South Dakota Voter-Suppression Scandal Escalates

This article appeared on the Huffington Post in August 2013. 

South Dakota has devised an ingenious new way to curb minority voting. For decades, suppression here has involved activities that won’t surprise those who follow enfranchisement issues: last-minute changes to Indian-reservation polling places, asking Native voters for ID that isn’t required, confronting them in precinct parking lots and tailing them from the polls and recording their license-plate numbers. The state and jurisdictions within it have fought and lost some 20 Native voting-rights lawsuits. Two South Dakota counties were subject to U.S. Department of Justice oversight until June of this year.

That’s when the Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, saying, “Today, our Nation has changed.”

Yes, it has. The VRA decision provided the opening for those who are uncomfortable when minorities, the poor and other marginalized citizens vote. Since the decision, new measures to limit enfranchisement have swept the country—mostly gerrymandering and restrictions on allowable voter IDs.

South Dakota’s secretary of state and top elections official Jason Gant is a step ahead of the pack. He will ask the federal Election Assistance Commission if it’s okay to use Help America Vote Act funds to pay for early-voting polling places on three Indian reservations. Such facilities, which the state has already used HAVA funds for two other reservations, cost about $15,000 per election. If the new ones are approved, the money will come from the $9 million in HAVA appropriations the state has in interest-bearing accounts earning hundreds of thousands per year.

Voting-rights group Four Directions made the request on behalf of three South Dakota Sioux tribes during the July 31 meeting of the state’s Board of Elections. With the polling places, tribal members would cast ballots closer to home during South Dakota’s 46-day early-voting period. Shown at top and below are portions of a 50-plus-mile round trip some Oglala Sioux currently make to early-vote in an off-reservation county courthouse—if they can find the transport or gas money. Other tribal members may travel 100 miles or more to cast ballots early.

“Right now, most Indians in South Dakota get one day to vote, Election Day, when precincts are set up on reservations; meanwhile, other voters have several weeks,” said civil-rights leader OJ Semans, a Rosebud Sioux who co-directs Four Directions. “That's not equal access.” Semans is seen below, second from right, discussing early voting with county officials.

At this point, you are probably wondering why asking a federal agency for advice is so very clever. It’s because the EAC no longer has any staff whatsoever tasked to respond to such a query, according to EAC spokesperson Bryan Whitener. A look at the commission’s website reveals a several-year backlog of unanswered questions.

Better yet, Gant knows—and may have long known—that a letter to the EAC would disappear into the void. Soon after the July 31 meeting, the national American Indian news source, Indian Country Today Media Network, the AP and several South Dakota media outlets reported that Gant is an officer of the National Association of Secretaries of State, which voted in 2011 to support disbanding the EAC.

As the scandal accelerates with articles, blog posts and talk shows on the subject cropping up in South Dakota and around the country, Gant insists that the moribund EAC is the arbiter of the Native early-voting question. “The EAC can either say yes, no, or they may issue no response...I will not use HAVA funds unless it is clearly defined that I can do so,” Gant wrote in an August 2 statement.

Four Directions consultant Bret Healy called Gant’s reliance on the EAC “troubling,” given the secretary of state’s involvement with its demise. Healy added that any communication sent to the commission was a “dead letter.”

Linda Lea Viken, a Rapid City attorney and elections board member since 1999, said she was startled by the turn of events, especially since board members had pressed Gant during the July 31 meeting about when the EAC might reply and he gave no indication that the answer was, in all likelihood, never.

In an email to Secretary Gant, Viken asked, “May I ask, when did you first become aware that the EAC is not fully staffed and hasn't issued a decision for several years?”

At another point, Viken queried Gant, “In light of the information the board has now [received] about the futility of such a request, what do you propose? We certainly don’t want these folks to be in limbo for years. They have been seeking this decision for a long time, and we should not be dismissive of their request.”

County elections official and elections board member Patty McGee saw things differently. McGee, who has served on the EAC’s federal Standards Board, told the state panel on July 31, “We’ve given them several opportunities to vote.” Later, she told this reporter for an Indian Country Today Media Network article, “A person has to make an effort.”

Healy noted that having some—but not all—ways to vote does not constitute equality. He also referred to Natives as a “protected class” of voters, as defined by the permanent sections of the Voting Rights Act, which were not struck down and remain in effect. Because Native Americans have historically been subject to official discrimination and had less opportunity to participate in the electoral process, any abridgement of their rights draws special scrutiny.

Separately, at the request of U.S. Senator Tim Johnson (D–S.D.), the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service has analyzed relevant regulations and opined that South Dakota’s HAVA funds can apparently be used for early voting, also called in-person absentee voting. Gant and the state elections board had this information for the July 31 meeting.

Gant is sticking to his guns: “We have to see what the EAC response is and proceed with the next step at that time.”

According to Viken, the state elections board acts as an appeals panel for HAVA issues within South Dakota and can clarify the state’s HAVA plan when necessary. She wants the board to revisit the reservation early-voting issue. Said Viken, “It’s always good for us to be refreshed on our responsibilities under the law.”

Photographs by Stephanie Woodard. This article was written with support from the George Polk Center for Investigative Reporting. For more on Native voting rights in South Dakota, written during September 2013, go hereherehere, and here. c. Stephanie Woodard. 

South Dakota Voting Rights Suit Dismissed; Plaintiffs Targeted for Costs

This article first appeared in Indian Country Today in August 2013. 

Plaintiffs and defendants both claimed victory on August 6, when U.S. District Court Judge Karen Schreier dismissed the Native voting-rights lawsuit Brooks v. Gant. Oglala Sioux Tribe members had sued South Dakota state and county officials, seeking a satellite early-voting and registration office that would give them elections in their own county and equal to those other South Dakotans enjoy.

Once the lawsuit got underway, the state and county defendants promised to use federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) money to give the 25 plaintiffs what they wanted through 2018. According to Judge Schreier, this meant the plaintiffs could no longer show the required “immediate injury,” so she dismissed their claim. However, she noted, her decision was “without prejudice,” meaning that, if necessary, the plaintiffs can sue again.

“They caved,” said OJ Semans, Rosebud Sioux civil rights leader and co-director of voting-advocacy group Four Directions. “The court established what the plaintiffs stood up for and what Four Directions has been fighting for since 2004. Right now, there’s full equality for most of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the largest group of Indian voters in the state.”

The other side was happy, too. “We’re feeling extremely pleased, even though the case wasn’t decided on its merits,” said the counties’ attorney, Sara Frankenstein, of the Rapid City firm Gunderson Palmer. “Shannon County [which overlaps much of the Oglalas’ Pine Ridge Indian Reservation] gets a satellite office, and the Help America Vote Act foots the bill. 

At press time, the lead plaintiff, South Dakota’s secretary of state and head elections official Jason Gant, had not replied to a request for a comment. Plaintiffs’ attorney Steven Sandven, of Sioux Falls, is shown near left, with Four Directions consultant Bret Healy, far left foreground, and Semans, far left background. 

Payback time
Frankenstein also said that because the case was dismissed, the defendants get to recover costs and perhaps fees from the losing parties. “It is a huge financial burden lifted,” she said.

“That’s breathtaking,” said Healy. “They have the insurance public officials typically hold to cover lawsuits. We all met the plaintiffs via their depositions—single parents, one with an epileptic child, others caring for infirm elders, from one of the poorest counties in the nation. The state of South Dakota and the counties are really going to do this? God have pity on their souls.”

“Won’t happen,” said Semans. “It’s just a way to scare off Natives who might want to ask for equal rights in the future.”

“Granting costs would discourage plaintiffs from bringing suits to enforce the Voting Rights Act and would be contrary to the fundamental purpose of the Act,” agreed Laughlin McDonald, director emeritus of the ACLU Voting Rights Project. He also doubted it would happen.

McDonald, who has litigated Native enfranchisement cases since 1983, explained that a prevailing party in a federal case is ordinarily entitled to recover costs, but not when it comes to voting rights. “Federal courts have denied or severely limited recovery in those cases,” said McDonald.

What about recovering attorney’s fees? “I think such a motion would be filed in bad faith and even subject to sanctions,” said McDonald.

Shaking loose HAVA
Frankenstein said that in negotiations on her side, she persuaded the secretary of state to change what she termed “internal policies” and release South Dakota’s HAVA money for the satellite office in Shannon County, which overlaps much of Pine Ridge. He could do this, she said, because in May 2008, South Dakota had completed HAVA’s initial requirement to modernize elections with up-to-date voting machines and the like.

From then on, Frankenstein said, the state was free to spend its federal HAVA appropriation on additional ways to improve elections, including satellite offices. Brooks v. Gant testimony and court documents confirm this. In Judge Schreier’s opinion, she noted that Shannon County residents had “minimal” early-voting access until Brooks v. Gant was filed.

This all stands in startling contradiction to statements by state and county officials over the past several years. They maintained in many public meetings and national and local press reports that Shannon County simply couldn’t afford the scope of elections found in other parts of South Dakota.

“So, as of 2008, money was no longer an issue—but they kept that quiet,” said Healy.

“This is far from over,” said Semans. “Until Native Americans are able to participate equally in the political process, our social and economic challenges will not change.”

At this moment, though, Native voters should be pleased, said McLaughlin. “They got what they wanted through the next several elections. It’s a victory.”

Photograph of Sandven et al. by William Campbell, courtesy Four Directions. Scales of justice by Perhelion (CC0); currency image from Benutzer:Verwüstung; both via Wikimedia Commons. This article was written with support from the George Polk Center for Investigative Reporting. c. Stephanie Woodard.

Custer’s Revenge: Supreme Court Guts VRA on Little Big Horn Anniversary

Originally published in Indian Country Today in June 2013. For more on the effects of the decision in South Dakota, go here.
Voters in Pine Ridge, South Dakota.
“We’re still paying for defeating Custer!” exclaimed OJ Semans, Sicangu Lakota co-director of the voting-rights group Four Directions. He was laughing, but described himself as entirely serious in noting that 137 years to the day after Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his forces were wiped out, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an important section of the Voting Rights Act, which protects minority voters.

Congress passed the VRA in 1965 and reauthorized it with nearly unanimous support in 2006. The portion the Supreme Court invalidated was Section 4, which provided the formula by which states or local governments with a history of discrimination were covered by Section 5’s “preclearance” procedures. When planning new voting laws or practices, covered jurisdictions had to run them by the Department of Justice or the courts for advance approval.

Following the court’s June 25 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, that is no longer necessary—unless Congress can come up with a new formula for preclearance.

“The decision is a great loss to Native Americans,” said Judith Dworkin, managing partner of the law firm Sacks Tierney and co-author of an amicus brief on behalf of the Navajo Nation, Semans and others that delineated reasons why the court should uphold the law. “I went through the decision to see if there was any mention of Native people and found no references. It was very disappointing.”

Writing for the five-judge majority, Chief Justice Roberts said preclearance, which applied to some states, but not all, was “a dramatic departure from the principle that all States enjoy equal sovereignty.” He opined that this differentiation among the states was no longer necessary. Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito concurred.

Though “voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that,” Roberts explained, great strides have been made. He pointed out, among other examples, that two Southern towns where voting-rights advocates were once tear-gassed, beaten and murdered now have African-American mayors.
Semans, 2nd from right, explains early-voting proposal.

President Obama said the Supreme Court had upset “decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair,” while U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called the decision “a serious setback for voting rights.” Holder said the Justice Department will continue to challenge discriminatory voting practices.

So will the American Civil Liberties Union, said Dale Ho, director of its Voting Rights Project: “Today’s decision does not change the fact that voting discrimination remains unlawful.”

Semans saw it this way: “Section 4’s rules were the ammunition for Section 5. Without the ammunition, the gun doesn’t work. Basically they’re saying that states and counties can discriminate against us until, or if, Congress gets around to devising a new formula.”

Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion is scathing. “The Court errs egregiously,” she wrote. She did not buy the states-rights argument, claiming Congress’s power is “at its height” when protecting the right to vote. She noted that the majority opinion says that discrimination still exists. She went on to list current-day examples, including gerrymandering, creation of at-large districts that dilute minority votes and more.

But the Court today terminates the remedy that proved to be best suited to block that discrimination,” wrote Ginsburg, who was joined in her dissent by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan.

“Look at a place like South Dakota, which has long been notorious for restricting Native voting rights,” said Greg Lembrich, legal director of Four Directions and an attorney at the firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. “Right now, because of the Shelby v Holder decision, there are no longer any covered jurisdictions there. Lembrich noted that, among other issues, some reservation residents in South Dakota and in other states do not have as many days to vote as those living off reservations—a problem Four Directions is seeking to solve. 

SD Sen. Jim Bradford votes in Pine Ridge.
Preclearance wasn’t important only because it made the Justice Department and the courts into voting-rights gatekeepers, according to Dworkin. It also made people think, she said: “A state or county proposing a new rule may not have realized at first that the change was discriminatory, but the need to preclear it meant they considered that. There was a deterrent effect.”

Dworkin said the Shelby County v Holder ruling created long-term concerns for Native communities nationwide, as well as immediate ones, including Arizona’s current redistricting plan, which is before a federal court. “If the court tells us we have come up with another plan, it’ll be done without the protections of Section 5,” Dworkin said.

And without general understanding of hurdles Native voters face, she added: “Those who are not familiar with reservations don’t recognize the barriers to enfranchisement experienced there.”

Just mail in your ballot? Not an option on most tribal homelands, said Dworkin: “Many counties are looking for ways to save money and may turn to this as a way of doing so. But if you live in an isolated place on a reservation and travel many miles once a week to check a post office box you share with others, you may not receive your mail-in ballot. We need a robust system of polling places to make sure reservation residents can vote.”
John Robinson, Northern Cheyenne.

Lembrich wondered whether Congress could rise to the challenge of creating a new preclearance formula: “If we had a functional Congress, we could see this as an opportunity to write the Voting Rights Act for the 21st century. Some jurisdictions might come off the list of those needing preclearance, but I think you would see Native American jurisdictions added.” (At right, Northern Cheyenne official scrutinizes Montana reapportionment map.)

However, Lembrich said, “That is predicated on Congress doing something. Anyone who has been following Washington and its gridlock will wonder if that’s probable.”

Litigation under another portion of the VRA—Section 2—is still possible, though cumbersome and time-consuming, Ginsburg wrote in her dissent: “An illegal scheme might be in place for several election cycles before a [Section 2] plaintiff can gather sufficient evidence to challenge it.” 

Said Semans: “Section 5 implementation wasn’t perfect. The DOJ precleared use of voter IDs even where requiring them discriminated against Native Americans, who tend not to have the types of ID that white people have. South Dakota simply ignored preclearance for years. But Section 2 is not affected at all by this decision.”

The voting-rights cases Four Directions is now involved with—Brooks v Gant in South Dakota and Wandering Medicine v McCulloch in Montana, both of which are still before the courts—were brought under Section 2, Semans pointed out. 

The group will continue to fight for equality for all, Semans said. “What one gets, all deserve. If states or counties discriminate, guess what? We’re coming for you. 

Photographs by Stephanie Woodard. This article was written with support from the George Polk Center for Investigative Reporting. c. Stephanie Woodard.

Boycott! Crow Creek Sioux yank border town business

Originally published in two installments in Indian Country Today in July 2013. 

Crow Creek Sioux Tribe's reservation lies along the Missouri River in central South Dakota.

Crow Creek Sioux Tribe chairman Brandon Sazue is willing to drive an hour across the rolling central South Dakota grasslands that separate his reservation from Pierre, the state capital, in order to buy sneakers for his kids. He has declared a personal economic boycott of Chamberlain, the reservation border town that’s a half-hour closer.

Chamberlain is where he and other tribal members have long shopped and done business. However, its high school wouldn’t allow a Sioux honor song to be performed during its recent late-May graduation—in spite of a Native enrollment of about one-third of the student body and despite a staff and student petition requesting it. The song was eventually presented, but outdoors across the street rather than inside at the ceremony.

The tall, strapping chairman is still fuming. “Their refusal is ringing in my ears,” Sazue said. Never one to shy away from controversy, in 2009 he camped on Crow Creek land in the dead of winter in order to prevent its seizure by the IRS (see photographs below).

The tribe’s history has been especially painful, and opportunities to celebrate are valued. Fort Thompson, South Dakota, where most of the 3,000-member tribe lives, was originally a prison camp. Most tribal members are descended from Dakotas exiled there from Minnesota after the Dakota–U.S. War of 1862. The journey was so grueling that untold numbers died of starvation and disease, writes Mdewakanton Dakota author Diane Wilson in Beloved Child: A Dakota Way of Life. A Fort Thompson missionary reported that in 1864 most of his students were older children, so many younger ones had died, said Wilson.

Sazue protecting land from seizure by the IRS during the winter of 2009.
Sazue isn’t requiring anyone else to join his boycott, and it’s not known at this time how many have followed his lead, other than the tribe’s Lode Star Casino, in Fort Thompson. The casino’s board of directors voted during the first week of June to begin purchasing goods and services—from beverages to air-conditioner repair—from non-Chamberlain suppliers, Sazue said.

Is the boycott hurting the town of Chamberlain? “No comment,” responded Ashley Chrisinger, who is assistant director of the area’s chamber of commerce. “That’s between the school board and the tribe. We don’t want any part of that.”

Nationwide, researchers have found that Native American funds flow generously to reservation border towns like Chamberlain, counties and states. Even impoverished tribes, like Crow Creek and other South Dakota Sioux reservations—long ranked by the U.S. Census among the very poorest jurisdictions in the nation—contribute mightily. In large part, that’s because many reservations have few, or no, businesses. As a result, people living and/or working on tribal homelands shop in nearby towns, paying whatever taxes are charged along with the price of goods and services, according to a study by Ethel Steinmetz and Thomas O. Skjervold.
Sazue in 2009 accepting other Sioux tribes' letters of support.

In 2011, Nebraska state senator LeRoy J. Louden told the news site that Walmart placed a superstore in Chadron, Nebraska, to take advantage of nearby Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. “That store was built because of the reservation,” Louden said.

Whether or not Chamberlain is feeling the boycott, it may be riling up the citizenry. In a letter published May 25 in the local Daily Republic newspaper, area rancher Steve Novotny dismissed Natives as recipients of “cradle to grave” federal payments. The rancher suggested eliminating these as a reverse boycott of Crow Creek. 

He wrote, “You pull yours, we’ll pull ours. Then we’ll see who’s paying the bills, won’t we?”

On June 11, the nearby Yankton Sioux Tribe’s chairman, Thurman Cournoyer, responded to Novotny’s letter. He reminded Daily Republic readers of the treaties the United States signed with the tribes and noted that the rancher is the beneficiary of (so far) more than $500,000 in federal farm subsidies.

Doing the numbers
Novotny is one of many South Dakotans on the federal dole. The state ranks eighth in the nation for federal subsidies to its agricultural operations, collecting $11.1 billion from 1995 to 2012, according to the Environmental Working Group’s farm subsidy database.

“Pull my subsidies. Go right ahead. I’ll figure out something else, and I’ll still be here,” said Novotny, who volunteered that he is not racist. He added that welfare recipients of any race, along with children of rich people, were “worthless” because they all thought they were entitled to something for nothing.

According to Novotny, “The country simply can’t afford to keep on paying people not to work.” In discussing the conservation subsidies he receives to keep land out of production, Novotny, who owns a hunting outfitter, explained that not working a tract improves its environment and increases wildlife, which in turn benefits hunters.

Another area rancher, Bret Healy, took issue with stances like Novotny’s: “You ought not cast stones at others who are participating in federal programs while you are receiving taxpayers’ dollars to keep land out of production—then charging taxpayers to hunt wildlife on that land.”

Meanwhile, South Dakota is fourth in the nation for dependence on Washington for its state budget, with federal dollars paying the tab for nearly half of everything from health care to law enforcement. It’s a state where individuals and government depend—a lot—on other people’s money. That includes Indian money.

Fort Randall Casino.
In his book The Rights of Indians and Tribes, attorney Steven Pevar cites several academic research papers on tribes’ shares of their states’ economies. In a 2009 study, for example, economist Steven Peterson determined that five Idaho tribes together contributed nearly a billion dollars in economic activity to the state, while producing nearly $25 million in state and local taxes. Another study Pevar includes in his book found that from 1979 to 2002 Wyoming received $283 million more in taxes from one Indian nation’s mineral production than it returned in services and other funding.

Dr. Malia Villegas, Alutiiq/Sugpiaq and policy research center director of the National Congress of American Indians noted additional studies revealing that tribes and tribal entities are economic engines in California, North Dakota, Oregon and Washington, among others.

Gaming at casinos, such as the Crow Creek’s Lode Star Casino, the Yankton Sioux Tribe’s Fort Randall Casino (above) and many others, is the source of much tribal money. The National Indian Gaming Association has published nationwide figures for 2009: $26 billion in gross revenues; $3.2 billion for associated expenditures such as entertainment and lodging; $9.4 billion in federal taxes and other payments; and $2.4 billion for state taxes and other payments. Indian gaming’s job creation was substantial—628,000 jobs for American Indians and others, said NIGA.

In Connecticut, according to Pevar, a 2005 study calculated that tribal casinos created 65,000 jobs and contributed $1 billion to the state budget, while rescuing the deteriorating economy of the southeastern portion of the state.

Powwow dancer.
Casinos are not the only reservation employers; non-Indians as well as Indians work at additional enterprises, tribal departments, nonprofits and schools. The many powwows and other Native events generate even more economic activity. The United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, North Dakota, reckoned in 2011 that its annual powwow had a direct contribution to the local economy of $4.7 million (excluding taxes and other associated impacts). Also that year, Alaska television station KTVA reported that the Alaska Federation of Natives meeting was Anchorage’s biggest convention, bringing in $7.2 million in spending on hotels and more, according to the city’s convention and visitor’s bureau.

We must not forget leasing, said Native American Rights Fund attorney Brett Lee Shelton, who is Oglala Lakota. He noted that farmers, ranchers, mining operations, oil companies and many more individuals and businesses lease Indian land—benefitting from access to tribal resources, as well as from the bargain-basement prices the Bureau of Indian Affairs sometimes charges.

The United States has a long history of valuing Indian resources at below-market rates when it leases or sells those resources to outsiders, according to Shelton. “This is a huge drain on Indian economies and is essentially a taking of resources that hadn’t yet been taken in the treaty-making process. If you wanted to design a system to keep Indian landowners poor, you would use exactly this sort of trick.”

Lawsuits may result. In 2011, Indian owners of 42,000 acres of allotments on the Fort Berthold Reservation, in North Dakota’s Bakken oil-producing region, sued the U.S. government. The allottees alleged that the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is responsible for leasing Indian land in the “best interests” of its owners, approved leases for as little as $110 per acre. The suit charges that the leases were then “flipped” for as much as $10,000 per acre. The lawsuit is still before the courts.

Looking forward
At Crow Creek, the boycott has generated not just short-term controversy but long-term plans, said Sazue. He had threatened to pull the millions the casino generates out of its account at a Chamberlain bank. However, he has left the money in place for now and has decided instead to look into creating a bank in Fort Thompson. “It would be a great convenience for tribal members,” he said.

An on-reservation bank also makes sense in the context of the tribe’s economic development plans, including a wind-power initiative that Crow Creek, five additional Sioux tribes and law firm Arent Fox just announced at the 2013 Clinton Global Initiative America. Then there’s the business incubator and strip mall planned for Fort Thompson by Hunkpati Investments, a U.S. Treasury-certified community development financial institution (CDFI), the chairman said.

Sazue would not provide further details about the bank, other than to say it would provide enduring benefits. “It would mean we keep as much of our economy here as possible. It would be very good for us.”

In the meantime, he and others are not giving up the honor song dispute at Chamberlain High School (shown right), which garnered interest from Natives nationwide. The influential Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association passed a resolution in favor of having the song at the graduation ceremony, Sazue said. Civil rights leader Oliver Semans, Sicangu Lakota, reports that tribal representatives from as far away as Alaska wrote to the school superintendent to encourage her to allow this tribute to the students.

Said Sazue, “The song is for all students, to honor their accomplishments.”

Photographs by Stephanie Woodard, except photos of the 2009 encampment, which are courtesy Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, and of the Chamberlain High School, which are courtesy of the school.  c. Stephanie Woodard.

Homes Sweet Homes: Innovative Sioux housing projects

Originally published in Indian Country Today in July 2013.

“In building homes for tribal members, our students will learn computer-design and building skills, how to bid on a job and more,” said Oren Voice, wood-shop teacher at the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation’s high school, in Stephan, South Dakota. “It’ll give them a good technical education and help them prepare for careers.” 

Under the supervision of Voice, who is a tribal member (shown at left below), and a team of three additional faculty members, a crew of 11 students began building a home on the reservation on Tuesday, June 4. By Thursday, the students (shown above) had the subfloor in place and had framed two walls, using conventional balloon construction. “We’re ahead of schedule and should have no problem finishing the entire home, kitchen cabinetry and all, by November,” said Voice. “Then a family can move in.”

The dwellings will help the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe chip away at not just unemployment among tribal members, but also a critical need for housing experienced on almost all reservations throughout the country. Tens of thousands of Native families live in overcrowded, substandard housing, according to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in its 2003 report, The Quiet Crisis: Federal Funding and Unmet Needs in Indian Country. The homes may not have utilities, telephones, complete kitchens and other amenities other Americans take for granted.

As soon as the students finish the first house, they’ll start another one, said Voice. He was thrilled to report that the kids haven’t forgotten anything he taught them last year: “In fact, they told me they’re so happy they took my class.”

The youngsters will learn about furnishing and decorating houses from Margie Loud Hawk, from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, who teaches Family Consumer Science. To help with future job hunting, the youngsters will get certificates of participation and help creating résumés, added Nova Griss (seen above), who teaches business and computer skills.

“I’d say half of Crow Creek’s population is in homes where families are doubled up,” said Voice. There may be hundreds of applicants when new places become available, he said. “I grew up here. I am very familiar with this.”

The Crow Creek tribal council provided seed funding for the program, including money to buy the necessary tools, and will buy the homes when they’re finished. More support for the project will come from sales of large- and small-scale decorative metalwork by students of automotive shop teacher Troy Naser (shown right). He gave the rest of the team a look at pieces already finished pieces for the tribal housing department and other clients. 

The hunting scenes, galloping ponies and other vivid imagery showed artistic talent and careful craftsmanship—a harbinger of more top-notch work to come from Crow Creek’s youngsters.

Home on the Rez
More creative housing projects are shaping up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, also in South Dakota. In the southwestern corner of Pine Ridge, Milo Yellow Hair has a plan. He was looking up at the massive exposed ceiling beams (left) of a two-story home built at Slim Buttes Agricultural Development Corporation, a nonprofit on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in South Dakota, and another recipient of Running Strong for Native American Youth funding. 

“Isn’t it beautiful?” exclaimed Yellow Hair, the Slim Buttes service coordinator. “I wish this kind of house for everyone at Pine Ridge.”

The dwelling, shown below, had an open-plan kitchen-plus-family-room downstairs, a sleeping loft upstairs and a feeling of soaring solidity. Yellow Hair, who is Oglala, pointed out the wooden pegs, instead of nails, joining the timbers—a building technique harking back to both medieval Europe and ancient Japan. “You can use various materials, such as bricks or adobe, to fill in the walls,” he said, adding that such homes are easy to keep warm. “We heat this one with just one woodstove.”

Yellow Hair envisions Slim Buttes creating timber-frame house kits. “For our people, it’s good when we have things we make with our own hands.”

On the north end of the reservation, Oglala Lakota College and local high schools are working on a research project with Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, in Sharp’s Corner, and Pyatt Studio, the Boulder, Colorado firm of architect Rob Pyatt. Students are building straw-bale and other innovative homes and outfitting them with monitors to assess energy efficiency and air quality, according to Pyatt Studio architect Kimberly Drennan.

The straw-bale home was started last summer and will be finished this summer, said Drennan, with three more dwellings to go—using structural insulated panels, an updated form of balloon framing that uses less lumber and compressed-earth blocks. The construction technique that the sensors reveal is most efficient will be used for housing stock Thunder Valley will build in a live-and-work community it plans for the reservation.

Each house the students build is a learning experience, said Drennan: “Every one helps us create benchmarks for the next one.”

If I Had a Hammer
This summer on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, families can go after those leaky faucets, missing roof shingles and more with grants for up to $1,000 to fix and upgrade their homes. They need to be homeowners and members of the Cheyenne River Youth Project’s Family Services program, said April Bachman, CRYP’s finance manager. Members can also to take advantage of other CRYP many activities for children, including afterschool activities and leadership projects. Funding for the home improvement comes from Running Strong for Native American Youth.

Photographs of Pine Ridge/Slim Buttes by Stephanie Woodard; Crow Creek images courtesy Crow Creek Tribal Schools. c. Stephanie Woodard.

Hatching Economic Development: A Business Incubator on Crow Creek

Originally published in Indian Country Today in June 2013.

“I want to develop my breakfast-burrito business into a restaurant,” said Lisa Lengkeek, a member of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe and 2013 winner of the South Dakota Indian Business Alliance contest for best business plan of the year (shown below left, with a customer). “I make the burritos at home and deliver them to a lot of customers, who I’m sure would patronize the restaurant.”
However, to open an eatery on the Crow Creek reservation, Lengkeek would have to start from the ground up, she said. She meant that literally: “There is no commercial space here—not one building I can rent. I would have to scrape the ground, pour cement, buy lumber, start hammering…”

Other entrepreneurs on the Crow Creek reservation are in the same position, whether they contemplate starting or expanding a company, she said. “My sister-in-law wants to open a florist’s shop, my daughter would like to sell scoops of ice cream, along with homemade jams, salsas and the like.” But they’d each need something like $40,000 upfront just to put up a building to house their enterprise, Lengkeek said.

“We have a dearth of storefronts,” said Elaine Kennedy, business coach and loan officer at Hunkpati Investments, a U.S. Treasury-certified community development financial institution (CDFI) in the Crow Creek tribe’s capital, Fort Thompson. If entrepreneurs leap initial hurdles, such as lack of equity to secure a bank loan, they soon hit other barriers, including no place to store inventory or set up additional workers as orders roll in. It’s hard to imagine any enterprises, even internet-oriented ones, that don’t require some kind of shelter, said Kennedy: “As a result, most of our few existing businesses are barebones. People can become discouraged.”

The solution is a business incubator, which would provide sorely needed infrastructure, according to Corrie Ann Campbell, an entrepreneur and educator who has just taken over as the CDFI’s new director. “Hunkpati’s board of directors is very committed to the incubator, and a lot of planning for it has already been done,” Campbell said. Among other steps, the tribe has provided land and $200,000 in funding. Campbell is now looking for another $800,000.

“When Hunkpati asked if the tribe could help, I was more than willing,” said tribal vice-chairperson Eric Big Eagle. “To start or expand businesses, our people currently have few options.”

“This council is open to new ideas,” added tribal treasurer Roland Hawk. “The old ways certainly didn’t work, and now we have to find out what does.”

Since Hunkpati’s founding in 2009, it has jump-started small businesses with entrepreneurship courses, financial-literacy classes, credit-building programs, a buy-local initiative, tax-preparation help and technical assistance in areas like market research and funding. Along with a partner, community-development group Harvest Initiative, the CDFI has provided loans and grants to an auto-and-small-engine-repair shop, a quilting enterprise, a roofing service and numerous other concerns—but much more could be done, Kennedy said.

Standing in central Fort Thompson, Campbell pointed out the spot where the building will go, near the Lodestar Casino, the tribal-owned motel and Hunkpati’s current offices. “The front portion will be for businesses,” Campbell said. “We’ll also have space for classrooms, meeting rooms and offices for business coaches.” During the fundraising phase, the design will remain flexible, she said. This will accommodate preferences funders have for the way their money is spent.

Campbell wants the incubator up and running ASAP: “We’re working to secure funding within the next year. Hunkpati has such positive momentum.” Bottom line, Campbell said, “A lot of people around here are working for change.”

“The wheels are turning,” said Big Eagle. “It’s for the future and the children.”

c. Stephanie Woodard. Photographs courtesy Hunkpati Investments.

Dig It! Northern Plains Gardeners Grow Food, Health and Sovereignty

Originally published in Indian Country Today in June 2013.

Oglala gardeners get ready to plant greens on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
“I want to saturate Pine Ridge with healthy vegetables,” said Steve Hernandez, Oglala Sioux Tribe gardening instructor. “The interest in gardening here is huge, and education is key. Through classes in everything from soil preparation to preserving the harvest, we ensure that our people are learning do this for themselves.”

For Oglalas, eating fresh, organic produce will mean better health. It’s a declaration of sovereignty, according to Hernandez, a tribal member and a former educator for South Dakota State University’s extension service. And it’s starkly practical as well, he said: “Most of our food is trucked in. If there’s bad weather—common on the Plains—it doesn’t get through.”

Working out of Oglala Vice President Tom Poor Bear’s office, Hernandez facilitates collaboration among a huge network of groups and individuals who spent the month of May tilling, planting and laying out drip irrigation lines throughout the reservation. These include Pine Ridge schools from pre-K through college; a youth emergency shelter in Pine Ridge village; Lakota Funds, in Kyle, which provides loans and grants; and Kyle’s youth center, Oyate Teca, where kids participate in gardening and other wholesome activities.

Melania Two Hearts, 6, in Old West Gypsy Markets garden.
According to Oyate Teca director Rose Frazier, the center also hosts the Lakota Ranch Beginning Farmer/Rancher Program, with courses for adults in horticulture and animal husbandry. Then there’s Chet Marks, a master gardener and advisor from Nebraska, and National Relief Charities, a Rapid City nonprofit that turns up each spring to till plots on Pine Ridge and other reservations.

More members of the green team: Through Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots program and their Can Wigmunke nonprofit, Patricia Hammond, Oglala, and her husband. Jason Schoch, put in school and community gardens and give teachers’ workshops. Outside the couple’s Kyle café and gift shop, Old West Gypsy Market, covered stalls serve as a summer market for gardeners and artists. On a recent late May afternoon, Hammond took time out from making cappuccinos to plant greens with Lena Nicolaysen, 8½; Melania Two Hearts, 6; and Nicole Cournoyer, 9 (shown at top, left to right, with Hammond). 

Slim Buttes tipi trellis.
Before area gardeners can get the fruits of their labor onto the plate—let alone into a market—they face formidable obstacles, said Tom Cook, Mohawk, director of another major local gardening organization: Slim Buttes Agricultural Development Corporation, in the reservation’s southwest corner. During a 10-week bilingual radio series on KILI, the Pine Ridge station, Cook and service coordinator Milo Yellow Hair, encourage their neighbors to stand firm through a near-Biblical onslaught of plagues.

In an ordinary growing season on the Northern Plains, indeed during an ordinary week, a gardener may face drought, grasshoppers, tornadoes, thunderstorms, hail, ceramic-hard soil and raccoons and other four-legged raiders. Then there’s the heat, which is worsening as the planet heats up. “Between June and August last year, there were only five days below 95 degrees,” recalled Cook. “I have watched the climate change."

Cook, who is married to tribal member Loretta Afraid of Bear, has been helping Pine Ridge tackle these challenges since 1985. With support from Running Strong for Native American Youth, Plenty International and other funders, Slim Buttes’s 18-plus workers till more than 400 Pine Ridge household plots annually. These provide nearly 2,500 people with fresh fruits and vegetables—a little more than 6 percent of the reservation’s population.

Milo Yellow Hair checks Slim Buttes seedlings.
The group hands out some 20,000 seedlings from its greenhouse, along with grocery sacks of seeds for peas, beans, peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, squash and more. Also included are plants, such as the medicinal herb Echinacea, that have prominent blossoms and help attract pollinators.

Bees, a crucial pollinator for many popular crops, may be facing dire health problems and the collapse of entire colonies across the continent—but not at Slim Buttes, according to Yellow Hair (at right). The group’s biodynamic methods (a type of organic horticulture) are pollinator-friendly, he explained, as we watched a bee meandering above the garden, seeking blooms: “Everything is interrelated.”

At Slim Buttes, gardeners amend the soil with needed nutrients, as they might anywhere, said Yellow Hair, who is Oglala. But they also pray: “Prayer is a little-understood energy source. Every day, everything we do coalesces the forces of the universe into our soil.”

Slim Buttes gardeners also go swimming—in a giant, pale-green culvert upended to serve as a pool, while a nearby taller culvert is used as a water tank. “It’s our swimming hole,” said Yellow Hair.

Gardens provide liveliness, fun and beauty, in addition to fruits and vegetables, said Schoch, of Old West Gypsy Market: “Gardens are gathering places. They make the community a nice place.”

Crow Creek compost, ready for gardens.
On the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation, along the Missouri River in central South Dakota, gardeners pick up packs of seeds and tools from Billy Joe Sazue, coordinator of the gardens program of Hunkpati Investments, a community development organization in Fort Thompson, South Dakota. First Nations Development Institute supports the program, which allows reservation residents to plant their own patches or help tend the 90-by-150-foot community plot in return for a share of its output. At the seed giveaway, staples like potatoes, onions and corn went fast—but salsa ingredients were really popular, said Sazue.

“There’s real excitement about gardening here,” said Corrie Ann Campbell, Oglala and the new director of Hunkpati. “It’s taking off. My first week on the job was last week, and everyone was coming into the office to pick up seeds. That’s in addition to what was going into the community garden.” (Campbell and Sazue are shown above.)

Sazue ensures that people have instructions for what they want to grow and the type of plot that’s right for them: “Elders might get gardens with raised beds, for example; being higher, they’re easier for older people to tend.”

Youth are much involved; Boys and Girls Club participants and others tend gardens, run farm stands, sell jams and bank their earnings in savings accounts.

Improving health is primary, according to Sazue. Campbell explained: “The focus on health comes out of love, as much as anything. People love their relatives and want each other to be around a long time.”

Economic development is also high on the list, as it is for other reservations. Crow Creek’s farmers market will be accepting electronic payments as well as cash this coming summer, said Sazue, a Crow Creek tribal member. “This will show participants gardening can generate a seasonal income. We are also looking into helping them create value-added products such as preserves and salsa.” Such items have the added benefit of allowing sellers to utilize produce that is not perfect enough for the farmers market.

Steve Hernandez and Pauletta Red Willow choose a garden site.
“Crow Creek’s gardens are woven into so many Hunkpati projects,” said the organization’s outgoing director, Krystal Langholz.

At Pine Ridge, Hernandez looks forward to the day when Pine Ridge will have a mobile commercial kitchen to do the canning right in the fields, in addition to its already-existing farmers markets—mobile and stationary. (Hernandez is shown right at the emergency youth shelter directed by his wife, Pauletta Red Willow.) Hernandez also anticipated producing enough to supply Pine Ridge schools and the commodities program with fresh, local, organic food. “Eventually, we could sell over the Internet,” he said.

Web-based sales are already underway on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, in north-central South Dakota, where the Cheyenne River Youth Project’s garden output doesn’t just provide healthy meals and snacks to the after-school and summer program. The surplus is made into salsas, pickles and preserves and sold in a gift shop, as well via the Internet, to help support the project.

Said Sazue at Crow Creek: “There’s much more we can do here—we could raise buffalo and cattle and feed our children and our elders really well.”

Getting better food onto the school lunch tray came up on every reservation visited for this story. But the way schools feed children has changed over the years, said Aubrey Skye, Hunkpapa Lakota and coordinator for the Native Gardens Project of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Diabetes Program, in Fort Yates, North Dakota. Skye, shown below, explained that many of today’s cafeterias—on and off reservations—don’t have cooks, but rather staffers who simply heat and serve ready-made meals. As a result, much has to be considered before fresh food can be integrated into school lunches.

Aubrey Skye at Standing Rock.
“We’re talking to North Dakota’s Farms to School program and other organizations about a pilot project for a middle school here at Standing Rock,” said Skye. “We need to figure out ways to store perishables, including freezing, and must produce a booklet of institutional-size recipes. We’ll start with one school, and hopefully it’ll catch on. Then more local farmers can sell to the schools to generate income.”

Sazue reported similar efforts at Crow Creek: “One of our partners, Harvest Initiative, out of Iowa, is starting a school garden, and we’re looking into ways to preserve the output.”

At Standing Rock, Skye is also working with Pete Red Tomahawk, a former tribal official, on ideas for a bigger operation that could grow vegetables in quantities large enough to feed more of the community. Food security is a big issue for tribes, said Skye: “We must ensure our future by becoming more self-determined and less dependent on the federal government.”

However, a century and a half of relying on federal food handouts means tribal members may think of food as free—not something to be bought and sold. “We have to change how people think, and that’s a difficult task,” Skye said.

But right now, Skye has 30 more gardens to till. He’s already done 70. This is the fifth year of a six-year Centers for Disease Control grant that finds him putting in 100-plus plots annually on Standing Rock. It’s a gratifying job that lets him live close to the land. He encourages others to do the same. “I like the freedom I have here to garden and hunt and gather,” said Skye. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”

Said Frazier, of Oyate Teca on Pine Ridge: “Gardening and sustainability are here to stay.”

Artful Reuse

“Recycling” may be the usual term for what Rhonda Sankey does with unexpected items in her garden in Lame Deer, Montana, on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. But that’s such an earnest word. Even, dare we say, boring. Sankey’s inspired approach is better described with the French word bricolage. It means basically the same thing—but with flair!

Ryhal Rowland, Northern Cheyenne, took me to meet Sankey, who is Blackfeet, as she landscaped her front yard with a line of 10 blue spruce obtained from the extension service Rowland directs. Sankey finished up and took us on a tour of her place, which features flowering and fruiting plants and shrubs, a vegetable garden and creative ideas everywhere we looked.

Practicality met panache. A disused car became a greenhouse, shown above. Sankey’s 10-year-old daughter, Nonee White, who is Northern Cheyenne, climbed in to show us tomatoes, peppers and other plants sprouting in containers on the seat.

Trampolines that had first been wrapped with chicken wire to shelter newly hatched chicks were disassembled, so the circular frames could be used to suspend hanging plants. Wooden pallets were ready-made raised beds (“no sawing and nailing”), while stacked tires were filled with dirt to grow potatoes (“dig a hole and place them over it, so you need fewer tires”). Dirt-filled gunny sacks, such as those above right, were another potato-growing option. Sankey’s compost included manure from the chickens, goats and other animals she raises.

In the house, a row of iced-tea bottles, above, sheltered morning glories seeds that could eventually produce a living flowery “curtain.”

“Pinterest is a great place to go for re-use ideas,” said Rowland.“Or try Google,” advised Sankey. “Search for whatever you have lying around. I put in ‘trampoline + recycling’ and immediately got lots of suggestions.”

Photographs by Stephanie Woodard. c. Stephanie Woodard.