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Forum focuses on abuse, racial profiling, lack of state leadership

YANKTON, S.D. - The treatment of Native Americans in South Dakota was a key issue discussed by observers and a state representative campaigning for 2002 governor's seat at a forum sponsored by the South Dakota Peace and Justice Center here.

More than 30 people gathered April 3 at a small caf? to hear how racism continues to plague American Indian people on a daily basis.

Tessa Lehto told the group she witnesses many events that stun her as she encounters the mistreatment of tribal members in South Dakota's communities. Lehto is editor of the Yankton Sioux Messenger, the paper owned by the Yankton Sioux Tribe.

"I can say from my own experience that Indians in this state are treated horribly at restaurants, grocery stores and especially by the police," she said.

Lehto said she has a rare view of even the smallest instances of prejudice because she is the lone, non-Indian working at the tribal newspaper and her significant other is a Native American man. She said she is still surprised by prejudicial reactions she sees as they travel.

Some people make derogatory comments or are simply rude to tribal people while other incidents are much more pronounced as tribal members recount abuses by law enforcement, she said. Racial profiling is the issue that made its way to the legislature in proposed measures designed to protect civil rights.

Events in Wagner fueled unrest among tribal members fed up with the mistreatment of their friends and relatives and eventually forced the city's police chief out of his position, she said, adding that tribal members remain wary of small-town law enforcement.

"You know there are a lot of Indians who are being picked up. The police chief actually admitted he ran a wants and warrants record on every Indian he saw."

A court decision that allowed a redefinition of the Yankton boundaries permitted police in the nearby towns to serve nearly 500 outstanding warrants issued before the ruling. Lehto said police began stopping vehicles for a number of reasons - few of them actual traffic infractions or commission of a crime.

Instead, she said, if police believed tribal residents were in the vehicles, they were stopped. Tribal members reported that warrants checks were made not just for the driver, but all of the passengers. They said they heard the names of some of their relatives on radios during the checks, she said.

"They would stop Indian cars for anything. The most common reason is obstruction," illegal objects hanging from a rearview mirror," she said.

More alarming were the cases of more serious abuses. Lehto recounted the case of an 11-year-old boy choked by a white police officer in front of witnesses at a park in Lake Andes. An all-white jury found the officer innocent of simple assault.

She spoke of police brutality against a mentally challenged tribal member and its impact on tribal people. "It happens every day. It's mind-boggling that this continues in this day and age. And what goes on in this state."

The weekly editor said she and her mate were denied service at a restaurant in Gregory. They walked in and sat down, preparing to order. After waiting for some time, her mate suggested they leave as it seemed obvious the waitress wasn't going to serve their table. Two white customers came in and were served before Lehto and her mate were even approached.

Lehto said she was excited when a racial profiling bill was introduced, but progress is slow.

State Sen. Ron Volesky, D-Huron, a trial lawyer who has served in the Legislature for more than a decade, introduced a bill during the last session requiring law enforcement agencies to collect better statistical data to help determine if racial profiling is taking place. The bill was defeated.

The Standing Rock Sioux tribal member, already laying the groundwork for his 2002 gubernatorial bid, said the state wouldn't have racial profiling legislation as long as Bill Janklow is governor.

"I was encouraged that maybe we could do something with regard to racial profiling this year in the Legislature," he said. "The majority (Republican) party acted like this was some kind of legislation from Mars."

South Dakotans have nothing to fear from a racial profiling bill, he said. Instead, it would mandate that law enforcement follow a uniform code of conduct while enforcing the law.

"We want people to know whether you're rich, poor, black, white or red, you're going to be treated equally," Volesky said.

He said the real problem is when someone is pulled over but no ticket is issued. Volesky said tribal members are easily spotted with tribal plates on vehicles and he admitted the numerical system on state license plates serves as an identifier for potential racial profiling.

Some tribal members are afraid to buy tribal plates for fear they will be targeted, he said.

"When (the police) find nothing, they record nothing. Why should you be stopped if you've done nothing wrong?"

Volesky vowed he would reintroduce the bill in the next session. "We need to pass legislation in the state against racial profiling."

In the interim, Volesky said other issues need attention, including reforms in the juvenile corrections system, health insurance for the medically uninsurable and scholarships that once were available to outstanding students from the state.

"We can make it better for everybody. Not divide and conquer or make it better for just a few."

Volesky said the state's failure to have the juvenile corrections system evaluated by an independent source was a failure in leadership that leaves parents fearing for their children.

"Why should our government fear a disinterested, third party looking at our juvenile justice system and making recommendations? I deal with them and I deal with their parents. They are terrorized at the fact they are dealing with the Department of Corrections."

He said one of the most troubling issues is that parents and the children sent into the system have no clue when the youths will be eligible for release.

"A child under 18 can be there until he or she is 21. Children have become political objects."

Admitting he was a juvenile delinquent, Volesky called for a greater investment in counseling, treatment, job training and mentoring programs to help troubled youth.

Just one person can make a difference. Volesky said his life turned around when a counselor began to mentor him and encouraged him to seek his career in law.

Volesky questioned why a cement plant valued at $252 million was sold for $172 million, saying the state had billed it as a state-of-the-art operation until it came to time to sell it when it was billed as "an outdated piece of junk."

"I support Rep. Bill Napoli, R-Rapid City, who is saying that deal needs to be audited because there's millions of dollars that fell through the cracks somewhere," the Huron lawyer said.

The cement plant sale came with huge reserves of limestone deposits good for at least 150 years and he speculated the deposits had more to do with the sale than the plant itself.

"It seems the emphasis in government for the last 24 years has been, 'How can we grease the wheels so some corporation can come into South Dakota and pay sub-standard wages and give sub-standard benefits so we can say we brought another corporation into the state?'

"The only way to make progress on these issues, I believe, is to elect a Democratic governor," he said.

"I firmly believe in 2002 there is going to be a tremendous turnaround in the state of South Dakota. There is going to be a revolution at the polls. I strongly believe the people in South Dakota have had enough. I believe they are going to come out in droves in November."