UN rep meets with tribes on abduction of Native children

PINE RIDGE, S.D. – Following outcry over South Dakota’s racist abductions of Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota Sioux children from their families and placement of the children with white foster care families, United Nations Human Rights Officer Giorgia Passarelli recently met with tribal members, relatives of the children taken by the South Dakota Department of Social Services. The UN representative was formally invited by President Bryan Brewer of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

The conference took place August 24 at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The aim of the meeting was twofold: First, Passarelli would provide tribal members with information on filing human rights grievances under the UN Charter charging South Dakota with the crime of genocide. Second, the relatives of the children abducted by DSS would give testimony to the UN representative about the abductions. Tribal members from all of South Dakota’s nine reservations were present.

The press was barred as a condition of the meeting at the request of Passarelli. The reason given was that if certain procedures were not followed the UN could not consider the complaints, as this would be in violation of the UN Charter for the processing of human rights violations in a member country. This did not sit well with tribal members who felt that news of the kidnappings needed to be reported. Among media present, in addition to People’s World, were journalists from Al Jazeera News who arrive  from New York and were very frustrated at the press exclusion. Tribal members expressed the view that barring the press was a violation of their Constitutional rights and said that they would bring this up at the conference. However they concluded that in order not to do anything to jeopardize the process it was best not to raise the issue. I was able to conduct interviews after the conference and subsequently by phone. More on other interviews will appear in subsequent columns.

The background of the conference was a march on the UN headquarters in Manhattan by Lakota grandmothers and activists last April. This was part of a 13-city Truth Tour culminating in an attempt to present a petition charging genocide to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. The petition was titled the “Official Lakota Oyate [nation] Complaint of Genocide Based on the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.”

The Lakota delegation was physically blocked by UN security officers from presenting the Secretary-General’s office with the genocide charges against the United States. In the complaint, as evidence of genocide, the Lakota petition cited the imposition of Third World living conditions of abject poverty on the Lakota people; U.S. theft of land and relentless violation of sovereignty rights; assimilation policies that destroy identity, language and culture; and environmental hazards including abandoned open uranium mines and the threatened death-dealing Keystone XL pipeline.

Also, in January, because the abductions had become so severe, Oglala Sioux President Brewer declared a state of emergency on the Pine Ridge Reservation. He cited the fact that of the over 700 Native children taken by the state in the past year, 90 percent were members of or were eligible for membership in the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

This was the backdrop of the conference. According to tribal members who participated, the testimony given was extremely emotional. One grandmother cried for hours during the meeting, they said. In heart-wrenching testimony family members repeatedly said they did not know the whereabouts of most of the youngsters abducted by DSS.

Interestingly, at the conference reporters learned that the much revered Oglala Lakota activist Russell Means was instrumental in the founding of the Lakota People’s Law Project, which is providing the legal expertise for the tribes on this issue. “Russell started the Lakota People’s Law Project,” said Standing Rock Council member Phyllis Young. She said that years ago Lakota grandmothers asked Means to do something to stop the snatching of Lakota children by the state. Means approached the Romero Institute in California and the result was the founding of the law project. Young also related many stories of Means and the American Indian Movement (AIM) in its early days.

Another tribal member at the conference, Oglala Sioux elder Regina Brave, who also has been with AIM since its early days, recalled experiences in the 1970s at the famous Wounded Knee, S.D., protests that still resonate decades later. Brave, 72, is from Oglala, a traditional Lakota community at Pine Ridge. She connected the kidnapping of Indian children to an American government campaign of genocide that has been raging nonstop ever since the inception of the United States in the 18th century. “There never was any intention by the U.S. government  for Indian people to survive,” Brave said. “All my life I’ve carried anger and rage because of what has happened to my people.”

Also at the conference were adult adoptees taken from their families as children, who were looking for their relatives. An Indian adoption association is reportedly in formation to help with these efforts. Indeed, there are thousands upon thousands of Native adoptees. as even today there are 32 states in violation of the 1978  Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). Before the passage of ICWA, 25 percent of all Native children were being adopted by non-Indian families. This must surely rival the “lost generations” of Native Australian children abducted from their families in the 19th and 20th centuries – the difference being that in the U.S. the abductions are still taking place.

Tribal members are waiting to find out what the results of the meeting with the UN will be. Calls by this journalist to UN human rights representative Passarelli were not returned. It is a story we will continue to follow.

Photo: Regina Brave, member of the Oglala Sioux nation and respected tribal elder, at the Aug. 24 conference at the Pine Ridge Reservation. Melanie Bender/PW


Albert Bender
Albert Bender

Albert Bender is a Cherokee activist, historian, political columnist, and freelance reporter for Native and Non-Native publications. He is currently writing a legal treatise on Native American sovereignty and working on a book on the war crimes committed by the U.S. against the Maya people in the Guatemalan civil war He is a consulting attorney on Indigenous sovereignty, land restoration, and Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) issues and a former staff attorney with Legal Services of Eastern Oklahoma (LSEO) in Muskogee, Okla.