Indian Child Welfare Act, three interviews; part one

An interview with Diane Garreau, published in Indian Country Today in February 2012 and supported by the George Polk Program for Investigative Reporting. A related investigative story, Rough Justice in Indian Child Welfare, archived here. More ICWA stories here and here.

Diane Garreau, ICWA director, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe
Native parents face extraordinary hurdles in keeping their children—including cultural misunderstandings and legal barriers that are unimaginable to many non-Native people. In this second decade of the 21st century, American Indian children in states across the country are still taken from their families and placed in foster care or adoptive homes at a much higher rate than other kids—just as they were before the passage of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, a federal statute intended to help keep Native families intact.
In Alaska, Native children make up 20 percent of the child population but 51 percent of those a state agency has placed in foster care; Montana, Nebraska, Oregon, Utah, North Dakota and Washington also have highly skewed numbers. In Minnesota, the percentage of Native children in foster care isn’t just high, it’s gotten worse in recent years. “Disproportionalities exist nationwide at every stage in the process, starting right from the initial reports of possible abuse or neglect of a Native child,” says Kristy Alberty, Cherokee, spokeswoman for the National Indian Child Welfare Association.
To safeguard their children, tribes have offices dedicated to the implementation of ICWA. Among other provisions, the 34-year-old law allows tribes a role when states place Native children in foster care or seek to terminate tribal members’ parental rights. Below, ICTMN speaks to an ICWA director in South Dakota, where Indian youngsters are 15 percent of the state’s children, but 53 percent of those in care. Diane Garreau of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe shares her experiences and offers ideas for improving this often distressing, and even terrifying, facet of Native American life.

What are some of your challenges?
Because we are a “west river” tribe—that is, west of the Missouri, which cuts across the state—many of our ICWA cases come out of the Rapid City courts. They are notorious for taking kids away from parents, who may not have a lawyer at the initial hearing. The state almost always gets custody for 60 days, during which time it can investigate to see if there’s actually a problem. Imagine how frightened the little ones must be. They’re taken from everything they know for all that time—and possibly for no reason. It makes me so angry.

Sounds like this is personal for you.
I don’t want the trauma boarding schools inflicted on previous generations to claim today’s children. I know the pain of separation from family and community, the hurt you feel when you’re taken from those who love you and want to protect you. When I was a student at St. Joseph’s Indian School, a boarding school in Chamberlain, South Dakota, I experienced mistreatment—like many of my age group. That was 30 years ago, not 150 years.

What should happen in the state courts?
All parents should have lawyers at every hearing. To get custody of the kids, the state should have to prove there’s a problem, and that the family wasn’t simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Of course, some children need protection, but under ICWA, an expert witness who’s familiar with tribal customs and traditions must testify as to whether the Native children are actually in danger. Native youngsters are sometimes removed from their families because grandma or auntie is taking care of them—a culturally sound option as far as the tribes are concerned, but one that any state may define as neglect. A federal law is being flouted—and frankly, it’s happening in courts all over our state.

Are there other options state courts could consider?
The courts could give the parents physical custody and social services legal custody and mandate the efficient creation of a safety plan. That way, the family could stay together, and we could be certain the children were safe while we figured out the situation.

How long does it take to create the plan?
Right now in South Dakota, it can take several months, so parents who’ve lost their kids are in the dark all that time about what to do to get them back. They’re also typically not told what services are out there for them. They’re really at a loss. So I tell parents, ‘You know your issues; work on them.’ Then I help them find programs. But that’s not the only hurdle: Let’s say a mother lost her kids in Rapid City. She didn’t have representation, she’s fearful and confused, so she comes home to the reservation for advice and support. The state may call this abandonment and move to take her kids permanently for this reason. And it doesn’t stop there: If a Native person was ever arrested, they typically had no bail money and a busy, perhaps inexperienced public defender, who told them to plead guilty to get out of jail. So Native moms and dads may be stuck with convictions they wouldn’t have had with better legal representation—and that can affect what a judge thinks of them when deciding whether they can have their kids back.

Doesn’t ICWA allow you to move cases to tribal court?
Absolutely. Under ICWA, I can transfer jurisdiction, and once I’ve intervened, I can see the kids and have access to any investigations. I can have a say. All of this is good, except the state still manages to hold tight to custody of the kids for much of that 60 days. The investigative process still has to happen. Resolving a family’s problems is still more difficult and painful than it needs to be.

Has ICWA implementation improved?
When I started as an ICWA director in 2002, states all over the country just didn’t pay attention to the tribes. It felt like we were sitting out on the prairie, so out of touch. Now, some are improving: Oregon reliably notifies us when Native children go into care there, and New York has been easy to deal with. To create the best outcomes in spite of existing issues in some other states, an ICWA director has to build relationships. I want social workers nationwide to know they can call Cheyenne River for advice about ICWA. In some cases, those personal relationships have meant I could resolve a family’s problem in hours, when it might have taken months.

How many ICWA cases do you handle annually?
We get 1,000-plus inquiries a year and respect every one, checking with our enrollment office to see if those involved are tribal members. Some claims can be far-fetched. One state called me and said, ‘We’ve got this person who says she’s related to Pocahontas.’ That was very cute [laughs]—and I understand she may have been desperate to keep her kids and grasping at straws—but she definitely wasn’t a member here. Of the thousand requests, about 50 will be Cheyenne River kids.

Is that a lot for a small staff?
It is, and we get burned out with just two full-time workers and minimal resources. All ICWA offices function with few resources; a colleague at another tribe once told me, ‘All I have is a car and a cellphone.’ I recently got very sick and realized I’ve got to take good care of myself to keep doing this.

What about parents who aren’t enrolled, though they could be?
Under ICWA, parents have to be enrolled for their kids to be covered. Problems arise because during the mid-20th century, many Native children were adopted out [see “The Adoption Era, defined,” on this blog]. They were not enrolled prior to adoption and are now adults; if their children happen to be taken away, those kids are not covered. If the parents can prove their relationship to a tribe, maybe they can fix this, but not always. This is another situation where an historical wrong has life-changing repercussions today.

What can tribes do?
If they have eligible youngsters who are currently being adopted out, they must enroll them first, to keep intact the children’s rights to inherit land, obtain scholarships and health care, have their own kids protected by ICWA and so on. We do this at Cheyenne River to protect children’s futures and give them a sense of belonging to a proud nation. Any child, of any background, needs that sense of belonging.

Do other laws conflict with ICWA?
We tribes have said states’ so-called “safe haven” or “Baby Moses” laws, which allow parents in crisis to drop newborns off in safe places such as hospitals and police stations, are in violation of ICWA. Those infants move quickly into foster care and pre-adoption. How and when do we determine if they are Native children? No one thought of this when the laws were passed.

Why are there few Native foster homes in South Dakota?
Poverty and fear. The agency gets a lot of contracts to do home studies often calls me to say Native people who want to be foster parents haven’t responded to requests to evaluate their homes. They don’t realize how much Native people dread being told they can’t be foster parents because they don’t have lavish homes, expensive furniture and so on. A policy could be created under which a tribal member, say from the ICWA office, went along during the home study to reassure our people they’ll be treated fairly and that, in essence, we want to be sure the home is clean and safe and that the children will be welcomed with love while they’re there.

Do different tribes’ ICWA directors communicate?
We do, but we could all do more. If we had a national professional association with a website, we could post lists of pro-bono attorneys, potential funders, expert witnesses and other resources. We could share best practices and answer each other’s questions. We could provide information on state ICWA laws, which enhance the federal protections, but in different ways from state to state. ICWA directors are on the frontline, in and out of the courts, dealing with families in crisis. We need to be a force to reckoned with, and information sharing would help us become one. We Native people have to solve our own problems, and this would help us do it.

What keeps you going?
I was at a powwow recently and saw a group of Cheyenne River kids, then another group, and remembered they were all ICWA kids—children our office had brought home. This is why I do it. If you’re not watching, if you don’t start hustling as soon as you hear there’s a problem, if you don’t fight for every single child, they’re lost to us forever.

c. Stephanie Woodard; photograph by Stephanie Woodard.

Indian Child Welfare Act, three interviews; part two

An interview with Indian-child-welfare advocate Frank LaMere. A version of this article was published in Indian Country Today in February 2012. It was part of a year-long project supported by the George Polk Program for Investigative Reporting.

Frank LaMere, Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and executive director of the Four Directions Community Center, in Sioux City, Iowa, is a longtime advocate for Indian child welfare who works with many Native parents and families. He talked about what’s good, what’s bad and what needs to be done in an issue that is critical to the survival of the nation’s Native communities.

Has the perception of Indian child welfare changed since the recent NPR series exposing South Dakota’s IWCA problems or the CNN story on the Cherokee father who regained custody of his daughter via ICWA?
The media stories you mention were shared widely, and I feel good about that—even though the CNN story was critical of the Indian Child Welfare Act. The exposure brought attention to the plight of our children and inspired members of Congress to ask for an investigation of South Dakota. I wrote to the legislators involved and told them, “Don’t stop there.” South Dakota has problems, but so does the rest of the country. They should investigate every jurisdiction in every state. Here in Iowa, the social services department of Woodbury County [surrounding Sioux City] has made progress, but it’s just one of our 99 counties. Many in Iowa would still do an end-run around ICWA.

Frank LaMere.
Was the CNN story correct in stressing the emotional disruption of removing a child from a familiar setting?
Indian families have endured exactly this kind of disruption hundreds of thousands of times for generations. That’s the grim reality. We have to applaud the young Cherokee father for persevering and those in the courts for reuniting him with his child.

Why do states that seem to comply with ICWA—or at least seem to try—still have high numbers of Native children in foster care?
We in Iowa are trying to better understand those numbers. Native families were not identified as such in the past, and perhaps now that we’ve drawn attention to them and are identifying them as such, the numbers are rising for that reason. Additional data I want is tracking of individual social workers’ records of pulling our families apart—or keeping them together. Once we have these numbers, we need to ask what their agencies are going to do about it. This needs to happen everywhere, and it needs to happen now.

How does this play out on a family-by-family basis?
I sit in on many meetings to determine the fate of Native families—along with the judges, lawyers, social workers and others involved—and I observe that they do not apply objective standards. If one standard was applied to all, Native children would go home more often than not. Time after time in these meetings, the Native parent has solved the issue—typically alcohol or drugs—that caused the children to be taken away. The parent proudly announces, “I’ve been sober for 22 months,” or what have you. We all congratulate them on their new wellness, then when that conversation dies down, a social worker inevitably says, “Well, yes, but…,” and raises a new issue. He or she may bring up a long-resolved problem from, literally, 20 years before, or something new. At a recent meeting, a social worker announced she’d found dirty dishes in the sink during her last visit to the mother’s home, so the mother shouldn’t get her kids back. I became unglued. I stressed that the mother didn’t lose her children over dirty dishes, and they couldn’t be kept from her for this reason. I deal with this kind of thing every single week.

How does a Native parent fare in child-custody matters when he or she faces a non-Native parent?
Generally not well. Right now, I’m dealing with the worst case I’ve ever seen and the best example of how the system can fail our families. Two severely disabled Native children were taken from their white father, a “founded,” that is proven, child abuser. After a crisis, during which one child ended up in the hospital, the court gave the youngsters temporarily to their Native mother. Now the state of Iowa has decided to reunite the children with the father, and the mother fears for her children’s lives. If I, or any Native man, did to a child what that white father did to his children, we would be incarcerated for many years. This is about old attitudes that make it tough for our Native families to get justice and to convince courts that ICWA, a federal statute, must be heeded.

Do states have a financial incentive to ignore ICWA?
It’s a conspiracy of silence. Everyone knows our children feed the child-welfare system. They have for a long time and will continue to do so, because the funding is set up that way [with more children meaning greater funding]. But those who work for the system won’t speak up. Beyond that, many social workers and courts nationwide feel they know better than we do about what’s good for our children. It remains for Native people to speak up. We must keep blowing the whistle on the child-welfare system, to local, state and national lawmakers. Only then will we have a chance to keep our families intact.

Is this what Four Directions does?
We at Four Directions Community Center routinely make people in the child-welfare system uncomfortable. Nothing changes until someone feels uncomfortable. That includes ourselves. It is hard to confront those who control the systems that control our lives, but we must. Our children and their futures are in jeopardy. We have a long way to go, but we will prevail.

c. Stephanie Woodard; photograph courtesy of Frank LaMere.

Indian Child Welfare Act, three interviews; part three

An interview with counselor Danialle Rose; a version of this article appeared in Indian Country Today in February 2012. It was part of a year-long investigative project supported by the George Polk Program for Investigative Reporting.

Danialle Rose, of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, is a licensed certified social worker and mental health professional with Capitol Area Counseling Service, central South Dakota’s state mental health center. Her job there as an in-home family therapist finds her working with children and families on the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe’s reservation. Rose’s background is both academic—she has a masters in social work from the University of California, Berkeley, with a focus on children’s mental health—and rooted in her community.

“Because I grew up on my reservation, I’ve been a part of the culture my whole life,” sys Rose. “I’ve also participated in ceremonies that have strengthened my ability to understand and to do this type of work.”

As she drives home from her job each night, her route follows the course of the Missouri River. On a recent evening, Rose saw the full moon reflected in the water. “It was a beautiful picture,” she recalls, “and gave me a sense of serenity and hope.”

Rose spoke about her experiences with families who’ve been separated by child-welfare issues and are now reunited.

When children who were removed from the home return to it—after months or even years away from family and community—how do they seem to you?
I frequently see anger in the children and resistance to joining activities. They’re mistrustful in public situations. Before they were taken and placed in foster care or a residential setting, they went to powwows but now have forgotten how to dance. I see oversensitivity to stress; they’ll melt down quickly if problems arise. I also observe hypervigilance and fear when an unknown Caucasian person arrives on the reservation. Even children who have never been removed from their families may be fearful when they see an unknown vehicle because they know about the possibility of being taken away. Returning youngsters can also have intrusive thoughts and flashbacks. If they were taken when they were at school, they may be afraid to go there again.

How do you handle this?
I use play therapy with young children and talking circles with older children. Of course, parents are always welcome to participate. I involve the youngsters in gatherings, such as potlucks, to develop a sense of community and show them who their relatives are. I make sure they have fun! If a child is acting out something that happened in the foster home, I find ways to modify this. For example, one child was repeatedly slapping others on the face, something it turned out had been done to her. I had her touch my face gently, and I touched her face gently and asked her if she liked that better than the feeling of slapping. She decided she did and is working on making softer interactions a habit.

What about new traumas that may occur after a child’s return, such as a serious car accident, perhaps involving relatives?
As these occur, we talk about them in the groups, so the children can understand the events and resolve their feelings about them. Naturally, such events also come up in therapy the children are involved in.

How does a child’s return affect the family?
Everyone has to develop routines and get to know each other again. This process affects not only the immediate family but the community at large. On a reservation, many can be aware of what’s going on with others. The situation is different from off-reservation communities, where neighbors may have no idea what’s going on in another home. Numerous people on a reservation will share in the trauma of a removal; then, when the child returns, they often worry that things won’t work out, that the parents won’t maintain whatever is necessary—sobriety, therapy and so on—to keep the family together. The reunited family then finds itself under a microscope, adding another type of stress.

Any advice for parents in this situation?
Reassure worried relatives and community members that you’re doing what’s required and that the children’s needs are being met. Try not to get defensive or angry about the concerns that are expressed. In reference to the children: If a child is having problems or acting out, we adults often say to them, “It’ll get better, go play.” Instead, try to ask questions, quietly posing follow-up questions until you get to the heart of what’s wrong.

What might an outside, non-Native evaluator misunderstand when looking at a Native family?
They may not realize the importance of grandparents in Native children’s lives. They can also make unwarranted judgments about the family’s values or economic situation. For example, they’ll arrive at the home and see discarded appliances in the yard and assume the parents don’t care or are destitute. Outsiders won’t realize that the underfunded tribal landfill picks up such items once a year. I am also aware of non-Native child-protective workers who still subscribe to the long-rejected notion that Native children are simply better off with strangers—that if the youngsters have a problem, they have to be separated from their families to get better.

How does Crow Creek Sioux Tribe deal with this?
The tribe’s mental health code says children must be treated in the least restrictive environment—an excellent policy. Crow Creek also has a knowledgeable tribal-court judge, who understands the Indian Child Welfare Act thoroughly.

Any more advice for evaluators?
When children are removed from families, parents or other legal guardians (such as grandparents) can react angrily. Child-protective workers might be professional and caring and able to realize this is a natural reaction—that what underlies it is fear the family will never get the child back. This type of worker collaborates with the parent or guardian to resolve the situation. However, I have seen other child-protective workers take parents’ reactions personally and begin to work against them, in essence punishing the parents and making any resolution of the situation all the more difficult. To avoid this, child-protective workers must be highly skilled. In addition, the agencies themselves must be certain to communicate to families exactly what is needed to have their children returned. If the parent or guardian is informed of all the problems and concerns, he or she can deal with them and feel stronger in court hearings, which are adversarial situations to begin with—and in which the Native parent or guardian may not have legal representation.

What backup do family therapists, child-protective workers and similar professionals have in dealing with their own job stress?
Most of us in this field have clinical supervisors, peer counselors and/or our own therapists. We check in with them continually to be sure we’re treating the people we work with as human beings and not inflicting our personal issues on them.

What is Capitol Area Counseling Service’s “growing our own” idea, and how does it address these problems?
“Growing our own” is an informal effort to identify people from Native and non-Native communities, who show aptitude for the work we do, could benefit from support to finish their education and, when they finish school, intend to work in their home community. Capitol Area is looking right now to include a Crow Creek tribal member in the program.

Final thoughts?
I have observed that Native families have to prove their worth in order to keep their children, or to become legal guardians for a relative’s children under ICWA’s provisions. In contrast, Caucasian families are worthy until proven unworthy. This is an important distinction, and I don’t think it’s understood or even talked about.

c. Stephanie Woodard.

South Dakota Indians sue for early voting

A version of this article appeared on the investigative news site 100Reporters.com in January 2012.

Native Americans have never had an easy time getting to the polls in South Dakota. In 1977, its attorney general called the extension of the Voting Rights Act to cover them an “absurdity” and told the secretary of state at the time to ignore it. Native people hadn’t voted in the state anyway until the 1940s, even though the Indian Citizenship Act had given them that right in 1924. When South Dakota polling places were finally opened to Native Americans, they faced barriers for decades, including harassment. Prior to the 2002 general election, the state sent agents to Indian reservations to question newly registered voters in an apparent effort to root out voter fraud; no one was ever charged. On the morning of the 2004 election, a judge stopped poll watchers from following Native Americans out of voting places and taking down their license-plate numbers.

Plaintiffs leaving call with attorney Sandven. Photo courtesy subjects.
Now, members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe are back in court. On January 13, tribal members filed suit, demanding the same 46 days of early voting other South Dakotans will have leading up to this year’s June 5 primary and November 6 general election. So far, the plaintiffs have been allotted just 6 days and call this “a denial of the right to vote” and “discriminatory.”

Jason Gant, secretary of state and overseer of elections for South Dakota, is among the lawsuit’s defendants, as are officials of Shannon County, which is roughly contiguous with the Oglalas’ Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and provides state and national elections for it. The county is not a tribal entity, but rather a separate government with different responsibilities. “I understand why the plaintiffs want what every other citizen gets, but we’re simply out of money,” said the head of Shannon County’s commission, Lyla Hutchison.

To remedy this, the 25 plaintiffs demand that Gant advance impoverished Shannon County its share of Help America Vote Act funds, which are intended to facilitate elections. The complaint cites the protections of the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Voting Rights Act and other measures.

After the suit was filed, Gant told a local news outlet that as a matter of policy South Dakota doesn’t provide HAVA money upfront, but rather reimburses for election expenditures upon presentation of receipts—something HAVA doesn’t require but rather allows states to decide, according to spokesperson Bryan Whitener of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which provides guidance on the law.

For years, the state’s HAVA plan has been filed with the Election Assistance Commission and accepted by it, said assistant attorney general Richard M. Williams, who represents Gant in the new lawsuit. The policy of reimbursing for election expenses is “nothing new,” he added, saying, “It applies to all counties, so it plays equally across the state.”

Not so, said Greg Lembrich, legal director of Four Directions and senior associate of the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. “Reimbursements may sound reasonable, but the policy is effectively being used to delay and/or prevent counties with Indian reservations—and very tight budgets—from using HAVA funds. If you have no money to begin with, you can’t set up early voting and wait to be reimbursed. It ends up being a backdoor poll tax.” 

In the quest for full enfranchisement, South Dakota’s Native Americans have fought more than 20 voting rights lawsuits, charging gerrymandering, demands for forms of ID that are not required, failure to provide sufficient polling places, and intimidation. In 2010, the state settled an American Civil Liberties Union suit by agreeing to restore the voting rights of Native Americans who were improperly removed from voter rolls. For decades, South Dakota avoided U.S. Department of Justice “preclearance”—a type of oversight the Voting Rights Act applies to proposed election-law changes in places with a history of discrimination. A federal court found in 2005 that when South Dakota finally agreed to DOJ scrutiny, a backlog of more than 700 laws needed vetting.

The pines and ridges of Pine Ridge. Photo by Stephanie Woodard.
The current Oglala lawsuit focuses on early voting, which allows voters to cast ballots at designated places prior to an election and is particularly popular among Shannon County/Pine Ridge voters. Just 15 days of early voting in 2004 doubled the election turnout over 2000, when it was not available, according to O.J. Semans, head of the voting-rights group Four Directions, headquartered on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. However, Semans noted, Shannon County had early voting in 2004—and again in 2010—only because Four Directions donated $15,000 and $5,000, respectively, to pay for it. This year, the group isn’t certain it can come up with another donation, said Semans, adding that, in any case, voters shouldn’t have to rely on unpredictable outside funding to get ballot box access.

The Shannon County/Pine Ridge plaintiffs filed their complaint early in 2012 so they could get voting issues settled well before the primary, according to their lawyer, Steven D. Sandven, of Sioux Falls. “My clients don’t want a last-minute scramble for the crumbs,” he said. The lawsuit has garnered national attention. The Justice Department is reviewing it, according to spokesperson Xochitl Hinojosa, and the American Civil Liberties Union is monitoring its progress, said attorney Robert Doody, head of the organization’s South Dakota office.

In an interview on January 26, Gant expanded on his position, saying Shannon County is a special case because it has “funding difficulties” and that he would “try to work something out.” He identified two sets of difficulties: Short-term, he’ll see if he can somehow help the county access HAVA money for its immediate election expenses, while ensuring he continues to meet federal accounting requirements—something he has done so far via the reimbursement procedure.

However, Gant said, the existing HAVA funding will last for just a few more election cycles; then it’s gone, and long-term the county has to figure out how it will pay for elections in addition to its citizens’ other needs. Said Gant: “We have to figure out what we can do to assist in making sure everyone has access to the ballot box.”

Gant’s official website shows he is not just secretary of state but treasurer of Committed to Victory, a PAC whose purpose is “to elect Republican candidates,” according to documents Gant (as treasurer) submitted to Gant (as secretary of state) in 2011. The website also shows Shannon County with 10 times as many Democrats as Republicans. Of 7,683 registered voters, 5,890 are Democrats; another 588 are Republicans. The rest are mostly Independents. Has the strict reimbursement requirement been an effort to limit early voting by those who are both unlikely to vote Republican and likely to cast their ballots early? “That is absolutely and utterly false,” said Gant.

Meanwhile, back in Shannon County, to pay for just 6 days, its commissioners have slashed expenditures to the bone, cutting back law enforcement and eliminating their own salaries and aid to the poor, among other items, said Hutchison. Their funds are so low because South Dakota counties tax land to finance their budgets, but most of Shannon County’s land is nontaxable, because it’s either tribally owned or held in trust for the Oglala Sioux Tribe by the federal government, she explained.

Shannon County has other pressing economic and social issues; its per-capita income of less than $8,000 makes it one of the poorest places in the nation, according to the 2010 Census. By most measures, unemployment tops 85%, and life expectancy for its almost entirely Native American population is comparable to Haiti’s. “For years, we were the poorest,” said Hutchison. “Now we’re second-poorest, because another mostly-Sioux county in South Dakota took our place.”

Poverty is, in fact, a major reason why area residents prize early voting. “A lot of us on Pine Ridge don’t have vehicles,” explained plaintiff and tribal member Clarice Mesteth. “During elections, those who have them drive long distances to give other people rides to the polls. Each round-trip can be a couple of hours, so having all the early-voting days we should, in addition to the general-election day, is important to us.”

Why not take advantage of early voting at the courthouse in Hot Springs, in adjacent Fall River County, which is an option for Shannon County residents? “One problem is that the round trip to Hot Springs is 4½ hours from some points in Shannon County,” said Mesteth. “Another problem is that if you live on the [Pine Ridge Indian] reservation, your license plates start with a ‘65.’ That makes us easily identifiable. The Fall River cops stop us for all kinds of things when we go there. They’ll say we were going one mile over the speed limit, or we’ve got snow on our license plates.” As a result, Mesteth said, tribal members rarely go to Hot Springs, and when they do, they try to car-pool to cut down on the number of traffic tickets they might receive, creating another hassle that interferes with ballot-box access.

What about mail-in absentee ballots? “Given the hostility tribal members face when they leave the reservation, they don’t believe mail-in ballots will be counted,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Sandven. “Most—especially elders—feel more secure about casting votes in person.”

“Bottom line, ballot box access in South Dakota currently depends on wealth,” said Lembrich. “You have less opportunity to vote there if you don’t have a car, or don’t have gas money, or live on an isolated Indian reservation in a poor county. That’s not right. It’s time to establish a permanent means of providing regular early voting in Shannon County.” 

c. Stephanie Woodard.