Federal motives questioned in hearing on new BIA law enforcement plan


Part two

WASHINGTON - A hearing on law enforcement in Indian country June 19 made lack of funding and resources its major theme, but a secondary motif emerged in comments that cast doubt on federal motives for enforcing law and order in Indian country.

Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman Ron His Horse Is Thunder, in a seeming aside while answering questions on his written testimony, took note of great events that stretch from Sitting Bull's last residence on the Grand River to Wounded Knee, where the 7th Cavalry's automatic weapons blew hundreds of Indian men, women and children to smoke that could still be smelled in the winter-clear prairie air next morning, some 90 miles away on Rosebud.

But on Standing Rock Hunkpapa lands, straddling the border of what is now North and South Dakota, local law enforcement stole a march on the cavalry.

''The most law enforcement officers Standing Rock ever had is in 1890,'' His Horse Is Thunder told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. ''We had 45 law enforcement officers on the reservation. As soon as they arrested and killed Sitting Bull, then the number of law enforcement officers started to dwindle on our reservation, to the point where we now only have 10.''

The BIA's Operation Dakota Peacekeepers, rotating three separate 20-officer teams onto the reservation for one month apiece, has made a world of difference, according to His Horse Is Thunder, on the reservation, whose administrative center is in the home state of Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

But Pat Ragsdale, director of the Office of Justice Services for the BIA within the Department of the Interior, said Dakota Peacekeepers will be difficult to sustain after three months.

''The bureau works with very limited resources. There is a system that we have to abide by. ... And we have been working very hard to try to streamline the bureaucracy so that we can hire people. But even the personnel resources that we have available to us to focus on law enforcement issues are very limited.''

Dorgan took the occasion to continue his campaign for more realistic budget requests from the federal agencies serving Indian country. ''You know,'' he replied, ''this limited resources thing, I don't hear anybody coming to these [witness] tables from the BIA saying, 'Look, we've got a crisis going on here, there are people dying, there are people being raped, victims of sexual assault.' ...

''But the notion of not enough resources - I understand that, I believe that's the case. I'd like somebody to come to the table who runs the BIA ... that says, 'By God, we need more money to save lives and to help people.' Nobody ever does that, because the requirement is to come to this table and support the [presidential] administration's budget. The last person who came to this table and said, 'I don't agree, we need more resources,' got fired the next morning - the very next morning.''

[Dorgan spokesmen denied that the reference was to Carl Artman, former head of the BIA.]

Ragsdale offered himself as a straight talker.

''I am not trying to varnish over the truth as far as public safety in Indian country. It's a national disgrace.''

Dorgan said, ''I hope you're all right tomorrow morning, then.''

At the outset of Gretchen C.F. Shappert's testimony, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., threw her a figurative bouquet of roses from the committee dais, praising her long hours, hard work and dedication. For a while, it appeared that Shappert, U.S. attorney for the Department of Justice's Western District of North Carolina, would get to throw it right back as she offered a litany of statistics and fine points of interpretation describing ''the overall successes of my colleagues in the U.S. attorney community and the [DoJ] generally.''

But Dorgan asked about ''declinations,'' the number of investigation requests from Indian law enforcement that U.S. attorney offices have turned down. The issue has been highly controversial since DoJ's firing of five U.S. attorneys with a known commitment to Indian country.

Shappert said the DoJ does not have Indian-specific statistics for declinations.

Retired FBI agent Walter Lamar, Blackfeet/Wichita and founder of the Lamar Associates security consultancy in Washington and Albuquerque, N.M., said that in his time at the FBI, statistics on declinations could be obtained at the push of a few buttons. Not being Indian-specific, they wouldn't provide precise data; but by comparing the declinations in Indian-populous areas to declinations in similarly situated non-Indian rural areas, they could be manicured to provide a good inkling.

''Trust me,'' Lamar said after the hearing. ''They weren't able to give any idea on declinations, where they won't look good. But if they want to produce numbers to show themselves looking good, to back up their budget request - trust me, they'll come up with it. Guaranteed.''