Great Plains ICWA Summit Hoping to Address Native Foster Care Concerns

May 13, 2013


The Great Plains ICWA Summit has been a long time coming and for the South Dakota tribes Oglala Sioux Tribal President Brian Brewer may have summed it up best when he said, “I’m anxious.”

The Indian Child Welfare Act summit will be held May 15-17 in Rapid City, South Dakota with the hopes to build a working relationship towards a better understanding of the law and its interpretation among tribal, state, federal and organization leaders.

The summit was originally to be held in 2012 following a breaking National Public Radio three-day expose that revealed abuses in Native foster care in South Dakota. The series questioned South Dakota’s Department of Social Services for violating ICWA, and partly doing so for financial gain. Following the NPR report, six members of Congress started asking questions and sent letters to then Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk asking what was going on according to Chase Iron Eyes, Standing Rock Sioux attorney and founder of the blog Last Real Indians. Echo Hawk responded that a summit would be held and “the whole year went by and nothing happened,” Iron Eyes said.

Then in February of this year, nine federally-employed ICWA directors from South Dakota submitted a report to Congress affirming NPR’s main allegations leading to this Summit with the South Dakota tribes, along with tribal representatives from the states of Wyoming, Montana, Washington, Oklahoma, and Minnesota – all ready to be heard.

Getting to this point though wasn’t easy, and the original plan of the Summit, being hosted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was not structured properly to address the original mandates for the event according to a press release from the Lakota People’s Law Project. The violations that were brought to Congress’ attention through the NPR report were not part of the original agenda, and that was an issue the Standing Rock and Oglala Sioux tribes protested through letters submitted to Congress and the Department of the Interior the first week of May. Tribal representatives from Standing Rock also travelled to Washington D.C. to meet and discuss the disapproval of the original agenda.

Since then, the agenda has changed. Kevin Washburn, the new Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs will be attending the Summit and former Sen. James Abourezk, who was key in the development of ICWA, will be participating as well.

“We’re pleased that the agenda has been amended in significant ways,” Iron Eyes said in an interview with Indian Country Today Media Network.

Along with the inclusion of Abourezk participating, the agenda will now include a section to address funding among the tribes for ICWA related issues.

“I would like to see direct funding so we can do it ourselves,” Brewer said in a phone interview with ICTMN in reference to Native foster care systems. “If it wasn’t for [Sen. James Abourezk] we wouldn’t have this law today. I’m so grateful for him for that.”

“The Great Plains Indian Child Welfare Summit is a venue to continue to address the critical issues of the well-being and safety of American Indian and Alaska Native children and their families,” Washburn said in the release. “I look forward to sitting down with tribal leaders and our public and private partners to exchange ideas on how to better implement the Indian Child Welfare Act and protect Indian country’s children.”

Among those attending the Summit will be Honorable Judge B.J. Jones of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Tribal Court; Honorable Judge William A. Thorne of the Utah Court of Appeals; United States Attorney for the District of North Dakota, Timothy Q. Purdon; and senior leadership from the U.S. Department of the Interior's Office of the Solicitor. Participants will also represent U.S. Department of the Interior and Department of Justice, the Casey Family Programs, Washington State Office of Indian Policy, National Child Welfare Resource Center for Tribes’ and Children’s Bureau, Administration for Children and Families.

“This is something that should have happened quite awhile ago,” Brewer said. “What’s sad is that the state isn’t going to have any one there, at the Summit, and they are the ones who are accountable.”

According to the Lakota People’s Law Project press release there are around 740 Lakota children taken into foster care by the state each year and 90 percent are placed in non-Native homes and institutions – a violation of ICWA.

“It’s really upsetting when you look at this and what is happening to our children it’s too much. Can’t do it,” Brewer said. “So I’m anxious.

“This whole thing really upsets me. It’s so important that everyone works together on this, we really have to support each other,” Brewer continued.

Over the three days at the Summit those in attendance will hear testimony from tribal members who have witnessed these violations first hand. Time has been made available for two people from each tribe to testify during the summit, but the Law Project will be providing a recording area where anyone interested in providing testimony to be sent to Congress can do so.

“We don’t want to interrupt what the BIA is doing with the summit, but we’ll be recording testimony separate from it,” Iron Eyes said.

Over two previous summits held in Standing Rock alone, around 100 witnesses have provided recorded testimony of wrongdoing by the system according to Iron Eyes.

The Summit is sponsored by the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association, in conjunction with officials and ICWA directors of the 16 federally recognized tribes in the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Great Plains Region States of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska. Upon the Summit’s conclusion the hope is to have developed proactive strategies to “foster collaboration among stakeholders, identify areas for communities to improve implementation of ICWA’s intent to protect the best interests of Indian children, and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families,” according to the ASIA release.

“This is the start, after this we are trying to make these systemic changes to federal law,” Iron Eyes said.

“I believe there is a lot that we can do,” Brewer said before pointing out the difficulties that will be involved, “It’s not going to be a fun Summit, it’s going to bring out a lot of emotions and it’s going to be hard for a lot of people there.”


The Details

Great Plains ICWA Summit: Bring Our Children Home and Keep Our Families Strong

May 15 – 17, 2013

Best Western Ramkota Hotel and Convention Center, 2111 N LaCrosse Street, Rapid City, South Dakota

The Summit will be live streaming at:



Charles Whalen's picture
Charles Whalen
Submitted by Charles Whalen on

Don't forget that Bertram Hirsch drafted the Indian Child Welfare Act! He started while a young attorney working for the Oglala Sioux Tribe. There was a need and although our people are having problems now they would have been worse without Bertram spearheading and garnering support and the Indian Child Welfare Act.

Thank you to all who have continued to work to keep our Native children among their own people!

Irina Hablecker's picture
Irina Hablecker
Submitted by Irina Hablecker on

Trying to watch the live stream in Austria, nothing shows up in the player :(

lavonne  forest's picture
lavonne forest
Submitted by lavonne forest on

this is good only one problem you have chase iron eyes advocating fort this when he represented his brotherinlaw in court to remove his brotherinlaws name from my granddaughters birthcertificate when we left court to see if we could get my granddaughter dss and cops were called im not for sure if chase was there but I know is wife was there and what was said they did not turn my granddaughter over they are having dss back them up and they know she was illegally enrolled in pine ridge when pine ridge did her enrollment when they received letter from mother in nov2012 that she didn't want her enrolled yet they enrolled her in feb7 2013 mr iron eyes knows this child is no relation to them if he was so concerned about children why doesn't he have his brotherinlaw turn over my granddaughter hes hiding behind dss there is no custody papers at all she belongs to rosebud tribe

Elizabeth Onchiri's picture
Elizabeth Onchiri
Submitted by Elizabeth Onchiri on

I want to thank the Indian Country Today Media Network for making the Great Plains Summit available via live stream. I greatly appreciated being able to take in this crucially important event!