For centuries, the Sioux Indians preserved justice among their people without locking men in cells, without putting them behind bars. The modern prison, with its narrow cells and solitary confinement, was unknown to them.
Yet today, in 1982, the US govenment thinks so little of the Indians' ability to dispense justice that it lets them handle only the most minor cases in their own courts. Federal rules also forbid them from trying whites who commit crimes on Indian reservations.
The government gives Indians jurisdiction over larcenies, petty thefts, drunks, and disorderlies. These they can take to their own courts, with their own prosecutors, their own public defenders, their own judges.
But the big cases - the murders, major assaults, armed robberies, the ones that really tear their hearts out when they happen on their reservations - these are bundled off to Rapid City, or to Sioux Falls. If a man murders a woman in Pine Ridge, S.D., grieving relatives and striking fear into the heart of the neighbors, he is not tried in Pine Ridge by a jury of his peers. Instead he is taken to a major city in South Dakota and tried, in most cases, by a jury of non-Indians.
Local police, as a matter of fact, cannot even charge him with murder. They have to wait for the Rapid City FBI to do that. All they can do, under federal law, is to slap some minor charge on him - just to hold him till the feds arrive.
How did such a system start? Did the Indians invent it? They did not. It started back in the 1880s when Congress in its wisdom decided to pass the ''Seven Major Crimes Act.'' The act declared that Indians could not prosecute any of the seven major crimes - murder, rape, and robbery included.
Over the years this grew to the ''10 Major Crimes,'' and then the ''14 Major Crimes'' - where it now stands. Fourteen major crimes covers just about every crime in the book.
Let me give you an example of how a man arrested for a major crime on a reservation can slip between the fingers of this two-fisted system. Recently a man was arrested by local police at Pine Ridge for a rape - a felony. Could he be charged with felony rape? No, not under the Major Crimes Act. So, because he was drunk at the time of arrest, he was charged as a drunk and put in jail.
Anyone arrested has a right to bail or to ''temporary release'' for time to pay his fine. That's what happened in this case. The day after arrest, the Indian was out on a ''TR.''
A young Sioux jailer shrugged, commenting with a slightly bitter smile, ''Of course, what it really means is that if the guy wants to sky out and go to places unknown, he can.''
Indians, moreover, have absolutely no jurisdiction over non-Indians who happen to wander onto their reservations, or who live there. These, too, are swooped up under the protecting arm of the government in Washington - and hustled off to Rapid City or Sioux Falls.
This system is not very flattering to Indians. It implies that they would be incapable of being fair to a white arrestee. I don't know where this assumption comes from - unless it stems from the still vaguely troubled conscience of the white, who knows he has never been fair to the Indians.
Maybe the white feels that now the Sioux, or the Cheyenne, or the Cherokee, will somehow ''get back at him'' when they have a white person in their jails.
I live in Pine Ridge. I am white. And I certainly would have no objections to being tried in the courts here. I've talked to the prosecutor, the public defender, the chief judge, and three associate judges. I've visited the jail and talked to the police and the jailers.
I have also worked in Chicago, covering its criminal courts. I've seen ''white justice'' at work there, and seen people put away for 15 years for stealing a pair of shoes, and a bank embezzler, who defrauded people of millions , get off on probation. So I do not feel that the supposedly sophisticated Anglo-Saxon courts elsewhere in the country would offer me any better deal than the Indian courts on Pine Ridge.
The problem is a white, not an Indian problem. Whites still go about with a lurking fear that their stereotypical Indian is a real one - that, deep in his heart, the Sioux, or the Apache, is really seeking ''vengeance'' on the white man and can't wait to get hold of him and show him what-for.
The only solution to this perverted view of an intelligent people is education. Education of the white man. I, for one, have heard enough about ''educating the Indian.'' I think my own people should start getting educated - for stereotypes are not only unpleasant to deal with on a day-by-day, name-calling basis. They are really quite dangerous when they unconsciously become the basis of federal laws controlling the system of justice for an entire people.