‘We’re still here’: Western Iowa tribes encourage young people to enact change at an annual Native American memorial march
Native communities from throughout northwest Iowa marched through Sioux City this morning to remember children separated from their families and placed into the foster care system.
At the 19th annual "Memorial March to Honor Lost Children," Native people from Santee Sioux, Winnebago and Omaha tribes prayed for their children in foster care homes. Community leaders and elders encouraged the tribes’ young people to take charge of the future.
“The young people represent our future,” said organizer and longtime activist Terry Medina. “So we pass on the stories to our children so they can learn the past. We can’t change the past, but we can learn from it and we can heal from it.”
Medina said he was encouraged to see the faces of so many young people in the crowd this year. For the first time, 29 students from the Omaha Nation Public School attended the march.
After learning about the event and its history in his tribal government class, senior Jarius Harlan wanted his classmates to be a part of the walk.
“This is very important for us children and our people and younger generations ahead of us,” Harlan said. "People need to come to the realization that Natives are here. And that we’re going to stay for a very long time.”
The march first began as a protest against the treatment of Native people by the Department of Human Services and Child Protective Services. Throughout the years, legislation like the Indian Child Welfare Act and Family First Prevention Services Act have helped more Native children reunite with their families.
Medina said the community has built in-roads with state services in the time since the march began. Now, he said the tribes are looking toward healing, forgiveness and collaboration with foster services.
“They’re here with an open heart and they’ve really come a long way, saying sorry,” Medina said. “We’ve got to communicate.”
A disproportionate number of Native children still remain in foster care. Across the state, 203 American Indian children have been placed in foster care, according to the Department of Human Services. Of those children, 70 are living with relatives or fictive kin, someone with an emotional tie to the child.
In Woodbury County, American Indian children make up 21 percent of foster care cases, while Native people make up less than 4 percent of the population.
Omaha Nation Public School social studies teacher Brent Wojcik said it was vital for his students to understand their nation’s complicated history with the foster care system.
“I think a lot of youth can relate to this system because a lot of them have dealt with the foster care system in the Omaha Nation down in Macy, Nebraska. So they’re excited to do this,” he said.
A call to action
The march began at War Eagle Park, a place considered sacred to the community. The group walked around three miles through the city, stopping to pray at the Rosecrance Jackson Addiction Treatment Center, the Urban Native Center and the Woodbury County Courthouse.
At each stop, leaders called for members to take action on the work that still needs to be done. John Bigeagle Jr. said more responsibility needs to be taken within the Native community.
“My kids were part of the system, but I got them back. I had to sober up and quit drinking,” said Bigeagle, a member of the Winnebago tribe. “Now I got all my babies and I got my brothers’ kids. But, at the same time, we still have a lot of work to do.”
Organizers encouraged more Native people to become foster parents. Jim Hallum of the Santee Sioux tribe said he has been a foster parent to many of his relatives’ kids. He said he wants to see more young people step into those roles.
“We shouldn’t even have this problem that we have today with the state of Iowa. Losing our children. We should all step up,” Hallum said.
There are six Native foster family homes in Woodbury County, but none are accepting placements as of now, according to Lutheran Services of Iowa.
"People need to come to the realization that Natives are here. And that we’re going to stay for a very long time.”Jarius Harlan, senior at Omaha Nation Public School
Speakers also talked about how young people could use their education to further the cause. In a speech outside the courthouse, district court Judge Patrick Tott emboldened students to consider becoming social workers, lawyers or judges.
“Focus on your education. Become a part of the system. Make the changes with us inside the system,” Tott said.
The march ended with a traditional meal at the Sioux City Convention Center, where a blessing was offered up to the children lost to foster care.
Manape LaMere, organizer and son of deceased activist Frank LaMere, said the crowd of over 100 people made him optimistic in moving forward with the work.
“It’s a testament to never going away,” LaMere said.