Lakota People’s Law Project

In 2004, Madonna Thunder Hawk and a group of grandmothers in Lakota country — an area comprised of nine Indian reservations in North and South Dakota — asked us to investigate and help them prevent South Dakota’s Department of Social Services from removing their grandchildren from their families. The investigation uncovered that drugging and routine patterns of physical and mental abuse of Native children in foster care were leading to high levels of youth suicide.

These atrocities, a direct violation of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) — a federal law enacted in 1978 — inspired the formation of the Lakota People’s Law Project (LPLP). It was time to put a stop to the cycles of injustice leading to the slow genocide of the Lakota.

Our first program, the ongoing Lakota Child Rescue Project, launched in 2005 to assist the return of Lakota children to their families, tribes, and communities. An initial investigation uncovered drugging and routine patterns of physical and mental abuse of Native children in South Dakota’s foster care system, leading to high levels of youth suicide.

In 2011, Lakota Law invited National Public Radio journalist Laura Sullivan to South Dakota. After a year of research supported by LPLP staff, Sullivan produced a Peabody Award-winning series of stories about the foster care crisis in Lakota Country — including the systematic, and perhaps financially-motivated, violations of the Indian Child Welfare Act by the Department of Social Services. Following this reporting — heard by an estimated 20 million people — Congress members issued a letter demanding action. In response, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) promised to host a summit for key stakeholders.

When the BIA failed to immediately follow through, Lakota Law organized intensively to inspire action. In the summer of 2012, we helped increase tribal participation at a conference in Rapid City attended by three Executive Branch Departments (the Department of the Interior, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Health and Human Services).

Since 2012, Lakota Law has successfully organized to secure $200,000 planning grants to assist the Standing Rock and Pine Ridge nations in securing direct federal funding to administer foster care and adoption services. The work to secure autonomy from South Dakota continues to this day. Recently, Lakota Law helped to facilitate the opening of a teen center at Standing Rock, very near to our Native-run foster home.

In 2016, the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) threatened the Lakota’s sacred lands and water, so we expanded our mission. The injustices perpetrated against the Lakota during the peaceful and prayerful resistance to DAPL highlighted a blatant pattern of contempt and disregard for the Lakota and their sovereignty.

In 2017, in the wake of the Standing Rock protests, we undertook the successful defense of Lakota water protector and LPLP attorney Chase Iron Eyes, who had been arrested for allegedly trespassing on his tribe’s own ancestral lands and instigating a “riot.”

The term “riot” is now key to an ongoing attack on American civil liberties. States around the nation are passing laws meant to chill and criminalize the protest of pipelines, which constantly ignore treaty boundaries and have the potential to despoil sacred lands. The Lakota People’s Law Project is committed to protecting the First Amendment rights of Native peoples and their allies.

We also work closely with tribal nations and nonprofit compatriots to amplify Indigenous voices, provide renewable solutions in place of fossil fuel consumption, protect the voting rights of Native people, and provide on-the-ground support when and where it is needed most. That includes working with organizers to advance LGTBQ2S rights in Indian Country and help with challenges around COVID-19.

LPLP aims to assist in the reclamation of Indigenous lands and to stop all threats to the Lakota culture. Native Peoples possess inherent sovereignty and the right to autonomous rule and self-determination.

The Lakota flourished for centuries before Europeans arrived on these lands, and their tradition of living in relation to all things is more important today than ever. We are committed to working toward the revitalization of the Lakota People and culture. Learn more about actions you can take and discover how you can get more involved!