Rez Crime Series - Victims
Dakota Digest - 12/15/2009
By Jim Kent
Fighting crime on the state's reservations has become a key topic for South Dakota's Congressional representatives. But for those who live in "Indian Country", the issue isn't as simple as reviewing statistics and petitioning the federal government for more funding. As SDPB's series about crime on the reservation continues, women from 3 reservations offer insight into the realities of crime in Indian Country.
It's a cold, Fall day in central South Dakota as a young Lakota woman takes a break from her job to talk about crime on the rez. We'll call her "Lisa".
"The crime that I see is mainly in the drugs and alcohol," says Lisa. "And that's what brings out the crime, really."
Lisa knows this first hand. She was involved in the drug culture herself, several years ago. Lisa won't specify in what capacity, but admits that it was a bad time in her life. She's not a part of that world anymore. As a single mother of two, Lisa's kids are now her primary focus. She travels 40 miles to work each day, but is home in the afternoon to care for them when they return from school. And though she spent time as part of a crime statistic on her reservation , she feels that both she and her children are in a safe environment.
"I don't see people getting shot or mugged ....'cause our reservations are pretty small where we know everybody and we all grew up together," Lisa explains. "So, you know, it's kind of hard for a person to do something and no one not know about it. I feel comfortable."
Lisa isn't saying crime doesn't exist on her reservation. And she has no complaints with mainstream media covering what crime is there.
"I don't think it's negative, 'cause if you don't talk about it and bring out the bad situations, nothing will be done about it."
But Lisa feels there are misperceptions about crime's realities in Indian Country - especially as they relate to so-called "gangs".
"My family grows up in groups...well, most people's families grow up in groups," says Lisa. "And our generation, like myself...presently, and my cousins around my age....their kids and my, like, little brother and them...they walk around in groups. And the cops consider that gang-affiliated, when they're just family members walking. And they get harassed for that."
And Lisa sees the issue of gang violence, in particular, as overblown by the media and politicians.
"I kinda' think so," Lisa says. "Because mainly on our reservations, it's not like the city. It's really not."
Sitting in her Rapid City apartment, Charmaine White Face recalls when her house on the Pine Ridge Reservation was broken into and trashed several years ago by what law enforcement referred to as a "gang".
"Rage," says White Face, explaining what she felt at the time. "Rage. I felt totally violated. Completely, totally violated...'cause this was the house, and the furniture, everything that I grew up with from the time I could remember. And to have it so totally destroyed. I mean, everything was just totally destroyed."
As much as White Face was emotionally impacted by the crime, she was also upset about how the crime's
investigation was handled.
"They were ages 5, 6 and 8," White Face says, noting the ages of the children tribal police allege committed the crime. "Nothing ever happened to them. They wouldn't even give me the names of their parents. So...nothing happened."
So, White Face ate more than $60,000 in damages to her home and was never able to replace her grandmother's antique furniture. But White Face has never accepted the "primary grades gang violence" explanation. In her opinion, children that age couldn't have caused that much damage.
"We knew there were fingerprints there from the dust that was left behind," says White Face. "And huge handprints. And I asked that they run this through the national system where you can track someone with their fingerprints. And they refused. Then I knew that they knew who already did it...but they were, they were not going to do anything about it."
Distrust of law enforcement is common on the reservation. Lisa says many tribal members see favoritism as one of the biggest problems of crime on the rez.
"Like, I know a couple of police officers," says Lisa. "And their families sell drugs. Come on, they know what's going on in their own family. But, yet, they'll go after other people...but not their own."
Neither woman claims that all police are corrupt. But if reservation crime is to be seriously addressed, it's a factor they feel must be included in the equation.
"Crime on the reservations is always, you know, given labels...here and there," says Madonna Thunder Hawk "But a lot has to do with poverty. Also all the social ills that come with that."
Thunder Hawk is a Cheyenne River Sioux elder. Her work as a child advocate takes her to all the state's reservations. Although she's never been afraid as she travels, Thunder Hawk says the crime rate is about the same across the board.
She also feels that the solution is the same -adequate funding for tribal law enforcement, but adequate funding to end the poverty that is the primary cause of crime in Indian Country.
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