It has been a tough couple of weeks in Indian Country, so bear with me while I tie together a couple of seemingly unrelated narratives. One of my clients, an enrolled tribal citizen and a respondent parent in a child welfare case, unexpectedly became the subject of a new allegation of child abuse while at the courthouse for her hearing. She had not eaten lunch, was dealing with a fussy baby, and trying to find me while I was advising another client. Docket days in my suburban county can be hectic.
I walked into the hallway to see sheriff’s deputies interviewing witnesses about an incident where a young mother had allegedly kicked her baby while in the stroller. I found my client upstairs with her baby who appeared fine, although she was rattled. I quickly advised her to remain silent as two deputies approached for an explanation of what had occurred.
I informed all interested parties that no one may speak with my client without me present. They assured me after speaking with their sergeant that they would not detain her. Only after that did I advise her to tell her side of the story. She was frustrated. She had kicked something, but it was the diaper bag, hanging loosely off the back of the stroller, NOT her baby. The female deputy took another look at my client’s child, agreed the baby was unharmed and there would no criminal report. No charges. No arrest. No removal of her baby. The preservation of an indigenous family.
For years, I have worked in juvenile law, as a public defender, as a guardian ad litem, and now I defend indigent parents in child welfare cases. Born in Omaha, Nebraska to a Santee father and a white mother, I resided in my homelands for a brief time before my mother left my father for her home in Vermont. I reunited with my dad during my first year of law school. I was 32. As iyeska or mixed blood, I feel like a bridge, someone learning to walk in two worlds. I am not enrolled or enrollable. I make no secret of that fact. I do not possess the pathology of an impostor.
In 2016, I coordinated the legal tent at Oceti Sakowin Camp in the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline. I did not do this for fame or money. I did this simply because I was asked. I had put my legal career on hold to care for my three children, so I had time and ended up going all in. Up to that point, I was nobody in Indian County. Timid in asserting my Dakota heritage, I did not believe it was appropriate for me to take on anything other than a supporting role. Native people need lawyers in the state courts who understand our unique and complex legal status and history.
As indigenous attorneys, our struggle is bound up with that of our clients. We are accused of being immeshed, lacking objectivity, even of being unethical. But what happens when we really have someone like this in our midst? Someone who is a predator? Someone who commits identity theft writ large? What happens to our communities still reeling with trust issues from generations of historical trauma and ongoing cultural genocide?
Pope “playing Indian” in Washington, D.C.
To the best of my knowledge, I did not meet RedWolf Pope at camp. I knew there were other lawyers from around Indian County who came to support the fight because most of them checked in at the legal tent. If Mr. Pope visited me up on Facebook hill at Oceti Sakowin Camp, I don’t recall. What I can say is that he apparently earned the trust of respected elders among the Oceti Sakowin only to betray that trust with the recent news of his rape charges, arrest, extradition, and questionable credentials and heritage. This is not the first account of his predatory behavior. Hopefully, for his untold number of victims, it will be his last.
There are good reasons to be suspect of anyone claiming Native American heritage with no actual status or descendancy. Certainly, in some cases, records have been obscured. Overwhelmingly, heritage is verifiable. Determining someone’s enrollment status can be as easy as a phone call. Baptismal, birth, marriage and land transfer records abound. I found my family’s records on a Facebook post. Really. It becomes hard when records are sealed, as in adoptions. If there are no records to be found, it is likely because the person is NOT Native. Skin color is not determinative.
We have to be diligent. Protecting tribes, elders, women, and children from predators is everyone’s job. Asking if someone can verify their heritage is not rude. It is a way to protect us all from the culture vultures and pretendians who swarm with selfish and illicit motives. It is a question I ask every one of my clients for the preservation of the American Indian family.
Angela Bibens is the Attorney/Owner of Red Owl Law, P.C. in Aurora, CO. She is a 2006 graduate of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. Her father, Mark John Henry, Sr., was an enrolled member of the Santee Sioux Nation in northeast Nebraska.