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Meeting on Native American justice set in Ft. Pierre

FORT PIERRE -- U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson will hold a town hall meeting today to discuss the Community Prosecution Strategy for Indian Country that he unveiled this summer.

Johnson will meet with tribal leaders and others who attend the meeting at 1 p.m. Central time at the Wakpa Sica Reconciliation Place in Fort Pierre. The meeting is open to the public.

Johnson, the son of Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., became the state's U.S. attorney in October 2009. He immediately targeted crime in Indian Country and held a "tribal listening conference" on the subject Feb. 4 at Oacoma.

Brendan Johnson has said a key to making American Indians safer is more effective prosecution, and that can best be done with increased cooperation between his office and Indian leaders.

"The Community Prosecution Strategy will not solve all of our law enforcement challenges in tribal communities, but it is my hope that it signals a new era of government-togovernment relationships and a concerted effort to address public safety cooperatively," he wrote in a letter outlining the new program.

Johnson said he will:

• Offer additional prosecution resources, with three new prosecutors in his office assigned to handle cases in Indian Country.

• Create a community prosecution pilot program on the Pine Ridge Reservation that will operate three days a week. The program was launched in September.

• Cooperate with tribal courts. Johnson's office will explain to tribal leaders why a case will not be prosecuted in federal court when that occurs.

• Name tribal special assistant U.S. attorneys (SAUSAs), which will allow tribal prosecutors who are in good standing with the South Dakota Bar Association and meet other specified requirements to, while working with federal prosecutors, prosecute some cases in federal court.

• Promote cultural training and understanding in his office while working to create a more diverse workplace.

• Increase interaction with tribal communities and strengthen his office's tribal liaison program.

• Form a U.S. Attorney's Tribal Advisory Council to monitor his office's progress and provide guidance on outreach and diversity.

• Hold Youth Leadership and Listening Forums. Johnson's office held four leadership and listening youth forums in the state this year, where suicide, sexual assault, drugs, alcohol and gangs were among the topics discussed.

• Work to reduce violence against women. He noted that approximately one-third of all Indian women will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime. A forum with tribal leaders will be held to address that problem, while also seeking concrete solutions to making Indian women's lives easier and safer.

"Violence against women is one of our top priorities," Johnson said during a telephone interview Monday with The Daily Republic.

He said he is seeking to hire another assistant attorney to work on that issue, both in federal courts and in the tribal court system.

• Hold biannual town hall meetings. Today's meeting is the first of those.

"It's happening because it's part of a continuing effort to meet with and discuss this issue with community residents and tribal leaders," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Salter.

He said the federal government and the Department of Justice have a unique role within tribal communities. They prosecute major crimes that occur in what is called, under the U.S. code, "Indian Country."

"That explains our role there," Salter said. "We are the principal prosecuting authority for those crimes."

He said that explains why, while Indians make up 9 percent of South Dakota's population, more than 50 percent of the cases the U.S. Attorney's Office prosecutes involve Indians.

Johnson said that number is somewhat "skewed," since the Justice Department handles all felony cases in Indian Country.

The goal of the new prosecution program is to make life safer and law enforcement more effective in areas where Indians live and work.

"It's always a concern, it has been a concern and it remains a concern," Salter said. "Making those areas as safe as we can has always been a big issue."

The office has 26 assistant U.S. attorneys.

One assistant U.S. attorney based out of the Rapid City office is spending most of his time in Pine Ridge to work on community prosecutions, while three other attorneys also are focused on Indian issues.

Six other assistant attorneys are based in Pierre but do extensive work with Indian Country cases, according to Johnson.

Not everyone is thrilled about Johnson's actions.

Lydia Whirlwind Soldier, who lives in the Grass Mountain Community on the Rosebud Reservation, is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and was the Indian studies coordinator for the Todd County School District. She said she doesn't think the program is needed or even has a legal standing.

"If the state had any legitimate authority on the reservation, that would be another story, but they do not. I see it as another attempt to exercise their paternalism," Whirlwind Soldier said in an email reply to The Daily Republic. "What is the state willing to invest? And what right do they have to tell tribal communities how to solve their problems? We are not children.

"The reservation is not the only place that has law and order problems. Look at the statistics for Sioux Falls and Rapid City. If the state wants to contribute productive resources, why not hire more competent public defenders?" she said. "As it is now, the public defenders are working for and with the state to prosecute Indian people. This should be obvious by the disproportionate number of Indian inmates held in prisons."

Whirlwind Soldier, a publisher author and poet, said the federal government should live up to its treaty obligations, fund programs to assist Indians whose ancestors were forced to surrender their land and assets and not try to take over issues best handled by tribal officials.

"If the state wants to help, they can put money into rehab centers for addictions on the reservation. Most South Dakota prisoners are in prison because of an addiction," she said. "Most money that comes into South Dakota for Natives is from the federal government, not specifically from South Dakota taxpayers."

Everett Little Whiteman, chief of the Oglala Sioux Tribe Department of Public Safety, plans to attend today's meeting.

Little Whiteman, who said he has met with Johnson "several times," said he believes the U.S. attorney is sincere about wanting to stem the tide of lawlessness in Indian Country.

"He is interested in working with the tribes to help address the problems we have," he said.

Johnson said he values cooperation on these issues.

"If we say, 'this is what we're going to be doing for your communities and these are our ideas,' that won't work," he said. "It's got to reflect a partnership between these communities and the Department of Justice."

Johnson has worked latenight shifts with Pine Ridge and Rosebud law enforcement in order to get a close-up look at the challenges officers face.

"There really is no substitute to riding around in patrol vehicles. That to me has been particularly helpful," he said. "It's something I hope to continue doing."

Little Whiteman has worked in law enforcement for 40 years and is a retired Bureau of Indian Affairs investigator.

"We've got some really topnotch folks working in these tribes," Johnson said. "I fear sometimes this gets missed.

"It shouldn't be forgotten we've got some outstanding folks working in law enforcement, working in the tribal courts, and I fear that gets missed sometimes when we're talking about the challenges we face."

Little Whiteman said while alcohol abuse and drug trafficking have grown worse on reservations in the past 20 years, law enforcement has seen its funding shrink and its access to materials and manpower reduced.

"We are paying for it right now," he said.