Committee wants to move on civil rights

PIERRE, S.D. - A state legislative committee was more interested in how a civil rights forum and report was generated than in its content, but heard about the content anyway during a public meeting.

State Sen. Robert Benson, R-Clearfield, chairman of the State-Tribal Relations Committee, told committee members and the public that his committee did not take a stand on the recent report on race issued by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He said he wanted to find out about the process.

The December public forum in Rapid City, and the subsequent report, was triggered by high-profile issues in the state involving deaths and investigations, said David Volk, state director of consumer affairs and a member of the state Civil Rights Advisory committee. He is the only member who did not approve the report.

He said a report was issued in 1977 about race relations and many of the same issues were repeated in 1999.

Elsie Meeks, the only American Indian member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said the South Dakota advisory committee asked the commission to look into potential racial inequities within the justice system. Thus the commission wanted to hear accounts about that system as it related to American Indians in South Dakota.

"People believed Native Americans were not treated fairly. It was not a legal proceeding where people are under oath. For me, I believe the purpose of the report was to begin a dialogue and bring people to the table. I don't expect everyone to agree with every aspect of the report. I see it as a vehicle to get people together to discuss the perceptions that exist."

The Dec. 9 meeting, a forum where no witnesses were sworn in, has become controversial and characterized as garbage by Gov. Bill Janklow. One of the main criticism is that only one day was set aside for testimony.

"I think the commission and everybody involved agreed that a one-day meeting was not enough to learn everything about issues affecting Native Americans. But it was a starting point," Meeks said.

"Race issues are tough issues to confront, not easy to quantify, and not easy to solve."

State Rep. Bill Napoli, R-Rapid City, said the report would have a long-lasting impact on the state, it had the effect of polarizing the state.

John Dulles, director of the Rocky Mountain regional office of Civil Rights, told the committee that more than one day's work went into the report and added he stands by the report, despite a commitment to get it out quickly.

"The testimony was so consistent and so overwhelming that one more day would not have changed the result." Dulles said that during public testimony, staff people interviewed people in private and those interviews created transcribed testimony at least one and one-half feet high.

"Reports have had a dramatic impact throughout the country. People take the process very seriously and are proud of the work," Dulles said.

"If I felt this was the product of one day, I would not be comfortable, but I know it was not the product of one day."

Since the civil rights commission works on limited funding, Napoli said he worried this could short change the commission's work in South Dakota. More funding could have given the commission more time, he said.

"The resources are not enough, but these are qualified people. These are reasonable people that deduced there were problems of racism in South Dakota," said state Sen. Paul Valandra, D-Rosebud.

Chairman Benson said there are things in the state people are not proud of, but "we should continue the dialogue about cooperation. I hope the dialogue continues and that if there are perceptions then change the perceptions."

Meeks said the forum was conducted in South Dakota because of many things that happened in the state during the summer of 1999. In Mobridge a young man, Robert "Boo" Many Horses, was found dead in a garbage can. A judge dismissed charges and four non-Indian youths have yet to be charged with anything.

In Rapid City, a series of deaths along Rapid Creek that have not been solved and two deaths on the southern border of the Pine Ridge Reservation that have not been solved, added to a reason for the commission forum in Rapid City.

But the report, critics claim, is nothing more than stories that can not be substantiated. The biggest critic is Janklow. He continues to strongly criticize the report and he told the tribal-state committee members it could be perceived to be a "con."

Because commission rules were waived and the commissioners given only10 days to review the report, "some of us could get the perception that it was a rush job. That may not be true, but we could get that perception," the governor said.

" ... a perception that 10 days of review could be a rush job and that someone was not interested in getting the facts, but were interested in the publicity. That's not the reality, but it could be a perception."

Members of the state advisory commission are volunteers. Janklow said one of his staff members asked to get their phone numbers and was told by Dulles that was privileged information. Janklow referred to the members as those "magnificent volunteers."

Janklow also said people could get the perception the commission was trying to make trouble for Republican governors, because there are hearings and forums that have and will take place in Texas also. "That's not the reality, but it's a perception."

Janklow also brought up the fact that in South Dakota non-Indian people can be terminated from jobs with tribal governments and that tribal members do not have the right to a court-appointed attorney when appearing in tribal court.

"Racism is a two-way street," he said. "It's many faceted. It comes from a lot of people."

He added that the report gave the perception of being more publicity than subtantive. "It's not right of course, but one would get that perception."

He said the commission should come back to the state and "do its work." He has repeatedly stated he only deals in facts and wants the commission to present facts that can be dealt with.

"South Dakota is being duped. This is being shoved down our throats."

To emphasize the comments and information the U.S. commission receives, Dulles read a letter from the chairman of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, William Kindle. The letter asked the commission to help to change race relations.

Janklow said the letter was nothing but generalities and "bald faced accusations. Just because it is an elected official - so what. Let's deal in facts."

State Sen. Ron Volesky, D-Huron, suggested the committee develop a task force made of a cross-section of people from throughout the state to look into race relations. "Get beyond the rhetoric and procedures. Take the report and find out how we can establish something to get to the facts.

"The question is, is there racism in the justice system? Let's get to the facts," Volesky said.

In other business the legislative committee decided to focus on development of nursing and assisted-living facilities on the reservations. Benson said he would like the committee to bring the federal government into the picture and set up and operate the facilities on the reservations. The state has had a moratorium on new nursing facilities on reservations for some years.