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Court settlement gives county control to reservation

FORT THOMPSON, S.D. - The majority population of Buffalo county will now have a say in how the county is run, thanks to a court settlement.

For the first time in decades, Buffalo county could be under the control of the large number of American Indians that populate the county. The Crow Creek Reservation is largely in Buffalo county. It is the poorest county in the United States.

"We consider this a great victory for the residents of the Crow Creek Reservation. Their rights to a voice in their county government have long been denied and by this decree are finally being acknowledged," said Jennifer Ring, executive director ACLU of the Dakotas.

A lawsuit filed in March 2003 stated that county redistricting had not taken place for decades. The process should happen every 10 years, following the census results.

"The districts for county commissioners were unequal. All Indians were placed in one district, the other two controlled by whites," said Bryan Sells, staff attorney for the ACLU.

The ACLU filed the suit on behalf of plaintiffs of the Crow Creek tribe. The lead plaintiff is Crystal Kirkie.

Sells said there are 2,200 people in the county and 1,700 of them were in one district, the one which has a population of 83 to 85 percent American Indian. There were 30 in one district and 100 in another, "everyone was white," Sells said.

It was evident the commissioners liked the way things were and ignored the requirement of redistricting. If the districts are drawn according to the plaintiff's plan, all three districts could be headed by American Indian commissioners.

"After the next election all the commissioners will be tribal members," said Duane Big Eagle, chairman of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe.

In the new drawing the highest district will have 90 percent American Indian and the lowest, 65 percent.

Even with the high American Indian population in the districts there is no guarantee that an American Indian will be elected. Sells said there is a history of low voter turnout among the American Indian population. "I don't know how the voter turnout will be this time."

South Dakota has become known as a leader in American Indian voters, especially in the 2000 and 2002 general elections. Voter organizations on all reservations are now working to increase that voter turnout for a primary election on June 1 to elect a replacement for Rep. William Janklow, who resigned his seat in Congress following a felony conviction for manslaughter.

Another part of the settlement makes sure that election polls are located where they are more accessible to American Indian voters. Also election postings are required to be placed where American Indian voters are most likely to see them. Under state law it is not required to publish election notices where the American Indian population might see it.

"This is to make sure they have access," Sells said.

The settlement requires a special election to be held for two of the three seats this year. A third seat term is up in November, the other two would not have expired until 2007.

A final requirement of the settlement was to authorize federal officers to monitor the special election process.

"I hope other cities and counties and school boards get the message. If they have not redistricted in 2002 they should think about complying.

"Court expenses are not a good use of taxpayer's dollars, they could be used for roads and schools," Sells said.