As a rare gathering of Lakota tribes came to a close in Rapid City on Wednesday, one theme stood out:
A call for sovereignty.
On the third and final day of the Oceti Sakowin Conference in the Rushmore Plaza, a group of seven Lakota tribes called for greater control of child welfare, education and health care from the U.S. government.
The group has resolved to formally request that the U.S. Department of the Interior make direct payments to Lakota tribes, rather than South Dakota's Department of Social Services, so they can set up their own foster care systems. The group also plans to request that the department make direct payments to tribes for education, rather than the Bureau of Indian Education, and allow tribes to set their own curriculum.
In addition, the group is exploring ways that tribes can take greater control over services provided by the Indian Health Service.
Speaking to a crowd of 50, Tuffy Lunderman, a council representative for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, said that a European-based education system had failed the Lakota. He estimated that roughly 80 percent of Lakota children would not graduate from high school.
"We know they can learn," he said. "We know it's not them. We know it's not them that the statistics are about. It's a system failure."
Lunderman called for a Lakota curriculum. He said that didn't mean the tribes wouldn't teach core subjects — reading, writing, math — it was about giving them the flexibility to integrate them with the Lakota language, spirituality and history. That may also mean the flexibility to extend the school day and calendar.
Marcella Gilbert, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, said there was no comparison to the empowerment that came from a Lakota and student-based education. In the 1970s, as a teenager, she learned under members of the American Indian Movement.
"I was fourteen and I was able to say, 'What's uranium? And why are they digging it out of the Black Hills? And who's digging it?' and the adults said, 'OK, let's research that,'" she said.
But perhaps the most topical resolutions for the Oceti Sakowin were those relating to foster care. The tribes are concerned that South Dakota has routinely and illegally placed Native American children with non-native foster parents, in violation of the Indian Child Welfare Act.
While the tribes are seeking to create their own foster care systems, they also took other actions to ensure native children are placed within native homes. The group resolved that Lakota Oyate Wakanyeja Owicakiyapi (LOWO), an existing foster care system on the Pine Ridge Reservation that is partially funded by the state, should license foster families on other reservations. The tribes hope that will vastly expand the number of Lakota foster homes in South Dakota because it means they aren't subject to the state's licensing standards, which they criticize as too restrictive.
The tribes also plan to codify legal language that better defines Lakota family relations for the purposes of placing children taken by social workers. Tribal officials said that America's vision of "nuclear family" has also hamstrung the ability of native family members to gain custody of children.
Speaking after the conference, Phyllis Young, a council representative for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said she believes, speaking as a unified voice, the Lakota were a step closer to gaining the independence they seek.
"We need to fulfill a vision of making a safe place for our children, within our own society, based on our own rules," she said.