Press "Enter" to skip to content

South Dakota Officials Absent from Indian Child Welfare Summit in Rapid City

The nine Sioux tribes are meeting in Rapid City right now to discuss solutions to South Dakota's inability to comply with the federal Indian Child Welfare Act. Oglala Lakota College is streaming the May 15-17 summit live online. Judges and federal officials are there to hear concerns and help come up with solutions.

South Dakota officials are not:

But the seats for South Dakota state officials were empty.

No one from the state or South Dakota's Department of Social Services was coming. In a statement, the department told NPR that it had not been invited to the conference and that it had only learned details about it last week [Laura Sullivan, "South Dakota Officials Miss Historic Meeting with Tribes," NPR: Morning Edition, 2013.05.16].

That's funny: planning for the summit has been in the news since February. Do our leaders in Pierre only get their news from federal agencies?

Kevin Washburn is the assistant secretary of Indian Affairs who came from Washington. He said that is not his recollection.

"I spoke with the Governor, and my office asked his office to attend. He wasn't able to be here, so we've called the chief justice, and they were not able to attend, either. So we reached out at very high levels to the state because this is indeed a summit. It seemed like we should be reaching the very highest levels of the state and we weren't able to get them to be here....

"There's some disagreements between the state and tribes, and it seems like a dysfunctional relationship that's developed. It's hard to find the solutions when only the tribes have come to talk" [Sullivan, 2013.05.16].

Ah, but the Governor (and former boss of the Children's Home Society, one of the prime players in South Dakota's Indian foster child care problems) is a busy man, what with pressing engagements like flying to Minneapolis to spend an afternoon at the Mall of America. You can't expect him and his staff to be everywhere at once. South Dakota's leadership has to have its priorities.


  1. Nick Nemec 2013.05.16

    Sadly, they (state government) aren't even trying.

  2. oldguy 2013.05.16

    I don't understand why people have a hard time listening to others.

  3. Mark Vargo 2013.05.16

    I am not going to claim that I got the most rousing reception, but I would like to point out that the Executive branch was represented, albeit at the county level. I was there and did get several comments about the fact that "at least you have the (stones) to be here." As the person whose office is directly responsible for Abuse and Neglect cases, I felt it was important to be there and hear what people had to say, even if it meant taking some heat.

  4. Robin Page 2013.05.16

    Thank you Mr. Vargo for attending the meetings. The word has spread through the community that You did attend. This is one step in the right direction for healing the racial divide in our community. PLEASE have your office follow the Indian Child Welfare laws and let tribes determine how to best care for Native Children. Thank You, again. Robin Page

  5. Douglas Wiken 2013.05.16

    This is all about "Please send us more money so we can take care of our over-population in relation to resources, and our failed child care."

  6. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.05.16

    Mark, I'm eager to hear what you learned at the summit. Did you learn anything new about problems in the foster care system, and what actions can you take, if any, to address those problems?

  7. John 2013.05.16

    Governor Mickelson is likely rolling in his grave. It likely reflects institutional and systemic racism that no one from the state's executive branch attended the summit and that no South Dakota lapdog media could be bothered to report that no one from the state's executive branch attended. It is a travesty, but not surprising that no one from the governor's office or DHS cabinet could be bothered to attend - especially given SD's undisputed track record that 9 of 10 Indian children are fostered out to non-Indian families - clearly circumventing ICWA as even the folks attending from North Dakota shared with the media.

    Mark Vargo's attendance is encouraging, promising. Federal and former federal officials frequently have a far higher sense of constitutional rights, duties, and obligations than are apparent in state and local officials slaved to local passions and prejudices. It's hopeful Mr. Vargo and his office gained invaluable information and experience in a challenging environment. Good luck, Mr. Vargo, for you have a thankless job ahead of you in changing past practices and re-shaping the narrow attitudes of too many in your county.

    As George H. W. Bush (the elder and wiser) said, '90% of success is just showing up.'

  8. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.05.17

    We have a tribal affairs secretary. Has he shown up?

  9. Mark Vargo 2013.05.17


    A fair piece of what I heard will require coordination with DSS or changes in federal regulations about how money is disbursed and so is well beyond my individual ability to implement. But some of the best things that happened for me was to get to meet the people who have devoted years or decades to protecting children and to begin to create a relationship with them that will permit us to work together. We already have committed to individual meetings with several tribal ICWA directors to talk through what we can improve.

    One idea that I found interesting and which seems possible in the short term is to create registries of family trees that will facilitate finding relatives for immediate placement instead of using foster care. The more options we have before we are uprooting kids, the better. And even if a relative placement does cause some disruption in residence or even school, it is far less stressful to the child than a stranger placement. And the process of discussing and implementing the small steps we can take now lays the foundation for the ability to make larger changes down the road.

  10. Robin Page 2013.05.17

    After listening to one of the testimonies regarding refusal of Judge Davis to allow evidence, it looks like even if Mr. Vargo makes improvements in his office, the court might still be a problem. I hope that the Judges look carefully at the part they have played in this miscarriage of justice.

  11. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.05.17

    Mark, creating that working relationship sounds like a really good first step. If state officials had come, would they have had a similar opportunity to create working relationships? Would their presence have ameliorated the hard feelings and moved us toward problem-solving dialogue?

    Robin, the Pennington County State's Attorney's office can't solve the problem by itself, but it's a start! It's one more official voice to make a judge think twice.

  12. Stace Nelson 2013.06.01

    I am disappointed that legislators were not invited and that the governor & chief justice did not attend. If we can use tax dollars to send the governor to China to talk with them about how he can use SD tax $$ to help their businesses have an advantage over other American & SD businesses, these South Dakotans should be able to expect their own state officials to attend a conference on such a serious issues. Especially when they were given ample notice and the governor was in the area for political events.

    As a South Dakotan, my personal thanks to Mr Vargos for giving these South Dakotans, and the problems affecting them, the respect they deserve.

  13. Bree S. 2013.06.01

    Totally agree with Stace and Cory (and probably even Larry on this issue lol). I find it hard to believe that Daugaard couldn't find time to attend.

  14. Bree S. 2013.06.01

    "This is all about 'Please send us more money so we can take care of our over-population in relation to resources, and our failed child care.'"

  15. Bree S. 2013.06.01

    Unbelievable, Wiken.

Comments are closed.