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Oyate Court program to expand reach

South Dakota Unified Judicial System

Oyate Court, a criminal justice partnership between state prosecutors and tribal representatives, is expanding. After beginning in Pennington County, efforts are underway to create a similar program in Tripp County.

Oyate Court offers a path for those in the criminal justice system that goes beyond locking up an offender.

Under the program, certain state cases are handed over to the Oyate Court. A circle of Lakota elders hears from all parties involved and comes up with a solution. Organizers say this follows an ancient procedure called “Peacemaking Circles.”

Pennington County States Attorney Mark Vargo helped develop the program. He said everyone involved shares a goal.

“Our relationship with Wambli Ska and Woyatan Lutheran Church, who are two of the centerpieces and the main people who are putting the time and effort into creating the Oyate Court, did not start because we had the idea to create an Oyate Court," Vargo said. "It started because we were doing diversion programming to try to get kids into a better situation.”

Vargo said the program is steeped in Native culture.

“Wambli Ska and Woyatan (Lutheran Church) sponsored and ran come-as-you-are powwows, just very casual powwows where young native men and women could come and learn to dance, learn to make regalia, learn to drum sing," Vargo said. "We would literally youngsters coming through our diversion programming, either juvenile or adult, and we would tell them that the condition of their diversion is that they go attend five or six of these.”

Johnathan Old Horse has been named an advisor for the upcoming Tripp County project. He said the future looks bright for the program.

“Actually we’ve had interest in the States Attorney Association, which is a nationwide association," Old Horse said. "We’ve had eight states attorneys that are very, very interested in what the Oyate Court is doing and how it can be implemented into cities. Using those tools of restorative justice.”

Old Horse said Oyate Court is an effort to address challenges at the root level as opposed to incarceration.

C.J. Keene is a Rapid City-based journalist covering the legal system, education, and culture