Rep. Kristi Noem (R-South Dakota), far right, is seen in her office in Washington, D.C., in January 2017 with leaders of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe discussing attempts to hold the Indian Health Service accountable for the quality of care. The tribe is not connected H.R.4864, a new bill in Congress. Photo: Kristi Noem

Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe slams GOP bill with 'racist undertones'

Indian Country isn't a haven for fugitives, the leader of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe said, rebutting claims from Republican lawmakers and law enforcement authorities in South Dakota.

Chairman Harold Frazier is calling for the withdrawal of H.R.4864, also known as the No Haven for Dangerous Fugitives Act. He said the bill, introduced by Rep. Kristi Noem (R-South Dakota) earlier this month, carries "racist undertones" because it implies that criminals are intentionally fleeing to reservations to avoid prosecution.

"Here on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, we have an extradition process for criminals," Frazier said in a January 27 letter to Noem. "It would make more sense for you and the federal government to visit our reservation, so you can become knowledgeable of our philosophy, customs and history."

"So I ask, don't be like previous 'Great White Fathers' and think you know what's best for us Indians," Frazier added.

Noem introduced the bill on January 19 but did not immediately publicize it. That changed on Friday, when she held a press conference and said the issue of fugitives arose during a meeting with law enforcement in the state.

Rep. Kristi Noem (R-South Dakota) on Twitter: H.R.4864, No Haven for Dangerous Fugitives Act

“Today, we have fugitives hiding in plain sight,” Noem said in a January 26 press release. “The way the system is set up violent criminals can use Indian Country as a haven to evade law enforcement. That policy poses a serious and concerning public safety threat to tribal communities."

According to Noem, the issue was discussed last August in Rapid City -- off the reservation. Her press release included statements from three law enforcement officials Pennington County, where Native Americans make up 10.1 percent of the population, claiming that the bill will reduce crime and protect victims.

“This simple but important adjustment to legislation will correct an unintentional flaw that has contributed to a disparate degree of Public Safety on and near tribal lands,” said Karl Jegeris, the chief of police in Rapid City, where Native Americans represent about 12.4 percent of the population.

Tribal citizens are extremely over-represented in the prison population in Pennington County, Native Sun News Today reported last October, so there is little to indicate they aren't being held accountable for their crimes. That has Frazier questioning the need for Noem's bill.

"This bill will take away one of the few things we have left of our sovereignty and jurisdiction," he wrote in the letter, "Haven't we Indians given up enough?"

The bill includes unenforceable language that calls on the federal, state and local governments to "respect tribal sovereignty at all times." It also encourages them to engage in "reasonable efforts" to enter into extradition agreements with tribes.

A post shared by Kristi Noem (@repkristinoem) on

In South Dakota, at least, those efforts have largely failed. The Oglala Sioux Tribe was unable to reach an agreement after the state made a big deal about two fugitives who fled to the Pine Ridge Reservation more than a decade ago. One of the suspects was arrested several months later.

Despite the lack of formal agreements, most tribes in the state have adopted extradition procedures, according to the South Dakota Tribal Court Handbook. The document, which was complied by the Indian Law Committee of the State Bar of South Dakota, highlighted a key issue.

"The common theme among the various codes is that tribes are not willing to hide persons who have committed crimes outside the reservations," the handbook reads. "But what is demanded from other governments requesting extradition is respect and comity for tribal sovereignty."

If H.R.4864 becomes law, anyone who "enters or leaves Indian country" while being wanted on felony charges, or while being asked to give testimony in a criminal case, could be charged under a section of the U.S. Code regarding fugitives.

“By recognizing tribal borders as being the equivalent of state borders, the No Haven for Dangerous Fugitives Act takes a huge step toward ensuring that no one is beyond the law," said Mark Vargo, the Pennington County State’s Attorney.

The bill has just one co-sponsor at this point. That's Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-South Carolina), who serves as chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Gowdy, whose district does not include any tribes, took part in Noem's meeting last fall. He also was there to help her raise funds for her gubernatorial campaign.

Noem isn't running for re-election in the House because of her campaign in South Dakota. If H.R.4864 does not advance in the 115th Congress, which ends in December, Gowdy or someone else would have to take up the cause next year.

Noem otherwise has won praise from tribes and tribal advocates for attempting to improve the level of care in the Indian Health Service. But her bills on that issue have not advanced significantly during the last two sessions of Congress.

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