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There is an ongoing conversation around the concept of reparations and what it might look like for Native American communities in the 21st century. The legal system has consistently been used to limit the rights of Native American communities. For example, in 2010, a law imposing a stricter statute of limitations in civil lawsuits directly impacted our Native American leaders. Before then, any citizen of South Dakota could file a lawsuit with the right evidence against the alleged perpetrator in a civil suit. The court would do its proper due diligence of the claim, thus allowing Native American elders, many over the age of 40, to seek compensation for past injustices. Many of those claims stemmed from sexual abuse from trusted school officials and members of the the clergy at a forced boarding school system providing the legal framework for cruel family separation policies. With the new stricter definition of the law in place, many of those lawsuits were thrown out. They had occurred too far in the past.

Therefore, in 2012, working with elder survivors,  I introduced and co-sponsored various pieces of legislation in the South Dakota legislature attempting to repeal this terrible law. In fact, one of those pieces of legislation was originally sponsored by a Republican, supporting the right of any party with a proper claim their day in court.

The opposition came from the insurance industry and churches being sued. Their testimony consisted of, mainly, “we didn’t have anything to do with this,” or “it’s in the past.” Some churches and their insurers claimed it would bankrupt them. It was disheartening to hear their arguments, and even more so when the committee voted to kill the bill, 8-5.

Three Sioux boys appear in an 1883 photo when they arrived at Carlisle Indian Industrial School, and three years laters.

After this experience, I promised myself and the elders I was working with to keep this issue alive, and sponsored similar bills in subsequent years. They suffered the same fate, but gained increased support among the body. Meanwhile, other states took action because of the Penn State scandal and other sexual abuse claims, including New York. New York recently passed “look back” legislation in the 2019 session providing victims a one year window to file their claims in a court of law. There are good organizations out there who are continuing the fight, such as the National Native American Boarding School Healing Collation who educate at all levels of government including the United Nations.

Working with the elders was emotionally hard, seeing the amount of unresolved trauma they carried with them and seeing it reopened as they testified in hope of being heard. It is apparent there needed to be healing in this work too because it was not going to be addressed in 20 minutes of testimony. Our communities deserve this space to heal, so elders can resolve their trauma and heal, and help break the cycle of pain for future generations.   

There is an amazing opportunity to begin the process of healing through sharing the truth about this horrible era of boarding schools and help communities plan for better futures. Canada went through a similar process with victims of the boarding school abuse and eventually set up a $2 billion fund to help compensate the survivors of this era.

Eleven Democrats running for president recently attended the Frank LaMere presidential forum dedicated solely to Native American issues. There were various plans offered by campaigns to support Native American communities in various ways, many focused on returning land to some of the Native American Nations. One of the more popular versions would return the Black Hills to the Lakota Nations. This concept was originally proposed by former New York Senator Bill Bradley who sought to help our communities after visiting Pine Ridge to help with basketball clinics.

An ally to Lakota nations, Bradley introduced the Sioux Nation Black Hills Act in the mid ‘80s to address a 1980 Supreme Court decision awarding the Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires of Lakota in South Dakota) $120 million in reparations for the failure of the federal government to uphold its trust and responsibility in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 and 1868. “A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealing will never, in all probability, be found in our history,” declared the blistering decision.

This fund has grown with interest to over $1 billion dollars today, but the Oceti Sakowin have so far opposed taking any of the money, upholding the firm belief that the land is not for sale. An amazing 1980s coalition built to demand the return of the Black Hills was not successful, but the fight continues.

A much better outcome: In the 1970s, during the Nixon Administration, a bipartisan effort returned New  Mexico’s Blue Lake to the Taos Pueblo. Originally their sovereign land, granted by the Treaty of Hidalgo between the United States and Mexico, Blue Lake was stripped away and given to the U.S. Forest Service in the 1920s and opened to public use. The Native American community advocated fiercely for its return for over 50 years, and with the help of LaDonna Harris (Comanche) and her husband, Oklahoma U.S. Senator Fred Harris, it was returned to the Taos Pueblo by an overwhelming 70-12 Senate vote.

Unfortunately, victories like Blue Lake are still rare, but it lays out a pathway of what reparations could possibly look like. As mentioned earlier, this could also serve as an example to the survivors of the abuse suffered by our elders at the boarding schools as a result of U.S. policy. It’s amazing to see candidates use some of these examples from history when discussing reparations for Native American communities. Hopefully it will not take another 50 years or another lawsuit to help our elders and communities see justice.

Having recently completed our annual South Dakota spiritual ceremonies consisting of fasting for seven days and dancing for four days from sun up to sun down as an offer of prayers for the new year and to give thanks for what we received in the previous year, what stood out for me was our ability as human beings to keep moving and pushing ourselves through the most strenuous of situations.

I can never imagine what it was like to be in the boarding schools during this era and what the elders had to endure being so young but living with the hurt for almost 40 years. They still had the resolve to fight to have their stories heard and the courage to go against a system that has been rarely favorable toward our issues. So this is what I prayed for while I was fasting and while I was dancing. I prayed all of our elders from this era are able to see some form of equity in their lifetimes.

As we close our prayers, mitakuye oysain (we are all related).

Kevin Killer is co-founder of Advance Native Political Leadership, a former member of the South Dakota state Senate and House of Representatives, and a senior fellow at Prism.

Kevin Killer

Kevin Killer is the co-founder of Advanced Native Political Leadership, a former member of the South Dakota state legislature, and a senior fellow at Prism. Follow him on Twitter @kevinck04.