Gene War Bonnet, police chief-philosopher


Gene War Bonnet often jokes about hotel clerks and restaurants offering him free rooms and food.

They see my name tag and they say, 'You can stay free, Mr. War Bonnet.' I tell them no, I will pay. They say it is an honor because the name is the War Bonnet Hotel, I say no to them again. It is my name.

War Bonnet often talks about how many places he has found over the years that share his last name. Each wants to give War Bonnet special treatment, but his name is an honor for him, not something he flaunts for gifts.

In his travels, War Bonnet found hundreds of businesses which carry his name, but working with his people is where he found the most personal satisfaction. He is the chief of police on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota where he is concentrating on building the best tribal police force in all of Indian country.

War Bonnet said he believes the first step toward that goal is setting priorities that will enhance the lives of those who live on the Rosebud Reservation.

I always look forward to seeing our tribe or any tribe to set their priorities ... but so far I have seen none. Cheyenne River don't have it, Lower Brule don't have it; no tribe has a priority goal set for their people. We have to set these priorities for what our goal is.

During a recent meeting at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan., War Bonnet reminisced about his early days in Indian law enforcement and growing up on the reservation.

His stories are a mix of humor and success with a moral for each. When the topic became alcohol and substance abuse in Indian country, War Bonnet remembered his grandfather's philosophy.

My grandpa, before he died, was talking about it when he went before the judge. The judge said, 'When are you ever going to quit drinking?' He said, 'When the white man quits making it. I'll quit drinking when the white-man quits making it.'

The judge asked him what he meant by that and he said, 'Because they make money off us.'

His grandfather was as good as his word, War Bonnet says. The white man didn't quit making it and he didn't quit drinking it. And to this day, they are making it and selling it to the Indian people. They are making more. They charge more near the reservation for wine than they do for whiskey.

War Bonnet understands that they aren't going to quit making it, but if the Indian people quit buying alcohol, it will end the profits liquor distributors and liquor stores get from Indian people. He made a choice not to put money in the pockets of those who profit off of Indian people by not drinking.

Our people didn't make it before the white man came, he said.

War Bonnet knows how rough it is for young people growing up on the reservation and remembered his own youth as hard and hungry.

His father later admitted to his children that he had even had to steal on occasion to put food on the table.

He said he had to go out and steal for us, his kids, on the reservation. There were 15 kids and my mom and dad. That made 17 of us. My dad told me he had to go out and steal chickens or anything else. That is why we talk like chickens, cluck, cluck, cluck. We would have a big pot of soup that would have to last three meals. He had 15 hungry chickens to feed! We were lucky if we had milk. He told us that. He stole things to feed us. It was hard.

War Bonnet attended the Haskell meeting because he believes education is the key to successful tribal police forces throughout the Indian country.

My father wanted us to have better than he had. He told us to go to college and become something.

It was his father's advice that pushed him to finish school and earn a degree. He sees education as not only a way out of poverty, but also a way for Indian police officers to improve conditions on reservations.

But War Bonnet added that education must be balanced with respect for tradition. He considers working for the people of Rosebud an honor and is not afraid to let those he meets know it.

He remembered applying for a job on another reservation and waiting with another candidate for the job for an interview. The young man complained that he wouldn't get the job because he had a college education. War Bonnet asked him what he said when he went in for the interview.

When the man told him everything he had said to the tribal council, War Bonnet just shook his head, I told him you don't just tell people something. You have to listen.