Outside Indian Country, this type of cross-jurisdictional agreement would be uncontroversial—even commonplace. But on Pine Ridge, it has sparked a debate that brings into sharp relief a tension central to the rarely discussed but longstanding problem of maintaining public safety on the nation’s 326 Indian reservations.
Although subject to federal law—the FBI investigates major crimes on reservations—Indian tribes are sovereign, and their lands generally fall outside state jurisdiction. On most reservations, state and local police have no authority. Inviting them onto tribal lands is more like asking Canadian Mounties to assist police in upstate New York than it is asking for help from the cops in the next county over. And while there are examples of successful cross-jurisdictional agreements on these lands, many tribes remain wary of permitting state or local police to operate there—a reluctance with deep historical roots that’s grounded in fear of state encroachment on tribal sovereignty and a longstanding distrust of outside law enforcement.
Yet, many tribes—habitually underfunded by the federal government, often living on far-flung, rural lands, and facing some of the highest rates of violent crime in the nation—are in dire need of whatever law-enforcement assistance they can get. With the Trump administration proposing to slash tens of millions of dollars from the tribal public-safety budget, the problem is poised to grow more vexing still.
* * *
The killings over the past year share a spasmodic quality with the drug that officials say has fueled many of them. In the village of Pine Ridge—the tribe’s government center—arguments in and around the town’s trailer homes and little vinyl-sided ramblers grew heated too easily and ended in gunfire. Last summer, 13-year-old Te’ca Clifford was shot dead, at random as far as anybody could tell. One Sunday in mid-October, a gunman carried out a brazen daytime hit in a community-center parking lot as his target left a basketball tournament.
Forty minutes to the north, through the sagebrush and ponderosa pines, near Sharps Corner—a highway-side huddle of houses, a church, and a convenience store—there were two shootings in the last year: the still-unsolved murder of 25-year-old Todd Little Bull, who was shot in his car late one night last August, and more recently, in late May, yet another midday killing, the shooting death of Chris Janis, a tattoo artist and father of two.
“People are unsafe—they feel unsafe,” said Stanley Little Whiteman, who as chair of the tribal council’s Law and Order Committee has spearheaded the effort to adopt a mutual-aid agreement. “They tell me: I don’t like locking my doors [but] I don’t like people suddenly walking in all methed out.”
Drug traffickers, seeing an untapped market, have actively targeted Pine Ridge for meth distribution in recent years, law-enforcement officials say. Meth joined a list of factors that have driven high tribal crime rates in the past, including gang problems, widespread unemployment, and the dearth of law enforcement. The community-center shooting in particular left many in the region stunned. “That is the type of behavior that you see in big-city crime,” said Karl Jegeris, the police chief in Rapid City, 30 miles northwest of Pine Ridge. “That’s not something that we’re used to in South Dakota.”