The Native American court that settles cases outside the court system | Native Americans


Robert Jones was nervous, a Native American teenager in a frontier town courtroom.

He faced felony assault charges in Rapid City, South Dakota, home to a stubbornly racially disparate criminal justice system. Almost all of the police, prosecutors, judges and jailers are white, and more than half of those charged and incarcerated are Native Americans — though they make up only a fraction of the city’s population.

“When you’re in the western courts, you feel like you’re alone, that you don’t have anyone with you,” said Jones, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation. “That’s why people are so scared – they have a feeling something bad is going to happen.”

But Jones, 19, was lucky. His case landed with Pennington County prosecutors as they cemented a groundbreaking partnership with a group of former Lakota to divert some cases to the new Oyate Court, or People’s Court, which uses a culture-based process indigenous people and indigenous principles of peace that emphasize healing. Punishment.

The effort is part of a wave of initiatives across the country in Indigenous communities seeking to reclaim Indigenous heritage and craft local and cultural solutions to problems of poverty — and the host of trauma it fuels. – which have defined American Indian life since they were forced to abandon their ancestral lands and ways of life for urban or reservation life. In Rapid City, these efforts include a new elementary school Lakota language immersion program and a grassroots volunteer effort to build an urban Indian center.

Jones’ case was turned over to the elders.

“When people are in trouble, locking them up isn’t enough,” said Chris White Eagle, a Cheyenne River citizen who sits on the elders circle. “With the Oyate court, we are deepening our efforts to heal them. We can ask the questions that the courts do not ask. Get to the root of the problem.

Chris White Eagle, left, gestures while speaking with Pennington County State’s Attorney Mark Vargo during a Lakota cultural celebration sponsored by the White Eagle Youth Empowerment Program. Photography: Stewart Huntington

Officially launched last spring with bi-monthly meetings, the Oyate court now hears cases weekly. The remarkable collaboration with the Pennington County State’s Attorney’s Office is modeled on “diversion” programs found in many jurisdictions across the country, in which some offenders avoid formal court treatment and the jugement.

In the case of Oyate Court, a defense attorney or prosecutor can recommend a case to elders. All parties must agree to the change of venue—prosecutors, defense, defendant, and elders—and then Oyate’s legal proceedings begin, bringing Lakota values ​​and culture into healing discussions and prohibitions.

“Some of the tools used in peacemaking are accountability, forgiveness, and sincere apologies,” said Dr. Polly Hyslop, an Upper Tanana River Athabascan and a member of the Native Peace Initiative’s Indigenous Peace Initiative advisory committee. American Rights Fund. “It really works to create healthier and safer communities.”

Rapid City is the almost all-white economic center of western South Dakota’s 75,000 people and three neighboring Indian reservations – Pine Ridge, Cheyenne River and Rosebud. Simmering racial tensions periodically surface, as they did last month when a hotel owner tweeted that Native Americans would no longer be welcome at the establishment, sparking large-scale protests and a federal lawsuit for violation of civil rights.

The territory’s Native American citizens face some of the most significant headwinds in the nation, including low life expectancies and graduation rates, as well as high rates of unemployment, incarceration, and substance abuse. Increasingly, the Native American community sees cultural renaissance as the path to renewal.

“It took me well into my thirties before I found my spirituality and started sweating it and Sundance,” White Eagle said, referring to inipi, or sweat, smudging ceremonies and sacred Sundance multi-day rituals, once-banned community gatherings involving acts of self-sacrifice for the people. “Giving these kids a taste of that early in life – I think that’s key,” he said.

Oyate court elders infuse Lakota values ​​and culture into their healing discussions and prohibitions. “We emphasize the seven Lakota values: compassion, generosity, humility, sincerity, courage, perseverance, wisdom,” said Jonathan Old Horse, one of the nine elders who serve in the field and an Oglala Lakota citizen who serves as pastor of Woyatan at Rapid City. Lutheran Church, where the court meets.

“These are the traits that seem to be lacking in the community and the country today,” he said. “If we can pass this teaching on to these young adults, it will make them understand that this way of life that has been imposed on us is not the only way. It is living the Red Route” – according to traditional Indian moral and ethical standards – “which teaches us personal responsibility and responsibility towards our community”.


Jhe state attorney involved in the Oyate court, Mark Vargo, had previously expanded his juvenile diversion program — a version of which is employed by most jurisdictions nationwide — to include young adults first, then all ages. Not all cases are eligible for such programs: they are generally limited to non-violent crimes and participants who do not have lengthy criminal records. Participants must take responsibility – in writing – for the actions that led to their arrest and agree to follow a personalized action plan that may include education, an apology or payment of restitution. Full compliance with diversion programs may result in charges being dropped and records expunged. Failure may cause cases to reappear on the state record.

“Early intervention with active participation by an accused can be more effective in keeping them out of the system than simply putting them in jail,” Vargo said in 2018, when he extended diversion options to adult offenders. Its growing diversion database shows lower recidivism rates for participants compared to office averages and – after expanding its diversion efforts to all age groups – a logical next step was to bridge the cultural divide and to form partnerships with the Lakota community.

“We recognize huge racial disparities in our community with our Native American population,” said Lara Roetzel, assistant state attorney for Pennington County. “They’re only – depending on which study you’re looking at – 9 or 11% of our population, but they’re incarcerated at 60 or 70% of our prison population. It is simply wrong.

Lara Roetzel, assistant district attorney in Rapid City.
Lara Roetzel, assistant district attorney in Rapid City. Photography: Stewart Huntington

Roetzel said the territory needs new ideas.

“What do we do with this population that does not work? she asked. “What can we do to connect with this unique Native American population? And now we have the best idea yet and it’s Oyate’s court. The elders hear this case and they ask the participant questions and get to the heart of the matter. And then they come up with a plan to fix the real problem. »

When Oyate Court started, it only served adult cases. In February, the court’s initial successes prompted elders and prosecutors to add young adult and juvenile cases and expand weekly sessions. Now he hears all kinds of cases up to capital crime cases, but not included. And Oyate’s court could be ripe for growth beyond Rapid City.

“Other tribes have come to see what we’re doing,” Old Horse said. “And see how they could implement it in their territory.”

And it caught the attention of other prosecutors. “Pennington County is a leader in implementing creative solutions,” said David LaBahn, president of the Association of Prosecutors, who invited Roetzel to present at his organization’s national convention in December. “This could be a model for other jurisdictions.”

Roetzel agreed. “I think that’s how we move forward with criminal justice in the 21st century,” she said. “We are not going to solve problems by incarcerating people, we know that. We are not going to deal with probation and parole issues. The statistics have proven it. I think the way we solve problems as prosecutors is to empower communities affected by crime to right those wrongs.

Which doesn’t make the job any easier. Just ask Robert Jones, who was afraid to stand before a Pennington County Circuit Court judge and who was afraid Again when he confronted the circle of elders of Oyate’s court.

“What made me nervous is that these are my aboriginals, they are your elders and in aboriginal culture you have to respect your elders,” he said. “It’s really annoying because they’re judging you and saying things that make you think, ‘Like, fuck, I really need to do better. I really need to get my life back together.

Six months after his arrest for his role in a fight he says he joined to protect his brother, he is a regular employee and caretaker for his infant son. He says that before he was arrested he was on a different and less healthy path and attributes the turnaround to the words of his elders. “They give you that extra push, that extra motivation,” he said. “And sometimes that extra boost is what you need. I guess that’s what made me nervous, because I didn’t know if I had that in me.


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