On Aug. 31, approximately 22 Oglala Lakota elders occupied the Oglala District Community Action Program (CAP) office in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, to protest the alleged theft of more than $10,000 in federal funds.
The elders, many ill and feeble, maintain that the money was illegally distributed to five Oglala district officials in the form of hefty stipends.
The funds, $10, 071 in total, were sent to the Oglala District officials by the Denver Office of the United States Health and Human Services (HHS) and were meant “specifically for the health and welfare of the district’s elderly residents,” according to a press release produced by Duane Martin Sr., 54, director of the Strong Heart Warrior Society, a Lakota civil rights and activist organization.
Martin Sr. writes on behalf of the elders.
“[The money] was to initiate a better standard of living and care for our elders,” he said. “These elders have legitimate grounds to do this.”
The elders also maintain that the money was meant to pay for trips to places like Rapid City for doctor’s appointments and also to help pay electrical bills.
“Some are really old. They have health issues. They live on fixed incomes. Somebody’s pulling people’s legs around here,” said Darlis Morrison-Pro, Oglala Lakota, 45, a stay-at-home grandmother who attended the occupation at the CAP office.
Morrison-Pro said the Oglala elders had initiated a sit-in and for weeks they occupied the district staff headquarters.
She said that the elders do not stay at the CAP office overnight. Many go home at about midnight and return the next morning.
“The number [of elders who occupy] changes everyday,” Morrison-Pro said. “We have some elderly that do dialysis. They just sit there and visit. … They sit there to prove a point.”
According to Morrison-Pro, several elders had obtained records informing them that the HHS money had gone to unspecified expenditures instead of helping the poverty-stricken elders on Pine Ridge.
“We got a financial report,” said Morrison-Pro. “We started saying, ‘Gee, they sure pay themselves a lot of money.’ Everybody said, ‘They can’t do this.’”
“[It’s] sad for our whole community,” Morrison-Pro added. “We’re just families struggling to survive on the reservation. … I can’t believe these people. Something doesn’t seem right. We feel they really violated their oath of office.”
Ingrid One Feather, an Oglala Lakota who also attended the occupation, said it is illegal for the district officials to pay themselves stipends with HHS funds.
“There’s nothing in the constitution bylaws that says you can get stipends for being on this committee,” she said.
Martin Sr. said that some elders are working litigiously to remove the district officials from office and demand new elections.
“When’s enough enough?” he asked. “You can’t take money.”
Donna Salomon, public relations coordinator to the office of the tribal president John Yellow Bird Steele, said that she believes none of the accused Oglala District officials will respond to media inquiries regarding this matter because it is currently under litigation.
“That prevents them from commenting on it,” she said.
In response to Martin Sr.’s accusation regarding the theft of HHS money, Salomon said it’s all allegation.
“Anything Mr. Martin writes is purely allegation,” she said. “And right now, like I said, it’s in court.”
“I think that Mr. Martin may even be violating [a court] order by submitting information that hasn’t been proven,” added Salomon.
While awaiting a tribal court decision regarding the matter, the elders continue to protest and Martin Sr. continues to advocate for their rights.
“Without our elders [we] aren’t going to have a future,” said Martin Sr. “I’ll do all I can to protect my elders.”