A Warped World for Native American Women Seeking Justice

By Christine Cupaiuolo — July 27, 2007

According to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, American Indian and Alaska Native women have the highest incidence of rape out of any other racial or ethnic group in the United States — a rate 2.5 times higher than the national average.

Earlier this year, Amnesty International released a report (more here) that was two years in the making that outlined the various barriers to justice that these women face: “The United States government has created a complex maze of tribal, state and federal jurisdictions that often allows perpetrators to rape with impunity — and in some cases effectively creates jurisdictional vacuums that encourage assaults.”

Laura Sullivan covered the Amnesty report for NPR back in April. This week Sullivan delivered a stunning two-part investigation (Wednesday and Thursday) into the failures of the judicial system, on so many levels.

Whether you were already familiar with the Amnesty report, or if these sexual assault statistics come as shocking news, head over to NPR, which has published the full text of the stories, along with photos, interactive maps and a history of Indian territory. Sullivan’s reporting patiently breaks down an unbelievably complex and frustrating situation, providing listeners with a clear perspective on the problems — and the lack of easy solutions.

Part one covers the high number of cases that are never investigated on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation straddling North and South Dakota — much less result in prosecution or conviction.

Leslie Ironroad was 20 years old when she was raped. Her friend Rhea Archambault found Ironroad in a hospital in BIsmark, her body beaten.

“‘I said, ‘Leslie, what happened?.’ She said, ‘Rhea, is that you? Turn the lights on, I can’t see.’ But the lights in the room were on. She said, ‘Rhea, I was raped,’ and she was just squeezing my hand,” Archambault recalled.

Archambault called the Bureau of Indian Affairs police, a small department in charge of all law enforcement on the reservation. A few days later an officer arrived in the hospital room, and Leslie scratched out a statement on a tablet laid across her stomach.

Ironroad told the officer how she was raped and said that the men locked her in a bathroom, where she swallowed diabetes pills she found in the cabinet, hoping that if she was unconscious the men would leave her alone. The next morning, someone found her on the bathroom floor and called an ambulance.

A week later, Ironroad was dead — and so was the investigation. None of the authorities who could have investigated what happened to Leslie Ironroad did — not the Bureau of Indian Affairs, nor the FBI, nor anybody else.

The case was not an isolated incident, as Sullivan reports:

The story of what happened to Ironroad, and more importantly what happened to the investigation of her death, is a window into what is happening on Native American reservations across the country. Cases like hers are going unreported, uninvestigated and unprosecuted, according to tribal officials.

The Justice Department found that one in three Native American women will be raped in her lifetime. In many cases, on rural reservations like Standing Rock, NPR found that there aren’t enough police to investigate sexual assaults, and few of the cases are prosecuted.

On Standing Rock, there’s one person in charge of law enforcement: Bureau of Indian Affairs police Chief Gerald White.

“I consider any sexual assault a serious problem. I mean, we don’t take them lightly,” White said at the police headquarters on the reservation. “Every sexual assault that is reported to us — we investigate them to the fullest.”

When asked what happened in the Ironroad case, White responded, “I looked back and there was nothing that could substantiate that happening. I’m sure she passed away, but as far as her being involved as a victim of sexual assault, I couldn’t find anything to support that … You know, if a person doesn’t report, then how can we investigate it, if we don’t know about it?”

We’ll wait while you fume.

This is how bad things are: “On Standing Rock, getting an officer to respond to a call for help can mean waiting for days or even months. The reservation’s only women’s shelter is still waiting for police to come after someone cut all of their phone lines two months ago.”

NPR tracked down the Bureau of Indian Affairs officer who took Ironroad’s report in her hospital room. He has since resigned from his federal position and acknowledges that he was “too overwhelmed and overworked to keep up with the number of calls for rape, sexual assault and child abuse he received each week.”

It sounds ridiculous at first until you consider that the BIA is ridiculously underfunded: Just five BIA officers are expected to cover a territory the size of Connecticut.

Due to NPR’s investigation, the BIA reopened the investigation into Ironroad’s death. The outcome is still pending.

Part 2 of the report deals with legal hurdles that seem surreal as well as insurmountable. Sullivan goes to the Chicksaw Reservation in Oklahoma, where casino money has led to more funding for police investigations but jurisdictional uncertainties often prevent BIA officers from taking action. And those uncertainties can mean the difference between an arrest or no arrest.

“Indian land in Oklahoma is a patchwork quilt,” reports Sullivan. “The gas station, for example, is tribal land, but the highway that runs adjacent to it belongs to the state. Across the street is the entrance to town, and the building next door is not tribal property.”

Another issue is that tribal police cannot arrest non-native men — those cases are forwarded to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “Tribal leaders say that in too many cases, no charges are filed at all,” reports Sullivan.

The identity of the woman and her attacker — and especially, her exact location — mean everything to [Chickasaw Tribal Police Chief Jason] O’Neal. If the woman is Indian on Indian land with an Indian attacker, he can help her. If not, there’s often little he can do — and he says that’s usually the case. According to a Justice Department report, 80 percent of Indian victims describe their attackers at non-native.

“Many of the criminals know Indian lands are almost a lawless community, where they can do whatever they want,” O’Neal said.

In this case on this day, the woman turns up outside of tribal land, which means he cannot intervene and won’t know what happened to her.

To top it off, tribal prosecutors can only handle misdemeanors — like speeding or shoplifting — not felony crimes.

[Tribal prosecutor David] Hall said that he can’t get federal prosecutors to take the cases he’s not allowed to try, including two recent rape cases across the street: one in the parking lot at the casino, and one in the parking lot at the supermarket.

Renee Brewer, who works at the courthouse as a victim’s advocate, remembers a case from a year ago. A woman who had been assaulted called the police and told them that her attacker was still hiding in her closet.

“I get there, and there are four different law-enforcement agencies on the front lawn with the victim, arguing, ‘Well this is your case, you have jurisdiction of this.’ You could go on and on with scenarios,” Brewer said. “Then you wonder why these cases are not getting prosecuted — because the United States government made it as difficult as possible for us to handle our own prosecutions on our own land.”

The Oklahoma U.S. Attorney, John Richter, insists his office is willing and committed to prosecute cases, but federal courts place a high burden on prosecutors, making rape cases difficult to try.

“I’m open for business, willing to take more,” he said. “I’m not aware of serious cases that have not been investigated in the western district of Oklahoma. Where we hear about it, we are firmly committed.”

But Richter tells NPR that he doesn’t know how many Native American rape or assault cases his office has tried or declined. And neither the FBI nor the Bureau of Indian Affairs, both of which refer cases to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, responded to NPR’s request for an interview.

“We have to live in the real world,” Richter explained. “Just because a case is not brought, doesn’t mean we don’t wish a case could be brought.”

But federal law-enforcement officials who spoke to NPR believe that U.S. attorneys find the sexual assault cases insignificant compared to their usual work — terrorism, organized crime, drugs, racketeering.

A 2003 report from the Justice Department found that U.S. attorneys take fewer cases from the BIA than from almost any other federal law-enforcement agency — a bitter reality for women on the reservations.

A bitter reality indeed.

One response to “A Warped World for Native American Women Seeking Justice”

  1. It seems the attitudes of the past in regard to race remain pervasive to this day. The federal government has given carte blanche to white men to indulge in their most depraved and criminal behaviour when it comes to Native American women. Where are the human rights that the U.S. govermment so fervently claims to espouse to the masses of the world ? It’s deplorable that Native American women should suffer so unjustly. Mr. President and Congress it’s time to allow Native American courts the right to try criminals no matter their race whenever they commit crimes on Native American lands or give priority and allow federal jurisdiction on tribal lands and give Native American law enforcement federal powers with the right to arrest and prosecute anyone who violates laws on Native American land.

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