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Story Publication logo March 12, 2015

New Justice Center: A Beacon of Hope for Oglala Sioux Amid Complex Challenges

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The seat of the tribal government in Pine Ridge. Image by William Plews-Ogan. United States, 2014.

In the dead of a relatively warm winter, snow still clutters the crevassed plains here on Oglala Sioux lands, darkening into grainy slush as it nears the modest center of Pine Ridge. Trailer homes line the road into this tiny town, their feeble tin sheet roofs held fast by old tires. A steady stream of walkers shuffle down the shoulders of Route 18. Some are disabled and in wheelchairs; some are walking to Whiteclay, Nebraska, where alcohol is legal.

Pine Ridge, South Dakota, seems not to be a sleepy town, but a tired town—tired of poverty, tired of crime, tired of early mortality, and tired being the token counter-example to the thriving Native American nation. The reservation lies in one of the two poorest counties in the United States. The average life expectancy on Pine Ridge is decades lower than in surrounding states.

But there is a new beacon of hope in this bleak landscape—a sign of progress for many who have grappled with the many entrenched challenges facing the town and the Oglala Sioux overall.

Just hundreds of feet from the border with Nebraska, a broad, bold sign with white lettering in English identifies a new landmark on the reservation: "Justice Center for the People."

At the bay window entry of the roughly 93,000 square foot circular structure, the same sign in Lakota reads, "Oyate Ki Woope Ogna Tipi." Here, visitors are welcomed to the roughly $42.2 million facility, which will house new courtrooms, a short-term correctional holding facility, offices for law enforcement and justice officials, and a "peacemaking" room for family and group disputes.

"It was a building that we had been waiting for…for me, since 1982," says former chief of police and current tribal representative Ron Duke. "A lot of people have gone to the spirit world who have pushed for this, who have had a hand in building this...It's a big stepping stone, an awesome building, and I think everyone that comes through here sees the potential for this."

What will become usual business here after the official ribbon-cutting this spring is hardly the usual hallmark of prosper and promise. Some tribal members will arrive to simply see the new building; but others will arrive more solemnly to report for a court date, help a family member post a long-awaited bail for illegal drinking on the reservation, or register as a sex offender.

But if a new justice center is not the most auspicious of beacons, for the Oglala Sioux Department of Public Safety officials still unpacking boxes in the new center, the building represents tangible, measured hope for the future of a proud tribe.

Chief Duke started work in law enforcement here over 30 years ago in a condemned complex of buildings that includes the Moses Tumu courthouse and the Pine Ridge Correctional Facility just a couple of miles down the road. Heat and plumbing were sporadic in the Attorney General's office. Some officials had desks in hallways. Others were stationed in trailers outside the new complex. The new center is a "one-stop shop;" new courtrooms for arraignment procedures are now a short walk away from a 144-bed correctional facility.

"[Before,] we had four judges trying to share one courtroom," says Kevin Yellow Bird Steele, spokesman for the Tribal Council. "We had a backlog…everything was so far apart; and now," he says, "it's all in one location."

Although authorities like Duke have been hoping for a new facility since the 1980s, this most recent push for a justice center began in earnest in the mid-2000s, says Monica Terkildsen, who manages grants and contracts for the tribe's Department of Public Safety. In 2009, the US Bureau of Indian Affairs began funding the project, and it was completed in August of 2014. The tribe now receives grants from the Department of Justice and the Office of Justice Services for maintenance.

"It's the first ever contract where a tribe has gotten full funding and has hired our own design company, our own architect and engineering firm—the first tribe ever," Terkildsen says.

Richard Jensen, a veteran Oglala police training official of 10 years, as well as a veteran of the US military, describes the building as something like a cultural mantle passed down from more experienced public servants such as Duke.

"To see something like this building actually come to life—I think it gives [Chief Duke] an extreme sense of hope that people like me will carry on not only the traditions of what we've learned here in this culture, but implement those into this building and what transpires from this point on," Jensen says.


Standing just hundreds of yards from the Nebraska border, the center appears to aesthetically toe the border between American bureaucratic functionality and Lakota cultural infusion. When employees began to move in, Duke performed a ritual dance into the building to install a homemade traditional tribal staff with nine feathers representing the nine reservation districts. Jensen shows Duke the staff mounted and elegantly lit in its new wooden case in the Chief of Police's office, where the new Chief's boxes have yet to be unpacked. "It's a symbol of how we as Lakotas operate with law enforcement and in our daily lives," Duke says.

Employees perform "smudging" rituals by burning sage and cedar some days in the workplace, says Rae Ann Red Owl, an accredited attorney with the tribe and a former nurse. "We still have our own religion, our own rituals," she says. "We pray. And that's something that you don't see in a state system or a federal system because of the separation of church and state," she says, noting the tribe's constitutional permission of religious practice in tribal government spaces. "So if somebody wants to pray [here], people are on board."

Jensen says the circular shape of the building is culturally significant to tribal symbology and teachings.

However, Bruce Whalen of the Law and Order Committee comments that the structure lacks some Oglala authenticity: "They said it was an Indian design…I don't see anything Oglala about it."


Now, with a consolidated justice center, the tribe continues to stare down persistent deficiencies and conflicts on the reservation.

The tribal government creates, enforces, and adjudicates laws pertaining selectively to native people on the confines of the reservation. Criminal offenses by non-natives on the reservation cannot be tried in tribal court. Federal laws still apply on the reservation, however. The General Crimes Act allows federal authorities such as the FBI to enforce serious offense sanctions in federal court; and the Indian Civil Rights Act as well as habeas corpus laws protect tribal members from unwarranted imprisonment. Usually, inmates remain in tribal jail only up to one year—three at the most.

South Dakota never fully ratified a 1961 law that would have allowed for the trial of natives in state court. State law enforcement, then, does not have jurisdiction on the reservation to apprehend or detain native people, and they cannot feasibly profile individuals as native or non-native on patrol.

As a result, says Captain Kevin Karley of the South Dakota State Highway Patrol, his officers do not patrol on the reservation. So the burden largely falls on tribal law enforcement, and they are grossly understaffed.

Terkildsen says that as of mid-February there were only about 35 officers on payroll. This force struggles respond to a deluge of calls each year for crimes like alcohol use, assault, or domestic abuse, among others. The police department is called to pick up drunk tribe members, taxi them long distances to the jail, where they might stay for eight hours and complete two hours of community service or post a small bail. Then they will need a lift back home.

While many calls are legitimate, Jensen says some residents abuse this police response, submitting what Jensen calls "codependent" reports: "[If] I'm your father and I allow you to drink in my house, but on this specific night I don't feel like having you around, I know you're drinking so I'm gonna call the cops and have them come after you."

But tribal police cannot curb the sale of alcohol in Whiteclay, Nebraska, less than a mile from the justice center. According to a story in the Nebraska's Journal Star, Whiteclay stores sold 3.6 million cans of beer in 2013, or technically 821 cans of beer per each of the town's 12 residents, per day—the highest per capita beer sales in the entire country. It seems clear that they are supplying much of Pine Ridge's native demand. Yet tribal law enforcement cannot garner any of the tax revenue from alcohol sales that they say they need to respond to alcohol-related delinquency and emergency. Terkildsen says that tribal police can often be seen pouring out alcohol on Route 18 in front of the justice center from suspects they catch entering the reservation.

Graffiti art in Whiteclay pleads, "Legalize Alcohol on the Rez," and some native and non-native men pile in the backs of pickup trucks and ride back onto the reservation, presumably under the influence. A referendum to legalize alcohol on the reservation was narrowly approved by popular vote, but the administration turned over on December 1, 2014, without any action taken, according to Kevin Yellow Bird Steele from the Tribal Council. Terkildsen says official passage looks unlikely under the new leadership. Many respected Elders have stridently resisted legalization.


In addition to the police department, emergency response struggles to meet the tribe's needs. Some parents fear sending their children on a bus to a far-away public school, because road accident response may take 30 minutes to arrive in some rural parts of the reservation. A new dispatch wing with updated technology at the new justice center should help mitigate these lags.

The Oglala Sioux Tribe 911 emergency center is struggling financially. Per a tribal ordinance, cell phone companies on the reservation like AT&T have contributed funding to the emergency response teams with a $3 monthly surcharge per cell line for 911 calls on the reservation. But these funds seem to be lagging or possibly trickling to neighboring stateside districts, leaving tribal authorities fretful over the numbers.

Thomas White Eyes, the IT specialist at the justice center, claims substantial decreases in these funds: "It's really hard to get accurate numbers…But what they're saying and I'm guessing [is] it used to be around $700,000 a year to fund 911 and now we're getting less than $300,000 which is not even enough to do anything really. It's not enough to maintain the systems there."

It is possible that many Pine Ridge residents either do not have permanent physical addresses for their trailer homes or they are not listing those reservation addresses as their "primary place of use" (PPU) so that the surcharge is not given to the tribe (OST). AT&T confirmed in a statement that "If the PPU is on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the proceeds of the surcharge go to the Tribe." The statement continues, "AT&T is unable to change a customer's PPU without prior consent of the customer. However, customers may contact AT&T by dialing 611 on their mobile device, or they may drop by one of our stores, and a customer representative would be happy to check the customer's PPU and make any necessary modifications."


In addition to struggling law enforcement and emergency response, the tribe's adjudication system has shortcomings. Red Owl explains, "In the United States you get an appointed attorney…that doesn't happen in Indian country. We can't afford to appoint attorneys. So that is not part of the [tribal] Bill of Rights." Indeed, the tribal Bill of Rights ratified in 2008 with new amendments fails to guarantee a public defender: it simply permits individuals, "…at the person's own expense, to have the assistance of counsel for the person's defense." So uncertified "tribal advocates" often offer unprofessional and unsuccessful representation for inflated pay.

"There's no [law practice accreditation] standards here on our reservation," says Red Owl. "We don't have [a tribal bar association] here. So practically anybody off the street can practice; all they have to do is pay the $50." Red Owl explains that the tribe's laws need revision. "Our laws are pretty outdated and pretty much boilerplates of American law," she says. "They need to be rewritten; and we need to prioritize our own Lakota traditions and values within those laws, and I think that can be done within the next 5 to 10 years."

Red Owl explains that teams are currently working on passing more stringent DUI codes resulting in substantial jail time, as well as new child abuse and neglect criminal codes and sensible bond codes. Red Owl says inmates will sometimes wait in custody without proper bail for months for minor crimes; others may be posting unreasonably low bails and getting released for a serious assault. Needless to say, Red Owl claims, "it wasn't gelling well."


The new justice center represents an opportunity for change—an opportunity to integrate customary law and harken back to traditional Lakota values. "The good thing is, here's an opportunity: we've got a new building…a one-stop gives [us] an opportunity to come together more often and brainstorm."

She describes an allegory in Navajo country between a male litigant who helped a Navajo woman with household maintenance and was allegedly not reimbursed as promised. When he delayed in pressing charges, she claimed the statute of limitations. The judge agreed to invoke customary law to settle the conflict, as Red Owl explains: "These two individuals ended up coming from the same clan, which makes them relatives. So based on customary law, as a relative, she made a promise…[and she] upheld her side."

Red Owl claims that the Lakota people "have similar laws, [and] it would help individuals to remember who they are…as Lakota people and as relatives." Tribal judges legally have the prerogative to reinforce Lakota values. "You could put that in your court orders," Red Owl explains, recalling an instance where the tribal court asked federal prosecutors to consider prescribing Lakota reading material for the sentence of a tribal juvenile whose sentence was concurrent with federal jurisdiction. "We prescribed some books that had to do with Lakota culture and I was really happy to see that they incorporated that into the federal sentence," she said.

"[The new building] will open some new doors in terms of what kind of justice system we really want to have here," says Red Owl. "There's so much potential to be creative…try to get things that would actually help the individual rather than just put them in jail."

The new tribal justice center features a "peacemaking" room, which is designed for large parties of families with land disputes, personal conflicts, custody battles, or even more serious crimes to hold conference in a circle and share their perspectives openly.

Terkildsen and Jensen both explain that when elders bequeath land, inheritance, or even planning rights for their funerals to younger relatives, disagreements can become feuds. Jensen explains, "Instead of that getting bigger and snowballing—[for instance] someone takes revenge and kills the other—they try to come to a consensus and agree," using mediation conferences held in the "peacemaking rooms." "This building is extremely healing," Jensen says.


Policing policy, in addition to court procedure, often reflects customary tradition. "We try to instill our Lakota traditional and cultural ways into our officers and they have to understand it's a different world outside this reservation," says Duke. "We all know who we're dealing with—we're dealing with our own people, our Indian people…It's a challenge because it's hard to arrest your family. It's hard to arrest your sister, your brother, your mother, your father if they're breaking the law."

Jensen says that, hypothetically, a native offender is more likely than a non-native counterpart to "heed [the Elder's] instant direction." He goes on, "And that is a tough thing to try to incorporate into law enforcement, but it does happen." However, Jensen says, this can also be a hindrance. "You don't put your hands on them," Rich explains, referring to tribal Elders who may be committing an offense. "And that can be defeating for law enforcement officers." He continues, "It makes our officers vulnerable to attacks. Our officers have to be twice as vigilant with their training."

Jensen expands on the nature of customary understandings of law enforcement: "It doesn't make negative behaviors more acceptable, but due to ongoing…and historical trauma, law enforcement officers as human beings have adapted their way of intervening and making all scenarios they come across as least invasive as possible and eliminating or minimizing violence." Terkildsen notes that Duke has never fired his weapon in over 32 years of law enforcement.

When officers are obliged to respond with force, it can be traumatic for them. "What even more compounds their stress is that they've gone against their natural belief system versus a trained belief system." But, he explains, "There is a difference between respecting your culture and doing your job, as trained." Officers are trained to look out for individuals manipulating cultural understandings to avoid apprehension or incarceration. Jensen suspects that because of the "trauma that they experience now, and the historical trauma that they learn about through oral tradition …they naturally have a dislike and they see [tribal] law enforcement as part of the United States government system."

Training officers from off the reservation is difficult, Jensen says: "It's like taking someone from New York City and putting them in Africa, and saying 'you're an officer now.' There's a lot they're going to have to learn; there are a lot of dos and don'ts."


Those involved with law enforcement administration here attest that Pine Ridge has complex problems that a building won't fix.

"We definitely need some government reform…we need to have separation of powers—we need to clarify what that is; [and] we need checks and balances," says Red Owl. "Things get really political, and it hurts us more than it helps."

But as Duke says, the new justice center is key for pressing forward. And there is no other choice, he says, than to try to solve their own problems.

"I'm 65 years old, but I have a 14-year-old daughter," he says. "What am I going to leave for her, to continue their lives here on the reservation?" Crime and poverty may persist. But Duke has no intention of leaving. "Some people say, 'It's so bad there; why don't you just leave?'" He pauses briefly, and then says with measured emotion, "This is our home. This is our home. This is where the Federal government put us and said 'Okay this is your home—you build it and live off of it.' That home base is starting to shrink and dwindle and we need to try to build it back up."


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