On a cold day in 2001, my life changed in a way that has impacted me in every aspect of my life.
As a human being, a Native woman, having a caring heart for those without a voice.
It was this day that I met Frank LaMere.
Frank was being honored as a Peacemaker of the Year by Nebraskans for Peace. Up to this point, he was only someone I knew from a distance, in print or TV media. Little did I know that my career in journalism would drastically change just a year later as I struggled within to find a path to helping my fellow Native people. Leaving a position in Public Relations at the Nebraska Children’s Home Society in Omaha (where I was placed for adoption), I believe I was called to my tribe, the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska and began my journey in social work.
LaMere, a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, who died Sunday at the age of 69 is best known for his advocacy for many Native American struggles including the closing of beer stores in Whiteclay, police brutality, Keystone Pipeline and the subject that is most near and dear to my heart – Indian child welfare.
His passion for keeping Native American families together is what put Frank in my path. Or me in his. He was instrumental in developing the Memorial March to Honor Lost Children 16 years ago as a way to remember Native children who have been taken from their families and communities while being placed in a non-Native child welfare system. With a flood of supporters, LaMere walked with them across the Siouxland Veterans Memorial Bridge from South Sioux City to Sioux City.
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I was working as the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) Specialist for my tribe and attended many workshops and events where Frank was the guest speaker. The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was enacted in 1978 in response to a crisis affecting American Indian and Alaska Native children, families, and tribes. Its purpose is to protect the best interest of Indian Children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families by establishing minimum Federal standards for the removal of Indian children and placement of such children in homes that will reflect the values of Indian culture.
Frank was an amazing listener and he would tell you exactly what he was thinking and see a way for you to fit into his plan of action for a wide variety of issues he was involved in. But Frank knew if he wanted something done, he’d have to do it himself, even if it cost him his freedom. And that he did. He worked with elected officials, law enforcement, a plethora of volunteers and followers to the cause of helping Native people and many others. What I have learned from Frank is how to give a voice to others by sharing stories and advocating and doing it through compassion, integrity and human connection. To speak up no matter the cost when it’s the right thing to do.
Through his words, Frank instilled in me a fire that although it burns a little softer as I lean towards retirement age, became a fierce inspiration that pushed me to the top of my game when fighting for the rights of Indian children. Frank would often speak at events I had hosted or sponsored. And it was then that his words would honor me once again. He’d say, “when Chris calls and asks me to come, I come.” He said it was because of my passion and the dedication he saw in me when fighting for our children. Those words I cherish.
This man fought for Native rights at Plymouth rock as a young man, he served on the Democratic National Committee and was a member of the American Indian Movement, just to name a few. He had the most colorful and intriguing life history and the cliché of “never meeting a stranger” was Frank LaMere in a nutshell. He was gregarious, he could talk to anyone, speak in front of any group and when you left the conversation you knew you had a friend for life.
At a moment’s notice, Frank spoke to a full assembly at then Midland Lutheran College in Fremont where I attended as a non-traditional student and in the same day took time to speak at Fremont Middle School where my son attended. It was there that countless young people were able to listen to this civil rights leader and get a taste of Frank’s passion. He even went to my parents’ home and met them while we waited between speaking events. This was a huge deal for me because being adopted, I was raised by a non-Native family and it was in a sense sharing with them the Native woman I had become. For him to shake the hand of my adopted father was a moment that was bigger than I realized at the time. Priceless.
Pinagigi, my dear friend.