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Lakota candidates take seats in Bennett County

MARTIN, S.D. - Bennett County, a hotbed of civil rights complaints about harassment of American Indians, is now a leading example of the power of the Native vote.

The county, bordering the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Reservations, replaced its incumbent non-Indian sheriff with Charley Cummings, Oglala Lakota, and elected Gerald Bettelyoun, Oglala Lakota, as a new county commissioner. Cummings beat incumbent Sheriff Russell Waterbury by only 72 votes.

Two other Lakota candidates had to drop out of their races because of the Hatch Act, which prevents any federal employee from holding an elected office. The candidates held jobs with Indian service agencies.

The grass roots political movement in Bennett County began in 1999, when scores of people testified at U.S. Civil Rights Commission hearings about abuse, harassment and profiling by local police officers.

Jesse Clausen, Oglala Lakota, a construction company owner, said an organization developed to get people registered and to the polls.

"We had problems with the sheriff," said Clausen. "When he got elected civil liberty problems started. Two deputies came to my house and searched the house for no reason. I have not had an apology. I found out that was happening to other people.

"There have been hundreds of illegal stops for the smallest of reasons," Clausen said.

Complaints to the Department of Justice produced meetings and mediations that accomplished nothing, Clausen said.

"There was a total lack of respect for the Native American Community. We were told by one deputy that if you don't start out aggressive they will run over the top of you," he said.

"The mayor and county commissioners promised to do something. They demanded a petition and we did that. The first thing they did was organize another meeting and I told them it was a bunch of b---s---. Talking was going nowhere. Eleven months later we went to the polls," Clausen said.

The count at the polls showed that around 750 American Indians voted in Martin.

Tribes and reservations from around the Great Plains are now calling Clausen to get the secret of the Bennett County success.

"We are now starting to talk about what to do two years from now," Clausen said. "We will take time to look for candidates. The Democrats came out three weeks before the election and scrambled. If we were a little more organized we could have doubled the number of voters."

After the Settlement Act of 1910, Bennett County was opened to non-Indian settlement and was governed by non-Indian residents even though a large number of American Indians lived in the county. Today, Clausen said, the county is 60 percent American Indian, but has been governed by non-Indians for decades.

People are getting so involved in the process that after the Nov. 5 general election voter registration continued.

"We are going to get respect. We should have enough respect to be listened to. Whether they like us or not they will have to listen to us. People are now more inclined to vote in non-tribal elections and more will show up in the future.

"The voter fraud issue that they used to try to scare the whites into voting didn't work," he said.

"We are now getting more attention."