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Sexual assault on the rez

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Stephanie Paige Ogburn | Jan 26, 2011 12:00 AM

Will the Obama administration's efforts in Indian Country help end a decades-long epidemic of sexual violence and abuse against women on reservations? One can only hope that the momentum spurred by the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 and the work of a new Department of Justice task force to streamline prosecution of violent crimes against women on the rez will result in systemic reform. That's what it will take for victims to have the confidence to bring charges and know that they won't be brushed off, blamed, or retaliated against.

The current problems with violent crime are meticulously reported in a damning article in this month's Harper's Magazine. (A subscription is required to read online; the piece alone is worth the magazine's $6.99 cover price.) In the story, writer Kathie Dobie outlines how the failures of the tribal and federal criminal justice systems have led to high crime rates and few convictions for violent offenders on reservations. Dobie begins by documenting the difficulties she experienced in even reporting on the subject, Obama's commitment to transparency and open government notwithstanding:

"My second day on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in the Dakotas, an official from the Bureau of Indian affairs sent a memo to all its law-enforcement employees forbidding them to talk to me."

The piece goes on to catalog the impediments to justice for women assaulted on the rez. First there's the federal government's failure to prosecute all but the most heinous cases -- a 2007 Denver Post series reported that, between 1997 and 2006, federal prosecutors declined two-thirds of the cases brought to them by the BIA and FBI. There are also jurisdictional challenges: tribal police can prosecute tribal members, but the feds have to prosecute non-tribal members even if the crime is committed in Indian Country. And then there's what Dobie refers to as the small-town nature and culture of reservations, where an assaulted woman may be perceived as getting what she deserved, and petty biases may determine whether or not a crime is taken seriously -- even by a police officer or hospital employee, as the story documents.

Standing Rock map

The Standing Rock Sioux reservation (at the top) spans from South Dakota into North Dakota. Image courtesy Flickr user Neeta Lind.

Standing Rock may be exemplary in the dysfunction it exhibits in handling crimes against women, but it is hardly unique. Outlining the investigative process for violent crimes, Dobie perfectly illustrates the capricious nature of justice on the rez:

[On] Standing Rock, the beginning of a major-crime investigation doesn’t follow procedure so much as get passed from one contingency to another. A victim calls the police--or doesn’t. She may not have a phone, or cell reception (it’s spotty on the reservation), or she may not trust the police (there’s currently a civil suit against one of Standing Rock’s officers for unlawful arrests and physical abuse), or she may be afraid of her assailant or ashamed or convinced her report will come to nothing. If she calls the police, the phone is answered--or it isn’t. If the phone is answered, the dispatcher notifies the officers on duty--or he doesn’t. If the dispatcher notifies the officers on duty, they arrive shortly after the crime is committed--or they don’t. If the officers are on another call in, say, McLaughlin, South Dakota, and the victim lives in, say, Solen, North Dakota, they will get to her but it may take a few hours. Or if the weather’s bad and the victim lives at the end of an unplowed dirt road, the police can’t get to her until the weather and roads clear. At one time, the Indian Health Service hospital at Fort Yates administered rape kits, and then for a few years they didn’t, and last summer they began again.

This August, High Country News covered the Bureau of Indian Affair's attempts to reform its police academy -- which has suffered from a 20 to 30 percent graduation rate. We also wrote about the hurdles faced by the Tribal Law and Order Act. Dobie's article brings these challenges home with the depressing story of one reservation, and generations of women, suffering from legal and social dysfunction. Let's hope the efforts of the Justice Department and the Obama administration make some headway on this problem.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn is HCN's online editor.

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