SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - A federal commission on civil rights said it hopes that its 15 recommendations are at least a good start in fixing racial strife in South Dakota and northern Nebraska.
In its report, entitled Native Americans in South Dakota: An Erosion of Confidence in the Justice System, developed from a meeting Dec. 6, 1999, in Rapid City, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights outlined a wide array of problems from different sources.
The federal commission, along with its South Dakota advisory committee, held a press conference at the Sioux Falls Convention Center March 28 to discuss its findings, many of which members admitted were disturbing.
We have heard from panels of government officials, then we heard from Native Americans, and the problems they've had, said Cruz Reynoso, a University of California at Los Angeles law professor and vice chairman for the commission. The racial divide, he said, is extreme.
The stories were more intense, more different in South Dakota than in Los Angeles or New York, said Reynoso. (I've) not been in an area where the divide (between American Indians and whites) seems to be as great. Suspicion has been more intense here than I have seen in Los Angeles, New York, or Miami.
The overall theme of the report: There is a great divide, not only between the races, but also how the races perceive conditions in the state.
The expressed feelings of hopelessness and helplessness in Indian country cannot be overemphasized. There is a long-standing and pervasive belief among many Native Americans that racial discrimination permeates all aspects of life in South Dakota and that prejudice and bigotry play out on many levels, including the workplace, schools, business, and public accommodations, the report says. Despair is not too strong a word to characterize the emotional feelings of many Native Americans who believe they live in a hostile environment.
Among the concerns in the report are that:
Many Native Americans in South Dakota have little or no confidence in the criminal justice system and believe that the administration of justice at the Federal and State levels is permeated by racism;
The Federal Bureau of Investigation in Indian Country confronts significant problems resulting from lack of confidence by Native Americans in this agency, born of years of conflict, controversy, and bitter emotional confrontation;
At the State level, there is also a long history of distrust and a widespread perception that state and local law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, and the courts have not treated Native Americans in an equitable manner;
There is an absence of civil rights organizations and civilian oversight mechanisms to address grievances involving police conduct and other criminal justice discrimination;
Federal and state civil rights oversight in South Dakota is limited. There are no federal civil rights agencies in the state, and discrimination issues requiring federal attention most often must be handled by regional offices out of state or in Washington, D.C.;
Because of the much broader federal jurisdiction applicable to crimes committed by Native Americans in Indian country, disparate sentencing ? with more severe punishment for Native Americans ? may result;
Data collection and reporting systems in the criminal justice system are insufficient to provide an adequate basis for determining the extent of discrimination;
Native Americans are underrepresented in the employment of all institutions involved in the administration of justice, at the federal, state, and local levels;
Tribal court systems and tribal law enforcement agencies receive insufficient training, technical assistance, and funding from the federal government;
Jurisdictional issues involving the administration of justice for Native Americans in South Dakota are often complex, confusing, and misunderstood;
Native Americans do not fully participate in local, state, and federal elections. This absence from the electoral process results in a lack of political representation at all levels of government and helps to ensure the continued neglect and inattention to issues of disparity and inequality;
The town of White Clay, Nebraska, has become a symbol of oppression and exploitation for many Native Americans. Because so many criminal justice problems involve alcohol, many American Indian leaders believe that White Clay represents a threat to the well-being of their people. In addition, there are few, if any, detoxification centers or other alcohol treatment facilities available in this region;
There appears to be limited legal resources available for Native Americans in South Dakota. The key to solving these concerns, said the commission, is communication. Of the 15 recommendations, among the perhaps most important are ways to open up dialogue between local, state, and federal officials and both the Indian and white populations of South Dakota and Nebraska.
Mary Frances Berry, chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said many of the recommendations are designed to get people talking to one another.
Recommendations include the U.S. Attorney General's office create a federal task force to focus on the crisis of law enforcement toward American Indians. The report also recommends that a joint state task force, with member appointed by South Dakota and Nebraska's governors, play a part as well.
The commitment for change must be secured from appropriate political leadership in Washington, D.C., and much more importantly, in South Dakota. This will not occur without a recognition that a crisis exists and that Native Americans have lost confidence in our justice system, the report says.
Federal and state officials must reach out to the many alienated American Indians whose people have borne the brunt of governmental neglect, indifference, and sometimes hostile treatment over many generations. In the report, the commission recommends:
The U.S. Attorney General be called to immediately appoint a Federal Task Force, conferring upon it the full force of the law (including subpoena power) to address the crisis of law enforcement affecting Native Americans, both on and off Indian reservations. Its focus should be on equal protection of the laws and civil rights protections;
The FBI and other Department of Justice divisions that serve Native Americans should expand their efforts to recruit Native Americans at all levels of employment, including law enforcement and management positions;
The departments of Justice and Interior should expand their efforts to provide funding, training, and technical assistance to tribal courts and tribal law enforcement;
(Renewal of) its 1981 recommendation calling for the U.S. Department of Justice to reconstitute an Indian section within the Civil Rights Division. It is imperative that there be a component within the Civil Rights Division;
Hate crimes prevention legislation needs to be enacted at the state level and strengthened at the federal level to respond th egregious crimes involving racial bigotry;
Research should be conducted to determine whether there is bias in the operation of the Federal and State court systems, and all other significant components of the federal and state law enforcement and prosecution functions;
Data collection procedures should be improved at all levels of the criminal justice system to ensure an adequate basis for determining equity, fairness, and consistency in the application of the law;
Racial tensions in South Dakota are high and require the careful attention of federal civil rights officials. The Community Relations Service of the Department of Justice is uniquely equipped to assist communities in resolving these problems, and in promoting racial dialogue, mediation, conciliation, and conflict resolution. The commission should request that the Department of Justice immediately assign a professional, experienced mediator from the Community Relations Service to provide these services full time to communities in South Dakota;
Tribal and Native American organizations should expand voter registration and educational efforts, and promote Native American candidates for elective office in South Dakota;
The state of South Dakota must initiate steps to build cooperation with its Native American citizens. Meaningful and constructive dialogue must be established to accomplish this objective;
The State of South Dakota should expand the authority and resources of its Human Rights Commission to include more educational, enforcement, and mediation services;
The State of South Dakota should establish a statewide public defender program with adequate staffing and funding resources;
Tribal governments should consider establishing civil rights offices to assist their constituents in seeking redress for discrimination problems. These offices could serve as referral agencies for complaints and as clearinghouses for information on discrimination;
Alcohol treatment facilities, rehabilitation programs, and detoxification centers need to be established and expanded in South Dakota. Federal, state, tribal, and local governments should work together to expand these programs - and encourages the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to revisit discrimination issues affecting Native Americans. These conclusions were reached in studies conducted at least 20 years ago. The issues deserve reexamination, especially in light of the extensive and disturbing testimony received by the Advisory Committee at its December 1999 forum.
Berry said she herself has talked to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and FBI Director Louis Freeh about the report. She said that she was planning to meet with South Dakota Governor Bill Janklow within the week to discuss the report and things that can be done to improve relations between South Dakota and its Indian population. She could not speculate on how the meeting would go.
Even in this state, I had people say to me, ?Why (talk to the governor)? The governor isn't going to do anything.' There is a widespread belief that the governor won't do anything.
I don't know if it's true or not. It's the perception, Berry said.
Other than recommend actions, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights really can't do much else. It has no expressed enforcement powers. It is designed to uncover problems and recommend a course of action to alleviate those problems. However, Berry said, federal officials are mandated to follow the recommendations. More than 20 years ago, the same federal commission, of which she was vice chairwoman, made similar recommendations, few if of which any were carried out. She said that this time it will be different.
Very often recommendations aren't done because they say there is no resources. I am determined that this time something will be done. If we have to do it ourselves, then we have to do it ourselves, Berry said.
We're already actively pursuing the recommendations we have here. The hope is at this time the report will illicit a response.
That response, Berry said, will hopefully come not only from the local, state and federal agencies, but of the citizenry of South Dakota. She said that personally, she hopes the white people in South Dakota try to educate other whites in this state, to take it up as a great cause, as a great crusade.
We will do what we can. (But) on the ground the work must be done. Berry herself couldn't guarantee change in Indian country, but only to help implement change.
I have a personal conviction in trying to respond to the recommendations. Whatever happens on the ground depends on the people on the ground. It depends on how the people of South Dakota respond.
My conviction is not that something will change. I can't make that promise, Reynoso said, adding there should be more communication from the FBI on the status of continuing investigations. Emphasizing the need for quick and appropriate response by the FBI, he also criticized the FBI for not conducting investigations to the extent its abilities.
Regrettably there is still a sense that the FBI (has had) slow response to investigating the deaths. If early on in the investigations, had they put in the effort, perhaps a resolution would have been more timely, he said. Reynoso also criticized the state and communities of South Dakota for not doing as much as they could to bring civil rights to light.
There are few organizations in this state that have as a concern the civil rights of the people of the state, Reynoso said. It is the responsibility of the citizens and government to get together on their own to try to reach a sense of community, he said.
At a very community citizenship level, a lot more needs to be done, Reynoso said. These are difficult problems that take time to resolve.
It depends on how we as a society respond to the needs.
It takes a lot of work and dedication to society and with the Indian nation itself. I don't think we can afford as a society, and look at this in five to 10 years from now to see (the same) battles in Indian country. Nor can we afford in five to 10 years to have no improvement.
Elsie Meeks, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the first American Indian to serve on the commission, agreed with the need for communication.
There is no forum for Native Americans in South Dakota to really let their views be heard. People needed to be heard.
She said she agrees with the recommendation for a federal task force. There really is very little information about how Native Americans are treated in the justice system.
I think our purpose in doing this was to shed light (on the issue). I cannot express enough the importance of this commission. By preparing for battle rather than finding common ground we divide ourselves much further,Meeks said.
The report itself is a good start. sheds some light on some issues. (It) should compel the effected agencies with help from the media, she said.
There's always going to be injustices and we're not going (to be able) to fix all of them. But it's a big step in the right direction.
Some feel injustices are continuing despite words and recommendations from the commission. Alfred Bone Shirt and several others made the trek from the Rosebud Reservation to bring to light what they feel is the real issue: Ethnic cleansing.
At the end of the press conference, they held up a banner signed by President Clinton, stating, Stop Lakota Ethnic Cleansing.
Clinton signed this, so this is in his mind. Maybe he wants to make amends, Bone Shirt said. It was in his mind. The president of the United States of America is fully aware that ethnic cleansing fully exists.
Bone Shirt said Gov. Janklow is a guilty party in the ethnic cleansing of the Lakota people. Somewhere down the road he should be tried for war crimes.
It's been a coverup. He's a lawyer, a member of society. I think the whole judicial system in South Dakota does what he says. He's a known Indian hater.
It (ethnic cleansing) exists here. In Roberts County, in Walworth County, in Rapid City, in White Clay, Neb. If these were white people, they would have pulled out all the stops. The U.S. would be in an uproar over so many deaths. In my mind it's ethnic cleansing because they go white-washing it. It's all a racial issue, said Bone Shirt.
The good people of America and the people of the conscience in the world, they need to ensure that investigators, not the FBI - people are afraid of the FBI - what we need is private investigators. We need lawyers, he said.