Published in Indian Country Today in May 2008.
Marty, S.D. — On Thursday, May 1, the Bureau of Indian Affairs sent a letter to Charles Mix County, asserting its ownership of BIA Route 29 on the Yankton Sioux Reservation, according to Nedra Darling, an agency spokeswoman in Washington, D.C. Construction crews have been using the road to begin building a hog farm that would produce 70,000 pigs annually on private land within the reservation’s boundaries.
When construction began in early April, the Yankton Sioux Tribe took steps to bar the facility’s owners, Long View Farms, of Hull, Iowa, from the reservation. These measures included passing an exclusion order against the farm and asking the BIA to confirm its jurisdiction over the road, which would effectively deny the farm access to the building site.
“We’ve completed our part of the bargain,” said Darling, referring to a deal the BIA struck with the county in 1994. In return for maintaining and patrolling the road, the BIA would gain ownership of it. “We’ve invested over a million dollars of federal money in the route and have added it to our inventory,” she said. “This should not be new information to the county.”
While these legal actions were taking place, the farm’s owners continued to work on the facility, and tribal members staged a peaceful protest, citing environmental and public-health risks. The farm is within a few miles of many tribal facilities and institutions, including two Sun Dance grounds, five sweat lodges, homes, a cathedral, a Head Start center, a school, a hospital, a casino-hotel, the tribal hall, Ihanktowan Community College and more. Also in the vicinity are the town of Wagner, wetlands, the Ogallala Aquifer and a creek that empties into the nearby Missouri River.
The county strikes back
In response to the BIA’s declaration of ownership, the three-person commission of Charles Mix County voted on May 5 to rescind the 1994 deal. The vote was two to one, with Sharon Drapeau, Ihanktowan Dakota, the only Native member of the commission, voting in the minority.
The next step could be a lawsuit. “They’re going to force a court challenge,” said John Stone, Ihanktowan Dakota, vice chairman of the tribe’s Business and Claims Committee, an elected group. “The commission’s decision doesn’t preclude anyone going to court,” said Drapeau. At press time, neither the BIA nor the US. Attorney for the District of South Dakota, Marty Jackley, had any comment on the likelihood of a lawsuit.
The state of South Dakota appears to be taking a neutral position, despite having dispatched to the protest site more highway patrolmen than are normally on the roads at any one time throughout the entire state. South Dakota also has a long history of contentious attacks on the Yankton Sioux Tribe, which it has attempted to “disestablish” through a series of lawsuits.
“Our position remains that this is a dispute between the tribe and a private company,” said Mitch Krebs, press secretary to Governor Mike Rounds.
The world responds
International expressions of support for the tribe have poured in. Andrea Carmen, Yaqui, executive director of the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC), an advocacy group, presented a statement on the Yankton’s behalf to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, meeting in New York City during the last week of April. According to William Means, Oglala Lakota, IITC board member, that statement can now be referred to the UN General Assembly and other UN agencies, including the Human Rights Council and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD).
“The U.S. has been challenged by CERD before,” said Means. “In this case, we’ve asked for an oral intervention on the Yanktons’ behalf. What the UN can offer is a moral standard relating to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
Well-wishers have arrived at the Yanktons’ protest site from elsewhere in the county; around the state, including a group from the University of South Dakota; and several foreign countries. “We’ve had people from Spain, Russia, Palestine and more,” reported Stone.
Racism rears its head
This widespread backing is in sharp contrast to the mind-set of some people at home, said Stone. “Racism is prevalent in our local government,” he said. “Last year, the ACLU demonstrated this in a lawsuit they settled with Charles Mix County.”
The ACLU case was the second one the organization had brought against the county, which has experienced rampant harassment of Indian voters and later-unproven accusations of voter fraud among indigenous people. Under the terms of the settlement, negotiated in 2007, the county agreed to federal supervision of its elections until 2024. An earlier suit resulted in one of the Charles Mix County school boards agreeing in 2003 to an election system that did not dilute the Native vote.
According to local news stories Indian Country Today has monitored for nearly a decade, harassment has not been confined to voting. Police malfeasance appears to have been extreme in the county, which has been referred to repeatedly as “Alabama in the Fifties.” Reported and/or adjudicated incidents include police brutality and harassment of tribal members when driving off-reservation, with arrests and tickets issued for such offenses as dusty license plates.
“This attitude is not characteristic of the majority of county residents,” said Stone, “but unfortunately it is found among our officials.”
c. Stephanie Woodard; photo by Stephanie Woodard.
c. Stephanie Woodard; photo by Stephanie Woodard.