Skip to main content

Business boycott called in South Dakota border town

  • Author:
  • Updated:

MARTIN, S.D. - When American Indians turned out in large numbers at the polls to elect a county sheriff and a county council board member, they didn't realize that power, even voting power has a price.

Now the city of Martin wants to separate the sheriff's department from the city law enforcement and that could mean a revenue cut that may affect the entire county. American Indian Civil Rights committee members assert that the move is racially motivated, while city fathers claim it's more accountability.

Council members said they had been considering a move to city law enforcement for some time and agonized over the situation, according to Brad Otte, acting mayor.

Civil Rights organizers claim the move was escalated when Charlie Cummings was elected sheriff.

What it could mean financially to the sheriff's department is a layoff of up to three people. The department has four patrol deputies, four full-time dispatchers and two part-time employees.

Martin is located between the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations. The economy of the community is somewhat dependant on the American Indian business and that is what Jesse Claussen, member of the LaCreek Civil Rights Committee has in mind.

Claussen said he didn't want to hurt the business community, but the only thing people understand is money, he said, so the committee has called for a boycott of Martin businesses.

To emphasize the sincerity of the boycott, Claussen organized a rally that drew some 300 people that marched on the center of Martin's downtown. The rally drew the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has had several lawsuits against Bennett County for alleged violations of voter laws and lack of participation on school and other county boards. The Civil Rights Committee also filed a lawsuit against the county to require a redistricting change that would be more fair to American Indian voters.

The marchers converged on the Martin City Hall, which was locked at 2 p.m. on July 10. Claussen then presented a list of demands that included the resignations of city officials and the council.

Many business people were reluctant to talk on record about the situation.

Ron Wheeler, owner of Ron's Market, where Cummings worked before being elected, said his business dropped sharply the day after the boycott was announced, mostly with the food stamp trade.

A week later he said the business was moving upward again, but didn't have an idea of how it compared to the average. Wheeler said he didn't understand all the issues involved because he makes a practice of staying out of politics.

"If I had an idea of where the problem was, I would solve it," he said.

Other businesses on Main Street felt the impact initially, but now business is returning to a more normal pace. Most businesses in Martin depend on the American Indian customer, and many of the businesses hire American Indians and up to 15 businesses are actually owned by American Indian entrepreneurs.

So for some people, it remains a puzzle why some people would claim that race has anything to do with the issue, and many don't think there is any real racial division in the city or county.

Seven years ago, racial tensions ran high when the Bennett County School Homecoming ceremonies included the stereotypical presentation of American Indians with non-Indian royalty dressed in headdresses, beadwork and buckskin with a motif and dance that for some was a mockery of culture.

The ceremony, after meetings with the school board and tribal members, was discontinued.

Cummings, who has a long background in law enforcement, said he ran for sheriff to create a better atmosphere for both American Indians and non-Indians, but he added that he doesn't think the non-Indian population of Martin can "handle that."

Many American Indians in the past have complained regularly about racial profiling by sheriff's deputies. People said they were pulled over for alleged traffic violations only to have background checks done on all people in vehicles while members of the non-Indian community were not cited for minor violations.

Sheriff Cummings said he saw what was happening in the community when people were stopped and searched and held without cause for hours under former Sheriff Russ Waterbury, whom he defeated last November.

City officials complained that some deputies had no official training and that reports required on a quarterly basis were not filed. He argued that during the transition period he met with former Sheriff Waterbury for only 45 minutes and was not aware of the report requirement and "learned nothing about the running of the sheriff's department."

He also said that two candidates for officers were in training.

Members of the Rosebud and Oglala Sioux tribes claim the move to separate the law enforcement jurisdictions is a move to discredit Cummings and to overturn his election. City officials said they owed a responsibility to the people of Martin to provide accountable law enforcement.

A move to create a city law enforcement department occurred in 1972 and lasted for two years. That is when Dane Cummings, Charlie's uncle was sheriff. City officials continued to argue that the move had nothing to do with Cumming's election.

Jennifer Ring, executive director of the American Civil Liberty's Union for the Dakotas, had a different take on the issue. She said that if the city wanted to get rid of Cummings, city officials could organize a campaign to run someone else against him in the next election.

Sheriff Charlie Cummings, an Oglala Tribal member was elected sheriff in November with a local get-out-the-vote that tallied an overwhelming number of tribal members at the polls that was primarily organized by Claussen.

In that election, political power was recognized by the American Indian voter. That vote took Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D. over the top in a hotly contested race against Rep. John Thune, who was supported by the Bush Administration.

A move to change Cumming's election or discredit it would be a blow to the power that people in the Indian community are now feeling, supporters argue.

To that degree, Claussen isn't stopping at a boycott. In his demand for the resignations of the city officials he said he will organize a political group that will find American Indians to run for the seats on the city council, the county board of commissioners and the Bennett County School board and run another get-out-the-vote drive.