Upper Sioux banishes drug criminalsby Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio
An Indian tribe in southwest Minnesota has passed one of the toughest tribal anti-drug policies in the nation. It affects anyone convicted of drug crimes on the Upper Sioux Reservation near Granite Falls. The offender is automatically prohibited from setting foot on the reservation for a certain length of time, a policy sometimes called banishment.
Upper Sioux Community, Minn. — Kevin Jensvold calls drugs "the enemy." As chairman of the Upper Sioux's governing Board of Trustees, he led the effort to strengthen the tribe's position on illegal substances.
The board passed a zero-tolerance policy earlier this month. Jensvold says anyone committing a drug crime on the reservation faces "immediate banishment from tribal lands."
"You will be excluded from lands for a finite amount of time," says Jensvold.
Tribal courts will decide how long the banishment lasts. He says the banished will retain tribal membership.
So far, Upper Sioux officials have not faced a case involving a tribal member, but did banish one individual who is not enrolled in the tribe.
The Upper Sioux is one of the smallest reservations in Minnesota, a little more than two square miles. Many of the tribe's 430 members live off the reservation but nearby.
Jensvold says the tribes zero-tolerance policy also includes anyone convicted of gang-related or violent crimes. People convicted of these crimes also face banishment.
"Our goal is to insure the safety of our members, their children, our tribal lands, our guests to our tribal lands," says Jensvold. "Our survival depends on upon our ability to face this enemy."
The act of banishment has a long history in Indian culture. The Upper Sioux policy is more lenient than traditional banishment. The ancient approach treats banished individuals as if they were dead.
Jensvold says the Upper Sioux policy is a tough love approach to rehabilitation. He says it's designed to encourage change.
"We are here to assist our members to refrain or recover," says Jensvold. "We are here to demonstrate that we are a tribal nation who care."
Much of the push for the new policy came after the tribe investigated the danger methamphetamine addiction posed to its members. Tribal secretary Elitta Gouge says says there is drug activity on the reservation, but no one knows how extensive. To fight back, she says the tribe acted.
"We're going to warn everyone who is a dealer or a supplier that we're going to prosecute to the fullest extent of the law, if they should bring drugs on to the rez," says Gouge.
Gouge says Indians have a saying: "We are all related." That phrase has extra impact on the tiny Upper Sioux reservation. All Indians are related in a spiritual and cultural sense.
On the Upper Sioux, with its small population, the different family groups are also tightly connected through marriage. Those ties complicate enforcement of the tribe's new policy.
Tribal Chairman Kevin Jensvold says in the most difficult cases, it means court officials likely will personally know the individual they must banish. He says how well they perform under that pressure is the true test of the zero-tolerance policy.
"And I believe truly that Wakantanka, our God, will give us the strength and the courage to always stand up and do what's right for all tribal members," says Jensvold.
Jensvold says too often government is afraid to take strong positions on serious issues. He says drugs are a big threat to all cultures. The tribe's banishment policy is a direct response to that threat. Jensvold says when it comes to drugs, no one can say the Upper Sioux were afraid to take strong steps.
- Morning Edition, 05/31/2006, 7:20 a.m.