In 1881, a Brulé Lakota man in South Dakota who shot and killed another member of his tribe was sentenced to death by federal officials who thought the tribal punishment of eight horses, $600 and a blanket was too lenient. The case set a precedent that certain crimes committed on tribal lands are to be tried in federal, rather than state or local, courts.
One hundred and thirty years later, on the same reservation, 17-year-old Bryan Boneshirt, a Rosebud Sioux, pleaded guilty to homicide for beating and strangling MarQuita Walking Eagle. State courts are prohibited from sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole, but because cases for certain crimes involving Native Americans on reservations go straight into the federal system, which has no such restrictions, Boneshirt was tried as an adult and sentenced to a 48-year sentence without parole. He’ll likely spend the rest of his life in jail.
Boneshirt’s crime was heinous, says Troy Eid, chairman of the national Indian Law and Order Commission, a non-partisan advisory group. Yet if the same crime had been committed off-reservation, say by a teenager in Denver, the defendant would have been tried in district or state court and received a significantly shorter sentence, even if he was tried as an adult. The fact that Boneshirt was subject to a different, harsher set of laws simply because he lived on a reservation is indicative of the “extraordinary dysfunction” of Native American criminal justice, Eid adds.
In a groundbreaking 324-page report on tribal safety released last month, Eid and his eight co-commissioners found that Native American juveniles serve sentences roughly twice as long as those served by any other racial or ethnic group, and that two-thirds of all juveniles serving time in federal prisons are Native. “It’s extraordinary,” says Eid, a law professor and private attorney. “(Current laws) create a systemic inequity that’s absolutely appalling.”
The good news is that system can be fixed through a combination of federal, state and tribal actions over the next ten years, say Eid and his co-authors. The 40 recommendations in the report, “Roadmap for Making Native America Safer,” include ways to revamp the juvenile justice system to cut recidivism, increase local jurisdiction and ultimately send fewer Native youth to federal prisons. The report also calls for reducing the gaps in public safety that may be at the root of many violent crimes in Native communities. Rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among Native youth are roughly three times the national average, for example – about the same as those of veterans returning from wars in the Middle East. The judge who sentenced Boneshirt acknowledged that the teenager had been abused “since infancy” and suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome.
Such inequities are especially staggering in Alaska Native villages, where some of the nation's highest rates of domestic violence, sexual assault and suicide are found. Forty percent of federally recognized tribes are in Alaska, and some communities resemble “villages in developing countries,” the report says. Many lack local courts and law enforcement, and particularly remote villages must sometimes wait out the weather for days after a violent crime before a state trooper can be flown in.
The new report has received particular attention in Alaska and has reinvigorated efforts to create Indian Country there, which legally includes reservations as well as other lands federally allotted to Natives Americans. Though Alaska has Native corporations, which control resources and patchwork lands, it mostly lacks federally designated lands like those in the Lower 48. The lack of federal tribal land means that Alaska Native villages receive less support for tribal police and the prevention of domestic violence and substance abuse. For example, Alaska Natives were exempted from the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act that afforded new protections to Native women.
"It's clear to us Alaska remains on the wrong track," Eid said in Anchorage earlier this month. "The problems tribes face in the Lower 48 are magnified in Alaska, which still relies on a colonial model (of justice) that results in more violent crime."
State Attorney General Michael Geraghty has publicly rejected demands to create Indian Country in Alaska, saying that the state is addressing its issues internally. The state has bolstered community policing through its Village Public Safety Officer program, Geraghty says, and Gov. Sean Parnell is working on a plan to create more sovereignty by granting tribal courts criminal jurisdiction over minor crimes.
But the report’s pushes for greater sovereignty have been overwhelmingly supported by Alaska Natives, and Eid says he’s received standing ovations. “I’ve not personally experienced anything like this,” he says about the response. “Tribes are increasingly stepping up to assert control and jurisdiction, and that trend is worth encouraging.”
Eid is optimistic that despite the challenges ahead, the pointed, specific recommendations in the report will lead to change. “We will basically shame a lot of people into better practices,” he says.
Krista Langlois is an editorial intern at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.