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The road to history-making can be rocky for any community. So it was for the Oglala Sioux Tribe on September 4, 2019, when the tribal council voted to enact a hate crime law that offers protection to its lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and queer or questioning (LGBTQ) citizens.
Comprehensive data regarding tribal law codes is not available but according to Indian Country Today’s research, the Oglala Sioux Tribe is the first tribe to enact such a law. They are certainly the first tribe to do so in South Dakota.
The tribe’s path to passing its hate crime law as well as a law recognizing same-sex marriage mirrors debates happening all over the United States as communities wrestle with responses to gender-fluid citizens’ calls for acceptance and protection.
Like the rest of the country, much of the contention stemmed from religious differences. The topic, often reserved for discussions behind closed doors in Indian Country, drew heated words during the 2-day long council meeting on September 3 and 4th.
Although the same-sex marriage law was passed by the council on July 8, 2019, some members presented a resolution on September 3 to rescind the law, claiming that their constituents wanted a chance to vote on it in a referendum.
Several tribal citizens addressed the council including Vina White Face-Steele, who described herself as a born-again Christian. Regarding the same-sex marriage law she said, “This law is a moral sin; it is ungodly and unnatural, an abomination before the lord our god.”
She cited several Bible verses in support of her statements.
White Face Steele also expressed concern that a same-sex marriage law would protect sexual predators of children and claimed that most people on the Pine Ridge Reservation are not in favor of the law.
“You will lose the land if you pass this law,” she warned.
Chairperson Julian Bear Runner responded, “I appreciate your knowledge of that way of life of the bible but your words were very hurtful for me to hear.”
According to Bear Runner, the two spirit people have a place in Lakota culture and spirituality. “Our way of life existed before the bible,” he said.
“Before I was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church, I was a Lakota. Before I served in the military, I was Lakota. Before I became tribal council president, I was Lakota and when I die, I will be Lakota.
He stated that every citizen has a right to choose their own religion. He said, “As an elected official, my job is to ensure that the freedoms and liberties of all our citizens are protected so they have an opportunity and right to choose their ways of life.”
The vote to rescind the same-sex marriage law was split evenly among the 20 council members. Bear Runner cast the deciding vote to deny the resolution.
On the next day, September 4, the council voted in favor of enacting the hate crime law with 14 in favor, 2 opposed and 1 not voting.
Under tribal law, hate crimes are now punishable by up to one year in jail, a fine and/or restitution.
The council meeting and months leading up to the final vote for both the same-sex marriage law and hate crime law has been an emotional roller coaster ride for the two women who forwarded the legislation.
Monique “Muffie” Mousseau and her wife Felipa De Leon, both Oglala Sioux tribal citizens, spend months traveling the Pine Ridge Reservation explaining the need for the laws. They conducted presentations at 8 of the reservation’s 9 districts; there was no quorum at one district meeting, so they were unable to formally deliver their prepared remarks.
During interviews with Indian Country Today, Mousseau and De Leon described the events leading up to their decision to push for the laws as well as their struggle to live as a married couple on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
“We’ve never been in the closet,” said Mousseau. “We’re open about our relationship; we’ve always been Muffie and Felipa,” she added.
They began dating in 2005 and were married in 2015 under the federal law recognizing same-sex marriage.
Problems began for the women, who identify as lesbian, as soon as they began living as a couple.
Mousseau, a tribal police officer, was fired from her job in 2005 when she refused to end her relationship with De Leon. Shortly after her dismissal, they came home to find their home and car vandalized with the word, “faggot,” scrawled over the exterior of their house.
“I tried to file a report with the police and they just laughed,” Mousseau recalled. She was shocked to learn that there were no tribal laws regarding hate crimes.
Fearing for their safety, the couple moved off the reservation.
In 2008, a newly appointed police chief contacted Mousseau asking her to return to help out with the short-handed staff. “He said I was a good cop and asked me to come back,” Mousseau said.
She returned to Pine Ridge as a police officer. All went well until the police chief position changed hands again in 2009.
According to Mousseau, the new chief called her into his office informing her that she was to answer all ‘“faggot” calls that came into the police office.
During one such call, the transgender man she arrested for intoxication asked to be placed in protective custody at the tribal jail. He complained that he was repeatedly raped during his last incarceration.
“He told me that the jailers just laughed when he cried out for help,” Mousseau said.
Jail staff refused to place the man in protective custody, according to Mousseau.
“That was a defining moment for us. We determined that our time on the reservation was done,” Mousseau said.
“He was a police officer in charge of enforcing our laws and he was refusing to protect people; I decided I wasn’t going to put up with that,” she said.
Again the couple moved away from Pine Ridge.
Friends and relatives began reaching out to the couple for advice and support in dealing with the high rates of assaults and suicides on the reservation relating to those who identify as LGBTQ.
Mousseau and De Leon decided they needed to do something to help; they began working to pass laws protecting the rights of LGBTQ people on the reservation.
“We’re not trying to right any past wrongs. We had to forgive the people who hurt us,” De Leon said.
“We don’t want anyone else to experience the pain and hurt that we have just because they identify as LGBTQ,” Mousseau said.
At last, the tribal council met on September 4 to decide the fate of the hate crime law. Anxiously, the women attended the meeting.
“We wore our warrior clothing to the council meeting,” Mousseau said. “I wore my ribbon shirt and Felipa wore her ribbon skirt.”
Several council members and a handful of citizens spoke in support of both laws during the council meeting.
According to Mousseau, however, the couple stood alone.
“I think many LGBTQ people in our community are too afraid to publicly support this,” Mousseau said.
Indian Country Today interviewed several citizens who shared varied opinions about the role that LGBTQ people play in traditional Lakota culture and spirituality. In the accompanying video, elders describe LGBTQ people or “winkte” as revered with special roles in the culture; others describe them as bad people who should be banished.
In the end, however, it was love of family and concern for children that supported both votes.
“We cried behind closed doors after Vina called us abominations,” Mousseau said.
“Many people spoke on our behalf the next day including straight men. That was the greatest feeling; it gave a heartbeat back to my heart,” she said.
“Our LGBTQ takojas (grandchildren) can prosper in a safe healthy environment,” De Leon said.
An unidentified citizen spoke to the tribal council prior to the hate crime vote.
“The winkte are not going away. They are our family, part of our Oyate (extended family) and have the right to live and be safe,” he said.