ROSEBUD, S.D. — Like many a traffic cop, Willard Bordeaux stopped a speeder the other day. But what Bordeaux then reported to headquarters is anything but typical.
"Subject is a non-Indian," crackled the voice of the Bureau of Indian Affairs patrolman over the police radio. "Released with a warning."
Bordeaux had no choice. The incident took place on U.S. 18 in the heart of the Rosebud Sioux Indian reservation, a remote, barren expanse of stubby pastures and ramshackle homes astride the Nebraska border. It is also one of the few places in the nation where justice, by design, is not blind.
Thanks to a complex legal thicket that envelopes the administration of Rosebud, as well as many other Indian reservations around the country, the federal BIA police are \o7 the\f7 law here but still have no jurisdiction over the nearly 1,000 whites who live on reservation land.
At the same time, the county sheriff and a local policeman in the reservation town of Mission, both of whom are white, can not arrest or ticket Indians. And the state highway patrol pretty much steers clear of roads in Rosebud altogether.
Or at least it has up to now. In what could be a landmark legal battle pitting safety concerns against Indian autonomy and dignity, South Dakota and tribal officials are fighting in the federal courts over jurisdiction on the highways at Rosebud and other reservations.
The state says it should have control and points to a serious alcohol problem on the reservations that has led to an accident fatality rate at Rosebud three times the statewide average. At the neighboring Pine Ridge reservation, patrolled solely by an Oglala Sioux tribal police force, the highway death toll is five times the South Dakota norm, according to state figures.
Seen as Power Grab
But tribal leaders, who have vowed to keep state troopers off Pine Ridge and Rosebud no matter what the courts decide, claim that the statistics are misleading and that the state action is a thinly veiled attempt by hostile whites to seize power over Indian land.
"Unfortunately, there's still a cowboy and Indian mentality, a redneck mentality, on the part of many (white) people out here," charged Cora Jones, the BIA agency superintendent at Rosebud.
Viola Burnette, the attorney general of the Rosebud tribe, sees the highway dispute as part of a much broader struggle with the state. "They're chipping away at our jurisdiction," she said. "First they chip at the highways, then they chip at hunting and fishing rights, then I don't know what. They'll continue trying their best to get control of what happens on the reservations."
The state won the first round in the courts last March when U.S. District Judge Donald J. Porter, acting in a suit initiated by the Rosebud tribe, said Indian authorities must share jurisdiction over reservation traffic with South Dakota police. Nevertheless, both sides insist they should have exclusive control and have appealed Porter's ruling to a federal appellate panel in St. Paul, Minn.
Meanwhile, South Dakota Gov. George S. Mickleson, a Republican, has ordered state troopers to stay off Pine Ridge and Rosebud until some kind of accommodation can be worked out with tribal leaders.
Reservations such as Rosebud are theoretically sovereign lands, little nations within a nation guaranteed to the various tribes by treaties sometimes a century or more old. Subsequent court decisions and acts of Congress, however, have significantly diluted tribal powers and drastically reduced the original size of many Indian homelands.
Still, individual reservations have their own governments and courts as well as educational and law enforcement systems--all largely paid for with federal stipends. Indians who live on reservations are exempt from many state taxes and laws, yet are considered state citizens.
Pummelled by decades of land grabs, slights, deceptions and out-and-out harassment, many Indians are wary of any governmental actions perceived as restricting an already diminished capacity to control their own destiny. On the other hand, many whites resent the special privileges and legal status afforded Indians and suggest the reservation bureaucracy itself is to blame for turning Indian lands into bleak islands of poverty where joblessness can run as high as 90%.
Indeed, South Dakota Atty. Gen. Roger Tellinghuisen, a Republican, created an uproar earlier this year when he publicly suggested that reservations were an antiquated, "divisive form of government." In the wake of widespread criticism, Tellinghuisen later apologized. But Indian leaders claim the remark reflects the attitude of many whites in the state.
True or not, jurisdictional friction is evident on several fronts in South Dakota. For example, Tellinghuisen's office has lent support to businessmen in a lawsuit to block Rosebud's tribal government from regulating non-Indian owned commercial enterprises on the reservation.