RAPID CITY, S.D. - In U.S. District court residents and city officials of
Martin, S.D. put their best foot forward and claimed that racial bias and
discrimination is not an issue in this small border town in Indian country.
The plaintiffs argued that American Indians in Martin vote as a group and
that preferred candidates are vetoed by non-Indian bloc voting.
The defense tried to show that many American Indian candidates and
preferred candidates were in fact elected to office. Witness after witness
testified that Martin is populated with mixed-race families; that
integration occurs in churches, social and business organizations and in
the work place.
"The whites and Native Americans get along fairly well," said Susan
Williams, Bennett County auditor. Wilson is an elected official and said
she received support from both racial groups.
Under cross-examination by Laughlin McDonald, attorney for the plaintiffs,
Williams was reminded that racial tension did exist. Protests did occur in
2002 over then Sheriff Russell Waterbury. In fact, a civil rights group was
formed in response to what was considered to be improper treatment of
American Indians by law enforcement. The city and county shared expenses
for law enforcement at the time.
In 2002 a major Get Out The Vote was organized in Bennett County and
Martin, with positive results that later turned sour.
To show that all is not Nirvana in Martin, the plaintiffs' attorneys
continually drew on witnesses' memories of past tension between the races.
"Related to what people say about Native Americans in a derogatory manner,
like they don't pay taxes, and whites say Indians have a hand out. The ACLU
is looked at in a derogatory manner, and the LaCreek Civil Rights Group,"
The LaCreek Civil Rights Group was formed when tensions were high over the
treatment of tribal members by Sheriff Waterbury. The group also ran a
successful Get Out The Vote campaign in 2002.
Rental housing owner Dale McDonald, who owns federally subsidized rental
property mostly rented by American Indians, made derogatory statements,
about American Indians on the stand and in pre-trial depositions. This
added fuel to the plaintiffs' argument that all is not as well in Martin as
people would like to believe.
"People felt some of the candidates were not qualified. Whites felt Sonny
Rough [candidate for county commission] didn't demonstrate he could handle
the job. He let cattle run on everyone else's property and there were
complaints about him over treatment of livestock.
"That's not a good way to run his own business, he can't run the county
business," McDonald said.
He said his rental property has 85 percent American Indian occupancy. But
when pressed by the plaintiffs' attorneys he admitted that American Indians
who live outside the city and own their ranches or farms have a different
viewpoint than those who live in town. "In the county they are largely in
business and they realize how they have to have a structured government. In
town some feel the same thing, but some in my apartment buildings live off
the government and don't understand the concept.
"People in my apartments are deceptive, ignorant and they lie to you all
the time," McDonald said.
Some witnesses testified that people who lived in Sunrise Housing, just to
the east of town, wanted to move into Martin because they would be freer
and treated fairly.
Witnesses said drugs and alcohol in Sunrise Housing created problems for
people, and they wanted to live in Martin.
Tension over culture occurred in the mid 1990s when a homecoming ceremony
at the high school depicted American Indians in a grotesque, stereotypical
manner, opponents claimed.
Many of the witnesses at the trial, some American Indian, who were either
in business in Martin or worked for the county or city government, said the
ceremony was OK and honored American Indians while teaching some of the
history. The ceremony was changed after protests occurred.
Marches took place in Martin to protest Sheriff Waterbury. Most defense
witnesses said they didn't either know what the marches were all about, or
offered information that indicated many American Indians didn't agree.
"During the boycott, we had Native Americans come in and tell us they were
unhappy about what was happening," said Joyce Wilson, co-owner of the
Martin Drug store. Wilson is an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe,
is married to a non-Indian and said she rarely participates in tribal
politics. Martin is part of LaCreek District of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
Wilson said she didn't agree with the protest march, and didn't know all
Defense witnesses collectively said that if there is any tension among the
races in Martin it is caused by outside agitators, such as the LaCreek
Civil Rights Group, and individuals like Jesse Claussen, a businessman,
president of the LaCreek Civil Rights Group and also president of the Pine
Ridge Chamber of Commerce. A resident of Martin, Robert Fogg, who lost a
bid for election to the city council as a preferred candidate by American
Indians was also considered an agitator. Both men were said to act in
intimidating ways toward people in Martin.
Claussen was accused of threatening to have lease property on the
reservation revoked if they didn't agree with the LaCreek Civil Rights
group list of candidates. Claussen denied he said that.
"This is not a case about discrimination," said defense attorney Sara
Frankenstein during closing arguments. She said there is no evidence that
affects American Indians' ability to vote. "Native Americans have been
voting and elected to offices since 1912." The county was formed in 1912
and the first commissioners were American Indian.
Many people used the terms, "us vs. them" in testimony. That fact was
referred to by the plaintiffs.
"Some people said they may have felt discrimination, but not hampered from
voting. We heard many people say they look at the human being not the race.
"We want to show the court that voting by race is a dangerous factor. It
moves us further from the goal where race no longer matters. Don't judge
this case by race, race is not the primary concern."