A report aims to change the way we think about Native justice


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.

Selawik, Alaska. Courtesy Flickr user lauritadianita.

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