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American Indian landowners excluded from fee land owners meeting

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LAKE ANDES, S.D. - American Indian landowners were excluded from a fee land owners meeting in Charles Mix County to discuss issues involved with redrawing boundary lines for the Yankton Sioux Tribe Reservation.

At least 11 members of the Yankton Sioux Tribe who own fee land within the county were denied access to the meeting because they had not received a letter from the county inviting them.

A large group of landowners, all non-Indian, were invited to the meeting, held at the Charles Mix County Court House.

Those landowners invited, according to the letter, own fee land that was originally, as the letter called it, trust land which was converted into fee land. The same properties were involved with the 1927 allotment act and the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, which excluded some county landowners.

Not all non-Indian landowners within the boundaries of the reservation received letters, and they, too, had to leave the meeting.

At issue is an order from the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals that remanded the case back to federal District Court Judge Lawrence Piersol to determine the boundaries of the Yankton Sioux Reservation.

A lawsuit filed in 1994 by the Yankton Sioux Tribe to stop the construction of a solid waste dump on what the tribe alleged was within the [its] reservation boundaries started the litigation process, especially when the state got involved and asked that the Yankton reservation be diminished because of all the fee land owned by non-Indians. The entire litigation is over jurisdiction.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1998 agreed that the reservation boundaries had been diminished, but not disestablished. The word ''disestablished'' is bantered about by the attorneys and others, but it takes an act of Congress to disestablish a reservation, tribal officials argue.

One of the attorneys who conducted the meeting, County Attorney Tom Tobin, allegedly told the crowd that the reservation had been disestablished. Tobin referred any questions to States Attorney Scott Podhradsky, who through Tobin said he would comment only to the Argus Leader and other papers were to get the information from that newspaper. Indian Country Today had its own questions to ask Podhradsky and Tobin.

Robert Cournoyer, chairman of the Yankton Sioux Tribe - which owns fee land and pays taxes in Charles Mix County - was also turned away from the meeting.

''They wouldn't allow us in; they had doors closed and deputy sheriffs right there. We were told that unless you have a letter you are not welcome in. If we tried to get in we would have been arrested,'' Cournoyer said.

No official of the Yankton Sioux Tribe knows what went on at the meeting, but there is much speculation.

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''I believe it is racism,'' Cournoyer said.

''They got the lawsuit coming up and what we wanted to be there for was making sure they weren't scaring these people and disseminate misinformation, and stop whatever progress we might make on jurisdiction,'' Cournoyer said.

Some tribal officials allege that many non-Indians are afraid they will be under the jurisdiction of the tribe and not the state even though they live on fee land, which is not subject to tribal jurisdiction now.

John Provost is a Yankton Sioux tribal member and a landowner. He purchased land that had been an allotment, or ceded land, and reverted to fee land at one time. He pays property taxes to the county and, under the definition of ''landowners'' at the meeting he should have been included; but, as he said, ''I'm a Yankton Sioux Tribal member, none of us received letters.''

The meeting was announced in the official county newspaper, which many people assumed made the meeting open to the public.

''When it was announced that everyone who did not have a letter should leave, one person asked if that meant the press also and it did.

''Some people had letters from the tribe, so Tobin pursued it further and said if the letter did not come from [the county] then you can't be there,'' said Charon Asetoyer, American Indian landowner.

''I said I was a taxpayer and live within the exterior boundaries; and he [Tobin] said there are no more boundaries, and you cannot assume what those boundaries will be,'' Asetoyer said.

The U.S. Attorney's office is now involved in the incident and the FBI, according to tribal officials, is now investigating.

''What they wanted to do is scare the whites, that's why they wanted the closed meeting. I'm convinced they were going to say they don't want Indians getting jurisdiction,'' Abourezk said.

The county attorneys said after the meeting, when asked by some people at the door, that the closure of the meeting was justified because it was about litigation and was also attorney/client privileged.

When the ruling on the boundary comes down from Piersol, very little will change in regards to jurisdiction, Abourezk said. Non-Indian landowners previously have expressed concern about hunting and fishing rights, taxes and civil and criminal justice issues should the judge favor the tribe's argument.

The tribe is fighting to maintain jurisdiction over its own reservation land.