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    Oglala police chief calls tribal law enforcement funding ‘a joke’ in congressional testimony

    By John Hult,


    Pine Ridge is located in southwestern South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The town has a population just under 3,000 and is the headquarters of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)

    The Oglala Sioux Tribe Department of Public Safety is funded at 15% of its needs, its acting chief told appropriators with the U.S. House of Representatives this week.

    John Pettigrew testified that the funding shortfall – over which his tribe has twice sued the federal government – means a force at less than half strength and causes tribal members to wait 30 minutes to an hour on average for non-emergency service.

    Emergency calls can sometimes take just as long if officers are tied up with another incident miles away on the reservation, which is larger in area than the state of Delaware.

    John Pettigrew, acting police chief for the Oglala Sioux Tribe Department of Public Safety. (Courtesy House Appropriations Interior Subcommittee)

    “Five minutes is a lifetime when you’re fighting for your life, let alone 30 minutes,” Pettigrew told members of the House Appropriations Interior Subcommittee on Wednesday.

    Pettigrew was one of six South Dakota-based tribal leaders to speak during two days of hearings on the needs of Indian Country.

    Each spoke of the gulf between federal funding and need in law enforcement and education, the latter of which is funded on a per-student basis at less than a third the rate for the children of active-duty military families, according to information presented during the hearings.

    Native American tribal nations in South Dakota derive most of their funding for basic public services from the federal government, through treaty provisions dating to the 1800s.

    In addition to the statistics on wait times, Pettigrew told the committee that his agency fielded nearly 30,000 more calls for service last year than the year before, that his department’s evidence room holds more than 100 weapons seized from Oglala reservation schools, and that his officers are “overworked, underpaid and on the verge of burnout.”

    That can be a tough pill to swallow for tribal police, he said, particularly when officers with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Federal Bureau of Investigation and state-level agencies make more money.

    “What we’re asking for is a budget correction to bring us up to par with our federal and state counterparts,” Pettigrew said. “To be real, I know this will never happen, but something needs to, because 15% is a crazy number. We are not asking for more than we need. Fifteen percent is a joke.”

    Rosebud: 15 police, 20 more needed

    Law enforcement was also the lead story for Shere Wright-Plank, vice chair of the tribal council for the Oglalas’ neighboring Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

    “The Rosebud Sioux Tribe has half the tribal police officers, with twice the population and three times the violent crime suffered back in the year 2000,” she said.

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    “It is evident that the current funding allocated to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the tribal police, approximately $565 million nationwide, falls significantly short of meeting the real law enforcement needs in Indian country.”

    Last year at this time, Rosebud Tribal Chairman Scott Herman reminded the committee that BIA’s law enforcement budget “should be at least at $1.2 billion.” Wright-Plank said the shortfall indirectly affects non-tribal law enforcement.

    “While the country grapples with increased drug and human trafficking, tribes remain a gap in the law enforcement effort, a gap that the federal government is obligated to close,” she said.

    Rosebud recently declared a state of emergency for public safety, she said, as Oglala did late last year. On her reservation, Wright-Plank said, there are 15 tribal police officers, and “we urgently require an additional 20 officers and detention personnel.”

    “While we strive for economic development, the pervasive issue of drug and alcohol abuse continues to hinder our progress,” she said.

    Educators: State schools come out ahead

    Cecilia Fire Thunder is president of the Oglala Lakota Nation Education Coalition, president of the Little Wound School Board and a member of the board of directors for Oglala Lakota College.

    In her written testimony, Fire Thunder compared federal and state funding for schools. The Oglala Lakota County School District is her reservation’s only state-funded school system, while other schools are either federally or privately supported.

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    Per-student funding for the state schools is about $16,080, she wrote, citing a 2023 study from The federal government funded Indian students at $6,910.

    “Indian student funding is dwarfed compared to the only other fully funded federal education system, the Department of Defense Education Agency, which is funded at $25,000 per student,” she wrote.

    Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs have shown promise in Indian Country, according to Troy Lunderman of Rosebud’s St. Francis Indian School.

    Lunderman is human resources director for the school, which launched a CTE program this year.

    Absenteeism among CTE students is half the rate it was for them the year before, he told the committee, and the school has seen “increases in 90% of the students’ GPAs.”

    “In some cases, some of them had Fs, and now some of them are on the honor roll,” he said.

    CTE programs can work for students like those he used to meet in his former role as a social worker, he said. He spoke of one dropout he worked with in that role who struggled with algebra and science in the classroom setting.

    That student never returned to school.

    “If CTE was available back then for this student in particular, who enjoyed being a mechanic, with different types of math and different types of science, he probably would have succeeded,” Lunderman said.

    But the federal Perkins program, he said, allocates just $16 million nationwide for tribal CTE programs.

    Federal funding is also lacking for school resource officers, he said. The St. Francis school gets money through the Indian School Equalization Program (ISEP), but Lunderman told the committee that schools too often need to tap into that funding to pay officers, maintenance and nutrition staff.

    In his written testimony, Lunderman said BIA schools need “at least a 50% increase” in that funding source.

    “Without a significant increase in ISEP funding, Indian students will continue to fall further behind their non-Indian peers,” he wrote.



    The post Oglala police chief calls tribal law enforcement funding ‘a joke’ in congressional testimony appeared first on South Dakota Searchlight .

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