The Lakota belief that "life is a circle" is on full display in South Dakota, in the person of William - "Wild Bill" or "Cowboy Bill" to many American Indians - Janklow. The current Congressman and former four-term Governor of South Dakota has been convicted of second-degree manslaughter in the Aug. 16 vehicular death of Minnesota resident and Vietnam veteran Randy Scott. Janklow was also convicted of driving recklessly as he ignored a stop sign at a rural South Dakota intersection that he entered driving some 71 mph. Scott - who, unfortunately, entered the intersection at the same moment - collided with Janklow's Cadillac in what witnesses described as an "explosion" that tore the Minnesota farmer from his motorcycle and threw him into a nearby soybean field dead from major intestinal wounds.
To many South Dakotans, particularly the American Indian population, "Wild Bill" speeding through a stop sign came as no surprise. He'd been racing around the state's highways and byways for the better part of 30-plus years, and had the citations and accident record to prove it. That someone had to die in order to bring the seriousness of Janklow's blatant disregard of the law to light is, of course, a tragedy. Yet, even as the local media began to ask questions about this elected official's pompous behavior and attitude (his reputation for publicly joking about his affectation for speed was well documented), Janklow's supporters began their job of following the "three d's" - denial, downplay and distraction.
From Russ Janklow's references to his father's "need to speed" being a requirement of his public office, to Janklow's defense attorney arguing that his client was actually "only" going 64 mph when he went through the stop sign, to Janklow's own testimony that he "only" went through stop signs when he "had to," the world of "all things Bill are right" has been a difficult one to live in for many in this huge state that frequently acts more like one immense, small town.
And it's that small town politics mentality that pervades so many aspects of life here and which has fed Janklow's position for so many years. But maybe ? just maybe ? the people of this state are ready to move out of their immense small town and into the global world around them - or, at least, into the rest of mainstream America.
There's no doubt that the small-town jury that convicted Janklow deserves praise for the courage of their decision. Nor has their action passed by the local American Indian population unnoticed. As one grassroots Lakota leader put it, "it's nice to see that he's finally paying for some of the things that he's done wrong." Without a doubt, convicting a man in Janklow's position with Janklow's political clout (which, as in any small town, can tend to sway those who stand in one's way) was an enormous step in the right direction - especially in a state where the U.S. Civil Rights Commission has already determined criminal justice inequities exist between American Indians and non-Indians. But conviction, as significant as that is, is only half the battle. The real test of South Dakota's resolve will come on Jan. 20, when Congressman Janklow (who has resigned his position effective that date) is sentenced for taking the life of another human being. And it is that date which American Indians in this state are focusing on and concerned about, and rightfully so.
If South Dakota Public Radio's daily call-in show "South Dakota Forum" is any indication, Janklow's constituents are mostly in favor of his conviction. But there is still a substantial base of South Dakotans who feel that Janklow is the victim here, and criticize all those who are gloating over his conviction. But such is frequently the case with those who live under a regime of strict control and double-standards for so long. When emancipation looms on the horizon, and the weight of subjugation (in this case, from the small town politics of the "good ol' boy network) appears on the verge of eradication, a sense of joyous fulfillment is only natural - haven't we praised the same reaction from those the U.S. has "liberated" from the yoke of oppression in Iraq?
It's true that hearing one "Janklow critical" call to the Forum radio show "cut-off" (presumably due to a bad connection), and another later caller who questioned radio censorship and the earlier "cut-off" call also "disconnected," might lead one to believe that the "good ol' boy" network in the state hasn't quite disappeared. But, fortunately, no one from South Dakota Public Radio will be sitting on the bench on Jan. 20, when Janklow is sentenced. Indian and non-Indian residents of this state are looking forward to that day, trusting that Judge Rodney Steele will show the same courage under fire that 12 "small town" jurors did when they judged a man for what he did, not for who he was.
Jim Kent is a freelance writer and radio journalist who is regularly heard on National Native News Radio and Free Speech Radio News. He lives in Hot Springs, S.D.