Cases of missing and murdered Native American women challenge police, courtsNews21
By Garet Bleir and Anya Zoledziowski
hateinamerica.news21.com MISSOULA, Mont. – Native American women across the country are being murdered and sexually assaulted on reservations and nearby towns at far higher rates than other American women. Their assailants are often white and other non-Native American men outside the jurisdiction of tribal law enforcement. In some U.S. counties composed primarily of Native American lands, murder rates of Native American women are up to 10 times higher than the national average for all races, according to a study for the U.S. Department of Justice by sociologists at the University of Delaware and University of North Carolina, Wilmington. Other possible victims have never been found. As of 2016, there were 5,712 cases of missing Native American women reported to the National Crime Information Center. “The numbers are likely much higher because cases are often under-reported and data isn’t officially collected,” said the U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat from North Dakota, who has introduced legislation to improve how law enforcement keeps track of missing and murdered indigenous women. “(Murder and sexual assault) is a real fear amongst Native American women,” said Lisa Brunner, co-director of Indigenous Women’s Human Rights Collective and professor and cultural coordinator at White Earth Tribal and Community College in Mahnomen, Minnesota. “Native American women are victims of violence far greater than any population in the country simply because of who we are as native women, and what we represent, our tribal nations,” Brunner said. More than half of Native American women have been sexually assaulted, including over a third who have been raped during their lifetime – a rate of rape nearly 2.5 times higher than for white women, according to a 2016 National Institute of Justice study. Unlike women of every other racial group, Native American women are more likely to be sexually assaulted by people who are not Native American. A study by the University of Delaware and the University of North Carolina found that more than two-thirds of sexual assaults against indigenous women are committed by white and other non-Native American people. Yet non-native men who assault Native American women on reservations can’t be arrested or prosecuted by tribal authorities under a 1978 Supreme Court decision. “If a white person commits murder or rape against a Native American person, the federal government would have jurisdiction over those crimes, instead of the tribe or state government,” said Cheryl Bennett, an Arizona State University professor who studies hate crimes targeting indigenous peoples. But when tribal law enforcement sent sexual-abuse cases to the FBI and U.S. Attorney Offices, federal prosecutors declined more than two-thirds of them, according to a 2010 Government Accountability Office report.
Nicole Walksalong, Keehner’s daughter, said prosecutors should have pushed harder for a hate crime charge. “A hate crime characterization of my mother’s crime would be a stepping stone – a solid stepping stone – to further legislation and acts to help with missing and murdered indigenous women efforts,” she said. “I have three daughters, and I don’t want them to be victimized,” Walksalong added. “I share my mother’s story because I have a voice to tell the story to maybe save others or to help others and to prevent this.” Racism and sexism contribute to the impression that indigenous women are assailable women, said Barbara Perry, a professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology who researches and writes on hate crimes targeting Native American women. “It’s not unusual for women of color generally to be perceived as inferior to white people as a class and inferior to white women as a sort of subclass.” Brunner, who also is an Anishinaabe member of White Earth Nation in Minnesota, told News21 that she has survived numerous sexual assaults by non-Native and Native American men alike, which drove her to advocate for the past 20 years on behalf of other victimized Native American women. “When a non-native rapes an indigenous woman, that to me is a hate crime,” Brunner said. “When we are facing a level of victimization where 67 percent of our perpetrators are non-native, that is race-based hate. That is a hate crime. We are being targeted for who we are as native women.” Brunner wanted to be sure that her daughters understand the dangers associated with being Native American and female. “My daughters know the fact that we’re not safe,” she said. “It’s not that I teach my daughters to live in fear, but to keep them safe, they need to know the threat levels that are present.” One night in 2011, Brunner’s niece left the family home late at night to attend a party in the community without letting her family know. Brunner’s daughter, who was 17 at the time, woke up and noticed her cousin had left and went to search for her alone. As Brunner’s daughter walked through the community in search of her cousin, a black SUV rolled up beside her with four men inside. They told her to jump in the car, and they’d all “go party” and “have fun,” Brunner said. Her daughter shook her head and told them “No,” but the men chased her down and dragged her into the vehicle. The four non-Native American men “wore bandanas over their faces like cowboys. One was driving, two of them held her down, and one of them raped her,” Brunner said. “When they were done with her, they threw her out by a bridge on the outskirts of town. “They threatened to kill her and come and kill her family if she told anyone.” It took Brunner’s daughter a month to tell her mother. When Brunner called tribal law enforcement, an officer took the statement over the phone and told Brunner they could do a forensic interview in Fargo, North Dakota, weeks later. Uncomfortable with the long wait time, Brunner called her uncle, who at the time was the police chief and got a forensic interview the next day. After that, Brunner said that there was little followup about her daughter’s rape – a response she said she expected. “I told them, ‘The system is useless, you’re going to prove to me today how useless you are,’” she recalled.
Nicole Walksalong has a tattoo on her back with her mother's name and the date of her birth and death. She said prosecutors should have pushed harder for a hate crime charge in the death of her mother, Lonette Keehner. Photo by Tilly Marlatt / News21
The flood of non-native workers into oil-rich regions on or near reservations makes it even more difficult for law enforcement agencies to cooperate with one another, said Meg Singer, the Indigenous Justice Program manager with the American Civil Liberty Union’s Montana chapter in Missoula. Members of the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana said they are concerned about the upcoming Keystone XL pipeline, which will carry oil from western Canada through Montana into Illinois and Texas, and bring more workers into the area to build it. TransCanada plans to build man camps for the project this fall, with pipeline construction starting in 2019, according to a letter from the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs to the Fort Peck Reservation. TransCanada did not respond to multiple requests for comment from News21. One member of the Fort Peck Reservation Tribal Council recently posted on social media that, according to a meeting with TransCanada, there are tentative plans to set up a man camp 40 miles from the reservation in Hinsdale, Montana, that will house 600 to 900 pipeline workers. The council member added that TransCanada plans to conduct background checks, drug-test workers and institute a code of conduct. Chris Martinez, an oil worker in Williston, blamed the lack of background checks for the culture of racism demonstrated during production peaks in the Bakken formation. As oil prices go up, companies need more and more workers, and “that’s when you’re going to bring in quantity over quality,” he said. Martinez said he believes his company will do a better job at “weeding out those bad eggs” in the next oil boom. Martinez is hopeful other companies will do the same, but “some companies who will hire 50 to 100 guys at a time and bring them over here, and it just gets trashed,” he said. “Those man camps are indescribable, the stuff that happens, there are shootings, stabbings, rapes, fights, extreme amounts of drugs, alcohol. When you work 12 to 16 hours a day and you’re away from your family, and you have all this money, and you go home, that’s when they start making those decisions and it’s bad, it’s really bad.” Angeline Cheek, a Hunkpapa Lakota and Oglala Sioux activist, community organizer and teacher living in Fort Peck Reservation, took part in a march this spring in Scobey, Montana, to protest the Keystone XL pipeline and the expected man camps. A group of Scobey residents followed the protesters and yelled at them, saying the pipeline was going through whether they liked it or not. At one point, the residents threatened to scalp Cheek, while local farmers watched the marchers with guns pointed to the sky, Cheek said. “We had to jump in our vehicles because things got way too dangerous, and there were trucks that kept following us,” Cheek added. “It got very scary until we crossed the reservation line.” During the previous Bakken oil boom, Cheek said, oil workers had harassed her, her family and friends with racial slurs and threats multiple times. She is protesting the Keystone XL project, she said, because she doesn’t want the past to repeat itself. These experiences have inspired Cheek to double down on her efforts to advocate against resource extraction taking place in and around Native American communities and man camps. Last month, she organized an anti-man camp walk in Poplar with the intention to hold more marches in various communities throughout the Fort Peck Indian Reservation to spread awareness on what she feels are the dangers associated with the man camps coming into the area. News21 reporters Kaylen Howard and Tilly Marlatt contributed to this article. This story was reported in partnership with ProPublica’s Documenting Hate Project, which is collecting reports about hate crimes and bias incidents. If you’ve been a victim or a witness, tell us your story here. For more stories from Cronkite News, visit cronkitenews.azpbs.org. This report is part of the “Hate in America” project produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, a national investigative reporting project by top college journalism students and recent graduates from across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. It is published under a Creative Commons License
Angeline Cheek (left) is a community organizer and teacher living on the Fort Peck Reservation. She wants to raise awareness about the Keystone XL pipeline. Photo by Tilly Marlatt / News21
Thomas Holmes leads his horse, Lakota, through the streets of Poplar during the June 26 Keystone XL protest. Photo by Tilly Marlatt / News21
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