Indigenous women are raped and killed every year, their cases disappearing into a labyrinth of legal jurisdiction
By C.S. Hagen
STANDING ROCK – Long ago, Native American women would stuff dirt up their dresses to keep from getting raped by the wasi’chu, meaning eat the fat, a term which has evolved to denote the collective white man. In those lawless days, they preferred death to the pain and humiliation.
“If the military catches you, stuff your insides with dirt in the hopes that they kill you,” Myron Dewey, a Paiute/Shoshone Native American, and owner of Digital Smoke Signals, said. His grandparents passed the story and other oral histories to him.
Today, the wasi’chu still hunt indigenous women with relative impunity.
A list of Standing Rock’s indigenous murdered and missing women was first penned by Wasté Win Young, LaDonna Tamakawastewin Allard, and Alva Cottonwood-Gabe, and read along the Missouri River during a prayer walk on August 30.
“This prayer walk was ignited by Savanna Greywind’s murder,” Win Young said. “Even though Savanna is not from Standing Rock, it is important to acknowledge and pray for all missing and/or murdered indigenous women. So this list was started to acknowledge women from Standing Rock. The list began to grow as families from places other than Standing Rock asked to have their relatives added to the list.”
After each name was read, a child put tobacco in the water for them, Win Young said. Too many of the victim’s names had no stories to tell in online searches.
As a child, such stories weren’t boogeyman tales meant to frighten her, Standing Rock member Win Young said.
“We always knew growing up in my family, my mom would tell us not to go anywhere, or do anything,” Win Young said. “We always knew growing up they were unsolved, we were always told to be really careful. When we were real tiny my mom and dad would warn me about being kidnapped, all the time.”
Never go to a public restroom alone. Never go to fraternity parties, you’ll get raped. Never go to New Town, never go to Williston. Don’t even think about traveling through the Bakken, especially near a man camp. If police tell you to pull over, never stop in a deserted area, always travel to a well-lit public spot, are some of the rules Win Young and other Native American women live by.
“I was vigilant all the time,” Win Young said. A graduate of the University of North Dakota, she is now a mother with four children. “That’s my biggest fear, that something will happen to my children. There are cops, even tribal cops, who do that to the women. They rape them, and then leave them out there. It’s always been really bad, but the media just doesn’t cover it.”
Growing up, fear was Win Young’s constant companion.
“These were real individuals that we grew up with knowing that their moms were missing, they were killed, and they knew their killers were out there, maybe looking for us, looking for another Indian girl to kill.”
Lissa Yellow Bird-Chase, founder of the Sahnish Scouts of North Dakota, a citizen-led organization that helps bring the missing justice, said sexual exploitation on reservations is an issue that has always been a problem, and had never gotten better.
“I don’t think anything has changed except the awareness of it,” Yellow Bird-Chase said. “Normally, families of the missing and surviving loved ones are ignored by authorities, so they go into this dark place and they find some resolve somehow in their own way, and they continue on with life.
“They’re kind of pushed onto the back, back burner,” Yellow Bird-Chase said. “I think now that there are some fire starters like myself bringing this to the forefront, so that other people are starting to come out of their dark closets. People are talking about it more.”
Native Americans go into this dark, shameful place because of the stigma of drugs and alcoholism on reservations. Yellow Bird-Chase is a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation and from the Fort Berthold Reservation.
“I think people have been shamed into not acknowledging that this is a problem,” Yellow Bird-Chase said. “Now we have the opiate craze going on and we have the non-native people suffering too, but this has always been here. It’s a social status, and it’s becoming so widespread.
“Like they told us decades ago, by the time we reach the new millennium, by the year 2000, everyone will know someone with AIDS or HIV. I said a few years ago that within 10 years everybody will be able to identify with a lost or missing person, this is an epidemic as well.”
Candace Rough Surface, 18, was beaten, raped, then shot five times in 1980. Her body decomposed in a muddy and shallow bay for nine months before a local rancher found her. The crime remained unsolved for 16 years because of racism and prominence of one of the killers’ families. James E. Stroh II, of Wisconsin, was convicted 16 years later of the crime, as was Nicholas A. Scherr, from Kenel, South Dakota, who pled guilty in 1996, receiving a 100-year prison sentence.
Natalie White Lightning, an employee of Standing Rock’s Prairie Knights Casino and Resort, was sexually assaulted and murdered by Lance Craig Summers on March 18, 2014, and her body was tossed near Fort Yates, in Indian country. Summers pled guilty to second-degree murder and received a 10-year prison sentence. White Lightning’s death received little media attention: a two-paragraph obituary in the Bismarck Tribune, and a short clip on KX News.
In April 2015, Jessie Manley’s murder received slightly more attention than White Lightning’s. A Native American man, Richard White Eagle, from Fort Yates, was charged with sexually assaulting Manley after she passed out on his couch, according to documents filed by the U.S. District Court of North Dakota.
Monica “Mona” Bercier-Wickre disappeared from Aberdeen, South Dakota on April 7, 1993. She was 42 or 43 years old, and wasn’t reported missing for nearly two weeks. Her remains were discovered on June 16, 1993 in the James River. By 2000, police had a suspect, but not enough evidence. The suspect was never publicly identified, and the case remains unsolved.
In a rare double homicide, Dorothy Cadotte Lentz, 56, and her daughter, Pamela Lentz, 21, were killed at University Square Apartments in Grand Forks, in 1987. Pamela was an undergraduate student at North Dakota College of Science in Wahpeton when she visited her mother. Police discovered Dorothy’s body, stabbed repeatedly, throat slit and then strangled, and Pamela, who was three months pregnant, was strangled, and was reportedly dating the suspect, Keith Bishop, according to a research paper by A.J. Williams written in 2008. In 1989, all charges were dropped against Bishop, because the prosecutors’ case was ‘circumstantial.’
Lakota Rose Madison’s life ended at 17 years of age, killed by her cousin in 2001. Described posthumously as a hero, she was an activist who dealt with personal issues such as drugs and gang activities, and dreamed of creating safe houses and cultural exchanges among youth communities. Madison was found dead along the Grand River after disappearing for three days. O’Neal Iron Cloud was charged with second degree murder after beating Madison to death.
Thirty-one-year-old Ivy Archambault was raped, taken out of town, and then bludgeoned to death in October 2001 by a 15-year-old burglar. Gary Long Jr., with a long list of previous convictions, including burglary, assaults, and animal cruelty, was sentenced two years later to 45 years imprisonment. Archambault’s death led to her sister, Jackie Brown Otter, creating a domestic shelter where threatened women could go in McLaughlin, South Dakota.
Perhaps the most well-known case is the story of Anna Mae Aquash, whose 1975 murder is still a controversial topic. At 30 years old, she was shot in the back of the head and found two months later after the snow melted in Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota. An activist involved in the Trail of Broken Treaties, she also joined Oglala Lakota at Pine Ridge during the 71-day armed standoff at Wounded Knee. The FBI and the courts say she was killed by American Indian Movement members Leo Looking Cloud and John Graham after being suspected as an informant, but the investigation took nearly 30 years, and nobody was convicted of her murder until 2014.
More than 70 women have disappeared from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside since 1983, and Teressa Ann Williams, a First Nation woman from British Columbia was one of them when she was reported missing in 1999, according to “Cold North Killers: Canadian Serial Murder,” a book written by Lee Mellor. Robert William Pickton, 52 at the time of his arrest in 2002, was a hog farmer in Port Coquitlam, and fed his victims to his pigs. Although Williams’ killer has never been found, most suspect she was one of Pickton’s victims during what has become to be known as the Edmonton Serial Killer case.
Ashley Loring HeavyRunner, 20, was last seen on June 5, 2017, in Browning, Montana. As of August 23, HeavyRunner was still missing. “All I want is my baby sister,” Kimberly Loring, HeavyRunner’s sister said in a Facebook post. “Sister it’s time to come home now, come home please. I will never stop searching for you. We will find you sister.”
Actress Misty Anne Upham, best known for her role in the 2008 film “Frozen River,” disappeared on October 5, 2014 in Auburn, Washington. Local police refused to recognize that she fit the description of a missing person, and her body was found on October 16, 2014 in a gully. Search parties believe her death was an accident, but said that she could have been found much sooner if law enforcement had conducted a thorough search.
In August 2006, Victoria Jane “Vicki” Eagleman, 33, from the Lower Brule community in South Dakota, went missing. A month later her body was discovered, naked and beaten, by volunteer searchers near Medicine Creek. As of April 2007, the FBI and the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe were offering a $15,000 reward for information that would lead to the arrest and indictment of the killer or killers. In 2016, the FBI doubled its reward for information.
Carla Jovon Yellowbird went missing on August 23, 2016, on the Spirit Lake Reservation. The 27-year-old was missing for approximately a month before her body was found in what authorities called a suspicious death. More than a year later, no suspects have been arrested in connection with her death.
Jimmy Smith-Kramer, a 20-year-old father of twins, was killed in a vehicular hit-and-run at the Donkey Creek area north of Hoquiam, Washington, in May 2017 while in his tent, according to media reports. James D. Walker was arrested and charged with first-degree manslaughter. The Quinault tribe claim the incident was a hate crime, and Smith-Kramer was a registered member of the Quinault tribe.
Another name was added to the list by Elliotte Little Bear: Glynnis Okla, from Wakpala, South Dakota, who was found in a cornfield, and whose murderer was never found.
Killing with near impunity
International laws are clear; domestic jurisdictions are not.
The United States has ratified many international treaties guaranteeing indigenous women the right to not be tortured or mistreated, the right to liberty and security of person, the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.
The U.S. government is also obliged to acknowledge that indigenous peoples have the right to self determination, to ensure federal and state officials comply with human rights standards, and to adopt measures to protect individuals against human rights abuses, according to a 2006 UN Human Rights Council declaration at the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Prosecutions for crimes of sexual violence against Indigenous women are rare in federal, state, and tribal courts, resulting in impunity for perpetrators, a Congressional testimony by an Amnesty International U.S.A. researcher said.
“A Native American woman in 2003 accepted a ride home from two white men who raped and beat her, then threw her off of a bridge,” Carol Pollack, the Amnesty International U.S.A. researcher reported. “She sustained serious injuries, but survived. The case went to trial in a state court, but the jurors were unable to agree on whether the suspects were guilty. A juror who was asked why replied: ‘She was just another drunk Indian.’ The case was retried and resulted in a 60-year sentence for the primary perpetrator, who had reportedly previously raped at least four other women, and a 10-year sentence for the second perpetrator.”
Survivors of sexual violence in Indian lands also face prejudice and discrimination at all stages of the federal and state investigation and prosecution, Pollack said.
“While the perpetrator is ultimately responsible for his crime, authorities also bear a legal responsibility to ensure protection of the rights and well-being of American Indian and Alaska Native peoples,” Pollack said. “They are responsible as well if they fail to prevent, investigate, and address the crime appropriately.”
The disregard for hurting Native Americans is nothing new, according to a 2007 oversight field hearing by the Committee on Natural Resources U.S. House of Representatives.
Unresponsiveness is the typical answer Georgia Little Shield, director of the Pretty Bird Woman House Shelter on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, receives when she calls for police assistance for battered women, she said during a Congressional hearing in 2007. Sometimes women prefer to spend the night in jail rather than face an angry oppressor.
“These stories are true, and there are more of them that could be mentioned,” Little Shield said during the hearing. “When a Lakota woman runs 18 miles to town for help and feels safe in a jail that is, that is a city jail, you know there’s something wrong. The city police have no jurisdiction over Native women or men, so their hands are tied.
“When you hear a city police officer say, ‘Georgia, I just could not do anything,’ it’s hard. We have become a lawless nation and now the people are taking the laws into their own hands. When this occurs, we have more rapes, more domestic violence, more inviting violence or gang violence.
“I’d like to leave you with this,” Little Shield said. “Glynnis Okla, Leslie Iron Road, Candy Bullhead, Gloria Reeds, Lakota Madison, Candy Rough Surface, Diane Dog Skin, Leona Big Shield, Ivy Archambault, Debbie Dog Eagle, Camilla Brown, Cheryl Tail Feather. Then there’s Vicki Eagleman and Lanelle Falles from Lower Brulle. These women lost their lives to violence.”
Brenda Hill, the Native Co-Chair of the South Dakota Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said during the same hearing that American Indian women are targeted more than any other group of women in the United States. White women are victimized at 8.1 per 1,000, and Native American women as 23.2 per 1,000.
“At least 70 percent of the violence experienced by Native Americans are committed by persons not of the same race,” Hill said.
While Native Americans represent less than 10 percent of the population in South Dakota, Native women fill more than 50 percent of the women’s shelters in the state.
“This statistic alone is starling,” Hill said. “It is directly tied to poverty and lack of housing.”
Carol Pollack, the Amnesty International researcher, spent two years investigating the problem of sexual violence against Native American and Alaska Native women, and helped launch a worldwide campaign to Stop Violence Against Women in 2004.
“One in three Native American and Alaska Native women will be raped at some point during their lives and 86 percent of perpetrators of these crimes are non-Native men,” Pollack said.
Native women are not only at especially high risk, but are also frequently denied justice, Pollack said. Her investigation led her to Standing Rock, among other places, which illuminates the challenges in policing a vast, rural reservation where tribal and federal authorities have jurisdiction. Standing Rock Sioux Reservation spans 2.3 million acres and has a population of 9,000 people, of which 45.3 percent live below the poverty threshold. Standing Rock also has its own police force, which is operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and a tribal court, which hears civil and criminal complaints. In 2006, Standing Rock had seven patrol cars.
“Native American and Alaska Native advocates have long known that sexual violence against women from Indian nations is at epidemic proportions and that Indian women face considerable barriers to accessing justice,” Pollack said.
When Edith Chavez argued with her former boyfriend while traveling to Mandan in June 2015, he beat her then dumped her in Valley City. What followed was a nightmare of escaping a kidnapper intent on trafficking, only to be jailed by police, according to media reports.
Planning to meet an aunt in Fargo, Chavez hitchhiked nearly 40 miles to a Casselton gas station, where she was hit over the head while texting family on her laptop computer. The next few days were spent in and out of consciousness. Her attacker deactivated her Facebook page and kept her drugged. She managed to escape somewhere in western North Dakota, and wandered to the tiny town of Wildrose. From there, she traveled another 54 miles to Williston, where police expressed more interest in her criminal record than finding her attacker, according to media outlet Timberjay.
She was jailed on a bench warrant, and later released. Dehydrated and bruised, she limped more than 125 miles north to a Minot hospital where she contacted family at the Vermilion Reservation in Minnesota.
Eleven days on the run, and few people tried to help Chavez. Those sworn to protect and serve only worsened her traumatic experience, admitting they have little information to investigate, Timberjay reported.
Complicated jurisdictional issues delay investigations and prosecutions of sexual crimes, Pollack said. “The federal government has created a complex maze of tribal, state, and federal law that has the effect of denying justice to victims of sexual violence and allowing perpetrators to evade prosecution.”
Three main factors determine where jurisdictional authority lies: whether or not the victim or the accused is a member of a federally recognized tribe, and if the offense took place on tribal land.
If a suspect is Native American, then tribal and federal authorities have concurrent jurisdiction. If a suspect is non-Native, then only the federal government can prosecute.
“Neither North nor South Dakota state police have jurisdiction over sexual violence against Native American women on the Standing Rock reservation,” Pollack said. “State police do however have jurisdiction over crimes of sexual violence committed on tribal land in instances where the victim and the perpetrator are both non-Indian.
“Jurisdictional issues not only cause confusion and uncertainty for survivors of sexual violence, but also result in uneven and inconsistent access to justice and accountability,” Pollack said. “This leaves victims without legal protection or redress and allows impunity for the perpetrators, especially non-Indian offenders who commit crimes on tribal land.”
Criminals flee both away from and to tribal lands. Police report criminals at times cross the bridge to the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota, stop the car, get out, and laugh at police from the other side because they are banned from pursuing criminals any further.
The trafficking can follow a pipeline: from gang activity on reservations, to the oil drilling in the Bakken, all the way to Duluth, an international port on Lake Superior, known as a commercial sex hub. From there, low-income Native women are lured to “parties” on ships, only to wake up en route to Thunder Bay in Canada, listening to their kidnappers talking about who they’re going to be sold to.
“There are all kinds of this stuff going on, in the Bakken I’ve heard horrible, gross stories that happened to women and men out there in the man camps,” Win Young said.
Once, when her gas tank was nearing empty, she stopped to fill up at station near Williston. “Men, clearly, just that fast, were checking me out, blatantly, one other guy whistled at me, and when I was walking past the gas pump a guy just waved and said ‘Hi.’” Win Young said. “It’s real. That was something that was brought here by the oil boom. And I know that there are more men than women out there, but that’s what it breeds.”
Although Congressional hearings, protests and petitions have had little effect on society’s disregard for indigenous women issues, Win Young still has hope the future will be brighter.
“It’s just crazy because I see the face of America, and North Dakota changing,” Win Young said. “Today, the largest demographic in many tribal nations is 18 to 25 years of age. I see this real fear that the old-school white people – they’re fearful that they’re losing what they have. It bewilders me that people can be so out of touch and so racist.”