Law for whites vs. law for Indians

Published Sunday August 8, 1999

PINE RIDGE, S.D. — For years after returning to the rolling hills of his Lakota homeland, John Means battled a darkness worse than Vietnam.

Sometimes without warning, he would sink into horrible depressions. The doctors called it post traumatic stress disorder. When it happened, the Purple Heart recipient often sought solace from an aluminum can or a green bottle, and just as often he would sink even deeper into the darkness.

But somehow, John Means would always re-emerge. Time after time, he fought setback after setback, and he rebuilt part of his life.

On a snowy day in April 1997, his brother got a phone call that many dread on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. As he drove the two miles to Whiteclay, Frank Means made a terrible request.

“I thought, “Oh God, let it be someone who ain’t my brother,’” he recalled. “I know I shouldn’t have asked that, but I just kept thinking it can’t be my brother.” In Whiteclay, Frank Means found his brother. He was in a half-sitting position, frozen on the ground, his scraped fists thrust toward the sky. It looked as though he had struggled before the darkness came … as if he had died an agonizing death.

The Sheridan County Sheriff’s Department investigated. Cause of death: exposure, worsened by intoxication, said Sheriff Terry Robbins.

Both Robbins and Sheridan County Attorney Dennis King said they thoroughly investigate all deaths regardless of race or circumstances. They said they found nothing to suggest Means died under suspicious circumstances.

But the family wasn’t convinced authorities did a thorough job. To this day, they question whether lawmen even looked for evidence of foul play.

“I was very angry,” the brother said recently. “In Sheridan County, Nebraska’s eyes, he was just another Indian, and it seems like every Indian they find up there is alcohol poisoning or exposure.” For American Indians who’ve demonstrated in the tiny border town of Whiteclay over the past six weeks, “intoxication” and “exposure” have emerged as convenient words to stamp on autopsy reports. For them, the criminal-justice system works for whites, but fails dismally for Indians.

Or put another way: When Indians are perpetrators of violent crime, the criminal-justice system reacts swiftly and aggressively. But when Indians are the victims, it is slow and passive.

Not long ago, a detailed government study unveiled a comprehensive portrait of Indian-related violent crime in America — a portrait that underscores some of the allegations now swirling around the northwest corner of Nebraska.

The U.S. Justice Department, in the first study of its kind, found American Indians were victims of violent crime at more than twice the rate of all other American citizens. The study, which examined violent crime in America between 1992 and 1996, also found that in 60 percent of nonfatal violent crimes against Indians, the perpetrators were white. Only 29 percent of all violent crimes against Indians were committed by other Indians.

By comparison, 69 percent of violent crimes against whites were committed by whites. And 81 percent of violent crimes against blacks were committed by blacks.

“The findings reveal a disturbing picture of American Indian involvement in crimes as victims and offenders,” according to the introduction to the study, released in February.

In Pine Ridge, meanwhile, many say the study revealed little that was new. They noted six Indian deaths in and around Whiteclay during the past five years, two of which authorities are investigating as homicides. They question the deaths of two Oglala Lakota men in the Sheridan County Jail since 1995.

They also talk about six Indian deaths in the last 15 months in Rapid City, S.D., where police have ruled out foul play.

And they think of Robert Many Horses, a 22-year-old beaten to death, his body discovered in a Mobridge, S.D., garbage can on June 30. Four white teen-agers charged with the killing are out on bail.

“If that were four Indian men who stuffed a white man in a trash can, we would have been unbondable,” said Tom Poor Bear, an Oglala Lakota whose half-brother and cousin were found murdered near Whiteclay on June 8.

Summed up Poor Bear: “There is a dual standard of justice.” Law enforcement officials strenuously disagree.

Sheriff Robbins and Sheridan County Attorney King both say every unattended county death — regardless of race — is fully investigated before a determination is made. If questions about cause of death exist, autopsies are conducted.

In the two jail deaths, independent investigators and grand juries found no evidence of foul play. Although Pine Ridge is rife with rumors and allegations, Robbins said, they are utterly devoid of hard facts and evidence.

There are no cover-ups or conspiracies, the sheriff stressed. Nor does racism factor into the equation. And allegations of dual standards simply aren’t true.

“Everybody has the same protection, as far as I’m concerned, under Nebraska law, no matter what their nationality is,” he said. In Pine Ridge residents say much of the rage over dead brothers, sons and husbands stems from a widespread frustration that the criminal-justice system habitually fails Indian people.

File a complaint and officials might shuffle a few papers, then do nothing, said Steve Janis, a former paralegal for Western Nebraska Legal Services in Scottsbluff.

In early 1995 Janis interviewed a dozen Oglala Lakota inmates at the Sheridan County Jail. He said he found credible complaints of mistreatment, physical abuse, inadequate medical care and unsanitary conditions.

On Feb. 15, 1995, Janis said, he sent a letter to then-Gov. Ben Nelson, Attorney General Don Stenberg and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, among others. The letter sought an immediate investigation into the jailhouse allegations.

During the next two months, no official investigations were done, said Janis, who no longer works for the legal services agency. The attorney general’s office, he said, found insufficient evidence to engage a Nebraska State Patrol investigation.

“When you mention civil rights in the northwest area of Nebraska, they cringe,” he said. “They want you out of town.” Sheriff Robbins said he was unaware of the work done by Western Nebraska Legal Services. After reading a letter listing allegations against his jail staff, he said they were untrue. Specifically, Robbins said, the jail always passes its annual state inspections.

Another look into Sheridan County legal proceedings occurred in 1993 with the publication of “Native Americans in the Nebraska Justice System.” The study by Kurt Siedschlaw, associate criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, included a review of American Indians in the prison system from 1981 to 1992.

Of 111 offenders sentenced to prison in Sheridan County during the 11-year period, 84 were Indian — or 76 percent in a county where Indians constitute only 7 percent of the population.

The study used raw statistical data and did not do individual case comparisons, Siedschlaw said.

“It’s very difficult making general assessments or conclusions,” he said recently. “To me, it just generated questions about why that number of Native Americans were convicted and sentenced to prison, given the overall percentage of population.” Sheridan County Attorney King said he had an answer. The reason the county convicts so many Indians is because Pine Ridge is a dry reservation. So its residents, he said, go to Rushville, Gordon and Whiteclay for alcohol.

“If the reservation would sell alcohol,” he said, “it would really impact law enforcement in a positive way, because some of those problems wouldn’t be showing up in Sheridan County.” King suggested it was likely most people convicted in the county lived in South Dakota, not Nebraska. If roles were reversed — a “dry” Sheridan County next to a reservation with alcohol establishments — then South Dakota would be sending many more northwest Nebraskans to prison, he said.

“Because, as you know, alcohol and crime seem to go hand in hand,” King said. These days all roads seem to lead to Whiteclay.

The unincorporated village of 22 racks up about $3 million annually in beer sales, mostly to residents of the dry reservation nearby.

And the beer draws street people. Sitting around, drinking from 24-ounce cans of malt liquor, they make easy targets, said Faye Cedar Face, a 47-year-old Oglala from Pine Ridge.

“To Nebraska people, they’re just drunks, but to us, they’re our people,” she said.

In July 1997, Cedar Face said, she undertook an informal investigation that attempted to get at the heart of long-standing allegations of Indian abuse.

A nondrinker, she said she went “undercover” in Whiteclay for a week, posing as a street person. She said she witnessed harassment of Indians by some white store owners and sheriff’s deputies.

“On the reservation you get in trouble if you hit an elderly person,” Cedar Face said. “In Nebraska it’s called being in the line of duty.” She said she obtained handwritten, signed statements from several abused Indians, including a blind woman who said a deputy once punched her in the face. In the end, she said, her cover was blown when a deputy threatened her and her friends interceded.

About a week later tribal leaders called a community meeting in Pine Ridge to discuss her findings. Nebraska law enforcement authorities from the region also attended.

Cedar Face said that when tribal authorities tried to pursue the complaints in Nebraska, they “ran into the stone wall.” Asked if he recalled the meeting, Sheriff Robbins said he remembered people standing and making allegations. He said they supplied no evidence, no facts.

“I’ve looked into some (complaints), but I’ve never been able to find witnesses,” he said. “We couldn’t just go on hearsay.” He vigorously denied accusations that he or his deputies mistreated Indians in Whiteclay. In particular, he defended Deputy Randy Metcalf, a lightning rod for many of the allegations of abuse.

On July 31 Metcalf resigned his post for medical reasons, Robbins said. The sheriff declined to elaborate, but he said Metcalf was not forced to resign because of any allegations.

Several years ago Metcalf also left the Valentine Police Department. Local officials, who declined to elaborate, said he resigned for personal reasons.

Attempts to reach Metcalf to comment were unsuccessful. He declined to return Journal Star phone calls.

Meanwhile, Robbins said, when he and his deputies encounter beer drinkers along the highway running through Whiteclay, they order the beer poured out. If the drinkers refuse or are seen drinking a second time, they are arrested.

When officers see an intoxicated person, they have limited choices. With only one, eight-bed alcohol rehabilitation center in the area, it’s nearly impossible to admit drunken people into the program. Instead, most must be taken into protective custody, which involves a stay of eight to 24 hours at the Sheridan County Jail.

Each week the department’s three officers (including Robbins) take four or five Indians into protective custody. He said he could see how that might be perceived as “harassment.” “We have a duty to serve the public,” Robbins said. “Whether they like what we’re doing, we’re here to serve the public.” One day recently, Loren Black Elk stood beneath a cluster of Russian olive trees providing shade from a powerful Pine Ridge sun. Behind him was a cluster of tipis in a pasture along a highway just north of Whiteclay.

The tipis have provided temporary shelter for those living in Camp Justice.

After awhile, Black Elk left the shade and walked a well-worn trail down a short, steep hill. He stopped at a small, triangular fence of wooden posts and 2-by-4s. Inside the memorial were flags, tobacco ties, prayer bundles, oranges and cans of soda — offerings to the spirits of the two men found slain here on June 8.

One was his brother, Wilson Black Elk Jr., and the other his cousin, Ronald Hard Heart.

The two deaths prompted high-profile marches on Whiteclay. They created the tipi camp. And they have led many Indian people to say enough.

The support galvanized Black Elk. Gradually, the spiritual outpouring and sense of camp solidarity helped him cope. “It gave me strength and made me realize what this camp is really here for,” he said. “It also represents the other ones found dead in Whiteclay and the ones found dead in jail.” In the past, it might have looked as if the others were forgotten. But from now on, Black Elk said, the dead will be remembered.

He and others have vowed to remain until the two murders are solved, the killers convicted.

“That’s what this camp’s about,” he said. “Justice.”

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