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For me, the day of February 28th, 1986 started at 7:00 in the morning. On that cold Saturday, those many years ago, I woke up early to go buy an engine so I could replace the old broken one in my truck. We needed that truck to transport materials for the construction company which we had just formed. We had just rented it, on January 31st, 1986 with the help of the State of South Dakota.
At about 8:00 a.m. a friend picked me up, drove me to the store where I bought the engine, and then drove me back to my brother's house, where we started working on the truck. My house is close to my brother's. I live in a Housing Project home, which was built to decrease the shortage of housing on my reservation. And even though this project is partly successful, it has also created other, more serious problems: alcoholism, suicides, hatred, jealousy, and so on... In my opinion this kind of projects are not the adequate remedy.
While we were taking out the old engine, several people came by to talk about what was happening that day. A local gang was terrorizing two young Indians in the house of their 85- year old grandmother. This gang boasts about its history of racist abuse, which goes back some 60 years. And even though most of its members are white people, some of them married Indian women and had children. These kids are also members of the gang. What's more, the members of this gang are direct cousins to the Chief of Police.
Our reservation is what you call a "checkerboard" reservation, where a great part of the holdings have been sold to white people. That is why the town of Wagner, SD, has State Police. In the early 1970s, this gang had been responsible for many beatings and was suspected of many unsolved murders. Not only the local police, but also the State Police know about their violent history, but they just tolerate it. That reminds me of the old saying: "the only good Indian, is a dead Indian." And as if this insult wasn't enough, there are also Indians who joined this gang out of fear or out of sheer idiocy.
As I said, that day several friends and members of the two men that had been beaten by the gang came to our place to ask us for advice. For thirty years I have been defending my people, so it's not unusual that people come to me for advice or for protection. And for me it's not uncommon to help them when I know that they are not the cause of these troubles.
Each time I suggested that they should report the matter to the police. On a checkerboard reservation, there is Tribal and State Police. Tribal police for infractions on Indian territory; and State police for infractions off Indian land. This particular time, the violence occurred under both police authorities. I advised to report to the police because I had just created a construction firm out of nothing and was trying to create job opportunities for the "have-nots", the people I have always tried to help. Besides, it seemed logical that the police would intervene to prevent further violence of which other innocent people could become a victim.
The gang violence had started around 9:30 a.m. and continued until 9:45 p.m. that evening. The police reports show that people indeed filed complaints, but one should not forget that the Chief of Police is a first cousin to several of those gang members. And don't forget that I had absolutely nothing to do with these incidents.
From the official police report it seems that the gang went to the house of the 85-year old grandmother and beat up her two grandsons; they left but came back later, broke the windows, tore off the shutters, kicked in doors and beat up the two grandsons over and over again. This violence continued all day and still the gang was not satisfied. They started hunting down people that looked like the two grandsons and beat them up as well. The old "first shoot and then ask questions" method! In the official reports there must be a note that three people who did not know what was going on had become the victims of this unleashed violence. It's only reasonable to say that every one is responsible for his actions, and that there could be a good reason to give somebody a whipping; but that somebody is being beaten senseless all day long, while the police are well aware, that goes a little too far! But this sort of thing is at the order of the day in Indian country. The stories you are reading here are true, and the only background reason is racism. This particular gang was on the loose for decades, undisturbed. That's no wonder, because they have nothing to fear when their first cousin is Chief of Police. The activities of this gang were well known, had been recorded, and even the Governor as well as his lowest ranking employee were informed.recorded.
The rest of the story. The sun went down on Yankton Sioux Nation. It was around 7:30 p.m. when we put our working tools away and decided to go to my house to take a shower, eat supper and look for a ride to the Indian school, 9 miles outside Wagner, where they were holding the Midwinter Wacipi (Pow Wow).
While we were at my place, friends and relatives of the two grandsons came to visit. I started cooking supper and we had a few beers. We ate and we talked, but I didn't have enough food in the house to feed everybody, so I said: "Could someone get some more meat." The owner of the car went, came back with more meat and the news that the gang had beaten up two more people. We talked about it, but still thought it was better to leave the matter to the legal authorities who, after all, had been informed.
We asked out visitors if they were also going to attend the Pow Wow and if they could give us a ride. After I had cleaned up and done the dishes, we went on our way. It must have been around 9:00 or 9:30 p.m. I live 2 miles out of town. As soon as we drove into town, two cars and a pickup truck with gang members started following us. At a given moment, one of the cars doubled us full speed and cut us off. The driver of our car could barely avoid a collision.
When they had to testify in court, the gang members said they thought that one of the two grandsons had been in our car.
All this time, the Chief of Police, the first cousin of the gang members, was dining and drinking at the local VFW; a dinner party for somebody who was retiring. Meanwhile, we took two other Indians in the car who had been beaten by the gang. One of them was barely recognizable. After driving them to their home, we decided to go buy some gas and drive on to the Pow Wow. Right at this time, we met the two grandsons who were walking to town. We stopped to offer them a ride and to inform them what the gang had been doing all day. But the two men declined the ride and walked on to the local liquor store. When we turned the corner, the pickup truck of the gang leader was parked at the traffic lights, and he pointed a rifle at us. We drove on to the liquor store. When we arrived there, the two grandsons just came out and the pickup came roaring from behind the corner. The gang leader jumped out. At the same time, the other gang members (about 50 of them) appeared from the other side of the street and circled the two men. They started hitting them. One man escaped; the other did not stand a chance.
We were sitting in our car and watched this for a couple of minutes. There were only five of us. We got out and I hit the gang leader on the arm. He dropped the police baton with which he was beating the man. Another gang member ran back to the pickup to get the rifle. I ran after him to stop him. When I turned around to see what was happening behind me, the gang leader was on the ground, dead or dying. He had received a blow against his head which had broken his jaw and which burst the arteries in his head.
During trial, my so-called friends blamed me, while the gang members blamed my so-called friends. You see, for my "friends" it wasn't all that difficult to accuse me and for the police it was very convenient to believe them because I had so often challenged and condemned the tribal and police policies. The gang knew I did not do it, and was telling the truth. I have never been a victim of the gang's violence, but I have often defended others against them.
During his official deposition, the pathologist testified that a blow on the head had killed the gang leader. I did not give this blow and was not charged of having given this blow. It was only after the State had refused a motion for supplementary indictments that the pathologist changed his testimony: suddenly the blow on the head was not the cause of death.
To end a long story: I was sentenced to 80 years, put in a federal prison; I escaped but was caught two years later and sent to Marion (the toughest prison in the U.S.).
But what good does it do to write about it... If I'd had a well-paid attorney and if there had been a thorough investigation, things would have turned out differently. You see, after the trial the pathologist changed his testimony a third time. And I was told that one of the jurors was related to the gang members. But what does all this matter in a court of justice when one is an Indian...
This situation will not change until people stand up and start asking serious questions. Questions as "Why?"... and I want to thank you for asking that question.
If you want to know more about us Indians and I can give you an answer, I will certainly do so. So don't hesitate and ask your questions.
Please let me know what you think of this story, and what you can do to help. Thank you.
You can send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org and Albert Eissing will make sure I receive it. (It can take a while, but be patient, I will most certainly reply!).
Or you can write me directly:
James R. Weddell #23217
P.O. Box 5911
Sioux Falls, South Dakota 57117-5911