THE BLOG

The Fight for an Independent Police Force


By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)
© 2008 Native American Journalists Foundation, Inc.

September 8, 2008

Many years ago when the Indian monthly newspaper Wassaja was in vogue an article appeared in the paper that named Oglala Lakota businessman Gerald Clifford as an "Indian expert."

Needless to say, Clifford was infuriated. He said, "It's like trying to name someone as a White expert. There ain't no such animal." An articulate speaker, Clifford resorted to the vernacular to make a point.

Clifford, who passed away a couple of years ago at an early age from cancer, came to my mind this week because of the problems experienced by the Public Safety Commission on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. It was Clifford who fought the establishment in an effort to tear the police force away from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and make it an independent force that contracted to the BIA.

Against a lot of opposition he succeeded. But there is always the possibility of politics entering through the back door when an agency extricates itself from the bureaucracy and attempts to become independent. Some of the young police officers on the Pine Ridge Reservation resigned over the past couple of years simply because they felt that there was too much politics interjected between themselves and the job they were trying to do to serve the people. When individual personalities become larger than the project there is always the danger of losing control and that appears to be one of the problems.

When I was young the police department at Pine Ridge was operated by the BIA. It seems that problems were much smaller then and a policeman like "Sunshine" Janis could patrol his beat around Kyle not only as an officer of the law, but as a very good friend to members of that community. There were no gangs back then or political factions out for blood. The biggest problems confronting "Sunshine" were bootleggers and drunks which usually led to cases of domestic violence.

But after the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973 Gerald Clifford believed that the BIA Law Enforcement did not do enough to address the myriad problems that occurred during and after the occupation. He believed that a police force operated under the auspices of the Oglala Sioux Tribal government would have been much more effective than one operated by the bureaucracy. He believed that the BIA police force was much too impersonal and many of the officers brought to the reservation from other tribes did not fully understand the complexities of the traditional Lakota people.

Long before the advent of the white man's law the Oglala Lakota people had a strict yet comprehensive form of law enforcement headed by the Akicita, now called soldiers. The Akicita were responsible to the tribal leaders and to the people. They were present at any event where there was a large gathering and each tiospaye (extended family or camp) could rely on their own Akicita to maintain order. This was the kind of Indian law enforcement envisioned by Clifford.

Clifford had helped form a corporation he called ACKO, Inc., an acronym for its founders, "Butch" Artichoker, Clifford and Francis Killer. By taking on some of the different contracts offered by the United States government, Clifford and his group began to see how terribly stifling and unfair the bureaucracy could be. He and his associates not only challenged the way the government did business, but also tried, oftentimes in frustration, to educate the bureaucrats to the realities of Indian life and law.

It would be a shame to see the independent law enforcement agenda sidetracked or deconstructed because of a conflict between some police officers, police leaders and the tribal government. During the current ruckus, Pat Ragsdale, Director of the BIA, has brought in 25 police officers from throughout the nation to maintain law and order on this huge reservation.

Senator Byron Dorgan, (D-ND) along with co-sponsor John Thune (R-SD), introduced the Tribal Law and Order Act, a bill supported by both political parties that would improve the coordination between law enforcement agencies. Sen. Thune said that many Indians are distrustful of the federal government, but he believes that trust can be improved greatly if police officers get out into the communities and show the people they are there to help.

The influx of BIA officers to the Pine Ridge and Standing Rock Reservations has become known as the "surge" in Indian country. Ragsdale said the "surge" is expected to last about a month and at the end of that time the BIA will determine whether to allow the Oglala Sioux Tribe to continue handling its own law enforcement of if the BIA will take it over.

At this point in time most Oglala Lakota only want to see law and order restored to their communities and the feelings amongst the people is equally divided as to how and what form that enforcement policy should take. As always, a lot depends on their leaders.

Gerald Clifford detested being labeled an "Indian expert," but he had the right idea when it came to law enforcement and it would be a shame to see his vision of a Lakota Akicita diminished or destroyed.

(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association and the founder and publisher of Indian Country Today, the Lakota Times, and the Dakota/Lakota Journal. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991. He can be reached at najournalist@msn.com)