Interviews Grand-Daughter of Dakota Sioux Chief
By Pat Hill
It’s not every day that a major Arab news organization shows up on an American Indian reservation in Montana, but that’s what happened at Fort Peck in May, when Al Jazeera filmed an interview with Myrna J. Boyd, granddaughter of the last Dakota Sioux chief.
Al Jazeera (The Peninsula in Arabic, referring to the Arabian Peninsula) began operating as a television news entity in 1996, sticking mostly to Arabic news and current events in its reporting. Because Al Jazeera would often report dissenting and controversial views regarding the Arab world, the Qatar-based news organization gained notoriety in America and among the leadership of the Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia. That notoriety intensified after Al Jazeera broadcast video from Osama bin Laden following 9/11. Since then, however, Al Jazeera has expanded into a multi-media news organization including the Internet as well as television, and it has also expanded its arena of reporting beyond the Arab world, often focusing attention on indigenous peoples in the West.
That arena expanded to the Fort Peck Reservation during the Democratic race for the presidential nomination last spring; Al Jazeera wanted to know how the country’s Native Americans viewed Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. A University of California professor (and friend of Boyd) from Poplar, Montana, Karen Barrett Olson, steered the Al Jazeera reporters to Big Sky Country.
“She referred those people to Fort Peck,” Boyd, the grand-daughter of the Dakota Sioux chief Santee Iron Ring (the last Dakota Sioux chief before tribal government was established), told the Pioneer. “I’m not really familiar with third world problems or terrorists…I have no ups or downs, although I’m sure that as a former member of the American Indian Movement [AIM], and a state coordinator of AIM, I imagine I was a terrorist to a lot of people. Our movement at that time was for the rights of individual tribal members…but these folks [Al Jazeera] don’t have any [terrorist] role, I think they’re just newspaper people.”
Though not all AIM members gained terrorist status by any means, Boyd’s connection with AIM was noted in certain circles. Founded in 1968 by Native Americans including Dennis Banks, Clyde Bellecourt, Russell Means, and Leonard Peltier, AIM’s original goal was to protect Indians from police abuse. Many of AIM’s founding members had suffered such abuse, and then imprisonment (AIM’s earliest beginnings can be traced from within the Minnesota penal system).
The group’s activities included takeovers of federal lands such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., in 1972, and the infamous standoff at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota the following year. The FBI used means such as paid informants to keep tabs on AIM’s members and the group’s activities.
AIM became involved in other human rights endeavors along the way, even helping Betty Friedan found the National Organization for Women (NOW). The 72-year-old Boyd, who describes herself as an advocate for all low-income people, began her career as a representative for a Montana state low income organization, ensuring that low-income Montanans received their fair share of federal funding headed the Treasure State’s way. She was also involved with other federal programs related to food stamps, commodities, and low-income housing. She advocated for people whose benefits had been reduced, terminated, or denied, and assisted with reapplying for those programs or getting fair hearings.
Boyd said she considers the most important work in her life of activism “the work I did when I came home [to Fort Peck] on the child placement policies and procedures that were being handled here in the early 1980s…”
“Because the Indian children were being removed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs Social Services Department as well as Montana State Family Services,” Boyd told the Pioneer, “and placed in non-Indian families, placed off the reservation, placed a longer length of time than the law allowed, and eventually were adopted out. By the time I came home one third of the children here at Fort Peck were in placement… and the families had no one to represent or help them…”
Boyd, a divorced mother with nine children at home at Fort Peck, was receiving federal aid herself at the time, and people began to come to her for help with child placement management, or mismanagement, problems; she said that many of the placements were in violation of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, which dictates protocol and screening regarding prospective foster care children on Indian reservations.
“If I thought I could help them, I would,” she said. “If I couldn’t help them, I would try to refer them to someone else that could. It was a worthwhile project and I’m still involved with it.” Boyd is the president and co-founder of the Walks Far Society/Save Our Children Defense Fund, and she is also a licensed tribal lay counselor, which allows her to act in a legal capacity in tribal court. She told the Pioneer that one of her wishes “before I pass over” is a tribal legal services program offering legal services for those who can’t afford it.
Although health problems have slowed her down these days, Boyd was able to speak with Al Jazeera’s reporters regarding the presidential race and the needs of the nation’s Native Americans.
“They were here on Fort Peck to do a story on the national election, and how individual tribal members felt if Obama were elected or if Hillary were elected,” said Boyd. She told Al Jazeera it takes more than the president to get things done for Native Americans; it sometimes takes an act of Congress.
“Because our people know that, we’re real active in elections,” said Boyd. “We’re out there getting our people registered to vote, and hauling our members to the polls, whether it’s state, federal or tribal elections. I hope the other nine [Montana] tribes are practicing the same policies and procedures.”