Revolution In Indian Country

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MICKI’S CAFE IS, IN ITS MODEST WAY, A bulwark against the encroachment of modern history and a symbol, amid the declining fortunes of prairie America, of the kind of gritty (and perhaps foolhardy) determination that in more self-confident times used to be called the frontier spirit.

 

MICKI’S CAFE IS, IN ITS MODEST WAY, A bulwark against the encroachment of modern history and a symbol, amid the declining fortunes of prairie America, of the kind of gritty (and perhaps foolhardy) determination that in more self-confident times used to be called the frontier spirit. To Micki Hutchinson, the problem in the winter of 1991 seemed as plain as the grid of streets that white homesteaders had optimistically laid out in 1910, on the naked South Dakota prairie, to create the town of Isabel in the middle of what they were told was no longer the reservation of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. It was not difficult for Hutchinson to decide what to do when the leaders of the tribal government ordered her to purchase a $250 tribal liquor license: She ignored them.

 

“They have no right to tell me what to do. I’m not Indian!” Hutchinson told me a year and a half later. She and other white businesspeople had by then challenged the tribe’s right to tax them in both tribal court and federal district court and had lost. The marks of prolonged tension showed on her tanned, angular, wary face. “If this were Indian land, it would make sense. But we’re a non-Indian town. This is all homestead land, and the tribe was paid for it. I can’t vote in tribal elections or on anything else that happens on the reservation. What they’re talking about is taxation without representation.”

When I visited, everyone in Isabel still remembered the screech of the warning siren that someone had set off on the morning of March 27, 1991, when the tribal police reached the edge of town, as if their arrival were some kind of natural disaster, like a tornado or fire. The convoy of gold-painted prowl cars rolled in from the prairie and then, when they came abreast of the café, swung sideways across the road. Thirty-eight tribal policemen surrounded the yellow brick building. The tribe’s police chief, Marvin LeCompte, told Hutchinson that she was in contempt of tribal court. Officers ordered the morning breakfast crowd away from their fried eggs and coffee. Then they went back into the pine-paneled bar and confiscated Hutchinson’s stock of beer and liquor—”contraband,” as LeCompte described it—and drove off with it to the tribal government’s offices at Eagle Butte.

A few days before I met Hutchinson, I had interviewed Gregg J. Bourland, the youthful chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. Bourland is widely reckoned to be one of the most effective tribal chairmen in the region and, with a degree in business from the state college in Spearfish, also one of the best educated. “Let them talk about taxation without representation,” Bourland told me dismissively. “We’re not a state. We’re a separate nation, and the only way you can be represented in it is to be a member of the tribe. And they can’t do that. They’re not Indians. These folks are trespassers. They are within reservation boundaries, and they will follow reservation law. They’ve now had one hundred years with no tribal authority over them out here. Well, that’s over.”

More than Micki Hutchinson or than any of the other angry whites in their declining prairie hamlets, it was Bourland who understood that what was at stake was much more than small-town politics. The tax, the ostentatious convoy, and the lawsuit were part of a much larger political drama that was unfolding across the inland archipelago of reservations that make up modern Indian Country. They symbolized the reshaping of the American West, indeed of the United States itself. By the 1990s, almost unnoticed by the American public or media, a generation of legislation and court actions had profoundly remade Indian Country, canonizing ideas about tribal autonomy that would have shocked the lawmakers who a century before had seen the destruction of the reservations as the salvation of the American Indian. If Bourland was right, Micki Hutchinson and the white residents of Isabel were living in a sovereign tribal state. They were tolerated guests with an uncertain future.

 
MICKI HUTCHINSON and her white neighbors were told they were living in a tribal state, guests with an uncertain future.

Until the 1870s, reservations were established throughout the Dakota Territory and other parts of the West with the promise that they would be reserved in perpetuity for the Indians’ exclusive use. Those promises were broken almost everywhere when reservations were opened to homesteading at the end of the century, usually with only perfunctory consultation with the tribes or none at all. As I listened to Gregg Bourland, it was easy to sympathize with the tribe’s striving for some kind of control over forces that were felt to have invaded their land and undermined their culture. Bourland justified the tax as a means both to raise revenue for the tribe and to control alcohol consumption on a reservation where more than 60 percent of the adults were unemployed and 53 percent were active alcoholics.