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Showing posts from August, 2013

South Dakota Voter-Suppression Scandal Escalates

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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 enfranc…

South Dakota Voting Rights Suit Dismissed; Plaintiffs Targeted for Costs

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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 gr…

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

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Originally published in Indian Country Today in June 2013. For more on the effects of the decision in South Dakota, go here.
“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 co…

Boycott! Crow Creek Sioux yank border town business

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



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 cam…

Homes Sweet Homes: Innovative Sioux housing projects

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Originally published in Indian Country Today in July 2013.
“Inbuilding 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…

Hatching Economic Development: A Business Incubator on Crow Creek

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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,…

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

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Originally published in Indian Country Today in June 2013.


“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 reservati…