ALUM | Elaine Yellow Horse, 2003

Prosecutor for the Oglala Sioux Tribe

Growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Elaine Yellow Horse never expected to become a role model for young people. But after graduating from Red Cloud, she discovered a passion for tribal law and criminal justice—a passion which led her to become a tribal prosecutor. Today, in both her personal and professional life she serves as an advocate and mentor for at-risk youth across the reservation. We spoke with her about her time at Red Cloud, her journey in the justice system, and her commitment to helping young people reconnect with tribal culture.

Thanks for sitting down with us, Elaine! And for sharing a bit about your educational journey—and what it meant to graduate from Red Cloud.

What I learned at Red Cloud was that, if I tried really hard, I could do the things people never expected me to do. I went to another elementary school and in eighth grade you had to pick one high school to go and visit. I wanted to sign up to visit Red Cloud but my teacher at the time told me that “troublemakers don’t go to Red Cloud.” When you’re that young and your teacher tells you something like that, you’re going to obviously think it’s true. I wasn’t the best student, so I wasn’t expected to go to Red Cloud, or even expected to graduate from high school. But at Red Cloud, I had teachers who believed in me. They didn’t judge me so quickly. They helped instill a great work ethic that has allowed me to become the first in my family to not only graduate from Red Cloud high school, but to graduate from college. I loved my experience and I’m proud to say that I graduated from Red Cloud.

In college, you discovered a passion for law and criminal justice. What led you in that direction?

Growing up, my uncle was a police officer and I always wanted to go into law enforcement. My goal was to eventually be the chief of police. But in college I took a criminal law class and that’s when I realized how interested I was in the subject. In all my law classes I ended up getting really good grades—I had finally found what I was excited to learn about. I found out that Oglala Lakota College has a tribal law program so I applied, got in, and ended up finishing in three years. I was taking 6 or 7 classes a semester—it was so fascinating to learn about the full spectrum of laws that govern Indian Country.

When I graduated, I got a call from the Attorney General asking if I was interested in being a prosecutor; I thought it was a good idea to finally put my degree to use. So I started work as a prosecutor in September of 2014.

Today you are serving in the tribal court system doing just that. Tell us about your work as a prosecutor and what it has taught you.

I handle the juvenile criminal department for the entire reservation. When I first started prosecuting juvenile cases, my approach to the justice system was really black and white. My thinking was “you break the law, you go to jail.” But the first case I tried threw me all the way into the grey area. I prosecuted a 15 year-old for verbally assaulting a police officer and for disorderly conduct because he was out past curfew. I’m very competitive and had rarely lost a case up to this point, and he was convicted of both charges. I felt excited that I had won the case—but then I looked over at the kid. He was sitting with his head down and I could tell he was crying. He just looked so pitiful. 

That’s when it hit me: I can’t be thinking in black and white terms with these kids. Every case is going to be different. And really, these kids aren’t breaking the law because they want to, or because they are criminals. They are breaking the law because they don’t know any better, or because they are unsupervised. Often it’s not the kids we need to be punishing.

After that case, I told my boss that we needed to start doing pre-trials to understand the context of each individual case. I realized that putting these kids through trials is traumatizing them and criminalizing them. Our Attorney General opened my eyes to the idea of restorative justice and finding alternative ways to discipline these children. She says she doesn’t want to criminalize these kids at a very early age and today I’m behind that 100 percent. 

What can be done within the justice system to help young people turn their lives around?

If a case doesn’t go to trial, I’m responsible for working with advocates to determine an appropriate punishment. And some of the things I sentence these kids to do are not what a normal juvenile criminal system would do. Sometimes we sentence them to go to group or family counseling. And I require community service rather than making kids pay fines. All these methods have proven far more effective than incarceration.

I believe being exposed to our culture makes a big difference for these kids, too, so sometimes we sentence them to go to inipis, or sweat lodges. That’s another thing about Red Cloud I really liked. When I attended, I was exposed to the sweat lodge for the first time. I was exposed to my culture. So now, that’s what I want to do with these children I’m working with: I want to expose them to our culture. If that means ordering them to attend, that might be the way we have to do it. I often say that I just want them to go to one sweat and if they like it then we can ask the court to get them a bus pass so that every time there’s a sweat, they can jump on the bus and go. With just one exposure to the sweat, I know they will be way more interested. A lot of these kids and their parents know very little about our traditional ceremonies. That’s something I really gained at Red Cloud.

You also work with young people outside your role as a prosecutor. You started a mentoring program that incorporates archery and other cultural activities.

I had the idea of starting a youth archery program for quite a while, but I wasn’t sure how to go about it. I absolutely love archery and actually was the middle school archery coach at Red Cloud several years ago. I used the leave the archery equipment in my truck and when I’d go home to visit my mom in Wounded Knee, I would teach some of the kids in the community how to shoot.

During one visit last summer, some of the younger kids started asking me about a girl who had committed suicide in Manderson, a town just 8 miles away. I could tell they were all confused and trying to figure out their feelings around that happening. I decided then I would try to create my own youth mentoring program—to provide an outlet and a source of support for kids who are struggling with a whole range of issues. Last spring, I got a grant from the Rosenburg Fund for Children and used the money to buy archery equipment to get started. In addition to teaching archery, I host a summer camp and take kids camping in the Black Hills. We take walks and learn to identify native plants and what they are used for. For example, we pick plants like wild mint tea, and the kids take it home to their families to have. 

I give each kid a journal so that they have a safe place to express their feelings. And I bring in friends and guest speakers who are substance free and educated, to spend time with the kids and show them that drinking or being on drugs isn’t the only way of life on the reservation.
They are such a great group of kids. They are old enough to know that things aren’t great in their lives—but they are also young enough to still have that great sense of humor and to be hopeful about the future. When I first started thinking about what to call our group I decided to call them the Warriors of Tomorrow, because that’s what they are going to be for their generation.

What are your hopes for your own future—and for the future of young people on the reservation?

Right now I’m studying for the LSAT. In law school I plan to continue to study criminal law and federal Indian law—and then I absolutely want to come back to the reservation and continue to work in the court system and help my people in any way that I can.

I also want to continue to work with kids who are struggling as well. I see myself in a lot of them. I see people doubting them. I see these kids thinking—like I did—“who am I to try to be the first one in my family to graduate from college” or “who am I to even think about going to law school?” I still have those doubts about myself. I still wonder if I’m smart enough and if I can handle law school. I was never expected to be where I am now—and sometimes I wonder how I got to be a prosecutor. I have those moments and that internal struggle, but I also have moments when I know that I’m doing a good job. I think a lot of my life experiences help me to support these juveniles—and I hope they can apply some of what I share to their own lives. 


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Photo: © Red Cloud Indian School
last updated: July 13, 2016