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As part of Mainstreet Radio series "Broken Trust: Civil Rights in Indian Country,” MPR’s Cara Hetland reports on decades of Native American civil rights complaints in South Dakota.

A United States Commission on Civil Rights report blasted race relations in South Dakota. Hundreds of Native Americans testified about abuses in law enforcement, which echoed complaints brought before the commission in the mid-1970s, causing many to ask why there's been so little change.

Today, many American Indians live in two worlds. Off the reservation they are guaranteed all the rights of a U.S. citizen. On the reservation, those federal rights disappear, replaced by the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968, enforced by tribal governments. Many Indian people in Minnesota and the Dakotas say they've come to expect injustice both on and off the reservation.

This is part two of eight-part series "Broken Trust: Civil Rights in Indian Country."

Click links below for other parts of series:

part 1:

part 3:

part 4:

part 5:

part 6:

part 7:

part 8:


2001 NBNA Eric Sevareid Award, first place in Radio - Large Market - Continuing Coverage category

2001 Minnesota AP Award, Best in Show - Radio Class III category

2001 PRNDI Award, second place in Division A - Series category

2002 RTNDA Murrow Award, Radio - Large Market, Region 4 / News Series category


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CARA HETLAND: Hopes were high in late 1999, when hundreds of Native Americans traveled to a Rapid City public hearing. Frances Zephier and her family hitched 250 miles from their Wagner, South Dakota, homes to testify.

FRANCES ZEPHIER: When somebody says, US commission on civil rights, you think these people have control over our rights. They can hear us. They can do something.

CARA HETLAND: Zephier, an enrolled member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, testified her 13-year-old daughter was raped by a federal law enforcement agent, and there was no investigation to their claims. You told your story of your violations, and then somebody else was telling theirs, too. And when you cried, you cried together. You felt the sense of no justice.

But now, a year after the commission issued its report, Zephier says that sense of injustice remains. She says, it would have been easier had they been told the commission had little real power other than to make recommendations. The report contains a very carefully worded critique of race relations in South Dakota and a lot of suggestions for change. Few have been realized. The report was broadly criticized by law enforcement. Governor Bill Janklow called it garbage. The Chair of the State Advisory Committee for Civil Rights, Marc Feinstein, says, the recommendations are sound, and he wants more state cooperation.

MARC FEINSTEIN: We called on the state of South Dakota and the governor to organize a task force to hear some of the questions out and to actually sit down and see what are the real perceptions and what are the real problems that are there. The governor flatly refused to organize a task force.

CARA HETLAND: Feinstein says, with little funding and no enforcement powers, there's little else the state advisory committee can do. The same perceptions by Native Americans were presented in 1975 at a joint hearing for tribal members in both North and South Dakota. This came on the heels of a standoff at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, where two FBI agents were killed, and several Native Americans died from crossfire.

Francis Xavier's father, an active member of the American Indian movement, testified at that hearing. Zephier says, there's a familiar tension within her own Yankton Sioux Tribe in Charles Mix County. For years, the state and tribe have been fighting over jurisdictional lines. A US Supreme Court decision in 1998 put an area of what had been reservation land back under the state's control.

The state found about 2,00. Outstanding arrest warrants for the area and reactivated them. Law enforcement was accused of stopping Indians just to run a check for Outstanding warrants. Native Americans cried racial profiling while law enforcement says it was just doing its job. Ray Westendorf is the Charles Mix County Sheriff.

RAY WESTENDORF: I don't know of anybody that's gotten stopped because of their race or their ethnic background. There's one guy that's Mexican that lives here, and he's been around here. We know him. And he's been arrested so many times for not having a driver's license. If you see him driving, he's breaking the law. I mean, it's not because he's a Mexican. It's because he doesn't have a driver's license that you stop him.

CARA HETLAND: The Charles Mix County State's Attorney put a freeze on all outstanding warrants for two months in order for tribal leaders to encourage its members to come forward and resolve arrest warrants on their own. Some say the improved communication eased the tense situation.

Both the 1977 and 2000 civil rights reports recommended the hiring of more Native American officers. The theory is, if there were more Native American cops, communication would improve, and cultural differences would disappear. Not true, says Steve Counoyer Sr., the 73-year-old Yankto Sioux tribal elder says, there's a level of mistrust that's not easily erased.

YANKTON SIOUX: You go on to the county or state payroll, and the Indians back off because they don't trust you no more. My guy is on the other side can't tell him nothing. It's just that thing. It's that Native American thing and that white thing that is there and a lot of effort is going to take to get it out of there. But it's there.

CARA HETLAND: There is an effort to improve communication in Charles Mix County. The tribe and County officials recently signed an agreement, a wish list of sorts of common goals and solutions they'll work on together, and local, tribal and federal law enforcement officers formed a working group to discuss traffic stops, crime, and even ways to keep kids out of trouble. While law enforcement and reservation leaders are working together, some say there's still an overall anti-Indian feeling in the state. It's even apparent at local gas stations, says Lolita Spotted Thunder Moreno.

The community relations coordinator for the Minneapolis department of civil rights, is an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux tribe. She was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, but spent her Summers with relatives in South Dakota. She owns a home on the Pine Ridge reservation, but refuses to raise her children there.

LOLITA MORENO: The racism-- and it's the blatant in your face.

CARA HETLAND: Moreno says there are certain stores she avoids along her trek across South Dakota, and even some towns she won't even drive through. It's from years of experience, she says. But she doesn't ask for much.

LOLITA MORENO: They can at least smile at me just like they smile at everybody else. They can at least talk to me just like they talk to everybody else. Or, maybe they could just be as courteous as newer people come through tourists.

CARA HETLAND: Understanding cultural differences, learning about the history of Native Americans, and showing common courtesies, says Moreno, are all essential parts to eliminate discrimination in our society. The Department of Justice is studying civil rights issues throughout all of Indian country. It's distributing money for more police officers and court advocates. There's talk the US commission on civil rights will investigate housing and fairness in the courts for Native Americans. There's no indication if they'll return to South Dakota anytime soon. Cara Hetland, Minnesota Public Radio, Sioux Falls.


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