Attorney General Mark Vargo stepped away from his post on Friday with a six-month legacy he hopes will serve as a building block to stronger relations between law enforcement and South Dakota’s nine tribal nations.
Vargo was appointed by Gov. Kristi Noem following the impeachment and removal of former Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, who hit and killed a man with a car near Highmore in 2020.
In October, Vargo filled a position meant to lead investigations into missing and murdered indigenous persons (MMIP), as well as a position to lead anti-human trafficking efforts. The Legislature created the MMIP position in 2021. Ravnsborg, embroiled in controversy over his actions surrounding the fatal 2020 crash, failed to fill it.
On Friday, Vargo bolstered his case for the long-term impact of his attorney generalship with two more announcements related to state and Native American collaboration.
The first came in the form of the newly created Jurisdictional Cooperation Commission, a group of state, local and tribal officials tasked with exploring mutual aid for public safety across state and tribal borders.
Vargo, who will be replaced by returning Attorney General Marty Jackley next week, will co-chair the commission alongside Tatewin Means. Means is a former Oglala Sioux Tribe attorney general who now serves as the executive director of the Thunder Valley Development Corporation in Pine Ridge.
Vargo’s second announcement for Friday heralded the expansion of the Oyate Court, a Rapid City-based program in which tribal elders guide and craft culturally appropriate diversion plans for Native American defendants.
Vargo led the formation of the Rapid City court while serving as Pennington County State’s Attorney, a job to which he’ll return next week. Pastor Jon Old Horse of Rapid City will act as adviser to Tripp County State’s Attorney Zach Pahlke for the Oyate Court’s expansion to that central South Dakota county.
Oyate Court is built on the principles of Peacemaking Circles, which served to resolve conflicts in pre-colonial times.
“We have generations of data in this country that show simply locking people up does not solve
our community’s problems,” Old Horse said in a news release. “We have shown that using Peacekeeping Circles can be effective in a modern judicial setting.”
Jackley said Friday that he intends to carry on each of Vargo’s efforts to bridge the gap between state law enforcement and tribal leaders “because I think it’s important to the state and to the office.”
“I think everybody agrees that there are not sufficient law enforcement resources in Indian Country, and that affects all of South Dakota,” said Jackley, who prosecuted cases originating in tribal areas as the U.S. attorney for the District of South Dakota from 2006 through 2009. “Whenever there’s an opportunity to combine state, local, federal law enforcement, we’re better able to protect Indians and non-Indians, which benefits everybody.”
Vargo: Relationships key to collaboration
Each move on tribal collaboration has its own specific set of goals, Vargo said, but each shares the goal of fostering trust and communication.
Tribal members have long felt as though their voices have been ignored by the criminal justice system, he said. Focusing on tribal needs and learning from tribal leaders through regular and explicit collaboration is one way to ensure that those voices are heard.
“That underlines the bedrock promise of the Attorney General’s Office, which is that we’re going to do equal justice under law,” Vargo said. “But to convey to people that they are both individually and collectively welcome, that they’re respected, and that they’re part of that promise, is just a message that needs to go out.”
His immediate focus on hiring a coordinator for the new Office of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP) was a relatively easy decision, he said. Very little work had been done. There were a handful of applications for the post from before his time, but it appeared that no one had bothered to review them. Vargo reposted the job and soon had 70 applicants.
“The legislation authorizing the MMIP coordinator already existed,” he said. “I didn’t have to wait for buy-in from outside organizations, I could just invite people to come in.”
One of Vargo’s main takeaways from his stint as the state’s top law enforcement official has been the reminder that “my staff know more than I do.” Following the lead of the experts and specialists in Pierre, he said, gave him an appreciation for the importance of listening for new and better ways of doing things.
Vargo sees that message as instructive for the work of the Jurisdictional Cooperation Commission, which includes prosecutors and officials from a wide variety of backgrounds and agencies.
The idea for a commission was sparked in part by efforts in Pennington County in September, when former Sheriff Kevin Thom inked a memorandum of mutual support with the Oglala Sioux Tribe in order to share information across borders.
“I felt that we had a little momentum built up there, and that this would really help amplify it,” he said. “So instead of just dealing with the Oglala Sioux Tribe or just with Rosebud, I can sit in a chair here and talk to everyone.”
Jackley said he plans to sit in on some of the commission’s meetings, which will begin in February. He has high hopes for the commission, noting that previous state-tribal agreements had been born of relationships between his office and tribal governments, personal meetings and attendance at tribal events.
The flags of all nine South Dakota tribes are on display at the George S. Mickelson Law Enforcement Center in Pierre, which Jackley sees as an important signal of the office’s willingness to listen and learn.
He also said it’s long been important for tribal officials across the state to have his cell phone number and to know that he’ll pick up the phone when help is needed.
“We have traditionally in law enforcement been in a better position than other political areas with tribal relations, and it’s because of what’s at stake,” Jackley said. “Law enforcement tends to rise above the political fray when it comes to public safety.”
Vargo’s efforts to formalize those relationships through the MMIP hire and the creation of the commission were also built in part through out-of-office outreach. He invited the Wambli Ska drum circle and Pastor Old Horse to offer prayers and song at the announcement of the MMIP office in September. Less than two months after hiring Allison Morrisette as the coordinator, he and Morrisette visited the Lakota Nation Invitational tournament in Rapid City to introduce her to the Native community and talk about the MMIP mission.
“Mark set a very inclusive tone during his term in office,” Secretary of Tribal Relations Dave Flute said in a prepared statement. “The consultation he organized before hiring the MMIP coordinator was one of the most effective I have seen.”
Rebuilding vs. reopening
Rebuilding or enhancing relations with tribal entities struck Vargo as a place where he could make an impact in the run-up to Jackley’s return to the office. Jackley served as attorney general until 2019, departing after an unsuccessful attempt to secure the GOP nomination for governor in 2018.
But “rebuilding” carried a different connotation when Vargo came to Pierre. Many people have asked him about the state of the Attorney General’s Office, he said, suggesting that it was “broken.”
Now, however, Vargo contends that the long-term public servants he met at the Mickelson Center quickly dispatched with the notion of a broken office.
“What was broken when I arrived was the reputation of the office, but its character remained strong,” Vargo said. “I think a lot of what happened was that people projected what they believed about the attorney general onto the Attorney General’s Office as a whole, and that was neither fair nor true.”
In a third and final news release Friday, Vargo trumpeted the professionalism of the lawyers, detectives, crime lab analysts and others he worked with through the end of his term.
In his interview with South Dakota Searchlight, Vargo reiterated how impressed he’s been by the civil servants who “kept their heads down” and worked through the steady stream of attention heaped upon Ravnsborg and his attempts to fend off the fate that befell him in June, when he became the first and only statewide elected official in South Dakota history to be impeached and removed from office.
“Every single person that I’ve worked with over the last six months, probably at some point in the last four years thought about quitting. And every single one of them, when they thought about quitting, remembered why they started and stayed here to do the work that they believe in,” Vargo said. “If you can’t be inspired by the fact that you’re surrounded by people who endured for the benefit of our common cause, then you’re a pretty lousy human being, and I hope I’m not that bad.”