oglala Sioux tribes. The tribes are challenging the state's practices and policies that they say violate the Indian Child Welfare Act.

Swept Away, Part 3: The Battle for South Dakota’s Native Children Begins

Suzette Brewer

The time had come to make a move. For 17 months, Stephen Pevar had been on a quiet but determined mission to end what he saw as the wholesale removal of Indian children from their homes without due process in South Dakota. Since October 2011, he and the legal team working on behalf of tribes in the area had devoted hundreds of hours to researching, consulting with experts and piecing together their facts in a very broad and complex case that was growing larger by the day. In May 2012, Pevar, who is national staff counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, and Dana Hanna, a Rapid City attorney, even met with a representative from the state to start the discussion about moving toward a state-tribal compact.

In a brief, one-page letter, however, the state flatly refused to enter into an agreement or even consult with the tribes when taking their children—ranging in age from newborns to teenagers—into state custody in what are called “emergency 48-hour hearings.”

“After careful consideration of the concerns outlined in your letter, we have concluded that your letter does not provide enough factual information that would Warrant a discussion about a state tribal agreement at this time,” the state response read; it ended with an invitation to the legal team to “evaluate” the South Dakota Guidelines for Judicial Process in Child Abuse and Neglect Cases as a basis for any further discussions, “since the crux of your letter was about court procedure.” 

RELATED: Swept Away, Part 2: Oglala v. Van Hunnik


Indian parents in South Dakota allege that it had become an accepted practice by the state that they were never allowed to view the complaints or supporting documents filed by the state against them, much less present evidence or show the court whether or not an “emergency” still existed at the time of the hearings, which usually takes place two days after a child has been removed. Additionally, some of the hearings were being held whether or not the parents were even present. Therefore, the “48-hour hearings,” as they are known, became a launch pad for Native children to be swept into foster care for up to three months while their parents and tribes struggled to get them back.

As soon as Hanna attempted to gather information on these cases, he knew there was trouble ahead. The Pennington County court clerks refused to give him any of the documents he had requested for his clients, the Cheyenne River and Rosebud Sioux Tribes, so that he might assess the scope and depth of the situation within the state’s foster care system. Instead, the Judge required him to review the documents in the Judge’s office, but he was not allowed to copy them or make notes. As he began his research, Hanna says he had a growing suspicion that it was an accepted policy, practice and procedure to deny Indian families their civil and human rights in court proceedings at virtually every level of the state bureaucracy, including social workers, the Department of Social Services, the Pennington County state’s attorney and even the judges in the Seventh Judicial Circuit within South Dakota, all of whom declined to be interviewed by Indian Country Today Media Network, because the litigation is ongoing.

Now that the state had given its official response, Pevar and Hanna immediately agreed that they were going to pursue the only option left on the table: Filing suit in federal court to force South Dakota to stop taking Indian children from their families without due process, which includes adequate notice to the parents and a prompt evidentiary hearing, as required by federal law.

But which legal strategy to take in this byzantine case? Crafting the complaint, says Pevar, took a great deal of time and effort because of its complexity and groundbreaking approach. “We brought up every issue [in our meeting with the state] that we eventually included in our lawsuit,” says Pevar.

As ICWA foster cases continued to pile up in Pennington County, the tribes and their Indian parents were also beginning to organize and voice their outrage at what they believe is the denial of their inherent rights in abuse and neglect cases in which, to them, their children are hauled away into a system that appears to operate in absolute secrecy and opacity.

Parent of the Nation

Soon after the state declined to negotiate, Hanna set about identifying plaintiffs for a potential class action, while Pevar began researching and writing what would become the 38-page federal complaint, Oglala Sioux Tribe v. Van Hunnik.

Pevar had just published the fourth edition of The Rights of Indians and Tribes (Oxford University Press), and was confident he had a thorough understanding of the Indian Child Welfare Act. Because of his research, he was up-to-date on the most recent developments, case law and attendant issues with which the states and tribes had struggled since the law’s passage in 1978. Because he had begun his legal career in South Dakota, Pevar was familiar with both the state’s legal system and its historical political friction with the tribes.

With a team of legal researchers, law students, paralegals and scholars from across the country digging through case law and legal precedents to help prepare for this upcoming litigation, Pevar understood that there would have to be a new way to shape the language and structure of this particular lawsuit. Because of the enormous complexities involving sealed juvenile cases, parents, the tribes and a multitude of state employees—including the judges and the state’s attorney for Pennington County—it took over a year to get all of the moving parts to fit into a single complaint. A case of this nature and scope regarding federal Indian law had never before been attempted in U.S. History.

Over the next year, as the team gathered research and potential legal arguments to posit before the court, there was one idea that caught Pevar’s attention, something he thought might be favorable to the tribes in a federal case.

The legal doctrine known formally as parens patriae (literally “parent of the nation”), authorizes a nation, a state or a tribal government to sue on behalf of all of its citizens in situations where an action or series of actions may have deleterious effects either in the present or in the future on its collective members.

In plain English, it provides a sovereign government “standing” or the legal ability to intervene in a case where the rights of its citizens are at stake.

In 1999, the Navajo Nation had attempted to sue under parens patriae in federal court in Washington State, (Navajo Nation v. Yakima County, 1999) but had been denied. In that case, a Navajo couple sought to overturn an adoption of their biological grandchild. The court, however, held that the tribe had no “collective” interest in a voluntary private adoption. The court ruled that the grandparents had only a personal—not a tribal—interest in the adoption they were challenging.

But seven years later, four Alaska Native Villages successfully sued that state on behalf of their tribal members and all other native villages within the state over systematic violations of state and federal law in regards to adoptions and foster care removals under ICWA.

In 2006, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that the tribes did, in fact, have standing under §1983 of Title 42 of the United States Code:  “...here the villages attempt to bring a claim as parens patriae for the exact reason §1983 was enacted: to secure private rights against the wrongful acts of the government.”

Pevar believed that ruling meant the tribes of South Dakota could sue for vindication on behalf of not only their own members, but members of all tribes residing within Pennington County.

“A lot of conversations were taking place at the time about potential legal strategies [in Van Hunnik],” says Barbara Atwood, a civil procedure and ICWA scholar who teaches at the University of Arizona College of Law. “We were batting ideas around about the litigation, thinking out loud about how they could structure [the complaint] and whether they could proceed with parens patriae. You don’t want a tribe representing particular people with competing or conflicting interests. In the parens patriae role, the tribe is protecting the interests of all current and future tribal members—in terms of both immediate and long-term effects. This case fit that concept. At the same time, Stephen and I were also talking about writing an amicus brief on behalf of the ACLU in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, so there was a lot happening [in regards to ICWA].”

Around the same time that the state declined to negotiate a compact, Pevar and Hanna were invited by members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe to a meeting in Rapid City discuss their “tremendous anger and frustration over how South Dakota was handling ICWA cases,” according to Pevar.

Soon after that meeting, the Oglala Sioux and Rosebud Sioux Tribes both passed tribal council resolutions giving Pevar and Hanna the green-light to pursue litigation on their behalf under the parens patriae doctrine.

“I’ve had a long relationship with the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, but every tribe in the state knows that ICWA is a problem in Pennington County,” says Hanna. “They knew how important it was to confront them about these issues in federal court. On the Pine Ridge Reservation, we had support from [the tribe’s ICWA director] Juanita Scharick, council member Lydia Bear Killer, Irving Provost Sr., and a lot of help from President Bryan Brewer. The Cheyenne River Sioux, though they did not join the case, were also involved and were backing us 100 percent. [Before the litigation was filed] we had been working and communicating with the tribes and their councils for over a year at their request.”

The tribes had had enough.

The Three Mothers

In October 2011, Madonna and Marlon Pappan had gone to a friend’s house in Rapid City to visit and have a few drinks. Later that evening, Marlon and their young daughter went out to the car to sleep, with the car running to keep them warm. Madonna Pappan says she checked on them a couple of times and everything seemed okay. But the third time she went outside, her life turned upside down.

The car, along with her husband and daughter, was gone.

Marlon Pappan apparently had decided to drive home. Madonna Pappan, who is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, learned that her husband had been arrested for DUI on the way home and that her three-year-old daughter (an Omaha tribal member) had been turned over to the Department of Social Services.

She says that a police officer later contacted her by phone. During that conversation, the officer asked her if she had also been drinking. She said she had, but that she had not been drunk. She says the officer then told her that she would be able to get her daughter back the next morning. But the only thing she received the following morning was a business card stuck on her door with a terse note to get in touch with DSS.

The initial court hearing, she says, was confusing and ruthless. Not only had the state taken her daughter, but the deputy state’s attorney and social workers had advised Madonna Pappan that they were also going to take her 11-year-old son (who is enrolled in the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe), who was home with a babysitter at the time of the arrest, and that both children were to be placed into foster care pending further proceedings by the state. Subsequently, two social workers retrieved the boy from his school and placed in him a foster home that day.

According to court transcripts, Judge Wally Eklund then listened to a brief, five-sentence statement by deputy state’s attorney Jennifer Utter, who made a vague claim against the parents regarding “intoxication” as the reason for “emergency custody.” Judge Eklund then said the following:


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Two Bears Growling's picture
Two Bears Growling
Submitted by Two Bears Growling on
This isn't just a problem in the Dakotas, but in a number of places as well. Not just a problem for native parents, but poor parents as a whole I have found. So many times poor parents are told things are being done for their & their children's "best" interest. I say this is a load of BS. How is anything in a person's best interest when those people don't even know what the laws are that are supposed to protect OUR rights, traditions & beliefs? The only ones "interest" who is being served is these state's white dominate state workers in places of power who abuse their position! These rednecks think it is their right to tell people who are not white what to believe, how to think & behave. It is no one's right to impose their beliefs on me, my children, grandchildren or any of my people who do not believe as these Christians who are nothing but busy bodies too many times in other's lives who do not believe as they do. It is not any government agencies right to impose their ways on others who do not believe as they do. It is not any government agencies right or moral obligation to insist we do anything they say when it goes against our rights, treaties & beliefs. It is just the opposite. It is OUR right & treaty obligation to fight these tyrants with all the resources & gifts the Creator has loaned us & make a clear point that we refuse to sit down & take a whipping, have our children stolen from us, a scolding or fine that is a violation of our rights & treaties. Too many times these government bullies think they can come onto our lands & intimidate us to cower down & comply with their unjust & illegal demands. No more my many friends & peoples across this continent. Take a stand & make that executive decision & make your own fate happen. Refuse to be belittled, intimidated & scolded like a dog by these bully thugs. Become vocal, legally educated & take these evil ones on using the very laws they made against each & every one of these people who want to silence those of us who will not put up with being stepped on, abused & maltreated another day just because we may be poor & ignorant of the law & our rights as First Nations people. Be Idle No More!