HURON, S.D. ? For the first time in history the American Indian population may have a friend in the state prosecutors' office who will listen and not quickly form adversarial relationships.
Ron Volesky, Lakota, was chosen by the Democratic Party to run for the seat of State Attorney General after losing a bid for governor in the primary election.
Volesky said the American Indian population in the state has faced litigation and hostile behavior from the state's top legal office and he plans to work with tribes to relieve that tension.
Past Attorneys General have litigated against tribes over jurisdictional issues, have initiated lawsuits to reduce the size of reservations and have actually proposed, in legal proceedings, to disestablish certain reservations altogether.
"I don't support that type of activity. There is a time to go to court, but I believe in negotiating disputes," Volesky said.
His opponent, current Deputy Attorney General Larry Long, said that sometimes mediation does not work and then the court should sort out the dispute.
"Litigation is a way to resolve the stuff. Tribes are trying to find out their limits of power and they draw a line in the dirt and say they have this much power," Long said. "The status quo for 100 years was that everyone believed the reservation was disestablished and then the tribe says they believe the state does not have the power to do what they are doing. In some cases concession is not a responsible thing to do."
He was referring to the lawsuit between the Yankton Sioux Tribe and a waste management company over a proposed landfill from 1996 that the state got involved in to resolve a reservation boundary issue.
Long said the state has a lot of agreement with the tribes, but he added that the problem is the tribe of state can pull out of those agreements at any time.
"The days of spending much-needed state resources to fight endless jurisdictional battles with tribal governments must end. I would work to begin a new era of cooperation between state and tribal government, based upon mutual respect for each of the sovereigns," Volesky said.
Even though tribal governments have tried to work with South Dakota government in a variety of areas there has been a degree of mistrust that has prevented mutual agreements, he added.
A large percentage of the American Indian population is familiar with the state prosecutor's office. Volesky wants to create an atmosphere where all parties can work together to reduce crime and social problems that mostly arise from poverty.
"While we fight those at the back end in the criminal justice system, we must also work to prevent them at the front end through education and economic development through job creation and allowing both Indian and non-Indian citizens to feel a sense of ownership and equal opportunity to participate in and benefit from our institutions in South Dakota," Volesky said in a press release.
One of the most voiced criticisms of South Dakota justice is racial profiling. Many American Indians have personal stories and most everyone knows of someone with a story about conflicts with law enforcement because of their cultural background.
"There is a high degree of misperception, a high degree of lack of understanding that got us to where we are today in Indian country. I think there is a perception of profiling that it is systematic and endemic and that it exists throughout the state. I don't believe that is true," Long said.
As a state senator, Volesky was the leader in authoring legislation that would curb any possible racial profiling. The bills were defeated in the legislature.
The two candidates agree that cameras in patrol cars will help to curb that activity by making the officers more accountable and providing assistance in prosecution or citizen complaints.
Long has been a long-time prosecutor in the state's Attorney General's office. He started his law career as a prosecutor in Bennett County, located on the Pine Ridge and the Rosebud Reservations. He has been directly involved with litigation against the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Telephone Authority and U.S. West after the state's Public Utilities Commission denied the authority the right to purchase three telephone exchanges from U.S. West in 1994.
Long was a prosecutor with the Rosebud Sioux Juvenile court, served as counsel to the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Election Board and as counsel for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Credit Committee. He wrote several titles for the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Code.
Volesky is leading in the polls, according to his campaign office. He said that the vote from the American Indian population is very important; he is campaigning on reservations and in urban areas.
Long, on the other hand, is a Republican and not a member of any tribe; he is concentrating most of his campaign efforts in the most populated region of the state, Sioux Falls and Minnehaha County, where 20 percent of the voters reside.
The state's American Indian population is 8.3 percent, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau's data.
"It is important that I get elected. For the people involved in tribal government the Attorney General affects them more than any other office," Volesky said.
The state Democratic Party has made an all out effort to register voters on the state's nine reservations and has sent state and federal candidates to those areas to campaign heavily.