When Mark Vargo was in college, he heard a phrase during a history course that sent chills up his spine.
"Kill the Indian, save the man," Vargo, the Pennington County state's attorney, recalled Tuesday.
Vargo spoke on a panel on criminal justice initiatives in Pennington County during a symposium titled "Exploring the Intersection of Criminal Justice, Lakota Culture & Behavioral Health." The event took place at the Comfort Suites Hotel and Convention Center and was hosted by The Great Plains Tribal Chairmen's Health Board.
Last fall, Pennington County won a $1.7 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation to reduce the prison population. Funds have helped the county develop culturally relevant programming, including trauma-informed practices. Tuesday's panel was an opportunity to build bridges to the Lakota community.
"With Pennington County, I was initially really reluctant to come to the table," said Erik Bringswhite, community outreach coordinator in the state's attorney office. "But now we sit at the same table."
He talked of his office's work to engage young people who are often raising themselves.
"We're looking for partners, trying to build a tribal outreach committee, so if you know any relatives who are interested in serving and advocating and even protecting our communities, we're open. Come visit."
Adrianne Korbake, with Lutheran Social Services, talked about the incarceration of women in a state system often set up for men. She noted 52 percent of female inmates in Pierre are Native American, drastically higher than the 9 percent Native American population statewide counted on the 2010 Census.
"All women who have gone through this system have experienced some sort of trauma."
Charity Doyle, speaking on behalf of OneHeart Rapid City, a new transformation campus from Rapid City Collective Impact, led with a battery of statistics, showing the pervasiveness of poverty in the city.
"We know that reconnecting with one's roots can be very healing," Doyle said, noting the Native American group within her organization working to build cultural relevancy.
Vargo admitted that for him to speak to an audience comprising a majority tribal people, speaking about genocide and trauma might seem backward.
"And I don't need to tell you that Lakota culture is incredibly diverse. Porcupine is different than Pine Ridge is different than North Rapid is different than Sisseton."
But he asked for tribal assistance in continuing to educate and build pathways that lead outside the criminal justice system.