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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Thune Seeks Security for Reservations

Senator John Thune [R-South Dakota] praised the commencement of Operation Dakota Peacekeeper, a Bureau of Indian Affairs project to increase the presence of law enforcement on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. This project was requested by Senator Thune and others in response to crime rates on the reservation, which are six times the national average. The Senator believes that this is a good proactive step toward reducing crime while giving tribal leaders and members a stake in the safety of the reservation.

Operation Dakota Peacekeeper will supplement the local police force with additional Bureau of Indian Affairs personnel. Victim assistance services will also be made available.

This operation builds on the continuing work done by Senator Thune on tribal justice. In February, the U.S. Senate passed S. 1200, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which included Senator Thune's amendment to require a Government Accountability Office study of the tribal justice systems of North and South Dakota. Also, in March, the Senate passed the Fiscal Year 2009 Budget Resolution, which included Senator Thune’s amendment to authorize additional funding for police and prosecutors to address the growing problem of crime on American Indian reservations.

Recently Senator Thune testified before the Indian Affairs Committee concerning a bipartisan tribal justice bill he is working on with his colleagues. He has also reached out to South Dakota tribal leaders and others to get their feedback regarding the draft legislation.

(Hat Tip to Northern Plains Anglican.)

In an interview with Indian Country Today, Thune said, "I've been talking to a couple of tribal chairmen who are looking at changing their constitutions to create greater separation of powers - with more independent judiciaries. Right now, the tribal councils appoint the judges, and there are lots of questions often raised about the independence of the systems. The chairmen are very much giving close consideration to what steps can be taken to help improve tribal justice as well.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has over 2 million acres of land, and at any given time, there are at most three officers a shift covering that amount of geography. If you think about how that translates nationwide - the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is more than two times bigger than the state of Rhode Island. And in Rhode Island, they've got 200 state troopers, plus additional local, county and state officers. That puts it in perspective, I think.

ICT: Why focus on crime over, say, education?

Thune: If you have people living in fear without security, it's awfully hard to have children learning in school. It's hard to attract economic development. Security is just a fundamental responsibility - and the feds certainly have their share of responsibility when it comes to security on reservations.

ICT: Sometimes tribes are cautious when the federal government tries to help, given the many times throughout history when government help has actually done more harm than good. How do you deal with that reality?

Thune: It's important for us to consult with tribal leaders. I've written to tribal leaders across the country, soliciting their input on crime issues. We do very much want bottom-up solutions, where tribes have been consulted. ... We need to do this in a way that doesn't violate or interrupt the government-to-government relationships that tribes share with the feds. But I do think the federal government does have responsibility. In most cases, because law enforcement is a BIA function ... we need more BIA officers out here. ... Whatever model you use, it's got to be respectful of tribal sovereignty.

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