CHEYENNE RIVER RESERVATION — At 9 years old, Joseph Brings Plenty dug a bullet out of his leg with a willow tree branch.
He’d decided to cut through the wrong lawn on his way home from school and had already been hit by the time he heard gunshots. The sound brought the recognition, and with it the pain.
He crawled on his belly all the way home, patched himself up and got rid of his bloody pants before he saw his parents.
He didn’t tell them about the encounter. He certainly didn’t want to call the police. It would only escalate the tiff between his family and that of the man who had shot at him.
Leaving police out of it was common growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in western South Dakota, where calls to cops could end in more violence and another arrest.
Forty years later, wisps of Brings Plenty’s long black braided hair sweep over the phone he holds to his ear. He’s taking a break from hoisting an oven and stove onto a truck for his latest community project. His excited voice carries no hint of exhaustion.
Chiming in on speaker phone is Brings Plenty’s wife of 22 years. She laughs and says the work never ends with her husband.
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She had hopped into the passenger seat to bring the donated kitchen items to a home in Eagle Butte, the only town on the Cheyenne River Reservation with stoplights. The two stoplights sit on Highway 212 that runs east-west through Eagle Butte, the headquarters for the 1.4-million-acre reservation — home to about 8,000 tribal members in central South Dakota.
Brings Plenty was partly raised in the house he and other community members are now turning into a youth home. It is his grandmother’s old house, located in what’s known as the “dark side” of Eagle Butte. Kids like to knock out the streetlights in that area. Brings Plenty suspects it’s so cops won’t be able to spot them so easily, he says with an ironic chuckle.
He appreciates quirks like that of his neighborhood, especially today as he patrols its streets.
The lieutenant for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Police Department takes pride in his badge, but his community likes to talk to him more about his roles as a Sun Dance leader, a coach, a liaison to their incarcerated family and now, at least temporarily, a makeshift carpenter.
“With our body and our spirit, there needs to be a meshing of community and law enforcement,” Brings Plenty said. “Seeing the struggles for my community, for what it’s gone through, what it’s still going through, being able to have people be part of the community that they trust and know (as police). I think that’s very important.”
The home will eventually be a diversion program for youth who need a roof and guidance. Brings Plenty and his team wanted to finish sooner after they heard a local family was being evicted and needed quick, temporary housing. Neighbors donated materials or money and an old friend with carpentry skills came in from Kansas to fast-track the renovations and give the home a basement and three new bedrooms.
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The kids who will later occupy those rooms can thank a group of unlikely friends, united by a desire to move on from troubled pasts, who did so by throwing powerful punches. Much of the manpower for the home renovations came from Brings Plenty’s other passion project: a boxing club for youth.
“There are a lot of homeless youth on the reservation,” Brings Plenty said. “Reservation life is pretty tough, and a lot of young people are born into it, it’s their assumption that’s all they have to look forward to when they get older.”
He started the Wolves Den Boxing Club in 2000 to help kids and teens stay out of trouble by creating a network of support and teaching how to live a healthy, substance-free life. Many of the participants pursue further education. Some follow Brings Plenty’s footsteps by joining law enforcement.
All have the chance to avoid a cycle of addiction and violence that casts a stereotypical shadow on reservation life.
Brings Plenty’s experiences help him connect with the teens and young adults he’s now praying heal from years of hopping homes and sampling substances. His brushes with bullets and scars from stab wounds are the norm for many youths on reservations. “They were expected to be the product of the environment they were born into,” Brings Plenty said. “As I got older, I started finding out that’s not how life was supposed to be.”
These kids are the highlight of Brings Plenty’s career in law enforcement.
Brings Plenty and his team are living out what many across South Dakota say they hope to see in their own communities: a longstanding connection between cop and community that goes beyond a ride in a patrol car.
And while the relationships among the tribal police and their people are unique, the ideas of investing in youth and establishing relationships can translate anywhere, Brings Plenty said.
It’s what he wants to see as the future of police.
More than 300 miles to the east of Eagle Butte’s newest group home is South Dakota’s most populous city.
There, Terry Liggins wants to meet you for coffee, for a smoothie, for a walk, over Zoom, to talk about how he can help you succeed. He likes to wear bright colors and look you in the eye. He greets rooms with a big smile, talks with his hands and pauses his sentences in odd places to let his stories sink in.
He grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, around drugs and gang activity. He survived his first drive-by shooting at the age of 6. He didn’t know what that trauma was or how it would affect him until he was about 30, when he went through a treatment program while he spent more than a year in federal prison for identity theft and fraud.
Now 35, Liggins is a life coach and public speaker, and wants South Dakota to know about how childhood trauma can weave itself into and affect anyone’s life.
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Liggins is one of 26 people in the state first trained to educate communities about adverse childhood experiences, or ACES, the science behind them and their effects later in life. Adverse childhood experiences can include abuse — emotional, physical or sexual — substance abuse in their household, parental separation or divorce, an incarcerated household member, neglect and more. Those experiences disproportionately affect children of color.
He wants to get that information to police officers. He wants it to be a regular part of training.
This summer, especially, reminded him why.
He takes a deep breath before recalling having to comfort his daughter and nephews after a rattling misunderstanding with police. A passer-by called to say Black children were harassing a white girl.
Those kids play together all the time, said Liggins, who is Black. But the incoming officers didn’t know that and came into the situation on what he called “Level 10.”
“You’ve got people interacting with 12-year-olds as violent criminals,” he said. “He’s 12! Why are you screaming?”
Liggins intercepted officers trying to talk to his 6-year-old daughter and 12-year-old nephews. He used the interaction as an example to show the children what a calm discussion with police can look like.
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The children, he said, feared the women wearing the badges. With what their young minds have heard in the news this last year, it doesn’t surprise him. “I can’t imagine what would have happened had my children been cornered by them,” he said.
That response, he said, didn’t show awareness of the trauma people in the neighborhood have suffered. “Officers are bringing violence to nonviolent situations,” Liggins said. “It has so much more to do with how they behave when responding to calls. It’s their culture and their interaction with the community at large.”
Native American children are twice as likely as white children to have two or more adverse childhood experiences, and three times as likely to have more than four of those situations growing up, according to a 2016 national survey of children’s health that examined racial differences in ACEs.
Brings Plenty knows most of his officers and the people they arrest have had their own traumas.
It’s why Brings Plenty encourages those in his boxing club and on his police force to connect with their culture and focus on healing with sweat lodges.
“Some of these officers are seeing some pretty horrendous events take place,” Brings Plenty said. “A debriefing sounds nice on paper. There’s a debriefing, but that debriefing only goes so far.”
The sweat ceremonies are important religious and cleansing experiences key to renewing the spirit and managing stress. An elder once told Brings Plenty that men returning from battle years ago would sweat together to heal from what they witnessed, or from what they did, before returning to the community.
“With the sweat lodge, it’s able to affect the person from inside. It’s able to draw a lot of the negative feelings that they have,” he said. “Stress is a killer. This allows them to basically debrief in a cultural way.”
When Austin Sanchez and Colin Dubray think about their future as police officers on the Cheyenne River Reservation, the first thing they talk about is being a role model.
It takes a few minutes of talking to them about their future projects in their communities before they even get to thinking about the situations in which they arrest someone. They know it’s part of the job, and they want to be on the front lines of keeping their town safe, but the thought of locking up their own people feels like putting a brother or sister in handcuffs.
“It’s a lot different being a tribal officer here than in Sioux Falls,” Sanchez said. “Here, we have to deal with our own people and non-tribal-members and influences off the reservation that bring bad influences into our town. It’s different.”
Sanchez, 31, and Dubray, 21, were raised in separate towns. Both grew up throwing punches in street fights and falling into substance abuse.
Both found Brings Plenty and the Wolves Den Boxing Club in Eagle Butte.
Dubray started as a freshman in high school looking to improve his self-defense skills but ended up finding accountability and community.
Sanchez spent his young years around law enforcement. His uncle was on the drug task force and other officers came by the house for gatherings often. But other familial issues and trouble as a teen landed him in the system, a ward of the state until Brings Plenty took him in. Sanchez laughs as he said it was inevitable that he’d end up in the boxing ring.
Dubray and Sanchez have had good and gut-wrenching encounters with police and never thought they’d consider earning a badge themselves. Neither were taught to call the police when they needed help.
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“Growing up we never call the police for help unless it’s really serious,” Dubray said. “It wasn’t because they didn’t make us feel safe. We just figure we can handle it on our own.”
Sanchez started getting into trouble around 13. He decided a life in and out of cells isn’t one he wanted.
“It sucks!” he says now, months into a job as a detention officer trying to build the resume to make it into the U.S. Indian Police Academy in New Mexico. He eventually wants to become a detective to investigate cold cases of missing and murdered indigenous people.
Dubray started using substances at a young age. He saw classmates fall into addiction. Boxing with the Wolves Den was an escape from what he saw as the daily tolls of reservation life: getting high, drinking, self-harm.
Dubray wants to break one cycle and start a new one by being a role model he wasn’t accustomed to seeing. “Being a police officer, I could do that. Not throwing people around or arresting people but being a positive influence.”
Sanchez knows how important it is to spend time healing his body, mind and spirit. He speaks passionately about the sweat lodges and Sun Dances that Joseph Brings Plenty encourages those in the boxing club and his officers to regularly attend.
A good sweat, Brings Plenty said, can change a life. Including his own.
He remembered a night when he was supposed to pick up a young mentee before preparing a Sun Dance. He had to respond to another call.
“People were trying to get hold of me saying something happened to him,” Brings Plenty recalled. “I was supposed to pick (him) up that night and instead he was killed. He would have been a pillar to the community.”
Brings Plenty’s brother brought him to a sweat ceremony to cleanse.
“It was how I was able to function again,” he said.
The willow branch is often used in those ceremonies. Willow wood is considered a natural medicine used for wounds and has been used as a pain reliever for thousands of years. Willow trees prefer the sun. The wood from their characteristically crooked branches can absorb trauma without splitting.
Brings Plenty thinks a willow branch helped him save himself 40 years ago, digging a bullet out of his leg.
And he thinks it has the power to heal generations for years to come.
By encouraging his community and officers to work together on projects, like the boxing club and the youth home, and connect with each other and their culture, little by little, healing can happen.