We continue our special report, diving into the history of the corrections system on tribal lands in North Dakota.
It’s worth spending an evening discussing sexual violence. It’s a horrific tragedy that continues to lie under the surface in North Dakota, and it goes unpunished because of those jurisdictional, and even physical, barriers that lie between victims and justice.
Tribal lands all over the U.S. have become a safe haven for criminals, particularly violent sex offenders. While the rate of sexual assault is high for all populations, Native American women and children are significantly more likely to fall victim than non-tribal citizens.
Amy Bunke is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe but lived many years on the North Dakota side of the Standing Rock reservation. That’s where she met her ex-husband and the man who repeatedly raped her daughter, Ron His Horse Is Thunder.
“The nights are very hard. You know, I sit up late and I think about it, and I don’t cry in front of my kids but I cry at night a lot, because…how could you do that to your own child?” Bunke shared through tears.
We’ll leave her daughter out of the story. She’s only 16 years old.
According to Bunke, “I think it started happening when she was 7.”
Bunke didn’t find out until her daughter was 13 years old. She’s been in and out of the hospital and in-patient psychiatric treatment facilities ever since, for multiple suicide attempts.
“No child should have to live in fear like that,” the mother added.
This story is all too common for Native women and children.
“There are anecdotes of young women being told by their mothers and grandmothers that being raped is a right of passage,” shared Grant Christensen, an Associate Justice for the Supreme Court of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
“…and how disturbing is that.”
Christensen says sexual violence is so institutionalized that this has become a coping mechanism for Tribal communities.
North Dakota Representative Ruth Buffalo says it’s almost impossible to know just how prevalent sexual assault and rape are. It’s very under-reported.
She told me, we know one thing, “84 percent of Native women will have experienced some form of violence within their lifetime, and that’s really troubling as a mom, as a big sister, as a cousin…”
While Bunke is a part of that statistic, the abuse of her daughter actually happened, for the most part, off of the reservation in Bismarck, so the case is currently in the process of being tried by the state. While the outcome may not be perfect, some sort of prosecution is much more likely.
Christensen tells me, on tribal lands, there’s an incentive for non-Native predators to specifically target Native women and girls because the Tribe nor the State can prosecute them, leaving just the federal government.
But the federal courts and prosecutors are hours away in Bismarck or Fargo.
“There are stories of individuals who openly admit that they’ll enter the reservation and they’ll ask a woman, ‘Are you an Indian?’ And if they say no, they’ll pass on a potential target,” Christensen explained.
Former U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon says a little improvement came in 2013 with the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. Now, under VAWA, when it comes to domestic violence crimes against Native women, even if the offender is non-Native, Tribal governments can prosecute them.
“A really important tool to empower the local governments to protect their citizenry,” Purdon added.
The National Congress of American Indians created a five-year report following the reauthorization, and for the first time, there is some data.
What it shows? More than 1 in 3 Native women will be raped in their lifetime.
“Those numbers are so staggeringly, mind-bogglingly difficult for the country to kind of recognize because they’re so much higher than the proportions for any other racial or ethnic group,” Christensen shared.
In those five years between 2013 and 2018, the 18 tribes that have implemented this special jurisdiction, together, have reported 143 arrests of non-Native sexual offenders.
52% were convicted.
“We have definitely seen an increase in the number of non-Indians that are prosecuted here on the reservation,” shared Erin Shanley, the in-house counsel for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and an enrolled member of Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is one of two Tribal Nations in North Dakota to have fully implemented VAWA as of this report.
But, it is limited. Tribal courts only have jurisdiction in cases of intimate partner violence. So, if a woman were sexually assaulted by a non-Native person who she’s never met before, it would still have to be referred to the U.S. Attorney for prosecution, meaning, criminals stopping through are still immune.
“For decades, the federal government refused to go out, would just decline to prosecute the cases, wouldn’t even investigate, because it would take so long to get out to the reservation,” Christensen shared.
I asked the U.S. Attorney for the District of North Dakota Drew Wrigley if that’s true.
He replied, “Well, I wouldn’t characterize it as taken up less. I can tell you this, it’s one of the top priorities of our office.”
Wrigley says they’re among the hardest cases to prosecute but assured me, his office will only decline a case that does not have sufficient evidence to prove.
Either way, the impact doesn’t end with a sexual predator behind bars.
“If I have a criticism, a serious criticism of the Department of Justice, it’s that they have not invested the resources in victims and witness protection,” former U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp said.
She adds, beyond prosecution, we have to address the lasting impacts of trauma in a population that suffers a lot of abuse.
“This is tragic where here in Bismarck if something happened, or in Mandan, we would have trained advocates that would come in and provide you with information and assistance you needed as a victim,” Heitkamp went on.
“Is it perfect? No, but it’s way beyond what you would receive in a tribal setting.”
Purdon says those resources need to exist on tribal lands, and tribal governments need to be given the tools to prosecute at a local level.
“To think that justice can be delivered from Bismarck or Fargo for cases that arise hundreds of miles away in Belcourt on the Turtle Mountain reservation, or in New Town, or just 50 miles away in Standing Rock, it’s a world removed,” Purdon emphasized.
“Now, there are important responsibilities in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the BIA, the FBI, they need to work hard at what they do. But, the system itself moves forward when we empower the local authorities of the tribal government.”
Rep. Buffalo says change is happening for the better.
“You know, we’re resilient people… But also, there’s a growing movement within Indian Country to have young professionals leave, get educated, come back and make your community better,” shared the Democratic Representative and MHA Nation citizen.
It’s a start, in the long battle ahead to improve the lives and expectations of young, Native American women.
As for justice for Bunke’s daughter, His Horse Is Thunder is expected to appear before a jury on Feb. 23 in Burleigh County. Bunke says she will be in court with her daughter every step of the way.
And, there are some services available, specifically for tribal members who are victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. The First Nations Women’s Alliance was formed in 2007, and although it’s headquartered in Devils Lake, they provide advocacy, transportation, shelter and other support throughout the state.
No matter where a sexually violent crime is prosecuted, forensic evidence has to be collected right away to have a case in any court. Doing that on the front end is an on-going challenge on tribal lands.
Within 72 hours of the crime, a sexual assault nurse examiner has to conduct a forensic exam and collect what’s commonly known as a rape kit. It includes swabs of DNA evidence from a victim’s body, clothes and other personal belongings.
When victims go to a hospital in Bismarck or Minot, a SANE nurse is equipped to do that. When somebody who has been sexually assaulted goes to a tribal facility, it’s not likely.
Although there is an Indian Health Services hospital on Standing Rock, Former Bureau of Indian Affairs Officer Amber Johnson says she had to send victims to Bismarck.
I asked the former law enforcement agent, “Do you think it deters women, children, even men from going to get those tests done?”
She told me it does, “Definitely, because there’s people that we’ve said, ‘Oh well we’ll give you a ride up there’ and they’re scared about being stuck in Bismarck afterward. Or they have kids maybe, and they’re like, ‘Well what do I do with my five kids while I go for an examination?’ And it’s like well…” Johnson shrugged.
Standing Rock in-house lawyer Erin Shanley says SANE nurses come and go on the reservation. She says, tribal and federal victim advocates are available for members, but there are never enough.
- ‘Uniquely problematic in reservation communities’: The story of policing on tribal lands
- ‘That’s been a fight for 30 to 50 years’: Tribal citizens are forced to rely on the federal government for justice