New Legislation Intended To Make Reservations Safer

President Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act into law last week. The legislation is designed to combat a disproportionately high level of violent crime - including rape and sexual assault - on Native American reservations. Lisa Marie Iyotte, a member of the White Clay People and a rape survivor, tells her story and explains what she hopes the new law will accomplish. Also joining the conversation: Marcus Levings, Chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation; and Brian Bull, Assistant News Director of NPR member station WPR in Wisconsin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Coming up, we keep the dialogue going on national concerns over childhood obesity. Joining the moms this week, California Congresswomen Judy Chu. She's pushing a bill to get better food to the 30 million students in the national school lunch program. Like Michelle Obama, she has plenty to say about what we should be offering our kids in school.

But, first, President Obama signed landmark legislation last week that will change the way that violent crimes are prosecuted on Indian reservations across the country. It's no small matter because the rate of violent crime on reservations is higher than off. It has skyrocketed. And tribal leaders said they needed more tools to combat these harrowing statistics.

Here's President Obama.

BARACK OBAMA: It is unconscionable that crime rates in Indian country are more than twice the national average and up to 20 times the national average on some reservations. And all of you believe like I do that when 1 in 3 Native American women will be raped in their lifetimes, that is an assault on our national conscience. It is an affront to our shared humanity. It is something that we cannot allow to continue.

MARTIN: The Tribal Law and Order Act is supposed to address this dismal reality by giving tribes greater authority and more information that will allow them to prosecute and punish offenders. We wanted to know more about this and the situation on the reservations and what it means. So we called Lisa Marie Iyotte. She's a member of the White Clay People. She lives on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation. She introduced President Obama at last week's signing ceremony. And she joins us from Mission, South Dakota, where she works at the Sicangu Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence.

Also joining us is Marcus Levings. He is chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation. And also with us is Brian Bull. He's the assistant news director at Wisconsin Public Radio. He's covered many Native American issues, as well as being a member of the Nez Perce Tribe himself.

And I want to give our listeners a note that this conversation includes some strong and sensitive subject matter that may not be appropriate for all listeners. And with that being said, I welcome you all. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

LISA MARIE IYOTTE: Thank you.

MARCUS LEVINGS: Great to be here.

MARTIN: Lisa, if I could start with you, you have a very moving story. It's not easy to hear, but you have had the courage to share it and I wanted to ask you, if you would, tell us your story.

MARIE IYOTTE: Okay. In 1994, the day after my daughter's third birthday, I had just got done, you know, cleaning up after the party from the day before and I left - well, I was putting them to bed and I fell asleep too. And so the lamp was on in the living room and I heard knocking at the door. So I got up and went to answer it and someone came to the door and said they were stabbed and they wanted to call someone. And he gave me a number.

So I said, okay, and I closed the door and I went to my phone and I called the number and it rang and rang and rang. No one answered. So I went back. When I went back to the door and he just came barging in and his face was covered and he just started beating me. And then I was fighting him a little bit to, you know, get away and, you know, it was getting loud and then I thought about my girls. And so I just was quiet after that.

But when I figured out what he was going to do - I start yelling after that and then so he covered my mouth and it was, like, I can't breathe, I can't breathe. So I panicked and I bit him on the finger. So after I did that, he bit on the chin. I had a big bite mark on my chin. And he - after that he raped me and then he got up and he took the phone and he left. So I was just scared and so I turned on all the lights. I made sure every window was locked and the doors were locked and I went back in the bedroom and the girls weren't in bed.

And so I start yelling for them. I was asking, you know, where are you? Where are you, you know? I found one of my daughters under the bed. She was hiding and my other daughter was in the closet.

MARTIN: So they heard the whole thing?

MARIE IYOTTE: Yes.

MARTIN: Lisa, can I ask you - was anybody ever prosecuted for this?

MARIE IYOTTE: Not for my rape. He raped another woman and then he raped a minor and then he was prosecuted for raping the minor.

MARTIN: Well, thank you again. I apologize for making you live through it again. I apologize for that. Can I ask the two gentlemen, Chairman Levings and then I'm going to ask Brian the same question, why is the crime rate on reservations so high? Chairman, if you would - do you want to start?

LEVINGS: Sure. It's a mixed feeling because we're not as high as it could be as far as the crime rate, but it's high enough. We're not a normal neighborhood where you can feel comfortable, confident 24/7 as it could be in a lot of white communities with a lot of funds that Caucasians have in the cities and towns that make it where they have enough law enforcement officials, they have enough neighborhood watch programs and all of those.

We are more smaller scale. What we've experienced my time now, as being a leader, is lack of funds. There would be, say, 8 to 10 budgeted law enforcement officers under the BIA. However, we'd only have 4 or 5 on any given time. And if we got six we were very fortunate. And then at the time I was a leader, we had a lot of these details to other reservations for other troubleshooting. A lack of a workforce, full time officers out in the field.

So we would go down to three or four. And if it wasn't for a grant program called a Cops Fast(ph) with the DOJ, we would've really been devastated by that.

MARTIN: Sorry, chairman, if I could just clarify for folks who aren't aware, BIA means the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

LEVINGS: Yes.

MARTIN: Right. Brian, will you please pick up the thread from Chairman Levings' remarks? We were asking, why has the situation gone on so long? I mean President Obama cited these appalling statistics, some of which are known to our listeners because, also, National Public Radio has also done some reporting on this, as have you. Why has the situation gone on for so long? Why are there too many stories like Lisa's?

BRIAN BULL: I want to follow through on Chairman's Levings' thread. There's oftentimes too few people on the force for tribal police. I was reading the Amnesty International Report from a few years back that said how in 2006 there were only seven BIA officers available on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation that spans North and South Dakota. That's a space of more than two million acres.

And so you have a lack of visibility of law enforcements on these reservations. And so a lot of times these cases go unreported because they're not detected by tribal police. And there's also a hodgepodge - decade's worth of hodgepodge of state, tribal and federal jurisdiction - many of them based on old Supreme Court rulings that make it very unclear whose jurisdiction it is to follow through and prosecute these crimes.

So a lot of them rise to the federal level and many times the crime scene has gone cold. The witness cannot be located. There are too few witnesses and there's a lack of trained personnel who can do interviews with victims, witnesses, and just a general lack of available tools such as rape kits, for example.

Another problem that faces people on reservations is that these tend to be very remote, rural, isolated environments that are also very close knit. I've talked to people before who've been victims of sexual assault. And they said essentially you fear being ostracized by your own community, your own tribe. If you point the finger at someone and say that's the man who raped me or robbed me or beat me.

And one woman I talked to said, yeah, it's not unusual that people flea the reservation as a way to get out of that community. They'd rather keep quiet and leave on their own time than risk being ostracized.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

I'm speaking with three guests about the Tribal Law and Order Act, which President Obama signed into law late last week. This legislation is designed to give Native American tribes more tools to prosecute violent crimes on their reservations. My guests are Lisa Marie Iyotte of the White Clay People. Marcus Levings, chairman of the three affiliated tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. And Brian Bull, assistant news director at Wisconsin Public Radio.

Lisa, if you could pick up on something that Brian said. He said that sometimes that people just don't have the basic training to address the situation. Like, they don't have rape kits. They don't know how to conduct interviews. After you were assaulted, you did get medical attention.

MARIE IYOTTE: Yes.

MARTIN: Did anybody talk to you? Was a rape kit used? I mean was evidence taken with an eye toward preparing a case?

MARIE IYOTTE: Well, after I had - running around the house trying to figure out what to do, 'cause he took my phone, I had a neighbor go over to my friend's house who lived across the street and told her that he thought something was happening to me and that she should go over there.

MARTIN: 00, you know. And I ended up being there all night because they had to wait for someone to come in in the morning to - for them to do the rape kit. And Fred, the CI, would - he questioned me a couple more times. And that was the only person who really talked to me about the case.

MARTIN: Chairman, could I ask you, chairman, how will this bill - this legislation that's just been signed, how will this help the situation?

LEVINGS: Well, I think there is an awareness. I don't think Lisa could've done anything different. When her presentation was made, I think it hit everyone right where it should've, which was in the heart. She was expressing what all women are experiencing who have not had their perpetrator go to trial. You could feel it. And as a father, I totally felt her feelings. And to get to where we need to go...

MARTIN: So, chairman, do you mind - forgive me - chairman, I don't want to intrude, but you also have a personal story. I don't want to intrude. Do you feel comfortable sharing it?

LEVINGS: No, I have no problem with that. In November 18th, 2009, my daughter was sexually assaulted. And her perpetrator basically attacked her and she nearly bled to death. And he basically attacked her in her genital area with a carpenter's tool and broke it while she was being attacked. And when we do these investigations, they put - they put a very good team of criminal investigators together. And they tracked everything from beginning to end. And they were able to piece together the entire evening.

MARTIN: Oh, so they did find something. Can I just tell you how sorry I am that this happened to your daughter?

LEVINGS: Oh yeah, it was devastating.

MARTIN: I'm so sorry.

LEVINGS: So I understand Lisa's story and I feel it because I went through it, me and my wife and family.

MARTIN: How is your daughter doing now, may I ask?

LEVINGS: Well, being she was such an active - she recuperated real fast. However, mentally, I think she has some time because this isn't the first time she was attacked. The second time is the one that went to trial. The first time was March 10th, 2008. And she was brutally assaulted. He kicked her in the face, the nose, the temples, the neck, the chest, the ribs - everywhere. And it never went to trial.

MARTIN: Oh, I'm sorry. Again, I thank you for being willing to share such a painful story with us and I do appreciate your being willing to help us with this.

Brian, we have a couple of minutes left, so I need you to explain a couple things first. One is when one of the reasons that these cases aren't pursued is that sometimes victims are afraid to disclose what's happened because they're afraid that they will be ostracized. And I wanted to ask you why is that - that why would be a victim be ostracized and not a perpetrator?

BULL: It's not just limited to native communities. You sometimes hear about this, too, happening off the reservation with non-Indian victims as well. But it takes a lot to come out and simply point the finger at anyone and say, this is the person who assaulted or raped me. But on a smaller community like a tribal reservation, sometimes that, I guess, political or is even more highly concentrated because you may be fingering someone who is a friend of the family, a relative, or maybe someone who has a fair amount of influence over the tribe.

And so it becomes a little more precarious for these people to speak out and say, you know, this is something that happened to me and I want to report it. You weigh that against the perspective that nothing gets done with a lot of these cases. It makes a victim feel caught between that proverbial rock and a hard place to come out and speak out, to put themselves, you know, in the public limelight when there may not be consequences, but perhaps retribution at some point.

MARTIN: Well, how will this bill help matters?

BULL: The bill is going to give tribes, I think, the teeth to enforce laws and protect tribal members that basically clarifies, codifies and formalizes their jurisdiction to arrest people and they can even charge non-Indians now. One thing we haven't mentioned yet is that a high percentage of perpetrators are actually non-Indians who come onto reservations and assault women and other victims. And now they can prosecute and they can arrest and charge these individuals.

MARTIN: And forgive me, is the working assumption that one of the reasons that non-Indians go onto the reservation is that they know that they're lightly patrolled? That they feel that they'll get away with it? Is that the working theory about why this happens?

BULL: That is the working theory. I think that the idea is that if there's free reign out there on the reservation, a sense of lawlessness, if you will, that someone who wants to commit these crimes would find a reservation a very ideal place to commit those crimes. That also gives police backup. They will hopefully be able to bolster and better support their tribal police forces to crack down and make for stronger enforcement.

And they also have the ability to access databases that have been off limits before. This includes the National Crime Information Center. So they can now look up criminal history records when pulling over a suspect or interrogating a suspect. And these are things that are actually very basic to every town, USA. But for tribal communities, this is groundbreaking. And so let's hope that this bill and many of its other provisions will empower tribes to actually take action.

MARTIN: Brian Bull is the assistant news director at Wisconsin Public Radio. He joined us from the studios there.

Marcus Levings is chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation. He's also on the board of the National Congress of American Indians representing the Great Plains. He joined us from his office in New Town, North Dakota.

Also with us, Lisa Marie Iyotte. She's a member of the White Clay People. And she joined us from her offices in Mission, South Dakota. I thank you all so much for speaking with us today.

LEVINGS: Thank you.

BULL: Thank you, Michel.

MARIE IYOTTE: Thank you.

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