MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
One in three Native American women will be raped in her lifetime. It's an epidemic on tribal land and reservations that's largely caused by outsiders, the majority of assaults are committed by non-native men. By law, tribal police and prosecutors can do little to stop them, and an NPR investigation shows that, all too often, federal officials who can do something don't. Over the next two days, we'll examine how the system fails these women and how it leaves them even more vulnerable to predators.
NPR's Laura Sullivan begins her report in South Dakota on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
LAURA SULLIVAN: Leslie Ironroad was 20 years old when she moved from one part of this reservation to a town called McLaughlin, home to one gas station, one diner and her friend, Rhea Archambault.
RHEA ARCHAMBAULT: She roomed in that second room. She fixed it up.
SULLIVAN: Archambault is sitting at the dining room table of her blue, three- bedroom house where Ironroad came to live.
ARCHAMBAULT: I make star quilts, so she was helping me make patterns and, you know, she was just a nice little girl.
SULLIVAN: One night four years ago in the second week of February, Leslie Ironroad left this house to go to a party a few miles away. Early the next morning...
ARCHAMBAULT: She called my brothers and she said can you go get Rhea to come get me because these guys are going to fight me. And so my brother said, where you at? She was just crying and she hangs up.
SULLIVAN: Rhea Archambault found her friend the next day two hours north of here at a hospital in Bismarck, North Dakota.
ARCHAMBAULT: So I get there, she was all beat up. She was beat up bad, just all black and blue in her arms. I said, Leslie, what happened? She goes, Rhea, is that you, she goes, turn the lights on, I can't see.
SULLIVAN: But the lights were on.
ARCHAMBAULT: So, Rhea, I was raped, and she was just squeezing my hand.
SULLIVAN: Archambault called the Bureau of Indian Affairs police, a small department in charge of all law enforcement on the reservation. A few days later, an officer arrived in the hospital room. Archambault says Leslie scratched out a statement on a tablet laid across her stomach and the officer took notes.
ARCHAMBAULT: She told how they raped her and beat her up, and then they raped her again, they beat her up again and, like, they wouldn't let out of the house.
SULLIVAN: Archambault says Leslie told the officer that the men locked her in a bathroom and said they were coming back. Leslie said she swallowed pills for diabetes she found in the cabinet, hoping that if she was unconscious they would leave her alone. The next morning, someone found her on the bathroom floor and called an ambulance.
ARCHAMBAULT: I've seen what she said and I heard what she said. She named all the people that were there, the ones that were hitting her, the ones that were fighting her, she named everybody - what more else?
SULLIVAN: A week later after falling into a coma, Leslie was dead - and so was the investigation. None of the authorities who could have investigated what happened to Leslie Ironroad did - not the Bureau of Indian Affairs, not the FBI, not anybody. People who know the men who likely attacked her say they were never even questioned.
Leslie Ironroad's case is not the only one. I spoke with at least a dozen people here, rape counselors, doctors, tribal leaders and victims, people who were either assaulted or know women who were in cases where no charges were filed. It's a pattern that repeats itself on Native American land across the country. On Standing Rock, there is one person in charge of law enforcement - Gerald White.
GERALD WHITE: I consider any sexual assault a serious problem. I mean, we don't take them lightly.
SULLIVAN: White is a chief of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Police Department. It was one of his officers who was dispatched to Leslie Ironroad's hospital room.
WHITE: Every sexual assault that is reported to us we investigate to the fullest.
SULLIVAN: So what about Leslie Ironroad?
WHITE: I looked back and there was nothing that I could substantiate. Sure she passed away, but her being involved as a victim of a sexual assault, I couldn't find anything to support that happened here. If a person doesn't report, then how can we investigate it if we don't know about it?
SULLIVAN: She told her story to a BIA officer while she was in the hospital.
WHITE: Again, like I said, I haven't found any report, you know, documents to support that.
SULLIVAN: There should be one. There was no investigation, but it wasn't because the police didn't know about it. Through records, interviews with officials at the hospital, state medical examiners' office and police department, and conversations with more than a dozen people familiar with Leslie Ironroad's case, NPR learned the officer in Ironroad's hospital room was BIA police officer Doug Wilkinson. Officer Wilkinson resigned from the Standing Rock Police Department two months ago. I tracked him down in the small town of Little Eagle, South Dakota. In a phone conversation, he confirmed the basic details of the story.
Wilkinson said he didn't want to talk on tape, but he said a lot of sexual assault cases like Leslie Ironroad's are never investigated. He said he was overwhelmed and overworked and couldn't possibly keep up with the number of calls for rape, sexual assault and child abuse he got each week.
And when it came to federal prosecutors, he said, quote, "we all know they only take the ones with a confession." Bottom line, he says, we were forced to triage our cases. A few were pushed through, the rest forgotten.
Wilkinson has now joined a ministry saying he hopes to help survivors through preaching. His decade as a federal police officer seems to weigh on him. He said I felt like I was standing in the middle of the river trying to hold back the flood.
Archie Fool Bear sits on the Standing Rock Tribal Council.
ARCHIE FOOL BEAR: Law enforcement is not adequately functioning on Standing Rock right now.
SULLIVAN: Fool Bear should know, 14 years ago, he was chief of the BIA Police Department here. Fool Bear and other tribal officials say Leslie Ironroad's case and many others like hers have gone unreported, uninvestigated and unprosecuted. Police often can't and sometimes won't make arrests. And prosecutions are even more rare.
We'll talk more about that tomorrow. But another reason Fool Bear says, here on rural reservations like Standing Rock, there are five BIA police officers for a territory the size of Connecticut.
FOOL BEAR: We know with that size of force, I know from experience, there are cases that are going to be sitting on the shelf or cases that - where people don't want to come forward because they have no confidence in law enforcement.
SULLIVAN: Money for new officers can only come from one place - Washington, D.C. The Bureau of Indian Affairs director Pat Ragsdale is sitting in his office just across the street from the White House. Ragsdale says he'd love to have more officers, lots of them, but he says, things will get better with new funding the Bush administration has proposed.
PAT RAGSDALE: Sixteen million is the initiative for the budget, which will commence on October 1.
SULLIVAN: How many new law enforcement officers will that be?
RAGSDALE: About 50 police officers, BIA and tribal.
SULLIVAN: Do you think that's a lot?
RAGSDALE: Well, it's a start. It's a good start.
SULLIVAN: The BIA has 200 tribal jurisdictions, 50 new officers isn't even one per tribe. On Standing Rock, getting an officer to respond to a call for help can mean waiting for days or even months.
GEORGIA LITTLESHIELD: Up here is where we're housed, we have a new bedroom on the site.
SULLIVAN: The reservation's only women shelter is still waiting for police to come after someone cut all their phone lines two months ago. The shelter's director, Georgia Littleshield, says she's used to this. She can't get police involved in most of the cases she sees, even one involving her own daughter and her boyfriend.
LITTLESHIELD: One time he broke her nose, told the doctors in the emergency room, he did that to her.
SULLIVAN: Her daughter was dating a non-native man Littleshield called the BIA.
LITTLESHIELD: And I called the special investigators the next morning, and I asked them, I said, what's going to go on with this? Well, yeah, it probably won't go nowhere. I said we're going to push it. He broke her nose, it's a broken bone. He said, well, that's considered a cartilage. This is a lawless land where people are making up their own laws because there's no justice being done.
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SULLIVAN: Most rape victims wind up here at the Indian Health Service Center. Leslie Ironroad came here after she was found unconscious in the bathroom. Her injuries were so severe that doctors told the ambulance to take her two hours north to Bismarck.
The health center cannot do rape kits to collect the vital DNA evidence needed to prosecute attackers. They don't have enough doctors and they can't spare the exam room for the hour it takes to complete one. Staff physician Jackie Quizno says she sees rape cases several times a month. When she and other doctors turned over their information to the BIA police and federal prosecutors, she says nothing happens.
JACKIE QUIZNO: I have only been involved in one court hearing where I was actually called to testify.
SULLIVAN: How many years have you been here?
SULLIVAN: Listen to one of the Justice Department's own former top officials. Until last year, Thomas Heffelfinger used to chair the department's Indian Affairs Committee, which tried to address the sexual assault problem.
THOMAS HEFFELFINGER: Our committee was frequently met with indifference. They simply don't recognize the magnitude of the problem and the degree to which it is a federal responsibility.
SULLIVAN: Mary Beth Buchanan disagrees. She's the acting director of the department's Office of Violence Against Women. She says the department has funneled millions of dollars in grants to tribes and is studying the rate of sexual assaults on reservations.
MARY BETH BUCHANAN: Most prosecutors in Indian country are very committed to assisting in the prosecution of these cases and are very sensitive to the unique problems associated with crime in Indian country.
SULLIVAN: But a study done by the Justice Department in 2004 found that the number of suspects investigated by U.S. attorneys for crimes on Indian land declined 21 percent from 1997 to 2000.
On Standing Rock, where the bright green grass seems to stretch as far as the sky, it's too late to help women like Leslie Ironroad, women who can live and die without any federal agency taking notice.
The tribe's chairman, Ron His Horse Is Thunder, is standing on the porch of his log cabin overlooking the plains where his people have lived for thousands of years.
RON HIS HORSE IS THUNDER: Rape amongst our people was one of those unheard-of crimes. Not because people didn't talk about it because at one point in time, it didn't occur.
SULLIVAN: That is no longer the case. The chairman says any one who comes here may well be able to rape or assault women like Leslie Ironroad and get away with it.
HIS HORSE IS THUNDER: There's a word amongst our people. We say, (Speaking Native language). And simply stated, it means that we are all related, but it's more than just me and my cousin being related, it means that anything that happens to the tribe or its individual members will affect everybody.
SULLIVAN: Two weeks after NPR began requesting documents and interviewing officials, the Bureau of Indian Affairs reopened the investigation into Leslie Ironroad's death. Officials say the results are still pending.
Laura Sullivan, NPR News.
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SIEGEL: Tomorrow, tribal leaders say squabbles over jurisdiction at the local level and indifference at the federal level block efforts to protect Native American women.