Legal Hurdles Stall Rape Cases on Native Lands Eighty percent of Native American sexual assault victims identify their attackers as non-native, but tribal police cannot legally prosecute non-natives, leaving many women to suffer in silence.
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Legal Hurdles Stall Rape Cases on Native Lands

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Legal Hurdles Stall Rape Cases on Native Lands

Legal Hurdles Stall Rape Cases on Native Lands

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

We're examining the alarming incidence of rape on Native American land. One in three women there will be raped in her lifetime according to federal statistics. The majority of the attackers are outsiders. And many cases are never reported, never investigated, never prosecuted.

Yesterday, we heard from a reservation in South Dakota, where vast stretches of land are patrolled by a handful of federal officers. But even more affluent tribes with their own police find themselves powerless to stop the assaults.

In this second and final part of our series, NPR's Laura Sullivan heads to Oklahoma, home to almost four dozen Native American tribes.

LAURA SULLIVAN: To understand just how different the rules are on Indian land, stop by the gas station, just outside Ada, Oklahoma, beneath the gas pumps and minimart is land that has belonged to the Chickasaw people for more than a century.

Tribal police chief Jason O'Neal is standing next to the ice machine, trying to explain what he can and can't do with a suspect.

JASON O: It is a very complex situation.

SULLIVAN: Here's a guy walking into the store now. If he goes in there and he steals a carton of cigarettes, what happens to him?

NEAL: If he's an Indian, he would go to jail.

SULLIVAN: If he is a non-Indian, what happens to him?

NEAL: We would simply let him go and forward a report to the U.S. attorney.

SULLIVAN: And what happens to those reports?

NEAL: Well, I really couldn't tell you. I don't think I've ever been called back one of them, so...

SULLIVAN: Tribal police like Jason O'Neal work for the tribe. They patrol tribal land. But they can't charge non-Indians with a crime. Only federal police and prosecutors can, and tribal leaders say, in too many cases, that means no one gets charged at all.

Chief O'Neal says the people who pay the greatest price for this are Native American women. They are two and a half times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other women. Studies show it's usually by men from outside the reservation.

BONNIE: I was in the other room, and they came in and threw me on the bed. And they all held me down.

SULLIVAN: When she was 14, Bonnie, a Cherokee Indian, needed a ride home. She grew up near the small Oklahoma city of Tahlequah, on the eastern side of the state. A woman she knew from town offered and said to wait at her house. The woman's husband was home with four of his friends.

BONNIE: They were sitting around drinking and the man told them that I was in the other room.

SULLIVAN: Bonnie never reported the rape. She says she heard it from her mother and relatives often enough. Nobody was going to take a case about an Indian girl getting raped.

BONNIE: I just didn't figure anyone would believe me, you know. It's basically a child over, you know, five white men.

SULLIVAN: In the years that followed, she says she would sometimes catch men bragging about similar things they had done.

BONNIE: I've even heard a couple of white men, you know, just through the years and working as a bartender, you know, talk about it and it's like, you know, but I never say nothing.

SULLIVAN: Tribal police across Oklahoma have heard these stories, too. On the day I met with Chief Jason O'Neal at the Chickasaw's police department, a call came in.


Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Man #1: Two-thirty-one central.

SULLIVAN: It's a Native American woman on a cell phone. She says she's been raped, but she doesn't know where she is. Chief O'Neal is standing in the doorway of the command center. He looks antsy.

NEAL: I know that they are working on it and doing everything they can to locate her position and see if everything is okay.

SULLIVAN: Who the woman is, who her attacker was, and especially where she is, mean everything to O'Neal. If a woman's Indian on Indian land with an Indian attacker, he can help her. If not, there's often little he can do. More than 80 percent of Indian victims describe their attackers as non-native men. O'Neal describes the attackers as almost untouchable.

NEAL: Many of the criminals know Indian lands almost a lawless community that they can do whatever they want.

SULLIVAN: In this case, on this day, the woman turns up on county land. That means O'Neal has no role to play here. He won't even know what happened to her. Situations like this are excruciating for O'Neal and tribal leaders. They're trying desperately to stop the sexual assault after what they call years of neglect by federal officials.

To take a quick look around this department, it's easier to see why they're frustrated. Thanks to casino money, the Chickasaws have one of the best-funded, highly equipped police departments in the state.

NEAL: Each of the officers is equipped with a laptop, so they're not constantly having to draw back data to do their reports.

SULLIVAN: They have their own emergency command center, better staffing, more training, and more officers than most of the surrounding sheriff's departments. What they don't have is the power to arrest the men raping women on Chickasaw land if they can figure out where exactly that is. The tribal territory isn't one big swath. As O'Neal drives through the neighboring counties, he can pass in and out of tribal land three or four times every half mile.

NEAL: Many times when we respond, we don't know if we're on Indian land. Keeping track of that over - almost 8,000 square miles is difficult.

SULLIVAN: There is a way around the confusion and a way to give O'Neal more authority to make arrests. Tribal police can partner with neighboring police departments, then it wouldn't matter where they're standing or who they're helping, but some won't sign on like one sheriff's office nearby.

NEAL: The sheriff had told his deputies that he didn't care if they were lying on the side of the road bleeding to death, they were not to call upon our agency to help them. And you know what, that just goes back to plain old racism. There's nothing else to explain that.

SULLIVAN: I spoke with several sheriffs. Some openly question the competence of tribal police departments, but they say it isn't racism. They say they don't want to share police powers with officers who don't report to them. But even when tribal police get past their limited powers and land issues and haul someone into court, the inability of the tribes to exact a punishment goes right up the chain.

Unidentified Male #2: This is the Citizen Potawatomi Nation District Court and the court is now in session.

SULLIVAN: In Central Oklahoma, the Potawatomis have built their own courthouse. It looks and sounds like any other courthouse. It's got benches, a jury box, and lots of fancy wood.

Male #2: Be seated.

SULLIVAN: But the only people sitting in the defendant's chair are Native Americans. And here's the other thing, tribal prosecutors like David Hall are only allowed to handle small crimes.

DAVID HALL: The fact that I am not allowed to prosecute felonies that occur on tribal land irritates me. It angers me. I don't understand that.

SULLIVAN: Hall says he can't get federal prosecutors to take the cases he is not allowed to try, including two recent rapes that happened across the street: one in the parking lot at the casino, another in the parking lot at the supermarket.

HALL: The feds haven't picked them up. They haven't prosecuted them.

SULLIVAN: Renee Brewer works at this courthouse, too, as a victim's advocate. She remembers a case from a year ago when a woman who had been assaulted called police and said her attacker was still hiding in her closet.

RENEE BREWER: I get there, and there are four different law enforcement agencies on the front lawn with the victim, arguing about, well, this is your case, well, no, you have jurisdiction of this. You could go on and on with scenarios, and then you wonder why these cases are not getting prosecuted because, I mean, the United States government made it as difficult as possible for us to be able to handle our own prosecutions on our own land.

JOHN RICHTER: I'm open for business, willing to take more.

SULLIVAN: That's Oklahoma's U.S. Attorney John Richter. I met him in his office in a high rise in Oklahoma City to find out if he's taking sexual assault cases from tribal land. He says he is.

RICHTER: I'm not aware of serious cases that have not been investigated in the Western District of Oklahoma. Where we hear about it, we are firmly committed.

SULLIVAN: But he says the office doesn't have any numbers. He says there's no way to know how many Native American rape or assault cases they've tried or how many they've declined. The cases are brought to them by the FBI and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Neither agency in Oklahoma would grant NPR's request for an interview. If cases are declined, Richter says, it's because many rapes are inherently difficult to try, and federal courts place a high burden on prosecutors for evidence.

RICHTER: As prosecutors, we have to live in the real world. Just because a case is not brought does not mean that we don't - didn't wish that it could be brought.

SULLIVAN: But law enforcement officials I spoke with believe it's something else, too. They say U.S. attorneys find the cases less compelling than their usual work - terrorism, organized crime, drug racketeering.

In fact, a 2003 report from the Justice Department found U.S. attorneys declined a higher percentage of cases from the BIA than almost any other federal law enforcement agency. Amnesty International came to similar conclusions this spring, finding that U.S. attorneys are not aggressively pursuing Indian rape cases. It's a bitter reality for women on the reservations. Without hope of punishment for their attackers, many turn within, to try to find some comfort in tradition.

At sunset in northern Oklahoma, just outside Otoe-Missouria tribal land, Juskwa Burnett is hosting a Sweat Lodge, a healing ceremony for women who've been victims of sexual assault. A prayer man is welcoming dead ancestors through a fire.


SULLIVAN: The guests are usually women Burnett counsels at the community center. As the ceremony gets underway, guests enter a dome-like structure made of willow branches and blankets. Burnett fills a pipe with tobacco. Once inside, the ceremony is so private Burnett says microphones are not allowed.

JUSKWA BURNETT: A lot of this we don't talk about too much publicly. We kind of treat inside the lodge as - like a counseling session almost.

SULLIVAN: The guests spend the next several hours praying, singing and talking about what has happened to them. After, as they head to nearby showers, an honored man waits for the fire to die.

LITTLE BEAR: My name is Poncazhaze Machuzhinga(ph), translated, my Indian name is Little Bear.

SULLIVAN: Little Bear's job in the dome is to douse hot rocks from the fire to create steam. But it also means that night after night, he hears all the stories the women tell about being sexually assaulted.

BEAR: It's a burden when you hear about all these prayer requests, all these things that people - that are people are praying about, that they're crying about, things that bother them. These women telling me what happened to them sexually or incidents like that. You know, sometimes it's a burden. Sometimes it makes it hard to go to sleep at night.

SULLIVAN: And he knows personally, too. He says his little sister was raped on the side of the road by a man in a passing car when she was just a teenager.

BEAR: She was walking home and a guy, you know, he raped my sister on a back of a car, you know, just left her in a ditch. That was the worst, I'd have to say, that I have ever been encountered with, you know. She was raped not even half a mile from our home. Almost made it home.

SULLIVAN: Just before midnight, the guests head home. The host, Juskwa Burnett, packs up the leftover blankets around the lodge. She says she doesn't know how else to offer support. The police don't come. The prosecutors don't take the cases. The women don't believe anyone can help them. The worst night, she says, are the ones when there are more women than there's room.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

SIEGEL: And you can hear Laura Sullivan's earlier report on sexual assaults at

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