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Insight on a Tribal Reservation

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Insight on a Tribal Reservation

Insight on a Tribal Reservation

Insight on a Tribal Reservation

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  • Transcript

Sometimes a reporter can have an epiphany — when the whole story is suddenly illustrated in a single image or scene. One of those moments came during the reporting of a series on sexual abuse of Native American women.


This week, NPR's Laura Sullivan had been report on the high rate of sexual assaults in Native American lands. The reporting was full of complicated legal issues, but she found it became clear in the most unusual places.

Here's her Reporter's Notebook.

LAURA SULLIVAN: I was several weeks into a story about rapes on Indian land in Oklahoma. I had read so many documents and spoken to enough lawyers and experts to make your head spin. And still, all I could say definitively was that tribal law and tribal geography are complicated issues.

Jason O'Neal, chief of the Chickasaw's Police Department, was trying to break it down as we drove around Ada, Oklahoma, in his police car.

Mr. JASON O'NEAL (Chief of Police, Chickasaw Lighthorse Police Department): You have trust properties, which are property owned by the United States government, held for the tribes. You didn't have restrict allotments which are properties owned by Indian people.

SULLIVAN: I gave him a look. This wasn't helping. O'Neal smiled and suddenly pulled his SUV into the parking lot of a local gas station.

(Soundbite of car doors closing)

SULLIVAN: He got out, walked over to the ice machine, and pointed to a hill across the street. He starts telling the story about a drunk man who climbed up there a year ago and started shooting at the gas pumps.

Mr. O'NEAL: He hit several gas pumps. He hit the gaming center on this side. One - you could see - hit the ice machine here, which there is still a hole in.

SULLIVAN: Crazy story. But I still didn't understand the point of this detour until O'Neal explained what happened next.

Mr. O'NEAL: Our tribal police were here. We had the County Sheriff's Department. We had the state police that came in to help. We had the city police, and we also called in a special investigator from a few counties over with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. So we had five agencies at this cause.

SULLIVAN: This story had nothing to do with rape, but it explained everything. The gas station, O'Neal said, is tribal land, but the highway that runs next to it belongs to the state, and across the street is the entrance to town, and the building next door, that's county.

Mr. O'NEAL: All within 100 yards of where we're standing.

SULLIVAN: If they couldn't figure out whose problem the shooting was, how could they possibly investigate complicated rape cases involving non-Native men crossing multiple boundaries?

Mr. O'NEAL: In many of our cases, we do have problems.

SULLIVAN: Especially, O'Neal says, when each territory has its own laws and its own law enforcement.

Mr. O'NEAL: Most of your law-abiding citizens don't care if this is a different jurisdiction; don't care who works the crime. The criminal population knows what the jurisdictional problems are, and they know that this is a target area.

SULLIVAN: As we stood outside the mini-mart, I finally understood the phrase: Oklahoma is a patchwork quilt. It works out great for the criminals but not so much for the victims.

SIMON: NPR's Laura Sullivan.

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