American Indian populations continue to be adversely affected by the legacy of American colonialism, according to three Great Plains American Indians at a panel discussion on the historical injustices against American Indian peoples in the Intercultural Center Auditorium on Monday.
“Less than nine percent of the population of South Dakota identifies itself as American Indian, but yet nearly a third of the population of the state’s prisons identify themselves as being American Indians,” educator David Plume said. “There are some disproportion issues there that have been going on for generations now.”
The panel, titled “Justice in America for Native Americans,” consisted of Plume, South Dakota counsel for the American Indian social advocacy group Lakota People’s Law Project, Chase Iron Eyes and public health physician Jeffrey Henderson. The panel was moderated by Marc Howard, director of the Prisons and Justice Initiative at Georgetown, which facilitates research on mass incarceration.
Bette Jacobs, professor in the Department of Health Systems Administration, which co-sponsored the event, said historical neglect is still having an effect on conditions for the American Indian population today.
“Our country is an ancient homeland for 567 federally recognized tribes of American Indians. Early encounters with Europeans who believed they had discovered a new land failed to recognize our homeland. This occupation became a systematic injustice that reverberates today,” Jacobs said.
Iron Eyes, a member of the Lakota Sioux Tribe in North Dakota, said the U.S. justice system has undermined the power of Indian nations in carrying out their own ideas of justice.
“It is a very real legal, political and economic oppression that results in certain limitations, certain usurpations of authority from the native nation, not only to enforce law and order according to its own terms, but to define law and order,” Iron Eyes said.
Iron Eyes said the negative impact of colonization hundreds of years ago is manifested in the living conditions of thousands of American Indians on Indian reservations.
“There is much to learn from communities that have been impacted by the processes of colonization and we are all trying to navigate this reality,” Iron Eyes said. “There is no reason that reservations should be the most horrible in terms of quality of life, suicide rates, substance abuse rates, poverty rates.”
Henderson, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, said federal rather than state oversight of law enforcement matters has resulted in strict punishment of American Indians on reservations.
“One of the big issues in South Dakota is that tribal concerns for any one of the tribes that are in the state of South Dakota have historically been passed off by our state as a federal problem. Under the federal government, there are mandatory sentencing guidelines, that many times are more harsh than what the state laws are,” Henderson said.
Henderson said the disproportionate incarceration of American Indians is a result of the federal jurisdiction on reservations.
“This past Friday, I was at the Pennington County Jail, and on that day they had 567 inmates. Roughly 50 percent of the jail population on that day were American Indian. We represent about 10 to 12 percent of the population of Rapid City. However, 30 percent of those are federal inmates, and this speaks to jurisdictional issues,” Henderson said.
Plume said members were moving to provide education opportunities for children of American Indians, but financial difficulties are still unavoidable.
“What we try to do in Pine Ridge is make college opportunities affordable. The problem is many people come back to the reservation and they are faced with things such as restitutions and financial obligations for family,” Plume said.
Professor and Director of the Prisons and Justice Initiative Mark Howard called on Americans not to overlook American Indians in discussions of criminal and social justice.
“The burden falls disproportionately on minorities and peoples of color,” Howard said. “No issue or no group is more neglected in conversations about criminal justice and prisons than Native Americans, who are disproportionately over-represented in the criminal justice system.”