Robert Jones, a Native American teenager, was in a courtroom on a sheltered frontier.
He was charged with assault in Rapid City, South Dakota, home to a racially disparate criminal justice system. All police officers, prosecutors, judges, and warders are white, and more than half of the accused and imprisoned are Native Americans—though they make up only a small portion of the city’s population.
“When you’re in the western courts, you feel like you’re on your own, that you don’t have anyone with you,” said Jones, a native of the Oglala Lakota Nation. “That’s why people get so scared – they have a feeling that something bad is going to happen.”
But Jones, 19, was out of luck. His case with Bennington County District Attorneys ended up when they cemented a pioneering partnership with a group of Lakota elders to redirect some cases to the new Uyate Court, or People’s Court, which uses a process based on indigenous culture and indigenous principles of peacemaking. And healing confirms punishment.
This effort is part of a wave of initiatives across the country in Aboriginal communities aimed at restoring Aboriginal heritage and developing indigenous and cultural solutions to the problems of poverty – and the many traumas that have fueled American Indians since their ancestry has been forced to abandon their ancestral lands and way of life in order to City or protected life. In Rapid City, these efforts include a new Lakota immersion language program for elementary school and grassroots volunteer work to build an Indian center in the city.
Jones’ case was handed over to the elders.
“When people get into trouble, just locking them up doesn’t help,” said Chris White Eagle, a Cheyenne River native who sits on the seniors’ circle. “With Oyate Court, we go deeper in trying to remedy it. We are allowed to ask questions that the courts do not. We get to the heart of the problem.”
The Oyate court, which officially opened last spring with two sessions a month, hears cases every week. The notable collaboration with the Bennington County District Attorney’s Office is modeled on the “diversion” programs that exist in many jurisdictions around the country, with some offenders avoiding formal prosecution and sentencing.
In the case of Oyati court, the defense attorney or the attorney general may recommend a case for the elderly. The change of venue must be agreed by all parties—the prosecutors, the defense, the defendants, the elders—and then the Uyate trial begins, introducing Lakota values and culture into the discussions and prohibitions.
Dr. said. Polly Hislop, upstream of the Tanana River in Athabaskan and a member of the Advisory Committee for the Indian Peacemaking Initiative of the Native American Rights Fund. “It really works to create healthier and safer communities.”
Rapid City is the economic center of approximately 75,000 people in western South Dakota and three nearby Indian reservations – Pine Ridge, Cheyenne River, and Rosebud. Racial tensions continued to simmer, as last month when a hotelier tweeted that Native Americans were no longer welcome at the facility, which led to widespread protests and a federal civil rights lawsuit.
The Territory’s Native Americans face some of the country’s statistically strongest headwinds, including declining life expectancy and graduation rates, as well as rising unemployment, incarceration, and addiction. Increasingly, the Native American community sees a cultural renaissance as a path to renewal.
“It wasn’t until I hit my thirties that I found my spirituality and started sweating and doing sundance,” White Eagle said, noting. inipi, or race, purification ceremonies, and the sacred multi-day Sunday rites, which are formerly forbidden communal gatherings with gestures of personal sacrifice of people. “Giving these kids a taste of it early in life — I think that’s the key,” he said.
Oyate court elders incorporate Lakota values and culture into discussions of healing and taboos. Jonathan Old Horse, one of the nine seated seniors in the plaza and citizen of Oglala Lakota, said Woyatan’s pastor in Rapid City is the Lutheran church where the court sits.
“These are the qualities that seem to be missing in society and the country today,” he said. “If we can teach this lesson to these younger adults, we will make it clear to them that this way of life that has been imposed on us is not the only way. It is life on the red road” – according to traditional Indian moral and ethical standards – “that teaches us personal responsibility and accountability to our society “.
TOyate’s attorney general, Mark Fargo, had previously expanded his juvenile diversion program – a version used by most jurisdictions in the country – first for young adults and then for all ages. Not every case qualifies for such programs: they are generally restricted to nonviolent crimes and participants who do not have long criminal records. Participants must accept responsibility – in writing – for the actions that led to their arrest and agree to follow standard procedures, which may include teaching, apologizing or paying compensation. Full compliance with transfer programs can result in charges being dropped and records deleted. Failure can result in cases appearing directly in the case log.
“Early intervention with the active participation of the suspect can be more effective in keeping them out of the system than simply putting them in prison,” Fargo said in 2018, when expanding diversion options to adult offenders. His growing distraction database shows lower relapse rates for participants than the office average, and—after expanding its distraction efforts to all age groups—the next logical step was to bridge the cultural gap and forge partnerships with the Lakota community.
“We recognize the massive racial differences in our community with our Native American population,” said Bennington County Assistant District Attorney Lara Roetzel. “They’re only – depending on the study you’re looking at – 9 or 11% of our population, but they’re stuck with 60 or 70% of our colleagues. That’s just wrong.”
Roetzel said the region needs some new ideas.
“What are we going to do with these people who don’t work?” she asked. “What can we do to connect with this unique Native American people? Now we have the best idea yet and it’s Oyati Court. Seniors listen to this case, ask questions to the participant, and get to the heart of the matter. Then they come up with a plan to address the real problem.”
When the Oyaty Court began, it only had jurisdiction over adult cases. In February, the court’s early successes prompted seniors and prosecutors to add and expand youth and juvenile cases to weekly sessions. Now she deals with all kinds of cases, including felony cases. Oyate Court may be ready to grow beyond Rapid City.
“Other tribes came to see what we’re doing,” Old Horse said. “And see how they can implement that in their area.”
It has caught the attention of other prosecutors. “Bennington County is a leader in implementing creative solutions,” said David Laban, president of the Prosecuting Attorney’s Association, who invited Roetzel to speak at his organization’s national conference in December. “This could be a model for other jurisdictions.”
Rutzel agreed. “I think that’s how we’re moving forward with criminal justice in the 21st century,” she said. “We are not going to solve problems by locking up people, we know that. We are not going to solve problems with surveillance and testing. Statistics have proven that. I think the way we solve problems as prosecutors is to allow communities affected by crime to correct those mistakes.”
Which does not make it easy. Just ask Robert Jones, who was terrified standing before a Bennington County Courthouse judge and was terrified again He also encountered the circle of elders of the Oyate Court.
“What made me nervous is that these are my aborigines, these are your elders, and in aboriginal culture you have to respect your elders,” he said. “It’s really nerve-wracking because they judge you and say things that make you think, ‘Damn, I really need to do better. I really need to put my life together.”
Six months after his arrest for his role in a fight he allegedly joined to protect his brother, he works and takes care of his young son. He says he was taking a different, less rational path before his arrest and attributes this shift to the words of his elders. “They give you that extra push, that extra motivation,” he said. “And sometimes that extra boost is just what you need. I think that made me nervous because I didn’t know if it was inside of me.”