Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

May 17, 2012

Debra White Plume: Speak Truth to Power: The meat is spoiled and that is not OK with us

Speak Truth to Power: The Meat is Spoiled and That is Not OK With Us

Pine Ridge Lakotas say the name
of the shopping center should be
'Screw' the Nation
Speak Truth to Power: The Meat is Spoiled and That is Not OK With Us
by Debra White Plume

The Oglala Band of the Lakota Nation faces a pivotal point in time. Can we act collectively for the best interest of our Band or will we allow ourselves to be divided when we know that is what makes us weak and ineffective? The question concerns a corporation that has embedded itself among our people.

The Sioux Nation Shopping Center is in Pine Ridge Village, the central location for government services of Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian Health Service, Job Service, Oglala Sioux Tribe, Veteran’s Office, so there is much traffic through Pine Ridge Village. It is prime location to establish a business, which has been done by franchises that enjoy a steady flow of customers.

The Sioux Nation Shopping Center has been here for about 40 years. It is located on land and in a building owned by the Oglala Sioux Tribe, who leases the land and the building to the Hi-way 20 Investment, Inc. of San Diego, CA, and has signed a contract allowing the corporation to operate a store. The lease is renewable every five years. The contract runs on a 25-year basis. According to OST documents, Aaron Cohn is the Corporation President. Cohn must have a tribal business license to operate, which is issued by the OST Revenue Dept, directed by tribal member Bob Palmier.

Around May 3, 2012, someone purchased hamburger there that had a bad smell. She returned it, and was given a different package. She took that home and it too smelled spoiled. She contacted Pine Ridge Village Tribal Council Representative Ella John Carlow, who I am told, accompanied her to the store. While there, they noticed meat packages with past expiration dates. Representative Carlow contacted the Indian Health Service Environmental Health Supervisor Joe Amiotte, who conducted an inspection of the store’s meat department. He documented 14 violations of the OST Food Services Code, 11 of which are considered “critical”, including selling raw meat two months beyond the “sell by” date, no thermometers in the freezers and coolers that store potentially hazardous food (meat), displaying for sale bologna (cooked meat) beyond the expiration date, mixing raw spoiled hamburger that had a sell by date of four months ago with fresh hamburger, then labeling it with a ‘fresh date’ that reflected the fresh meat date, surfaces were covered with dried blood and old meat (where meat is packaged), boxes of meat stored on the floor, several packages of meat were not labeled according to federal and tribal regulations, and no certified meat manager or food handler personnel. Employees pulled from the shelves meat that filled 6 or 7 shopping carts. And 200 pounds of outdated hamburger.

On May 4, the Health and Human Services committee of tribal council revoked the corporation’s tribal license to sell meat. The store emptied the meat coolers until it could come into compliance by taking the action of installing and monitoring meat locker thermometers, removing outdated, spoiled, and improperly labeled meat products, stopping the practice of mixing bad meat with fresh meat prior to packing it for sale, and storing meat in a clean dry location. The committee fined the corporation $50.

On May 7, Joe Amiotte conducted a follow-up inspection of the store’s meat department and found it in compliance with federal and tribal law. On May 8, a quorum of the HHS committee decided to issue a Temporary Business License for 30 days to allow the corporation to reopen the meat department. On May 9 the Revenue Director Bob Palmier complied with the HHS Committee action and issued the store a 30-day temporary license.

While this was happening in the tribal committees and offices, people were in and out of the Emergency Room at the Pine Ridge I.H.S. Hospital and off reservation hospitals, with severe diarrhea, stomach pains, vomiting, fever, all symptoms of food poisoning. Were tests done for e-coli, salmonella, food poisoning? Or were people treated for the flu and released? I know that one patient, my six year-old granddaughter, had eaten supper and within minutes was doubled over in pain, screaming and crying. Rushed 40 miles to the emergency room, she had a blood test and radioactive CT Scan for possible appendicitis, which was ruled out, and hours later she was sent home with antibiotics but no diagnosis. She had to be taken back to the hospital for follow up, as she could not eat and was in pain, and had to be monitored for blood pressure and kidney function. After four days, a pediatrician tested her for e-coli and said that if she did have it earlier, it may not show up on tests as she had already taken antibiotics, which would have gotten rid of it. He said he wished he had known about the bad meat when she was first brought in. I wish we would have known, too.

Alerted by the media about the store selling bad meat, tribal members experiencing health symptoms so severe they had gone to on and off reservation hospital emergency rooms, began delivering medical test results to a designated individual, so this data is in safe hands.

The moccasin telegraph began flowing with people sharing experiences of how often they had to return bad meat and get their money back, or had gotten sick from eating meat purchased there. Many people became outraged upon learning that these stories go back many years; it soon became apparent this was not a new thing or a one-time occasion. Former employees began to make statements. Discussion emerged about the store pulling in $10 million annual profit, the tribe receiving about $110,000. Anyone who shops there can guess huge profit is gained from extraordinarily high prices combined with keeping operation costs low by paying minimum wage and withholding worker benefits. Through such deliberate business practices, and their contract clause of no competition within a three mile radius of the store, Cohn’s corporation has seized the reins of profit-making to the maximum, and is enjoying the millions of dollars pried from our hands in the poorest county of the United States. Seeking exclusion of the store and meat managers from our Homelands is still an option, they will have to leave the Pine Ridge.

This is a lesson we all can learn from. A corporation will seek out a needy community as the place to do business, knowing that the people will feel grateful that FINALLY, they have a service they never had before. The corporation will enter into business utilizing contract law to their full benefit, which means the other end of the contract, in this case, the Oglala Sioux Tribe, gets the short end of the stick. But for-profit corporations are ok with that; it is how capitalism and oppression work. Once a corporation embeds itself in a community, it gradually assumes power and authority that it does not really have, but convinces the community it does have.

On May 11, President Steele requested a Temporary Restraining Order from Attorney General Rae Ann Red Owl citing his concern that a serious breach of the peace may occur if the Sioux Nation Shopping Center was open, as people had lost trust and confidence in the store. His action stemmed from tribal members who were discussing holding an Education Rally at the store to provide facts to the community regarding the store’s business practices. At that time, President Steele was made aware by the AG that the people planning to attend the Educational Rally outnumbered the police department and that the jail was not large enough to hold everyone the AG intended to arrest at the Rally if they crossed a line. This further prompted President Steele to seek a TRO to close the store to keep the peace on the reservation. Judge Cedar Face signed the TRO, and at 5pm on May 11, the police department served it, witnessed by Director Bob Palmier and several Oglala’s who were there to begin the Educational Rally.

A hearing on the TRO was set for 9am on May 15 at the Pine Ridge Courthouse. AG Red Owl moved the hearing to the Kyle Courthouse due to a bad smell at the Pine Ridge Courthouse. At 8am on May 15, Red Owl cancelled the hearing as she planned to dismiss the TRO. Later that day, she notified the tribe she cancelled the hearing and instead met with the corporation’s attorney, Terry Pechota. Red Owl notified the tribe she would call in the feds to make arrests if people at a Rally crossed a boundary that she would have the police mark off, to protect the corporation’s right to conduct business. She assigned four police units to defend the line, so on our Homeland, four units parked there for hours, although no Education Rally was announced. By the end of the day, the police units were gone and the crime tape marking the arrest lines were taken down. Media from all over South Dakota were present and the story went every where, including photos of the crime tape and police cars. The Education Rally organizers did not call the media as no rally was planned for that day. Perhaps Red Owl did? The corporation?

On May 15, President Steele met with Chief Oliver Red Cloud and a group of people who requested an update from his office. Steele advised that he requested another TRO, but that Red Owl had not responded, and she said the store can open. Pechota said maybe on May 17. A TV news crew arrived, and interviewed people at the meeting. The Associated Press put the story out nationally, and newspapers from everywhere were calling his office. Donna Solomon is his newly hired Public Relations Officer, so now tribal members will know what is going on with this growing concern about the corporation’s practices.

There are strong feelings about this corporation’s deliberate decision to package bad meat and sell it to our people under a label many consider fraudulent. Trust and confidence has been destroyed. Tribal members who work there participated in this deception along with the store and meat dept managers. How sad, our own people took part in risking the poisoning of our children, elders, their own relatives. Maybe they will come forth and speak truth to power. Maybe they won’t. Maybe the corporation thinks it will be here forever, getting ever richer, taking the fat from the poorest county in America. Maybe they won’t.

Time will tell if President Steele can stop this corporation, as the tribal council chose to render itself impotent when several council members walked out on council last week to break the quorum. They paralyzed the Executive Committee, which cannot act when council is in recess, as Steele has not yet declared council adjourned. Chief Red Cloud wants the store closed and run off the Pine Ridge. Many people support President Steele’s action.

Families now share stories on the moccasin telegraph about relatives recovering their health. Meantime, we are giving our six year-old granddaughter a lot of liquids, feeding her fresh food, and she is gaining weight and laughing again with her twin brother. For that, we are thankful.

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