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Truly honoring those who came before us



Youth recognized at Urban Native Center for their accomplishments. Photo by Val Uken

“It wasn’t until June 1924 that the U.S. declared Native people citizens,” Val Uken tells me. “It’s an open sore.“ Uken, Director of the Urban Native Center, was born and raised in Sioux City. The only time she didn’t live in Iowa was during the 27 years she served in the U.S. military. After retiring from the military, she wanted to return to education and work with kids. She found a void in systems that were supposed to be serving her community. “I was finding that the guidelines of the adult meant that they had to go to therapy three times a week, but the kids didn’t get any support — so they were in the waiting room while their caregivers had to go into these hourlong sessions. If you are going to treat the family, you have to treat everyone in the family.”

Indigenous families and individuals have overcome myriad obstacles and survived numerous atrocities. And they have persevered in maintaining a beautiful, rich culture. And unfortunately, many do not know about the struggle nor the beauty. Iowa must do more to right the wrongs of the not-so-distant past.

“Missing and murdered Indigenous relatives (MMIR) is a serious issue for Natives, especially Native women and children who experience violence at significant higher rates. In Iowa, in particular, the MMIR crisis is part of a larger human trafficking problem in general.” Jessica Engelking of Great Plains Action Society describes one of the many issues they are actively addressing, issues that have been dismissed, ignored, and justified for too long.

The roots of these issues run deep in Iowa history. To be dismissed as a person requires long-standing, systematic dehumanization. Indigenous students have been stolen from families since the late 1800s and previously were placed in three Iowa boarding schools. This nationwide program, with primary goals, as reported to the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2022, of “cultural assimilation and territorial dispossession of Indigenous peoples through the forced removal and relocation of their children,” was accompanied by abuse, neglect, and even death of Indigenous children. In recent decades, Native children have been removed from families that have had to deal with the aftermath of systematic racism, poverty, and trauma — all remnants of the boarding school system and other U.S. policies.

The desecration of land formerly belonging to Indigenous people has added insult to injury. A shocking 99.9% of Iowa’s original prairie no longer remains, mainly due to harmful agricultural practices that could be practically mitigated by regenerative agriculture. Iowa settlers are benignly described by the State of Iowa website as having displaced tribes via “treaties between the tribes and the U.S. government,” while scholars instead point to civilian settler violence, breached treaties and counterinsurgency warfare by the U.S. military as the true tactics to displace and exterminate Indigenous people. The sacrifice of the environment continues with pipeline projects, and the placement of man camps have posed a further threat on the welfare of Iowans, particularly Iowans that are Indigenous women and children.

“Everything is a balance — if you have a negative you almost need two positives to overcome it. We are trying to build resiliency.” Uken’s organization is one of many Iowa organizations working twice as hard to overcome these overwhelming problems.

Engelking’s organization, the Great Plains Action Society works on water protection, sustainable farming practices, and other environmental issues in addition to MMIR Awareness. She was recently asked what makes their organization special, as they manage to get a lot done. “Our being all Indigenous is a unique factor and is hard to emulate by other orgs. The people were doing the work before the organization existed. OK, we will build that into the structure — taking people that are already doing the work and creating a network of support.”

There also has been some positive movement with legislation. The first successful Tribal Customary Adoption was completed last September in Sioux City. This process avoids the harmful termination of parental rights and helps maintain familial connections. And just this June, advocates breathed a sigh of relief as the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978.

Every November for the past 20 years, Sioux City has memorialized the children who have been removed from their communities and thrust into the child welfare system. The 21st Memorial March to Honor Lost Children falls this year on Wednesday, Nov. 22, and is preceded by two days of workshops designed to better inform participants on the issues that Indigenous children still face today.

Engelking says that there are other “real and tangible things that Iowans can do. Participating in the election process — protecting schools from those wanting to ban books and prohibit teaching history.” She is not always optimistic though. “Yeah, it can change, I don’t see Iowa heading in the direction it needs to as far as protecting the soil. Our topsoil is bad — we only have 60 more seasons of topsoil — it’s shockingly low. We really need to rethink the way we related to the land. Purely extracting and taking is not sustainable.”

She also urges Iowans to support mutual aid efforts “Indigenous people make up a shockingly large percentage of unhoused population.”

“Communities need to listen to the youth” Uken sees a promising future. “In 10 years I see us where we are going to have a native center that represents the native culture. We are going to have youth that are going to be proud and be able to participate from this community and not be a statistic. I want to break those generational cycles for these families so that they have the opportunity to do that.”

It is up to all of us to support this vision, and learn more about our history so we can help build a more positive future.

“We have got to change the road, the path for these youth. We need to have a place for these kids that is safe, where they can learn, and that they can dream about something that is better than what they are going through. And that people care.”

Chris Espersen is a Gazette editorial fellow.

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