FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: January 6, 2023
CONTACT: Stewart Huntington, 605-773-6878
PIERRE, S.D. – On his last day in office, Attorney General Mark Vargo offered words of high praise Friday for the attorneys, investigators and staff at the Attorney General’s Office and the state Division of Criminal Investigation. “It is the strength of your character that ensures this office so well serves the people of South Dakota,” he said to the team which gathered in the atrium of the George S. Mickelson Criminal Justice Center in Pierre, S.D.
Vargo, who will return next week to his job as Pennington County State’s Attorney, was appointed by Gov. Kristi Noem to serve as Attorney General in June 2022 after he successfully led the Senate impeachment trial against former Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg. Ravnsborg was accused of fatally running over a pedestrian and leaving the scene in 2020.
“Some might have expected that I would find low morale and disorder” in the office, said Vargo. “That’s not what I found at all. I found an amazing group of talented and dedicated prosecutors, investigators, technicians and staff who had rolled up their sleeves to perform for the citizens of the state.”
Vargo also found that very little effort had gone into hiring a coordinator for the new Office of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons that the Legislature created in 2021. He made it a priority to not only find the right person for the job but also to focus attention on improving relations between the state government and the state’s tribal communities by launching the position in a way to best set it up for success.
First, find the right person. “I found that there were only a handful of applications for the post and that there was no evidence anyone had read through them. I reposted the job,” said Vargo. Eventually there were more than 70 applications for the post.
Second, launch the MMIP position in the right way. In September Vargo convened an advisory circle to guide him in the hiring process. He reached out to Red Ribbon Skirt Society members, who for years have called for action to protect Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, and Legislators such as Rep. Peri Pourier who sponsored the bill that created the MMIP position. He also included representatives from tribal governments and tribal law enforcement. To open the meeting, held at the Mickelson Center, Vargo asked his friends Chris and Tara White Eagle and Pastor Jon Old Horse from Rapid City’s Wambli Ska Society to bring a drum circle to offer prayers and to ceremoniously smudge, or burn sage. The prayer circle grew to more than 150 people and included the staff of the Attorney General’s Office, the Division of Criminal Investigation as well as the invited tribal and Native leaders.
“Our problems don’t respect jurisdictional lines on a map, they don’t respect the color of our skin. So why should our response be divided by those things?” Vargo asked the gathering.
After the prayer circle, the advisory group met to discuss the aims of the MMIP Office and the hiring process. Native leaders welcomed the spirit of inclusion.
“Mark set a very inclusive tone during his term in office,” said Sec. of Tribal Relations Dave Flute. “The consultation he organized before hiring the MMIP Coordinator was one of the most effective I have seen.”
In October Vargo hired Allison Morrisette as the state’s first MMIP Coordinator. An Oglala Lakota Tribal member, Morrisette came from the Pennington County State’s Attorney’s Office where she was the Adult Diversion Coordinator. But there were two more pieces Vargo wanted to put in place to give the coordinator the best chances for success. He wanted to introduce Morrisette to the state and the community in a good way and create a support system for her as she began tackling a job as difficult as MMIP.
For the introduction, Vargo knew that the best place would be at the Lakota Nation Invitational, the celebration of Lakota culture – and basketball – that annually takes over Rapid City for a week in December. When he approached the LNI board to ask if they thought that was appropriate, Vargo was happily surprised that the board not only agreed but decided to honor Morrisette – and a number of women who have long advocated for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women -- with star quilts. “It is great that we can come together and work together to protect our people,” said LNI Founder Bryan Brewer.
For a support system, Vargo created the Attorney General's Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Advisory Council. The group will advise the Attorney General on establishing goals, protocols and parameters for the A.G.'s new MMIP Office.
"The issues surrounding Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women demand attention," said Tatewin Means, the former Oglala Sioux Tribe's Attorney General who is co-chair of the MMIP Advisory Council. "I look forward to working with MMIP Coordinator Allison Morrisette, the Council and the Attorney General in making the MMIP Coordinator’s efforts successful."
The Council, composed of a cross section of stakeholders with the goal that all constituencies are represented, was endorsed by incoming Attorney General Marty Jackley. “The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Office, with the guidance of this Advisory Council, will do important work in this state,” he said. “This is an opportunity to help those looking for answers to the fate of their family members and loved ones.”
It also drew praise from other officials. “I want to thank Attorney General Vargo for his diligence in ensuring that the State acknowledges the issues related to Murdered Missing Indigenous Persons by creating the Advisory Council on MMIP,” said Rep. Tamara St. John. “I will be working along with many others to ensure his goals of building partnerships between tribal and state resources continues.”
At Friday’s ceremony marking the end of his tenure in Pierre, Vargo thanked his colleagues at the
Attorney General’s Office for helping welcome Native community members. “Together you and I opened
the door to the Wambli Ska drum group,” he said. “Together we made sure that a portion of our
community that too often feels unheard, is heard. And always will be heard by this office. We
reinforced the bedrock promise of the Attorney General’s Office: Equal justice under the law.”