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RAPID CITY, S.D. — Tomorrow, a federal court in South Dakota will hear opening arguments in a case that will determine if the federal government is providing adequate law-enforcement to one of the nation’s largest Indian reservations. 

In a complaint filed on July 26, 2022, the Oglala Sioux Tribe asserted the federal government has failed to uphold its trust responsibility to the Tribe by providing adequate law enforcement on the 2.1 million-acre Pine Ridge Reservation. The complaint was later amended in October 2022. 

Chief Judge Roberto A. Lange will hear opening statements and arguments over two full days in the trial, which begins tomorrow at 10 a.m. at the Andrew W. Bogue Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Rapid City. Oglala Sioux Tribal President Frank Star Comes Out is scheduled to hold a press conference after the trial to discuss the merits of the case, specifically, how the United States government’s failure to keep their treaty promises has created a crisis of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW) on Pine Ridge.

With a population of more than 40,000, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is the 8th-largest reservation and one of the poorest in the nation. The Department of Interior’s (DOI) Office of Justice Services (OJS) provides Pine Ridge with 33 federally funded officers and eight federally funded criminal investigators to respond to major crimes on the reservation.

The lawsuit names Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, OJS Acting Director Steve Juneau, Special Agent in Charge of District 1 of the DOI’s OJS John Burge, Acting Approving Official for the DOI’s OJS Tina Lopez, Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Darryl LaCounte, and Superintendent of the BIA’s Pine Ridge Agency Gina Douville as defendants. 

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“The threat to the health and safety of all tribal members caused by Defendant’s actions and failure to take action is part of the Tribe’s sovereign governmental interest,” the complaint reads. “In excess of 40,000 people reside on or conduct business on the Pine Ridge Reservation, all of whom are dependent on federally funded BIA law enforcement officers to protect them and their on-reservation property.

According to the Tribe’s complaint, 911 emergency calls on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 2021 included:

  • 794 calls involving an assault
  • 1,463 domestic violence calls
  • 522-gun related calls
  • 541 drug/narcotic calls 
  • 541 reporting missing persons

The Tribe argues that funding can only provide six to eight federal law enforcement officers per shift. According to the DOI, “basic” law enforcement needs 2.8 officers per 1,000 people. If this standard were to be applied to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation service area, the reservation would be approximately 112 federal law enforcement officers.

“The Tribe’s current number of law enforcement officers and criminal investigators is insufficient to fulfill the Defendants’ obligations to keep the peace on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and to fulfill their treaty and trust responsibilities,” the complaint read.

Since 1999, deaths, homicides, drug activities, police-involved accidents, and drug overdoses have increased significantly on Pine Ridge. Gunshots are heard throughout the reservation frequently, causing many community members to fear leaving their homes at night. 

Danielle Finn is an associate law professor at Sinte Gleska University, a Standing Rock Sioux Tribal citizen and a judge for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota. The lawsuit is a matter of tribal sovereignty, Finn told Native News Online

“The Oglala Sioux Tribe is absolutely right to bring this action to protect its sovereign interest,” Finn said in an interivew. “The United States is not upholding its treaty and trust responsibilities to the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

“The Tribe has a right to protect tribal citizens from threats of health and safety with funding for law enforcement coming from the U.S. Department of Interior.” 

Law enforcement jurisdiction on Indian reservations varies across the nation. Public Law 280, a federal statute enacted by Congress in 1953, granted certain states — Alaska, California, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon, and Wisconsin—criminal jurisdiction over American Indians on Indian reservations and allowed civil suits that formerly went through tribal or federal courts to be handled by state courts. 

In some states, there is a mix of local police, tribal police, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) police, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to enforce the laws of tribes, states and the federal government on tribal lands. 

Because South Dakota is not a 280 state, citizens of federally recognized tribes can be arrested, investigated and prosecuted by the federal government for felony crimes. Misdemeanors committed by enrolled are investigated and prosecuted by tribal police, and in this case, the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s Department of Public Safety. Crimes committed by non-citizens of a federally recognized tribe on Indian lands are investigated and prosecuted by the federal government.  

An Oglala Sioux tribal spokesperson responded to an inquiry from Native News Online but was unable to provide comment as of press time.

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About The Author
Author: Darren ThompsonEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Darren Thompson (Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe) is a staff reporter for Native News Online who is based in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. Thompson has reported on political unrest, tribal sovereignty, and Indigenous issues for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, Indian Country Today, Native News Online, Powwows.com and Unicorn Riot. He has contributed to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Voice of America on various Indigenous issues in international conversation. He has a bachelor’s degree in Criminology & Law Studies from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.