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Service Provides Legal Help to Indians

June 30, 2005

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) _ Jessica Hinsley, who lives on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, was going through a divorce while working full time and attending college when a tribal judge took her year-old daughter away. The girl had been hurt in a fall at a day care center. Hinsley didn’t know where to turn, until she hooked up with an attorney from Dakota Plains Legal Services.

The lawyer went to work quickly and got the child returned to Hinsley after she had trouble finding a private lawyer to take her case.

``I didn’t even know we had a legal service or else I would have gone there a long time ago,″ Hinsley said.

Many Indian reservations across the nation have a shortage of lawyers, which is especially troubling in civil matters not covered by court-appointed attorneys or public defenders.

And while Indians need legal help in state and federal courts, one of the greatest needs is in tribal court, where many people represent themselves without hiring a lawyer, said Ron Hutchinson, executive director of Dakota Plains.

The service, part of a nonprofit network serving low-income people, has six offices in South Dakota and one just across the state line in North Dakota.

``The bottom line here is we don’t have the resources to help everyone who needs help. We don’t even come close,″ Hutchinson said.

Help is on the way, thanks to a grant from the American College of Trial Lawyers, a national organization of courtroom attorneys. A $50,000 grant is intended to go toward the Dakota Plains Web site to provide a wide range of information related to Indian legal issues, including forms and instructions for those who represent themselves in tribal court.

``There is an appalling need for legal services to the poor everywhere in the country,″ said Jimmy Morris of Richmond, Va., president of the American College of Trial Lawyers. ``But it is particularly acute among Native Americans.″

Steve Moore of the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder, Colo., agrees there is a lack of legal resources to help Indians in tribal, state and federal courts.

``The word `crisis’ I think doesn’t overdramatize the situation,″ Moore said.

Indians not only have to deal with state and federal laws and regulations, but they also are subject to tribal laws on reservations and a host of tribal and federal programs for housing, health and other issues that apply only to Indians, Moore said.

``We think that Native Americans are the most regulated segment of the American population,″ he said. ``Being Native American just adds multiple layers and layers or regulations and bureaucracy into your life.″

The project will supply information to help private lawyers better represent Indian clients and will gather tribal laws and previous tribal court rulings from the Sioux tribes.

It also will provide an improved set of instructions and forms, which now vary widely among tribal courts, Hutchinson said. If the South Dakota project succeeds, it can be adopted in tribal courts in other parts of the nation.

``What we hope is that this will become a model project that other programs across the country can build on for their own tribal court systems,″ Hutchinson said.

Hinsley, the young mother, is just happy that Dakota Plains gave her the legal help she needed to get her daughter back.

``They wouldn’t listen to me or anything, and then once I got an attorney ... that’s when they pretty much had to listen,″ she said.


On the Net:

Dakota Plains Legal Services: http://www.dpls.org

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