Great Plains Action Society unites Indigenous Midwesterners to seek justice for state violence, past and present

Activists gather at the Iowa State Capitol Complex for Great Plains Action Society’s second annual July 4th event in 2021 to demand that Iowa abolish monuments to white supremacy. Participants are wearing Great Plains Action Society and Humanize My Hoodie’s “The Truth Will Not Be Whitewashed” shirts. — courtesy of Sikowis Nobiss

Sikowis Nobiss has two kids at home, both in elementary school. She has a full-time job and volunteers on Iowa City’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“Ugh, trying to deal with COVID and just keep the house clean? That’s my day today,” she said.

Nobiss is the founder of Great Plains Action Society (GPAS), a nonprofit that helps organize and rebuild Indigenous communities throughout the Midwest. She came to Iowa to attend the University of Iowa around 2006, and she soon saw that there wasn’t much support for the nearly 15,000 Native people that currently live in the state.

“There’s nothing for Natives here in Iowa City, you know. It’s just very bereft of culture for Natives. There’s very few of us,” she said.

Tama County, home to the Meskwaki Settlement, has the highest percentage of Native Americans relative to the total population at 8.3 percent, or around 1,400 people, according to the recent census numbers. There are also high numbers of Native people in Sioux City and Des Moines.

While there are a few Native organizations in the state, including the Native American Coalition of the Quad Cities, Nobiss felt that there were still unmet needs throughout the Great Plains region, which spans from the Canadian border in Montana and North Dakota to the Gulf of Mexico in Texas.

“We do stuff here in Iowa that nobody else does, and I’m not saying that because I want to come off as, you know, necessarily unique,” she said. “Literally like nobody does this stuff here, and it blows my mind. I would love to see more people doing it, and we hope that through the work that we do, we can inspire more Natives.”

Iowans protest the Dakota Access Pipeline, Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Nobiss began planning the first stages of the Great Plains Action Society around 2015, but it wasn’t until the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation that the idea began to resonate.

“There was something very sacred about that event. I felt very called to it,” she said. “It elevated the words and actions of Indigenous people so that our ideologies and our ways of doing things were really amplified.”

In Iowa, the Dakota Access Pipeline runs through 18 counties, a distance of about 347 miles. That’s about 30 percent of the pipeline’s total length of 1,172 miles. The pipeline is still active today.

Thousands of people protested the project, and millions of others showed their support. It created a “mini Renaissance” for Native people, Nobiss said, by focusing the world’s eye on their causes, culture and beliefs.

“It allowed me to finally get the attention that I was trying to get towards this organization, so I could get more Natives involved. And here we are.”

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and President Joe Biden have halted development of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would stretch from Alberta, Canada, to Illinois, Oklahoma and Texas. President Biden canceled the pipeline’s border crossing permit in January. The project’s sponsor, TC Energy, eventually abandoned the project in June.

But the Biden administration has taken no action against the Line Three pipeline that runs from Alberta to Minnesota.

“Right now the big fight is Line Three in Minnesota, and these are interconnected because the police play a big role in brutalizing the activists,” said writer and comedian Adrianne Chalepah, a member of the Kiowa Tribe and Apache Tribe of Oklahoma.

Iowa City climate advocates, including Indigenous environmentalists, gather to hear Greta Thunberg speak on Dubuque Street. Friday, Oct 4, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

GPAS has a number of campaigns for Native rights, all of which are interconnected, from food sovereignty to COVID-19 relief, voting drives and more.

One campaign focuses on justice for missing and murdered relatives. American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) women have the second highest homicide rate in the country, just behind African American women. On average, 7.3 out of every 100,000 Native women are killed every year, according to a report submitted to the Department of Justice in 2008. In some counties, the homicide rate is 10 times the national average.

A 2010 report by the National Institute of Justice found that more than 80 percent of AIAN men and women have faced sexual violence, physical violence by an intimate partner, stalking and/or psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime.

Zachary Bear Heels, courtesy of his family

Great Plains has helped organize marches, raise awareness and provide support to victims and their families. One was the family of Zachary Bear Heels, who was killed by police in Omaha, Nebraska in June 2017.

Adrianne Chalepah, his cousin, says Bear Heels was a creative person who loved music and dancing.

“Zach and I grew up like siblings, and I consider him my brother. And in our culture, we don’t have a word for cousin, so we very much always viewed each other as siblings,” she said.

“Zach was very much a funny guy, and a storyteller, and a writer. And I think that’s why him and I got along so well.”

Bear Heels was riding a bus to his home in Oklahoma City after visiting his father’s family at the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. He was allegedly kicked off the bus in Omaha for acting erratically. Bear Heels, who was 29 at time, had bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and his family says he didn’t have his medication.

Hours later, employees at a Bucky’s Convenience Store called the police to remove Bear Heels from the property. Omaha Police officers Scotty Payne, Ryan McClarty, Jennifer Strudl and Makyla Mead arrived. Renita Chalepah, Bear Heels’ mother, had contacted Omaha Police after her son didn’t show up at the bus stop.

“She was on the phone with them, and she just begged them to take him to a crisis facility because she knew that he wasn’t safe by himself out in the world,” Adrianne said.

The officers decided to take him back to the bus station, but when they went to put Bear Heels in the cruiser, he tried to leave and a struggle broke out. They tased him 12 times and punched his head 13 times, even after he was handcuffed and held on the ground. He was pronounced dead in the ambulance.

“When they finally transported his body back to Oklahoma, it is my knowledge that the condition that they got him in, that he was brutalized. His body was battered. And it wasn’t just his head. It was his entire body,” Adrianne said.

She explained that for a while, they didn’t know what had happened to him. A representative from the Bureau of Indian Affairs told them he passed away and that his death was under investigation.

Within a few months, all four officers involved were fired. Payne was charged with second-degree assault and use of a weapon, but was acquitted in December of 2018.

The county attorney dropped the charges against a second officer. With the exception of Payne, the officers were reinstated.

The family of Zachary Bear Heels at the fourth annual prayer walk and memorial vigil on June 6, 2021 in Omaha, Nebraska, organized by Great Plains Action Society. — courtesy of Sikowis Nobiss

“At first our family was like, ‘Wow, you know, the right thing is going to happen. We’re going to get justice.’ And as the case progressed, we saw that there was going to be no justice,” Adrianne said.

In August 2018, Renita filed a wrongful death lawsuit in federal court against the City of Omaha and the police officers. In August 2020, the city settled the lawsuit for $550,000. Adrianne said the initial amount offered by the city was in the low thousands, around the price of a car.

“It was such a low amount that it felt like a slap in the face. It felt just inhumane,” she said. “I just couldn’t believe that that’s the world we live in, where you could value someone so low, but that’s the way it is.”

Throughout the process, the activist community in Omaha, including Great Plains Action Society, helped her family, she said.

“I know that had we not had the activists on the ground, we wouldn’t have been able to seek any type of justice,” she said. “They don’t make a manual on how to mourn a relative that’s been killed by the government. There’s really no justice for us.”

Adrianne said her grandmother and other members of the family get so emotional that they can’t find words to express their grief and anger.

“How do you speak? How do you have a voice for someone who doesn’t have a voice anymore, and yet you feel like your own voice is shaking and trembling? And you know, we’re all just trying to get through every interview without falling apart,” she said.

Being a voice for Native people in crisis is at the core of the Great Plains Action Society’s work. Fundamentally, they are a mutual aid organization, Nobiss explained. GPAS has branches in cities across Iowa to meet the needs of Indigenous people.

In Des Moines, Ronnie James runs administration and mutual aid for the nonprofit. James has been involved in activism his whole life. In addition to GPAS he organizes with Des Moines Mutual Aid.

Great Plains Action Society participates in a Cancel KXL March in Lincoln, Nebraska in August 2017. GPAS’s Mahmud Fitil, who also founded Ní btháska Stand Collective in Nebraska for this very purpose, was instrumental in shutting the project down. — courtesy of Sikowis Nobiss

“We do a lot of work with the houseless population and food insecurity,” he said. “So that is one of my main focuses, and then some of that work is being supported by, and in cooperation with, GPAS now which has allowed it to scale out, which is great.”

Native Americans represent around 1 percent of the total U.S. population, but make up around 7 percent of the unhoused population, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In Sioux City, Native Americans made up 48 to 63 percent of the homeless population as of 2018, the Sioux City Journal reports.

“Giving a strong regional voice with action behind it not only allows things to be accomplished, but it also allows us Indigenous around here to find each other and feel solidarity,” he said.

James took a break from activism once he had children, but was spurred back into the fray following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.

“Indigenous issues tend to get buried right now with the climate crisis and environmental racism,” he said. “I think it’s really important to have Indigenous voices in the front. This also goes with racial justice movements and police brutality, all of it. Indigenous voices need to be a strong leader.”

Adrianne Chalepah added that while people think of climate justice and racial justice as separate agendas, these issues bleed into one another.

“Everything is interconnected. Police brutality is one issue, but it does absolutely tie into missing and murdered relatives. It ties back into environmental justice,” she said.

Bear Heels’ death has cast a cloud of grief and fear over his family.

“Every day I’m waiting, you know, for a phone call. Who’s next?” Adrianne said. “Whose life is going to be lost unnecessarily because of government violence?”

The AIAN population has the highest rate of suicide of any racial group. From 1999 to 2017, the suicide rate for Native women jumped from 4.6 to 11 out of every 100,000, according to the CDC. That is a 139 percent increase, the largest of any other demographic. For AIAN men, the suicide rate rose from 19.8 to 33.8, a 71 percent increase.

“We were genocided and colonized,” Nobiss said. “And it’s not like this [only] happened centuries ago, right?”

Nobiss grew up in Winnipeg, Canada, and on the George Gordon First Nation reservation in Saskatchewan. Her grandmother, aunt and many of her cousins attended residential schools.

Great Plains Action Society members pose in front of the Iowa State Capitol Building after their democracy rising powwow on Nov. 7, 2020 to push back against lies about election fraud. — courtesy of Sikowis Nobiss

Earlier this year, more than 1,300 unmarked graves for Indigenous children were uncovered at residential schools in Western Canada, causing national outcry against the government and the Catholic Church.

But the first residential schools were established in the U.S. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the U.S. government created mandatory boarding schools for Native children, which were based on earlier Christian missionary schools.

In these federally funded schools, Native children were banned from speaking their own language or observing their own cultural practices. The philosophy of these schools was “kill the Indian, and save the man,” a phrase allegedly coined by Col. Richard Henry Pratt. Conversion to Christianity was an important component of this process.

Disease and abuse were rampant at the schools. The Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, founded by Pratt in 1879 and open until 1918, interred nearly 200 Native children in their cemetery.

In 1891, the federal government required all Native children to attend these boarding schools.

“Within my own generation, people were still attending these, what I like to call ‘internment camps,’” Nobiss said. “It was meant to exterminate us, physically and culturally.”

In 1898, the Toledo Boarding School opened in Iowa, and around 50 Meskwaki students were enrolled. Johnathan Buffalo, the director of historic preservation at the Meskwaki Museum & Cultural Center, told Iowa Public Radio, “They were arresting parents to force them to go.”

In reaction to the unmarked graves in Canada, Indigenous leaders are calling for an examination of all former residential schools. U.S. Interior Secretary Haaland announced that her department will investigate more than 365 former boarding school sites in the States. Haaland, the first Native American to lead the DOI and first to serve as a cabinet secretary, said this initiative will produce a final report by April 1, 2022.

The remains of children buried at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School are being exhumed and returned to their families. In July, nine bodies of children from the Sicangu Lakota tribe in South Dakota stopped at the Meskwaki Settlement so the Meskwaki could pay their respects.

Activists hold a “Water is Life” banner written in Meskwaki at the Mississippi River near Keokuk in fall 2016 to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline in Iowa. — courtesy of Sikowis Nobiss

Unlike other Indigenous communities, the Meskwaki Nation does not live on a reservation. In 1857, they purchased 80 acres of land in Tama County. Since the Meskwaki had formal federal recognition and private ownership of their land, the settlement had a murky jurisdictional status.

Buffalo explained that the Meskwaki Nation were able to resist and challenge the government in court because of their special jurisdiction. But even then, parents were “strong-armed” into sending their children to the Toledo Boarding School.

“Every time we talk about stuff like this, we’re accused of being un-American,” Buffalo said. “All we want is justice. Justice for our young people, our babies. That’s what we want.”

Keely Driscoll, who also does youth political engagement for GPAS, grew up in Tama on the Meskwaki Settlement. She went to the Meskwaki Settlement School, a tribally controlled school founded in 1980, then she went to public school in Tama. Her mother is a history teacher at the settlement school.

“Going to the town schools, like, it’s so different in terms of what you’re being taught and the kind of history that is being taught,” she said.

Driscoll is a senior at the University of Iowa, majoring in international studies with certificates in sustainability and Native studies. She plans to attend law school, though she hasn’t decided on a field yet.

“I’m having a hard time even just picking what kind of law I want to do—environmental or tribal or international—so I have a lot figuring out to do,” she said.

Driscoll started working with GPAS when she was in high school. She wanted to shed light on issues in her community that aren’t commonly known or discussed.

“We’re all living so close together, but we don’t really see each other’s ways of living,” Driscoll said.

Moving from Tama to Iowa City was a “culture shock,” she said, but her work with GPAS to support fellow Native students made her feel less alone.

“It provides a community away from home,” she said. “Seeing that there’s these different events going on, or there’s different efforts being made to have Indigenous issues heard, even though they’re not on their reservation or not on the settlement, can be very comforting.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has made organizing more difficult. GPAS shifted from in-person events to online webinars, occasionally holding outdoor events.

“Yeah, it’s been hard [this] last year,” Nobiss said. “I actually consider our work like an essential service. You can’t stop fighting fascism. I don’t know how to deal with that sometimes.”

GPAS members stop for a photo in front of Trump International Hotel. — courtesy of Sikowis Nobiss

Native communities have responded well to the pandemic. The CDC shows that AIAN people have the highest vaccination rate. Just over 50 percent are fully vaccinated, compared to 40.5 percent of the white American population.

The Meskwaki Health Clinic has provided over 6,000 COVID-19 shots, serving four times the tribe’s population. In early October, the National Indian Health Board awarded them the “Heroes in Health Award.”

Despite this, AIAN people have infection rates three and half times higher than non-Hispanic white people, according to the Indian Health Service. They are over four times more likely to be hospitalized because of COVID-19.

“We have an older population. We have a lot of elders,” Nobiss said. “Those elders are like walking repositories of knowledge and language. And if they haven’t passed that stuff on, then we lose it forever. So it’s pretty scary and sad sometimes.”

Another issue facing Native nonprofits and other organizations is funding.

Nearly everyone Little Village spoke with at GPAS mentioned the need for more people and resources. Part of the reason Native causes and organizations are underfunded is the lack of generational wealth, Nobiss said.

Some nations are doing so well that money is distributed throughout the community, she said. Companies under the Meskwaki, Inc. umbrella or the Meskwaki Bingo Casino Hotel contribute funds to support the tribal community. Meskwaki’s tribal government offers community services like food sovereignty, child support and a higher education program.

From 2006 to 2014, annual donations by large foundations declined by 29 percent, a $35 million decline, according to a study by First Nations Development Institute.

The majority of annual grant dollars are awarded to non-Native controlled organizations. These organizations also get the majority of large multi-year grants, which provide over $400,000. Support from the largest foundations declined on average by 60 percent during that same time frame. GPAS doesn’t hold fundraisers, but they do accept donations through their website.

“We could definitely use a couple more people, but to get that funding is like pulling teeth. It’s so hard,” Nobiss said. “We’re just so underfunded in every capacity. My goal is really to change that.”

Speaking truth to power is a vital service provided by activism groups like GPAS, Adrianne Chalepah said.

Iowa City residents Deborah Day and Sikowis Nobiss protest the Dakota Access Pipeline in Iowa, Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

“Our society desperately needs them, desperately needs people who aren’t afraid to speak up, who aren’t afraid to ask hard questions. We desperately need courage and strength from our society, and my heart is always with the activists because they put themselves in real danger from more state violence, from more police violence,” she said.

“Unfortunately, we live in a day and age where you can kill a Native American person and absolutely get away with it, because we don’t have a lot of political power,” Adrianne continued. “Our lives are priced at the lowest price tag you can imagine. It’s, in my opinion, an ongoing genocide.”

“I know those are strong words, and I don’t say them lightly.”

Nobiss imagines a better future for her community, one that’s built on Indigenous ideologies and practices. She realizes that a “paradigm shift” away from colonial capitalism is idealistic, but that doesn’t stop her from taking steps to revive her culture, language and way of life.

“I will die before I see anything that I actually want to see happen,” she said. “Hopefully within my lifetime I might see one small change, you know, or maybe I’ll get lucky.”

In that better future, it isn’t about how much you have, but how much you give away, she said. And the more you give away, the richer you are.

Adrianne can see the path to progress. She believes that education and prioritizing Indigenous voices will push people to action.

“I do have hope. I just think that people need to implicate themselves in this process as well. And then I think that our society can move forward,” she said. “But I would be lying if I said that the impact of this story, you know, wasn’t so great on my family.”

Loved ones have planned a memorial candlelight vigil for Bear Heels last month, hoping to spread awareness about police brutality and mental health.

“That’s really all we can do, and I think that by doing that work we’re healing ourselves.”

Great Plains Action Society collaborates with Humanize My Hoodie. — courtesy of Sikowis Nobiss

Adria Carpenter is a multimedia reporter and editor at Little Village. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 300

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