RAPID CITY, S.D. - American Indian voters have found a voice and are
enjoying a newfound empowerment with success in local, statewide and
national elections, and they will not take attempts to shun them lightly.
Thus a lawsuit against the city of Martin, the heart of the
get-out-the-vote movement in South Dakota, claims redistricting maps were
redrawn to keep American Indian voters from gaining influence.
Cottier vs. Martin piggy backs another lawsuit, Boneshirt vs. Chris Nelson,
or the state of South Dakota. The Boneshirt case was filed to force
redistricting Districts 27 and 26 which encompass the Rosebud and Pine
Ridge reservations therefore stacking most American Indian voters into
special districts. A decision is expected soon.
What is central to the Martin case is the fact that American Indian
preference candidates for. city council, mayor and for county commission in
Bennett County, where Martin is located, have almost always lost. American
Indian witnesses claim they couldn't remember a single American Indian
preference candidate winning a city council seat; one mayoral candidate
won, but was forced out of office under allegations of corruption.
The city of Martin argues that three people currently on the city council
are American Indian, therefore any discrimination accusations are
unfounded. The tribal members who testified said they didn't consider two
of the people on the council as Indian and the other person Molly Risse,
who is American Indian was not a preferred candidate.
Plaintiffs argued and witnesses agreed that two of the council members
never mentioned Indian connections before the litigation was filed.
Pearl Cottier Bettleyoun, who acts as the lead plaintiff, testified that
since 1975 she has been involved with voting advocacy. "We hoped we could
make a difference."
Cottier Bettleyoun said there was "nothing but white people sitting at the
polls and you could feel the hatred. I'm not easily intimidated."
She and other witnesses testified that they know when American Indian
candidates run for office in the city of Martin the non-Indian voters turn
out in larger numbers.
In 2002, the largest get-out-the vote campaign was waged. Two American
Indian candidates in Bennett County won Democratic primary elections for
the privilege of appearing on the general ballot. The County Democratic
Chairman, Gary Nelson, allegedly brought up two opposing candidates and ran
them as independents, witnesses claimed.
"We intend to show that Martin is an integrated community where people have
fun, work and play and attend community functions together," said Sara
Frankenstein, attorney for the city of Martin.
"We will show a cohesive election, we will show discrimination does not
occur in Martin," she said in opening remarks.
Two voting rights experts who conducted studies in Bennett County and the
state testified that problems existed in Martin. The city of Martin argued
that the studies did not focus specifically on Martin, but took into
account the voting practices of the state and county.
Dr. Dan McCool, professor at the University of Utah, said some past state
voting laws showed a long pattern of racism even though there were some
efforts to overcome those laws there were numerous laws that "were overtly
racist," he said.
"There were numerous laws that limited American Indians to participate in
the process," McCool said.
He added that the racism and polarization had been going on for hundreds of
Martin, located in Bennett County between the Rosebud and Pine Ridge
reservations was opened for settlement by non-Indians in 1910 by an act of
Congress. Bennett County was originally part of the Pine Ridge Reservation
and today the LaCreek District covers the county and includes all Oglalas
living in the city of Martin.
McCool said the massacre of Wounded Knee in 1890, one year after South
Dakota became a state, is still remembered by the Lakota people and the
presence in the 1920s of the Ku Klux Klan instills bad memories. He said
one person he interviewed said the KKK is still active in the state, "but I
couldn't find evidence of that. It still mars the relationship between the
American Indians and the whites.
"A former Attorney General, (William) Janklow called the Civil Rights Act
A state law at one time stated that an American Indian couldn't vote unless
he or she was separated from the tribe. "That's a big price to pay for that
right," McCool said.
McCool's study encompassed the entire state, and Frankenstein pointed out
the study, which was rewritten for the Martin case was originally completed
for the Boneshirt case. She argued that data was not specific to the city
of Martin, to which McCool said the city of Martin lies within the county
and state and is subject to the laws and the voting patterns in the county
will reflect those of the city.
McCool said that poverty in Martin among the American Indians is a factor
in election participation. He said that 44 percent of tribal members and 50
percent of the children in Martin live in poverty. "Poverty makes it
difficult to participate," he said.
The defense challenged McCool on the resource material and interviews for
his report claiming that federal and statewide information did not apply to
Martin. McCool said his research in broader areas was valid because the
city of Martin was subject to the state and federal voting laws, which in
the case of the state, were discriminatory to American Indian voters.
"Martin is not an island, it is part of the political milieu," McCool said.
Another expert, Dr. Steven Cole of Research Design Associates, Inc.,
conducted exit polls during the 2002 election. That election was especially
contentious because of the sheriff race. American Indians wanted then
sheriff Russell Waterbury out of office who allegedly mistreated and
harassed American Indian residents.
Charles Cummings, an Oglala member won 94 percent of the county vote for
sheriff, but within the city of Martin he would have lost the election. The
defense used those figures to argue that the city of Martin voting patterns
were not the same as in the county.
The population of Bennett County is more than 60 percent American Indian,
the city has only 44 percent.
Cottier Bettleyoun, director of the Oglala Lakota College center in Martin
said enrollment declined while Waterbury was sheriff. She testified that
students were afraid to drive into Martin from the rural areas.
A movement to register voters happened as a result of Sheriff Waterbury's
actions and was started by a group called the LaCreek Civil Rights Group,
headed at the time by Craig Dillon, an Oglala tribal council member.
Dillon testified about marches that were held in Martin to protest the
actions of Sheriff Waterbury that were peaceful but had no effect. "The
town people were complacent. Some said to us to get over being mad and
things will go back to the way it was," he said.
Dillon's response to a defense attorney's question reflected Dillon's
opinion that when American Indians in Martin run for election the
non-Indians show up to vote against them.
The Martin trial will continue. The American Civil Liberties Union filed
the complaint against the city of Martin on behalf of the plaintiffs.