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Lawyers You’ll Like – Charlie Abourezk
As part of our Lawyers You’ll Like series, we talk with attorney Charles Abourezk about his work with the Native American community in South Dakota. Charles is a trial attorney, author and filmmaker. His documentary A Tattoo on My Heart: The Warriors of Wounded Knee 1973 is a gripping documentation of those American Indian men and women involved in the siege. Charles is the Chief Justice of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Supreme Court; he’s also member of South Dakota Advisory Committee to U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He’s the son of James George Abourezk, former Democratic United States Representative and United States Senator, generally viewed as critical of US foreign policy in Israel/Palestine.
- The Rosebud Sioux Tribe is the second largest tribe in South Dakota. There are nine total tribal governments in the state. It’s where I grew up.
- I spent most of my adult life on the Pine Ridge Reservation, which is the poorest county in the United States.
- I went to law school, long after I worked for a number of Indian organizations including a Native American NGO that worked at the UN in Category 2 status.
- The Pine Ridge Reservation is the second largest reservation in the United States, located in southwestern South Dakota. It’s a huge land mass, takes about an hour and a half to drive diagonally across the reservation. There’s very little economy. The geography is very poor; it lends itself to cattle grazing but not much in terms of raising crops.
- Wounded Knee was the site of the 1890 massacre in which almost 300 American Indians from several different tribes were killed by the U.S. Army. They were surrounded and essentially murdered on that spot.
- So, in 1973, after there had been a lot of racial discrimination and racially motivated killings of Indian people, the American Indian Movement returned and joined forces with the traditional people who had long been neglected on the reservation.
- As a result they decided to engage in a protest. They chose the site of the massacre at Wounded Knee to stage that protest.
- They set up sort of a line there, with the government and US Marshals, along with Dick Wilson’s followers who were armed and were called the goon squad and formed the other side of that line. The siege lasted 71 days.
- It was finally dismantled and number of people were prosecuted as a result of that.
- At Wounded Knee, two Indian people killed and one US Marshal wounded.
- We set up a recording studio right at the Wounded Knee school, and just took people’s stories. I did the interviews, they were really powerful. There were some stories that didn’t fit with the arc of the film but were incredible. I’m glad I documented it then, because I think of the people in the documentary, 7 or 8 have now passed away.
- I continue to be a strong advocate for tribal sovereignty, self-determination and the rights of individuals especially within the dynamic of racial discrimination, which at times in South Dakota has been as bad as the south is toward African-Americans.
- I helped affirm and preserve the boundaries of the Yankton Sioux Reservation, that went up to the Supreme Court twice. I was the lead council when it finally concluded; we were able to win that one.
- I was a former Supreme Court Justice on the Pine Ridge Reservation for their Supreme Court and I retired from that position.
- Except for limited jurisdiction the Federal Government had on criminal matters, the civil jurisdiction for incidents which occur within the reservation lie with the tribal court as do criminal misdemeanors for tribal members and non-tribal members, meaning Indians from other tribes that happen to be living on the reservation.
- In the Native American view you can’t really have winners and losers, you have to try to restore the harmony or the balance within the tribe.
- The American government adopted the British style of colonialism as did the Israelis when they began to colonize parts of Palestine. It kind of goes in four steps.
- A disruption of traditional agriculture and food gathering, which out here was done in two ways: killing off the buffalo and secondly constraining them from moving around in a wide arc for hunting and gathering. By putting them on the reservation they stopped that.
- Transfer commonly-owned land into private ownership, to turn land into a commodity that can be bought and sold. They did that through what’s called the Daws Act or the Allotment Act in the late 1800s.
- Theodore Roosevelt called that act a “mighty pulverizing machine” with which to break up the tribal mass.
- The third step was to develop a native ruling elite. In this case they first developed “paper chiefs” then in the 1930s developed modern tribal government.
- Last step, develop an educated elite. Of course any colonizer anywhere, that’s the step that always backfires.
- The American Indian Movement was born from the children of the parents who were relocated into cities and trained as workers.
- They were the ones who came back home and joined forces with the traditional people and stood up against racism and in favor of tribal sovereignty and tribal self-determination.
- You see many parallels with what’s happening to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
Guest – Charlie Abourezk, from Rapid City, South Dakota, is a trial attorney, longtime activist and community organizer in the Native American community in South Dakota. He is also a documentary filmmaker. His most recent work is the feature-length documentary A Tattoo on My Heart: The Warriors of Wounded Knee 1973 which played on public television stations around the United States. He is the former Chief Justice of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s Supreme Court and a member of the South Dakota Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights. His client base is made up largely of Native Americans, tribal schools and Indian tribal governments, but he also represents plaintiffs in civil rights litigation. He will have a book coming out this next year entitled A Mighty Pulverizing Machine: The Continuing Colonization of American Indians.
From Guantanamo to Wikileaks: Taking on the State in a Post-9/11 World
Our own Michael Ratner, President Emeritus, Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), past president, National Lawyers Guild; Chair, European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights delivered a talk last week titled “From Guantanamo to Wikileaks: Taking on the State in a Post-9/11 World.” Michael was honored with a Pathmaker to Peace Award by the Brooklyn for Peace organization for his consistent work in litigation against government spying and surveillance of activists including the targeting of Muslims after 9/11.
Guest – Law and Disorder Co-host Michael Ratner, President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and president of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), based in Berlin. Ratner and CCR are currently the attorneys in the United States for publishers Julian Assange and Wikileaks. He was co-counsel in representing Guantanamo Bay detainees in the United States Supreme Court, where, in June 2004, the court decided his clients have the right to test the legality of their detentions in court. Ratner is also a past president of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) and the author of numerous books and articles, including the books The Trial of Donald Rumsfeld: A Prosecution by Book, Against War with Iraq and Guantanamo: What the World Should Know, as well as a textbook on international human rights.