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Iowa tribes reflect on progress at march for children lost to foster care

Three people stand in front of a crowd outside the Woodbury County courthouse in Sioux City. They wear red and have their fists in the air.
Kendall Crawford
Crowds prayed outside of the Woodbury County courthouse at the annual Memorial March to Honor Lost Children

Native communities in western Iowa marched through Sioux City on Wednesday to honor Indigenous children lost to the foster care system.

At the annual Memorial March to Honor Lost Children, Native organizers reflected on the decades-long progress that’s been made within the child welfare system since the march began 20 years ago.

The march aims to bring attention to the disproportionate number of Indigenous children who areforced to separate from their families and tribes and placed in foster care.

More than 200 people marched three miles from War Eagle Park, a place considered sacred among the Native community, to downtown Sioux City, stopping across town to pray for families who have been broken up over the years.

Two children hold a banner that reads 'Annual Memorial March to Honor Lost Children.' A group of marchers can be seen trailing behind them.
Kendall Crawford
Native communities marched throughout Sioux City in honor of children lost to the foster care system.

Terry Medina, a Native American advocate, said it was one of the biggest turnouts he’s seen for the event. He said the movement is more united than it was when it first began.

“We’ve got DHS at the table. We've got law enforcement at the table. We've come together for our children,” he said.

A lot of progress has been made since the march first began, Medina said. Native liaisons have been added to the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services in Woodbury County, and a coalition has been formed to address the gaps in resources for Native families.

At one of the prayer stops, Tom Bouska, who leads HHS’ western Iowa service area, said the department was committed to continuing to work to keep Native families together.

“One of the things that we’ve tried to do is have that dialogue with the tribes, but also work closely with other parts of the community, with the court system, with the attorneys, and with the families,” he said.

Woodbury County has the largest Native population within the state, at around 3%. But, Native children made up nearly a third of child welfare cases in the county this year.

Of the 285 American Indian children that were placed into the child welfare system in Iowa this year, 37% were placed with relatives or fictive kin.

Organizer Manape LaMere said the goal is to see as many children as possible remain with their relatives. He said many of the children who the community first marched for are grown now, and some of them have even found their way back to their tribal communities.

He said it’s living proof of the strides they have made.

A child in a pink hat leans against a white building below a sign that reads 'Urban Native Center'. She holds a sign that says '20th Annual Memorial March' with red handprints below the text.
Kendall Crawford
The march has been an annual event in Sioux City for the last 20 years.

“A lot of them are here. A lot of them brought their families. So it does feel full circle this year. It really feels rewarding, and encouraging,” he said.

Still, organizers urged those in attendance to keep pushing forward. LaMere said the walk is a way for Native communities to find healing as well as a way to hold both state agencies and Native communities accountable.

“We're in a space where we're learning to be better men, better women and better young people,” he said. “We're eliminating those excuses in this community.”

Outside the Woodbury County Courthouse, Native advocate Josh Taylor said there was still more work to be done. He said he wants to see the collaboration with social services agencies to fight for Native children to grow even further.

“[It’s] 20 years we’ve been bringing attention to it and this is not the end,” Taylor said. “We're gonna keep going. It's going to get bigger. I can tell you that. This is not the end.”

Kendall was Iowa Public Radio’s western Iowa reporter based in Sioux City, IA until Jan. 20, 2023.