Honoring Nations: Ken James: The Flandreau Police Department (2007)

Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development

Former Flandreau (South Dakota) Police Chief Ken James discusses how the Flandreau Police Department works to provide culturally sensitive law enforcement to all of the citizens it serves.

Resource Type

James, Ken. "The Flandreau Police Deparment," Honoring Nations symposium. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 27-28, 2007. Presentation.

Michael Lipsky:

"So our presenters are Ken James, Chief of the Flandreau Police Department, who was honored in 2005, whose program was honored in 2005; Don Corbine, who is from the Bad River Recycling program in Wisconsin; LuAnn Leonard, the Director of the Hopi Education Endowment Fund; and Mary Etsitty, the Executive Director of the Office of the Navajo Tax Commission. So perhaps, we'll go in the order that I read those names and so Ken, perhaps you'd start off?"

Ken James:

"[Dakota greeting/prayer] Before I start I want to share with you -- it's a song. And I sing this song for strength, for inner strength, and it's a song of encouragement. And I sing this a lot in the line of work that I do. I always need strength from the higher power. And after I get done singing his song, I'll share with you the history of that song.


That song, (you can go ahead and sit down. Thank you). That song is a reminder of our history, as Dakota Santees in South Dakota, Nebraska and North Dakota. On December 26th, 1862, our brothers and sisters, our ancestors, stood side by side holding hands with the men, the women and children in Mankato, Minnesota, on December 26th, 1862. They were a bristling wall of strength that stood there, and they watched their brothers, their relatives. The largest mass execution in U.S. history; 38 Santees were put in the gallows and they were hung. And it was for our homelands in Minnesota and we were exiled. Our ancestors were moved, and we were moved, and we were moved. And through all of those journeys through life, we've had the tenacity to overcome and to adapt as Indian people.

When I look around the room today, I see each and every one of us have our own stories to tell in our families, in our tribes, in our nations. And so we, each and every one of us, we're that bristling wall of strength today for our people and for the generations to come. And I want to start off by -- it's been so gracious, I've learned so much since I've been here. I've never been to this side of the world other than to -- I've been to D.C. for a law enforcement summit, so it's been just very gratifying to come here and to learn and I'm just absorbing it all in. It's just been a blessing and a gift. Somebody once said that sometimes we have to travel this road alone but we don't have to do it by ourselves. We have so many people. I share that a lot with my children that sometimes we're going to have complex issues come in our life but we can do it together. There's nothing saying that we can't do it by ourselves.

And I want to share with you, I want to thank and I want to acknowledge some people here. I think it's only right and fair that I do that. In our Native way, we do that anyway. [Because] what I've learned in my career, it was given to me, it was something I didn't do by myself. I had so many people that are no longer here in the physical realm that [have] helped me to get where I'm at today. So I'm very appreciative of that love and that unconditional love that has been bestowed upon me. My Indian name is [Dakota language]. In Dakota that means ‘strong minded.' That was given to me in 1995 in a Hunka ceremony in Kyle, South Dakota. I was adopted into the, at that time was the president of, the Oglala Sioux Nation; his name was Wilbur Between Lodge. And it was mostly, in part, because of the work that I was doing down on the Indian reservations working more so with gang violence in Indian Country. I also did a lot of work in building healthy lifestyles. I want to share with you that last week was 14 years of continuous sobriety for me. I gave that up. So today the federal Bureau of Land Management declared me a fire hazard because I'm so dry. So don't light a cigarette or nothing around me, I'm flammable. I've been married 27 years. I have six grown children and one granddaughter and another one on the way. My daughter's Kaylen James. She's a student now here at Wellesley College here in Boston. Her sister, another identical twin, is up at Dartmouth going to school there. And I'm very proud of them. I have four other grown children and they're all in school, going back to college and still continue to evolve and still continue to learn.

I want to acknowledge that we have Josh Weston, our president, the youngest president in the history of our tribe; he's my nephew. And then I have another person I want to acknowledge is Leah Fyten. Leah is the Housing Director for the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe. She's currently on our Public Safety Commission and she's also Chairperson of our Meth Initiative Coalition there in Flandreau, South Dakota, that she chairs and doing a very good job. The other person I want to acknowledge in the crowd here is Dr. David Gipp, a huge contribution in my life, as far as my career in law enforcement. In 1979, I was a young 18-year-old, turning 19, and I went to school at United Tribes [Technical College], and I took up the Criminal Justice program. And I had the opportunity to learn and also work at United Tribes [Technical College] for four years in the security department before I went on to work in the Rapid City Police Department. We have continued to maintain contact and continue to keep that dialogue open as far as some of the contemporary needs and concerns that's going on in Indian Country today. So I'm just glad and very pleased that we still have people, such as Dr. David Gipp, around that's still a huge inroad in our lives, still paving the paths for so many successes in Indian country with all the students that graduate [from] United Tribes [Technical College].

And then last is Harvard [Honoring] Nations. Yesterday the motto was ‘Just do it'. Well, I think there's another part of that is they keep coming back. Two years ago when we were given this award we thought that would be the end of it. That's not the case. They call you up, they're in contact with you, sharing dialogue, sharing information, sharing ideas. And it's kind of spun off on me [because] now I'm contacting them. When I'm dealing with complex issues, it just takes a phone call, or even an email, to get on the phone, or get on the computer, and we share these issues together because together -- again, I heard someone say that two minds working together is better than one and when we can put that altogether it's really, there's a lot of strength in there. I just appreciate Harvard for all the work that they do and continue to do, even after you get your award, they continue to work with you. And then it's people such as yourselves that are here. I've learned so much talking and sharing and learning so much about the other cultures and different backgrounds. So I'm going to be going back to South Dakota rejuvenated, energized, and ready to go back to work and do what I do.

Myself, I have about 28 years of security, corrections and law enforcement work. The majority of my law enforcement career was in Rapid City, South Dakota, which is in the western part of South Dakota. There we have probably about 80, 85, 90,000 population. And about 7,000 Native Americans live in Rapid City and that population fluctuates. And then I've been the Chief of Police for the Flandreau Santee Sioux tribe and the City of Flandreau for the past seven years. One of the things I wanted to share with you is that, when I took this position as the chief of police, they were looking for someone who could collaborate and use that cooperative learning to engage the community; someone that would be able to work with the Native population, the Native people, and then of course work with the non-Indian community and bridge that gap and bring things together. One thing that I found out is, there's an old Hopi saying that says, ‘One finger can't lift a pebble, it takes more than -- several fingers to coordinate and bring that together,' and that's how it is when we work together in Flandreau.

It hasn't been an easy road. A lot of the rites of passage, the maturational process that we had to go through to get where we're at, was -- we weren't courting disaster, but when you go into something and when you don't settle for the status quo -- there's nothing wrong with the status quo, there's nothing negative about it, but if you want to be an innovative leader, if you want to forge ahead and maybe sometimes even fall forward, falling forward sometimes you're going to make some mistakes. And certainly in our department in Flandreau we have some flaws, we've had some weaknesses. But we didn't try to override them; we tried to work through them. And it's been a tremendous learning experience, as far as our growth, and we have certainly not become stagnant.

One of the things I wanted to share with you about our experience is we've -- talking about Flandreau -- we've been able to take that model, use a traditional law enforcement setting. If you look at it, where we're at today in law enforcement, the model is that it used to be tribal law enforcement and traditional law enforcement. Then it moved over to Indian Scout, and then it went to BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs], and now you're seeing it come in a complete circle, starting to go back again to traditional law enforcement. In Dakota, we call it the Akicita Society, the Soldier's Lodge. Today, what we have done is, we've been able to fine-tune that and today, in contemporary law enforcement, we call it community-oriented policing -- and in that, what we've done is, we've been able to mesh that together. And so I come to find out that community-oriented policing correlates very well, it identifies very well, with traditional law enforcement, what those principles are about. In [community-oriented] policing, it talks about the broken window[s] theory. In Native country, when we see broken down cars and dilapidated buildings, we become desensitized to that, we see it every day, and after a while we become accustomed to it. In the [community-oriented] policing, the broken window[s] theory is that, if you have windows that are busted up, what it does is it increases crime; it goes against societal needs.

One thing that I want to share with you is that, as the chief of police, I am Dakota first and professional second. Everything that I do, the way I live, the way I act and conduct myself is that I'm a Dakota first and that I'm Chief of Police second. In the same lines, as chief of police, I'm also chief of police/mentor/coach/teacher to my officers. I keep giving back to them that sacred trust and responsibility. When you wear that badge, that's what it's all about, about the community comes first, the welfare of the community. Sir Robert Peelsaid it best during the ancient feudal backgrounds when law enforcement was first established. He said, ‘The community is the police and the police is the community.' We're just an extension. One of the things about [community-oriented] policing in Flandreau, as well as across the nation, is part of that [community-oriented] policing principle is that we're there to identify problems and then coming up with approaches and solutions to those problems. It's being a problem-solver in today's 21st-century law enforcement.

And again I want to share with you is that -- I heard yesterday, someone talking about, by working together in unison -- a single twig breaks but when you put a bundle of sticks together there's strength there, it's hard to break that. One of the things I wanted to share with you is that when we work with people and we work with the demands of society, we see a lot of issues; we see a lot of concerns. And one of the things I wanted to share with you is this, is that -- there's an old ancient method of working with arrows. Someone had talked about the quiver and the arrows yesterday. What we do with the arrows is that, when you have one arrow that's out of line, what you do is you take that arrow and you make it the focal point. You make that the center of importance. You take that arrow and you put it in the middle. And you take all the straight arrows that have precision and balance and equilibrium, you put it around that arrow and you wrap it. You put it away for a couple of days and you come back. You don't go back and tamper and check and see if everything's working okay. You let it be, you let it work on its own accord. Several days later you go back, you unravel that wrapping and the arrow that was crooked and out of line that was in the middle is now straight. It's been aligned with the rest of the community. That's social bonding in our traditional culture, bringing things together. And when we see kids that are in gangs, we see the methamphetamine issues; that's what we need to do with people. We put them at the center, rather than outcast them and displace them and kick them out of the community.

One of the things I want to talk about, in our department there's training through osmosis. It's probably been the biggest thing, as far as relational building, is that I have non-Indian officers that work in my department. What we've been able to do through training through osmosis is they learn from me, as a Native chief of police; I show them the mannerisms, I show them the etiquette, I show them the things that we do in our way of life. And vice versa, we do the same thing. I go out there and I learn just as much about the backgrounds and cultures of my officers that work for me. It works so well, is that our model -- in Rosebud reservation in South Dakota, up on Standing Rock, they're starting to look at and view what we've been able to do in Flandreau, as far as building that partnership between the city and tribe, because in the Nation it's never been done. So when we forged ahead in that concept, in that partnership, we didn't realize the magnitude of what it was going to cause. We didn't even think of it as something special because historically, in Flandreau, the city and tribe has always learned to get along with each other, see the differences, and be able to work through some of those issues. And I think that's partly due, because we have one of the oldest BIA boarding schools there in Flandreau, and -- for example, our city mayor is a retired teacher from the Flandreau Indian School. So, in other words, we never had to really reinvent the wheel, and today the tribe and the city are working on other economic development ventures and things like that. So we're certainly moving ahead, forging ahead and we're learning from our past.

One of the things I want to share with you is about, when I traveled over here the other day, come across, we had a relative, an ancestor, his name was [Dakota language], which means winner. Most of you guys probably seen the movie that came out a couple months ago, it was about Wounded Knee. And in there, the main character was about Dr. Charles Eastman. Dr. Charles Eastman came to Dartmouth and went to school here and got his education. And what happened was, during that time of travel here -- I can only imagine what had happened, as what happened to a lot of our ancestors, it was part of that assimilation process, as far as that U.S. policy of educating the Indian. A lot the people, especially the Dakotas and Lakotas and other tribes, we were taken from the families and we were taken, by either buggy or horseback, down to the Missouri River where they were departed from their loved ones and their relatives and they made the journey east to go to school here. I had a grandpa that went to school at Carlisle Indian School; he was a World War I veteran. After he left Carlisle, he never did come back to our reservation and that was a part of that process. It's not to say that he didn't go on and work in other Indian communities, but he ended up relocating in the Southwest. And we all know too well about the 1950s with the relocation.

I had a grandmother that went to school at Hampton Institute over here on the east side. So there's a history that's there. Earlier when I sang that song, I want to share with you, it's about tenacity, it's about perseverance and it's about enduring. One of my grandmothers, after the Dakota conflict, went down and went to Crow Agency, or Creek, and ended up there and then ended up down in Santee Agency in northeast Nebraska and she had the intestinal fortitude to go, during all the mass confusion, she ended up going back. We ended up leaving one of the children behind there in Minnesota up in present day Minneapolis, Fort Snelling. And it was at a time when there was still a lot of hostility towards Native people. When she got to Santee Agency, it wasn't a man, her Indian name was [Dakota language], which means ‘like [a] man,' [because] she took some of the duties of the man when they were away on war parties or if they were away from the camp. So she went, she walked on foot. I don't know how she got through over the bridge, or there wasn't even bridges back then, but she walked all the way back to Minnesota and reclaimed one of the kids there and then took him back on foot all the way back to northeast Nebraska. I shared that story a couple years ago at a wellness conference in Rapid City; we were talking about building strengths in families. And when I look at my own disappointments and my own problems in life, I just have to draw back to that memory of our history in our family and I say, ‘Wow.' Last summer I had a chance to go down to the southern part of our Indian reservation in Nebraska and I found where she's buried. It's way down in this valley and I walked down, I got out and I walked and got there and I was able to -- I just remember kneeling down at her headstone and saying, and I kissed it and said, ‘Thank you. Thank you so much for what you done.'

So I've learned, through that time, about taking our police department, all the things that we've been able to do, mixing them together, and sharing, and giving a lot of thought to what we're doing, as far as a police department in today's contemporary society. And I want to share with you one more story. And it's about what I do, why I do what I do. When I was working in Rapid City I went to a domestic violence call and it was very chaotic. I remember showing up about three in the morning, I got there and there was a young boy. It was families just fighting, people were intoxicated. And I looked and I could see right through this little door, these little eyes peeking out, little angel faces peeking out, little lips were trembling. And I imagined they were scared and frightened of police and fire and ambulance there, and one of the grandmas was [lying] on the couch having a heart attack. And so I remember watching them and I went out the door, I got in the police car, and I was getting ready to leave. And I looked and I seen this little young man, about nine years old, he was walking back and he, at nine years old, he already had a substance abuse issue, inhalant abuse. And he was probably one of the youngest that was put into the detoxification center in Rapid City. But anyway, he was coming back and he was acting like a gang [member]. So I called him over, I knew that he was on probation so I put him in the car with me. And I call it a divine intervention. And I put him in the car with me, I put him in back and started talking to him, he got very defensive. So I started talking with him and I said, ‘You know,' I said, ‘How do you feel right now with all the stuff that's going on with your family right now?' And so he got very defensive and very abrupt and I just kept talking to him and finally he -- I told him, I said, ‘You know, I want you to know this,' I said, ‘as a young child,' I said, ‘You've already been to hell and back already with everything that's going on in your family.' I said, ‘You've got sisters in there, little sisters that need you.' I told him, I said, ‘If you can get through what you're going through today, you can go anywhere in this world, if you put your mind to it.' And I ended it by saying, ‘You know why I'm telling you this? It's because I simply, I care about you.' And that little boy, in the back seat of my patrol car, he just started to weep like a baby and he ended it by saying, he said, ‘I want to say something to you.' He said, ‘I never -- no one's ever said that they care about me.' That was a reflection, a tiny reflection of myself, looking at that little boy growing up. And that sticks with me today because sometimes in my line of police work and working in Flandreau, working with families, one thing is that we get kind of bogged down, we get wrapped up in our work, and I have to go back to the basics of why I do what I do. And it's about making a difference in people's lives, improving safety in Indian Country. And so I wanted to share with you a little bit about that.

We still have a lot of work that's ahead of us. Together, we can accomplish a lot of those things. The thing that's really, that we're dealing with today in society, in Indian Country, is methamphetamine. The other part is we're dealing with the youth gangs and the violence. And then we still haven't really curbed the domestic violence. And today, on the panel, there's going to be some work and discussion about the Violence Against Women Act. So those are the areas. And I wanted to share with you and close by thanking everybody here. I wanted to talk a little bit about our police department. I'll be around still afterwards to share with you a little bit more about what we do in Flandreau. With a time allotment of a little over ten minutes, I don't have that much time to share with you everything and it's impossible, you can't do that. But I want to share with you some things that you will understand as Indian people, the commonality of things that we do. Thank you very much."

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