“How could anyone have so much hate?” Lori Abdo-Smith says as she shakes her head in dismay.
Abdo-Smith, Yankton Sioux Tribe, was describing the shootings of five of her horses by a non-Native neighbor, Raymond Johanneson. Between sobs, she recalls what happened that July day when four of her beloved horses—or sunkan wakan (holy dogs) in the Dakota language—were killed because they had escaped from their pen and wandered onto a neighbor’s land.
Four of the horses died; one survived but has a bullet lodged in its abdomen. “Some of them weren’t even on his land when he shot them!” Abdo-Smith says through tears. The body of one horse was found in the ditch less than 200 yards from her home, and according to a neighbor who helped carry away the animal’s corpse said there were tire tracks leading up to the body, which strongly suggests the animal was chased and killed deliberately.
In this rugged landscape, farmers and neighbors generally look out for each other and their animals. “We wouldn’t even think of shooting someone’s livestock,” says Kathy Jones, a neighbor and farmer who is of Cherokee descent who adds that it’s not uncommon for animals to wander onto others lands. She says there’s an unspoken agreement among farmers to help return escaped livestock back to its rightful home. “Even horses that have good hay will break out to eat the ‘green stuff,’ or fresh grass,” she says. “Besides, those horses were like pets to Lori and Charlie. It was like shooting someone’s dogs.”
A Message Written in Blood?
The horse is a fundamental element in Dakota culture and spirituality—sunkan wakan plays a central role in religious practices and is described as a miracle coming from a sacred place. Faith Spotted Eagle, an advocate from the Yankton tribe, notes that the commonly held mainstream belief that the horse was first introduced to the Plains tribes by the Spanish is being refuted by archaeologists who have found evidence that the horse was in America far earlier that the appearance of the conquistadors.
That is part of why the shootings of the horses was especially painful for the Abdo-Smith family, which is deeply connected to the traditional Dakota ways. Their home is a place of frequent ceremonies; their horses represent an element of the sacred for them.
Another source of pain is that Abdo-Smith and her husband, Charlie Smith, believe the shootings were motivated by racial intolerance. “[Johanneson’s] always complaining about us Indians getting too much,” she says. “He’s been bragging all over town about how he shot my horses and how happy he is that I am so hurt!”
The horses were shot on July 23, a few days after a heated public meeting between the tribe and county residents about the placement of South Dakota Department of Transportation highway signs that read, “Entering the Yankton Sioux Reservation.” Many residents believe the timing of the shootings is significant. They speculate that Johanneson, known for his public anti-Native statements was pushed over the edge by the appearance of the signs, which many white farmers in the area view as an insult.
The couple would like to see Johanneson prosecuted for a hate-crime. Although Thomas Deadrick, state’s attorney for Charles Mix County, reportedly told the family the case is “moving along,” Johanneson has not been charged with any crime. Phone calls to Deadrick’s office for comment on the case have not been returned.
Johanneson denies there was any malice toward his neighbors, or Natives, behind the shootings. He says the horses had repeatedly escaped their enclosure and damaged his corn crop. “I don’t know what she’s crying about–she’s been warned for the past five years to keep those horses off my property,” he said in a telephone interview. He added that the horses were thin and starving because the couple seldom fed them.
“I didn’t shoot the horses. I shot at them. Guess I must have hit some of them,” he says. “My attorney told me that charges against me have been dropped. She’s trying to make this into a racist deal, but that’s not true. I got problems with her horses, not with her.”
But some residents of Charles Mix County see Johanneson as the embodiment of a community rife with animus toward Native Americans. Tribal members and some white residents describe their neighbors’ resentment towards Native people as an attitude passed down from one generation to the next. “Anger towards Native Americans is percolating under the surface,” says Jones.
Johannesen, however, insists that he is not prejudiced and the issue of the signs had no impact on his decision to shoot at the horses. “I heard about those signs; it didn’t make no difference to me. I guess [the tribe] thinks this is reservation land. They’re still living back in the 1800’s around here, but they still want all the modern money, free housing, free everything.”
Jones recalls a conversation with Johannesen after his cattle escaped their enclosure and got into her hay field. After she helped him round the animals up, he asked why she was selling hay to the Abdo-Smith family for their horses. According to Jones, Johannesen clearly disapproved of her helping the family. He described the horses as hay-burners. “Raymond is angry at Native people in general, always complaining about the BIA lease prices going up, how our property values will go down because of those signs, and how the tribe is trying to take away our land,” she says.
Tall Signs of Trouble
Earlier this summer, the Yankton Sioux tribe, like many South Dakota tribes, asked the state’s Department of Transportation to erect highway signs flagging Indian land. The signs read, “Entering the Yankton Sioux Reservation.” According to a non-Native farmer who asked that his name be withheld, “That added fuel to the fire. We already know we’re on Indian land; we don’t need any reminders.”
In this mostly farming and ranching community, much of the anti-Native sentiment is about land. Farmers and ranchers often lease land from the Yankton tribe through the Bureau of Indian Affairs land lease program; many complain that the lease prices are too high and that the tribe’s method of leasing the land through a sealed-bid process breeds more distrust and resentment.
Several people, both Native and non-Native, report that after the decision was made to put up the “Welcome” signs, farmers began meeting in barns or local restaurants, where they expressed anger and frustration. A second farmer who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from his neighbors says there was talk of taking actions against Native people and adds, “I’m afraid all this hate and anger will get out of hand.”
Charles Mix County Commissioners contacted the Department of Transportation (DOT) shortly after the signs were erected, indicating that many county residents objected to them. Representatives from the Department, tribe and county commissioners’ office then convened a public meeting to discuss the issue on July 18. During that meeting, county commissioners and others maintained that the Yankton Sioux reservation no longer exists, and therefore there are no boundaries to mark with signs, according to Wesley Hare, tribal transportation planner who says, “This fight between the tribe and white people here has been going on for a long time.”
Hare is referring to years of court cases in which the state of South Dakota and Charles Mix County argued that the Yankton Sioux reservation was disestablished. According to Justice.gov, the case concerning the size and existence of the reservation has been litigated since 1994.
In 2011, however, the Supreme Court upheld the existence of the reservation. Although the court found that the reservation lands had been diminished, it upheld the location of the tribe’s exterior boundaries as established under the original 1853 treaty between the tribe and the U. S. government. According to J. R. LaPlante, South Dakota Governor’s Secretary for Tribal Relations, those at the July 18 meeting seemed to agree that changing the word “Entering” on the signs to “Welcome to… ” would be a good compromise.
Shortly after that meeting, one of the signs was cut down. The DOT replaced it, using metal posts rather than the original wooden ones.
Although the tribe had requested six signs, so far the DOT has erected only three, halting the process until the tribe and county can reach a final agreement on wording, according to Tammy Williams, who works for the DOT. “We see a lot of highway signs getting shot up during hunting season. This is the first time I have ever seen a sign cut down entirely,” she notes.
Thomasina Real Bird, attorney for the Yankton Sioux Nation, thought it odd that the signs stirred up so much debate. “We still see veiled threats that the county doesn’t see [the recognition of the reservation and its boundaries] as ended. They try to push it in any small way that they can.”
Real Bird of the Yankton Sioux Nation, says the tribe sees the signs as far more than boundary markers; they are an expression of pride and of home. “They are identity and cultural markers for us,” she says. “The signs should be seen as a positive contribution to the county.”
Brown, But Not Down
“There is a lot of prejudice in this county. It is subtle and doesn’t show itself but [Native] people can see and feel it,” says Hare. According to Hare and local advocate Faith Spotted Eagle, racism against Native people is normalized for many of the area’s white residents, who complain that Native people receive too much support from the government. Spotted Eagle points out, however, that many area farmers and ranchers receive substantial subsidies from the government via the USDA. (From 1995-2012, Johanneson collected $691,955 in USDA subsidies, which averages out to just over $40,000 a year.)
According to Spotted Eagle, many white residents don’t see their attitudes or inequality in the community as racism. For them, it’s simply the way things are. She says Natives and non-Natives, “live in parallel universes here.”
She believes, however, that the new generation is changing. “They don’t like what’s happening, many of them are becoming more worldly. I have hope for the new generation.”
Hare thinks it makes little difference where the signs are placed or the wording written on them. “You got people thinking that because our land is broken up that we’re not here anymore. We still have our language, our culture, our ceremonies, our traditional way of praying. [We are] still here, even though they tried to wipe us off the face of the earth.” He adds with a laugh, “We’re still here, and we’re still brown.”