Serving Tribal Justice in South Dakota
Today’s guest blog is an interview between AmeriCorps Alums and Leroy “JR” LaPlante and is part of AmeriCorps Alums’ REALTalk series on race, equity, and AmeriCorps alumni as leaders. Questions were developed with the help of The Corps Network alum Philandrian Tree, currently the tribal and program liaison to Arizona’s Coconino County District 4 Supervisor. The interview is part of our National Leaders Spotlight blog series profiling AmeriCorps Alums National Leadership Award Winners honored for their lifetime of service. JR is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and has been passionate about improving government and tribal relations all his life. JR served as an AmeriCorps Legal Fellow with South Dakota Access to Justice in 2009. He later opened a private law practice serving the needs of tribes in the state and served as Chief Justice for the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe. He went on to become the first Secretary of Tribal Relations in South Dakota, and is now an Assistant United States Attorney in the United States Attorneys Office for the District of South Dakota in Sioux Falls.
JR, can you tell us about your personal background and whether or not that influenced your decision to serve in AmeriCorps?
I grew up on the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota. My parents are both retired from the Department of Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs. Dad was a boiler maintenance worker and mom was a food service worker at the school cafeteria. I am grateful to my parents for their example and for instilling in me the values of hard work and public service. The reservation can be a place of great need and recognizing this as a youth, I committed my life to addressing those needs through service and volunteerism. My upbringing set me on a path of public service, and my service in AmeriCorps was a continuation on that path.
Tell us more about your legal service with AmeriCorps and in your own practice. What kinds of legal issues were many people facing in the tribes you served?
My legal service consisted of family law, landlord tenant law, and Indian law. I learned early on that family law was not my strength, but consistent with my commitment as a youth, I gravitated toward meeting the legal needs in Indian Country in regards to land ownership.
As an example, South Dakota is home to nine Federally-recognized tribes and their respective land bases. Through treaties with the U.S. government, these tribes retained large parcels of their homelands for their use and occupation. In fact, the Sioux Treaty of 1868, designated the entire western half of present day South Dakota, including the Black Hills, as the Great Sioux Reservation. However, through subsequent treaties and the passage of federal law, the tribes were divested of most of these lands. The most damaging of these laws was the General Allotment Act of 1887, which systematically imposed private ownership of land by converting tribal land holdings to individual allotments.
Over the last 125 years, these allotted lands became heavily fractionated through inheritance processes. In some cases a 40-acre allotment had as many as 150 undivided interests (land claims held by two or more people without specifying the interests of each owner in terms of percentage or description of each person’s portion). This has severely impaired the free disposition (transfer) and/or use of these lands. One way to avoid further fractionation is for tribal members to devise these lands—make a gift of the property by a last will and testament— through thoughtful estate planning.
Seeing this need, I organized a cadre of law students from the University of South Dakota School of Law and several Legal Fellows from my cohort at Equal Justice Works, in cooperation with Dakota Plains Legal Services, to conduct will-drafting clinics on five of the nine Indian reservations in the spring of 2010 as a spring break alternative service opportunity. I am happy to say that this collaborative project still exists today between the law school and Dakota Plains legal services. Law students have a meaningful opportunity to provide pro-bono civil legal services under the supervision of qualified, licensed attorneys to historically disadvantaged communities, while learning about the rich culture of those tribal communities.
How did you transition from your legal work to becoming the first Secretary of Tribal Relations in South Dakota?
The relationships, knowledge, and experience gained as an Indian Country attorney transitioned very well to my becoming the first Secretary of Tribal Relations. That credibility allowed me to move the state and tribes forward on many issues that would not have been possible without my legal background.
For alums who aren’t familiar with tribal-government relationship-building, can you tell us a bit more about this field? What are the challenges and rewards of the tribal liaison role, who is best suited for it, and what kind of issues do they face to serve the interests of the tribe and government? Why should more people, especially AmeriCorps alums, learn more about this work?
State tribal relations is one of the more obscure and less appreciated aspects of Indian law practice. But, from the very beginning, Federal Indian law jurisprudence involved conflicts and power struggles between tribes and states. While difficult and underappreciated, it is some of the most dynamic and rewarding work I have done in my career. But one has to embrace incrementalism and be patient.
Ideally, I think an Indian law attorney or a person with a background in Indian law is best suited to do this work because so many issues pertain to the legal rights and jurisdictional authority of tribes and states. And, it is difficult to address, much less attempt to resolve tribal state issues without first, an appreciation for the tribal state legal relationship, but ultimately the expertise to guide tribal and state actors through the legal complexities toward an eventual solution. Credibility, reputation, and expertise are key.
AmeriCorps alums should consider this work because very few people are doing it; it involves a historically disadvantaged group of people in our country, the tribes; and because we possess, both individually and collectively, the ideals to accomplish it and be successful.
You’re transitioning to a new role as an Assistant United States Attorney in the United States Attorneys Office for the District of South Dakota in Sioux Falls. What kind of work will you be doing in your new role and can you share how you see yourself continuing to live out a lifetime of service in your personal and professional life?
In addition to being a federal prosecutor, I have the distinct privilege and responsibility to address tribal justice issues in Indian Country in South Dakota as a Community Prosecutor. Community prosecution involves outreach and education, collaboration with local tribal governments to address public safety needs, and facilitation and support of tribal justice systems. So in a way this is a continuation of what I was doing as Secretary, except I am focused on one issue, public safety. It is a continuation of that commitment I made as a 12-year-old boy; I am helping to address the needs of Indian Country through public service. The trajectory was set way back then, and I am thankful to still be on that track.
What advice would you give to AmeriCorps alums to help them carry out our commitment to a lifetime of service?
Be yourself. The world needs genuine people with the courage to make change happen.