Last week I had the pleasure of speaking with Elizabeth “Lisa” Morris and I just finished reading her book Dying In Indian Country: A Family Journey From Self-Destruction to Opposing Tribal Sovereignty. Morris used the pen name Beth Ward to publish the book, because it is a true story and she wanted to protect her extended family’s anonymity. But since Lisa and her late husband Roland, a member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, were so outspoken about what is happening on Indian reservations in the United States, she has revealed herself as the author of the book.
Living in upstate New York, I’ve been familiar with some of the struggles of American Indians, but I was never aware of how serious the problems are on the reservations, and how the policies of the federal government work to perpetuate those problems.
The book is the story of Lisa and Roland’s life. Lisa (in the book she goes by Beth) was raised in a middle class family. Her mother was active in Democrat politics and Lisa believed that the problems with the reservations were due to all of the stereotypes we’re all so familiar with. In short, it’s the white man’s fault. The only thing I’ve heard that comes close to being anti-government is the old adage that Indians better get health care before summer when all of the federal funding for the year runs out.
To be honest, I never really gave it much thought. Lisa probably didn’t think much about Indian life either until she met Roland. He was in a failed marriage, in rehab and already had a few kids at the time. After his divorce he married Lisa, but his problems with alcoholism continued. Lisa and Roland stayed on the reservation in Cass Lake, Minnesota together for years, embroiled in a life of poverty and welfare dependency, watching extended family members self-destruct through alcoholism and drug abuse. Babies were born with crack cocaine in their systems, or fetal alcohol syndrome. Children were abused and some even killed by those who were supposed to care for them.
Amazingly the child welfare system routinely sees to it that Indian children are returned to their abusers, rather than leaving them with loving foster or adoptive families outside of the tribal systems.
Lisa and Roland eventually moved to Montana. The couple embraced Christianity, and their faith helped to guide them to a better life. They gave up welfare, even when they didn’t have two dimes to rub together. They did what they had to do – raising goats, hunting, fishing, starting business – to feed their family. And quite a family it was. They had five of their own children and also raised four of Roland’s grandchildren. Eventually they opened an upholstery shop and book store while actively trying to change the reservation system and help to break the cycle of dependency and abuse on reservations. Of course, this mission is just as important to Lisa as it was to Roland as she is the mother of what’s known politically as “enrollable” children, but the way the system is set up, they could be “claimed,” so to speak, by the tribe in custody battles.
When I spoke with Mrs. Morris, she told me that she is now in North Dakota, and she continues to fight for this human rights issue. She told me that she has seen an 18 month old child with a sexually transmitted disease returned to her abusers. She heard from a woman who witnessed a six and eight year old boy engaging in sexual behavior most adults would find disturbing. She said tribal leaders have been arrested for abuse, the same leaders who have sat in judgment of others.
We also talked about the federal funding the tribes receive. I had always assumed that the money went to the people of the tribes, but I was mistaken. Apparently, much of it goes to the tribal leadership who spends it as they see fit, many times on themselves. Morris said that in two and a half decades the Leech Lake reservation gave Roland a total of two checks totaling $700. Tribal leadership often discourages and works to undermine independence and self reliance, lest they lose their federal funding. So they’re left with a population on welfare. Morris described a cycle of dependency, desperation, abuse and addiction that’s passed down from generation to generation.
Morris called the Indian Child Welfare Act “sickening” and “racist.” I have to agree, when our government leaders “intimate that tribal members are not able to be accountable or responsible,” what other conclusion is there? In the book she reacted to this section of the law: “An Indian tribe shall retain exclusive jurisdiction over any child custody proceeding that involves and Indian child. …. [and there is] a requirement that the cultural and social standards of the Indian community be applied by the state court when it applies the placement preference.”
We couldn’t believe our government had virtually signed away our rights as parents. Knowing the reality of the ‘social standards’ on Roland’s reservation, that was the last place either of us wanted our children to go to if something happend to us. Furthermore, what right did Congress have to decide that our children’s traditional Native American spirituality was more important than their Jewish or Catholic heritage, let alone the evangelical spirituality Roland and I had chosen to raise them with?
She also wondered what “unique” values Congress was referring to, addiction and abuse? Another passage in the book, recounting Roland’s testimony regarding the corruption and unfairness of the whole system, reminded me of labor unions and some of their techniques to keep people in line – harassment, intimidation, threats, bribes, misinformation – you know, the usual tricks from the left.
During our conversation, Mrs. Morris said that schools often set Indian children up to fail, assuming that they are unable to learn, so not even trying to teach them. Even the pity directed at tribal members is bothersome, as it’s just another symptom of the systemic racism against tribal people. But you’ll never guess who “human rights” advocates have called the racists. If you guessed Lisa and Roland Morris, you get a gold star. Roland is no longer around to defend himself against such charges, but Lisa is, and she’s not going to shut up any time soon.
I could go on and on, like about how corrupt tribal leaders control HUD housing on reservations, there is so much more to tell, but this post is now over 1100 words. You can find out more about what Lisa Morris is doing at CAICW.org, and her book, which I strongly recommend, is available on Amazon
. Also, be sure to check out PBS’s Frontline documentary Kind Hearted Woman, about the journey of one Indian American woman who worked hard to break the cycle of poverty, abuse and addiction in her life. Lisa has also been involved in the Baby Veronica child custody case that will be heard by the Supreme Court on April 16. These are definitely issues that aren’t getting enough press coverage.
One final note, please say a prayer for Lisa Morris, so she can continue to fight for all of the children hurt by these destructive policies. Pray that they will find a way to succeed in life despite a corrupt system that’s setting them up to fail.
Update: I almost forgot, be sure to read about the recent case of a Spirit Lake (ND) man who was convicted of beating his child. Often times these crimes are overlooked or ignored, so I guess this conviction is a step in the right direction.
Update: Linked by The Other McCain – thanks!
Update: Linked by Big Pulpit – thanks!
Oh, and I heard I’ve been criticized for this piece because I used the word rampant, which some consider racist. Pfftht!