Skip to main content

Civil Rights report will test state commitment to end racism

RAPID CITY, S.D. ? Reaction to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission report slated for release late March will be a litmus test of the desire of South Dakota's elected officials to end racism, according to Frank Pommersheim, a law professor at University of South Dakota in Vermillion.

The commission held a day-long hearing here last December to take testimony on racial inequity in the criminal justice system in the state.

Pommersheim, an expert on American Indian and a member of the South Dakota Civil Rights Advisory Committee, spoke at National American University in Rapid City as part of the Tschetter Lecture series March 17. His talk was funded in part by a grant from the South Dakota Humanities Council.

"At the hearings Indian people said the criminal justice system doesn't work for them," he said, assuring the audience that the commission report would contain strong recommendations about improving race relations in South Dakota.

"There are two ways for the people to react to this," he said. "The first is to say it isn't true, and the second is to say that even though I might agree or disagree about part of the cases, I will listen to you and I am willing to face reality."

Although Pommersheim said he hopes state officials implement the report's recommendations, he does not believe that will happen without pressure from non-Indians at the grass-roots level.

He talked about late Gov. George Mickelson's reconciliation proclamation in February of 1990. "When Mickelson died, the new political leadership did not continue the reconciliation effort. It disappeared from the political scene without focus from elected leadership."

According to Pommersheim, many non-Indians found that reconciliation was difficult. "It meant more than going to pow wows," he said. "It meant dealing with issues like discrimination and treaties. Many well-meaning people found that they didn't have the tools and understanding for dealing with these issues. They didn't understand treaties. They didn't know anything about life on the reservation. Good will is necessary, but not sufficient."

He said non-Indians would be better able to understand the criminal justice issues raised at the December hearings. "With criminal justice issues, people have a baseline understanding so there won't be the problems of talking about the issues as there would be with treaties," he said. "In a democracy, we assume that citizens are literate about the issues. In South Dakota most citizens aren't literate about Indian history or Indian law."

An example he cited is the issue of returning federally owned land in the Black Hills. "Well-meaning people are shocked when I tell them about how the Black Hills were taken from the Indian people because they didn't learn it in school.

"Issues like the Black Hills are defeated or eclipsed by the lack of education on these issues in this state. The citizens of South Dakota need to learn tribal government and the history of the tribes in this state. There has been some movement for this in the South Dakota Education Association and the South Dakota Indian Education Association, but there needs to be much more."

In addition to education, he offered other suggestions for making reconciliation a reality in South Dakota. "For the civil rights hearing, Indian people had to look to Washington. How many forums in this state are there where Indians and non-Indians come together to discuss issues? Usually they shout at each other through the media.

"In this state most Indian/non-Indian conflicts are solved by litigation," he said. "This results in a winner and a loser. There could be more negotiation."

Pommersheim said state political parties need to take a more serious view of Indian issues. "Neither the Democrats or Republicans were at the Civil Rights hearing. They need to begin articulating the questions and talking about them. Many legislators in this state don't even understand Indian gaming."

Pommersheim said the state needs to establish a blue ribbon committee on state-tribal relations. "This report could cover the history, the projected problems and offer suggestions on how to solve problems." We need to have a study to take us into the 21st century. It would be a powerful educational tool."

He told listeners he had seen reconciliation efforts coming from the Indian side.

"It is important as non-Indians to duplicate those efforts and move forward. If non-Indians see something in the Civil Rights commission, they need to let the commission know. If we don't when the report is off the front page, it will be off our minds and back to business as usual."