Native American Press/Ojibwe News

The sad story of some Dakota elders

By Maxine V. Eidsvig

A little over three months ago, this writer attended a showing of Sheldon Peters Wolfchild’s docudrama New Buffalo at the Thunderbird Hotel in Bloomington. The thirty-minute film focused on Dakota elder’s rights and enrollment issues.

Two of the attendees, Vernice Walker Weber, 84 years old and Forrest Leith, 63 years old, were featured in the film and each gave moving testimony of their individual fight to gain recognition.

Vernice was born and raised in the Lower Sioux Indian Community near Morton MN. She attended the Flandreau Indian School but had never been a resident there. However, she did become enrolled in the Flandreau Santee Sioux tribe. Enrollment was a process that has never been carefully implemented but during the time of the 1934 Indian Reorganization it could even be called careless. Enrollment for young people did not mean much at that time. But they had to be accounted for somewhere and the process became a hit or miss affair. Others who had attended school in Flandreau were treated similarly. Enrollment eventually went from careless to fraudulent.

Vernice was descended from the Mdewakanton Band of Minnesota and did not consider herself a legitimate enrolled member of the Flandreau Santee Sioux tribe. Since she met the requirements of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, she applied for membership in that community. Vernice was told by Shakopee that she would have to relinquish her enrollment before they could consider her for enrollment in Shakopee. She and her daughter, who was also enrolled at Flandreau, relinquished their enrollment as the first step to become enrolled in Shakopee. They were subsequently denied enrollment in Shakopee. They attempted to be reinstated at Flandreau, but were denied. Vernice spent a considerable amount of her own money to fight the case in Shakopee tribal court and lost.

Forrest was born in the Pipestone Indian Hospital and raised in Redwood Falls, which is within the 10-mile prescribed residency area of the Lower Sioux Indian Community. He was and is an enrolled member of Lower Sioux. In the early 1990’s, Forrest was part of a group of people who also tried to transfer their enrollment to Shakopee. However, they retained their enrollment at Lower Sioux. They also fought their case in Shakopee tribal court. Louis Bluestone Smith, an elder at Shakopee, spent much time and money fighting for these people before she died. But it was to no avail. As one Shakopee member said, rather arrogantly, “We are a federally recognized tribe and we can let anyone in we want.” I guess that means they can keep out people who are legitimately qualified while allowing people in who do not meet the qualifications. While there has never been a formal dismissal of the case, it became stalled, with no resolution in sight.

In 2001, Forrest decided to return to the Lower Sioux area and begin his residency. Since Lower Sioux changed the residency requirement from two to five years, Forrest had to complete five years before he could become a “qualified” member. “Qualified” means one is entitled to per capita, land assignments, voting rights, and turkeys at Thanksgiving. Forrest would have to spend five years submitting monthly residency forms and follow a litany of requirements, such as being in the area at least five days a week. Failure to adhere to these requirements would require the individual to begin his residency over again. The Lower Sioux Community Council and the Enrollment Committee have instituted a police state, with the help of the tribal attorneys. They will even contact the Minnesota Department of Motor Vehicle to see if your address on your driver’s license matches the residency forms.

Vernice Walker Weber died on January 14, 2003, in St. Paul, and Forrest Leith died of cancer on February 7, 2003 in Redwood Falls. Robert Goodthunder died while the lawsuit in the early 1990s was being fought in federal court. Jerry Peters died in 1993 without knowing that he was an enrolled member of Lower Sioux. His, along with his sister Judy’s and his brother Sheldon’s, enrollment papers were “lost” until about two years ago. Judy died of cancer in 2001. When Sheldon told the council president that Judy was given four months to live and asked if the council couldn’t waive the five-year residency requirement, he was told “What if she lives longer than four months?”

Press/ON has previously reported on the case of Lawrence Larsen, Marcella Bluestone, and Harvey Owen, three elders who were born and raised on the Prairie Island Indian Community. In November 1999, they filed suit in the Prairie Island tribal court suing the Prairie Island community council: Darrell Campbell, Noah White, Lu Jacobs Taylor and Ron Johnson for failure to act on the recommendations of the Enrollment Committee to enroll all three (3) Plaintiff (s). Attorney for the plaintiffs, Gary Montana, wrote in his brief that failure to act on the recommendation is a violation of the Plaintiff’s equal protection and due process of tribal laws as established and promulgated by the Tribe. Thus such inaction is clearly “actions outside the scope of the authority” of the Defendants in both their official and individual capacity. To date, the Prairie Island community council has not responded. In a telephone conversation, Lawrence Larsen told Press/ON that if the community council says “No” to the recommendations of the Enrollment committee, then they could take their case to the federal courts. Larsen said in a previous telephone conversation with Press/ON, “They’re waiting for us to die.”

Marion Ross and Leona Bluestone, both in their 80s and both born and raised on the Lower Sioux Agency, have been denied recognition by the Lower Sioux council. Paul Crooks, age 63, was removed as a qualified member in October, 2001, and is in the process of establishing his residency again.

One wonders why the treatment of elders in Minnesota Dakota communities seem to follow the same pattern. Could it be the tribal attorneys and the tribal courts? After all, they are one and the same. The same handful of lawyers who represent Shakopee, Prairie Island, and Lower Sioux, sit as judges in each other’s courts. Certainly, they are the ones writing the resolutions and arguments affecting the elders. The tribal councils themselves who utter meaningless rhetoric about taking care of “our elders” must look within themselves for the answer.