Judge eliminates possibility of jail time for Rush Hockey game perpetrator

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On Thursday, 4th Circuit Magistrate Judge Eric Strawn ruled that, if convicted, Trace O’Connell will not be subjected to jail time for misdemeanor disorderly conduct. O’Connell, 41, is under legal scrutiny for his alleged involvement in the harassment of Native school children at a Rush Hockey game.

When 57 American Horse School students and staff members attended the Rapid City sporting event in January, their fun was disrupted by a group of fans, including O’Connell, situated in the box seating above them. From shouting streams of racially charged slurs to intentionally pouring beer on them, the perpetrators were determined to make their prejudice known. Finally, the school group decided to leave the game early in order to avoid further harm.

Mr. O’Connell was the only person charged for involvement in the situation.

Strawn’s decision means that O’Connell, who pleaded “not guilty” in March, will not be tried in front of a jury. At this point, his maximum punishment is a $500 fine. Strawn also set the trial date back from June 28 to July 22, as requested by defense lawyer Michael Butler. Butler is new to the case, having taken over for recently deceased Patrick Duffy in mid-May.

Rapid City Attorney Joel Landeen says he isn’t ready to see the possibility of jail time “taken off the table” after being “prepared to seat a jury and go forward” prior to Thursday’s decision.

This case has garnered much public attention, with protests such as the Stand Strong Against Racism rally persisting since the news first broke. For many, the decision to take jail time off of the table is a huge disappointment. Months of anticipation have resulted in a powerful desire for justice to be served. This kind of racism stands out as disturbingly harmful in the year 2015.

Let us know what your thoughts are on the state of the trial, we will continue to follow this case as it advances.

Severe Punishments for Native American Students in Utah

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American Indian and Native-Alaskan students have been facing disproportionate punishments for years. These students represent less than 1 percent of the student population, yet they make up 2 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 3 percent of expulsions.

Even worse, however, is the fact that many Native students in Utah are also facing high arrest rates, pushing many of these students away from and out of school.

A report released by the University of Utah revealed that Native American students in Utah are almost 8 times more likely to be referred to law enforcement and 6 times more likely to be arrested than white students. In fact, during the 2011-2012 school year, 55 Native American students in Utah ranging from kindergartners to sixth graders were referred to police officers.

The reasons for these referrals and arrests are unknown, as this information is not collected in a standardized manner. However, in the case of one known arrest, the punishment did not seem to meet the crime. In 2014, two Native American boys from a middle school in the San Juan School District were in the teachers lounge, looking for a teacher. In the lounge was a refrigerator, inside which the boys found bottles of Dr. Pepper. They each took and drank a bottle, but were caught.

The boys were arrested on charges of theft.

These boys are not the only ones in the San Juan School District who have been referred to the police. The district referred more than 10 percent of Native American students to law enforcement. The amount of white students who were referred, however, was less than 2 percent. One high school in the district even referred almost a third of its American Indian students.

The high rate of Native student arrests in Utah is quite alarming, especially considering the fact that Native Americans, who only make up about 1.5% of the total population in Utah, account for just over 5 percent of Utah’s prison population. As a result of these numerous referrals and arrests, many Native students are dropping out of school. In 2014, 31 percent of Native American students in Utah dropped out of high school, compared to a 15 percent state average. By enforcing harsh disciplinary policies which disproportionately target minority students, these schools are creating what is known as a “school-to-prison pipeline,” where minority students are pushed out of school and into juvenile justice programs.

“A lot of these policies have the best intentions,” said Vanessa Walsh, a researcher at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law Public Policy Clinic. “We have to keep our schools safe. But it’s having consequences that I don’t think anyone anticipated.”

Walsh has met with state officials and representatives to get support for a legislative task force or policy changes.

“It’s hard to get policymakers to take this on and champion this,” she stated. “[But] I have to just keep knocking on their door, sending them an email every couple weeks.”

“Given these special challenges, and the history of what the federal government has done to American Indians, this population probably needs extra help in school — rather than being pushed out of school,” said Emily Chiang, the director of the Public Policy Clinic and an associate professor of law at the University of Utah. “If anything, we should be devoting more resources as a state to making sure these kids stay in school.”

Sexual violence on oil field “man camps” brought to United Nations’ attention

In this Tuesday, July 26, 2011 photo, a man walks back to his temporary housing unit outside of Williston, N.D. With what many are calling the largest oil boom in recent North American history, temporary housing for the huge influx of workers, known as
(AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

On April 21, a coalition of Native American and women’s rights organizations made a formal request for the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to intervene in the alarming sexual violence problem occurring around fossil fuel extraction sites in the Great Lakes and Great Plains regions.

Dr. Dawn Memee Harvard of the Native Women’s Association of Canada submitted this call to action on behalf of Honor the Earth, Brave Heart Society, Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, One Billion Rising, Indigenous Women’s Network, and others.

Their report focuses on the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and Montana as well as Alberta, Canada’s Tar Sands. Major oil operations attract large “man camps” of uprooted workers that have been known to bring a culture of violence with them. This impermanent influx acts as a huge disturbance to the people who already inhabit the areas–especially women.

Drastically shifting gender ratios in these rural towns can change social dynamics for the worst. Law enforcement have seen intense rises of domestic violence and human trafficking in such zones.

In their report, the group laid out facts of the epidemic and described key aspects of Indigenous history such as genocide, colonization, and systematic oppression that contribute to the violence women and girls are exposed to today.

“Violence against our earth and water is perpetrated on a daily basis, against those things absolutely vital to our very existence,” stated Patina Park, Executive Director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, to Indian Country Today Media Network, “we can’t be surprised that people who would rape our land are also raping our people. We must do something to stop this from continuing.”

The United Nations discussed the submission at the Fourteenth Session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues held in New York during the last week of April. Part of the coalition’s mission is to facilitate UN Special Rapporteur hearings in the places directly effected by the epidemic–they plan to begin this series as soon as possible.

The disturbing link between sexual violence and fossil fuel operations is undeniable and we hope to see the United Nations and other major forces acknowledge this reality and take due action. The Lakota People’s Law Project applauds the coalition for their push to see this outcome through and will continue to report on the status of this pressing issue.

Huge Development in South Dakota ICWA case

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On Thursday, Craig Pfeifle replaced South Dakota Seventh Circuit Judge Jeff Davis as the circuit’s presiding judge, after Davis and other members of the South Dakota court system were found to have systematically denied Indian parents their rights under both ICWA and the U.S. Constitution.

In a March hearing, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Viken found that Davis, along with Pennington County State’s Attorney Mark Vargo and two of the state’s top Department of Social Services officials, failed to honor the rights of Native American parents under the Indian Child Welfare Act.

The decision was a landmark moment for the Lakota People’s Law Project and yet another among many validations of our claim that South Dakota has been flagrantly and willfully violating the important federal law for more than a decade.

Davis was found to be enacting policies which prevented parents from testifying, and obtaining aid from court appointed lawyers at preliminary 48-hour hearings–proceedings held within 48 hours of a child’s removal from his or her home in order to determine temporary custody. For these trials to take place it must be proven that children are in immediate danger, yet a majority of these cases failed to demonstrate this. The children were removed anyway.

“Judge Davis typically conducts hearings within 48 hours of an Indian child’s removal from the parents’ care. The hearings usually last less than five minutes. The removed Indian children often spend weeks or months in foster care away from their parents, Indian custodians and Tribes,” reads the Introduction to the summary judgment.

The 2013 lawsuit, filed by the Rosebud Sioux tribe, Oglala Sioux tribe, and three Native parents, was ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in March. Viken found that the defendants directly violated ICWA and due process of law according to the 14th amendment. He took the Natives’ side on six of seven issues–the seventh being an assertion that Davis acted as a final policymaker in 7th circuit courtrooms.

Davis and his fellow defendants filed for reconsideration of the ruling. He countered saying there are multiple ways that parents can appeal these temporary-custody decisions to the state Supreme Court, so a single judge cannot be accused of final policy making. Additionally, he also accused Viken of factual errors in a desperate attempt for validation.

Despite Davis’ resistance, the outcome is a victory for the Lakota people. Legal attention to ICWA violations are a needed push towards solving the issue of racist state actors seizing Indian children, often to benefit the bottom lines of both private and public institutions in South Dakota.

Though Judge Davis’ replacement hasn’t been formally linked to specific reasoning, this move reinforces the message rendered by Viken’s ruling.

Judge Pfeifle has an opportunity to set a new precedent for honorable relations between South Dakota courts and Native people. LPLP and others will be vigilant in ensuring this happens.

The Lakota People’s Law Project focuses on the injustices Natives are subjected to when ICWA is violated. While the result of the trial is encouraging, let no one confuse the outcome with a permanent solution for the Lakota still suffering under the weight of a ruthlessly racist system.

The punishment only applies to four state employees in South Dakota, where the entire system is constructed to deprive Indians of their federal rights.

More must be done to not only reveal the problems,  but help formulate enduring solutions.

Lakota Sioux Tribe Invokes “Bad Men” Treaty

Cowboy and Indian Alliance

A press release dated April 29, 2015 stated that the Lower Brule Lakota Sioux Tribe of South Dakota has invoked a clause from the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868: the “Bad Men” clause. This clause states that the offender will be arrested and punished according to U.S. law.

The accused offender in this case is the foreign tar sands pipeline company TransCanada.

The press release stated that “roughly 40% of South Dakota is off limits to TransCanada.” The Lower Brule Lakota Sioux Tribe feels that the actions of TransCanada as well as the presence of the Keystone XL Pipeline is hazardous to both the land and its inhabitants. Acting chairman Kevin Wright of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe said:

“As descendants of the people of this land we have witnessed destruction of many magnitudes. We are concerned for our land, water, and most importantly not only the physical wellbeing of our people but spiritual wellbeing as well. I am first a human being, not a politician, when it comes to these matters. I believe in protecting our people and look to more ecological ways of living.”

Native Americans and the Canadian First Nations have been fighting against pipelines and tar sand projects for years. In 2014, the Cowboy and Indian Alliance, made up of Native Americans, American landowners, and Canada’s First People, met in Washington D.C. to protest the Keystone Pipeline.

By invoking the “Bad Men” Treaty clause, the Lower Brule Lakota Sioux Tribe hopes to put an end to the Keystone Pipeline for good.

Although the Lakota Sioux have invoked the “Bad Men” clause, it is uncertain whether it will in fact protect their land. In February 2015, Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell stated that she would ensure that tribes would be provided a platform to address issues relating to Keystone XL; however, since then the Department of Interior has denied meeting with South Dakota Tribal Nations regarding this issue. The Harvard Law Review also reports that out of all the times the “Bad Men” clause has been invoked in the past, it has only been successfully deployed once: in 2009, Lavetta Elk was rewarded almost $600,000 from the United States government.

Despite this, the Lower Brule Tribe refuses to give up and continues to hopes that they will succeed in their fight against TransCanada.

“We all have rights as indigenous peoples and demand that we be heard,” Wright states. “This land is all we have and we are obligated to preserving it for our future generations. We are encouraged by Presidents Obama’s strong stance on climate change and his recent statements supporting our indigenous youth. President Obama, it would be a great honor to have you stand alongside the Oceti Sakowin on May 8th and once and for all reject Keystone XL.”

Senate Candidate Makes Offensive Native American Gesture

Loretta_Sanchez_official_photo A video was released showing Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) making an offensive Native American gesture during the California Democratic Party’s convention in Anaheim on Saturday.

Sanchez, who recently announced her campaign for retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer’s (D-Calif.), was describing a phone call she had received from an East Indian man who wanted to meet with her.

“I am going to his office,” she said, “thinking that I am going to meet with a–” Sanchez then put her hand over her mouth and imitated a stereotypical Indian war cry. “Right?” she said. “Because he said Indian American.”

Delegate Amparo Diaz from San Jose, who witnessed this event, said “everyone was just shocked. We looked around to reassure each other we had just seen the same thing. Did it really happen?”

California Attorney General Kamala Harris, whose mother is from India, was likewise disturbed when she learned about Sanchez’s gesture. “It is shocking and there is no place for that in our public discourse.”

The Sacramento Bee asked Sanchez whether or not she felt the gesture was appropriate. Her only reply was “I think that Native Americans have an incredibly great history, and a great presence in our country, and many of them are supporting our election.”

Sanchez has since apologized and acknowledged that the gesture was in fact inappropriate. On Sunday at a state Democratic Convention in Anaheim, Sanchez stated, “In this crazy and exciting rush of meetings yesterday, I said something offensive and for that I sincerely apologize.”
She then attempted to excuse her actions by stating that she has Native American ancestry on her mother’s side.
“They know my record,” she said, referring to Native Americans. “They know how much I have spent – the time that I have spent with them at their tribal councils, listening to them, advocating for them. They know that I have always had their backs. And they know what many of you don’t know – that like so many Mexican Americans, I am proudly Native American on my mother’s side.”
Some have defended Sanchez, stating that she did not mean to offend anyone. Marni Magda, a Laguna Beach delegate who has volunteered for Sanchez and supports her Senate bid, stated Sanchez “would never be racist against anyone. She embraces all diversity. I think she thought she was being funny and didn’t realize there were people who would be offended.”
There is nothing funny, however, about what Sanchez did, and her attempt to justify her actions by claiming to have Native American ancestry is just as wrong. Nothing can justify the use of offensive gestures or language, especially when they are used to reinforce disrespectful stereotypes.

Racist Air Force commander resigns after making anti-Indian comment

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Major General Michael Keltz of the United States Air Force resigned last month from his position as commander of 19th Air Force at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph after making racist remarks at an Article 15 hearing he presided over.

Acting as judge and jury in the April 9 case of a company-grade officer seeking reduced punishment in a previously charged misdemeanor, Keltz described the appearance of the accused in a photo as “drunker than 10,000 Indians.”

“The audience, which apparently included members of Native American descent, was taken aback,” recounted ex-officer Tony Carr on his public blog. According to Carr, several of the 75 audience members present at the hearing reached out to him with similar accounts of the situation.

The racially charged slur was later confirmed by a spokeswoman from the Air Education and Training Command.

“I inadvertently made an unfortunate comment, I own it, and I hold myself accountable to the same high standards my subordinate commanders are held to,” stated Keltz in the April 30 announcement of his resignation. He served 34 years in the air force.

It is a sad fact that many of the individuals serving as members of the U.S. military carry ignorant prejudices towards the Native population–just as countless other misguided citizens do. Anyone who volunteers to protect the people of this country should feel the same level of respect towards us all. We can only hope that whomever takes Keltz’s rightfully abandoned position is more informed.

The Lakota People’s Law Project feels strongly about the rampant issue of racism present in the United States. Along with working with Native people in efforts to recover from deeply rooted social, economic, and political injustices–we would like to bring awareness to these kinds of incidents and encourage people to confront the racism they encounter. If it weren’t for the public’s notice of Keltz’s ignorance, he wouldn’t have felt such pressure to resign. Small steps like these make for less and less tolerance for bigotry in the United States.