Justice for North Dakota’s Tribal Nations: The long journey so far, and what’s still ahead

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This is the series finale of our week of special reports about barriers to justice for Tribal citizens in North Dakota. Crime and Investigative Reporter Renée Cooper has spent months unraveling the complex web of barriers that leaves cases unsolved, and victims with nowhere to turn.

For hundreds of years, the official policy of the U.S. government toward tribes was to disestablish them; to do away with them. In fact, the federal government created the reservation system to control Native Americans and keep them off of land that white men wanted to settle.

The first big move forward didn’t happen until the early 1970s — under the Nixon Administration, began a new era of self-determination. For the first time, there was some recognition that the U.S. owed tribes respect as their own sovereign nations, and in the 50 years since, tribal nations have had the ability to grow.

“We’re still, really, at the dawn of that era when you think about the length of time we’re talking about here,” said lawyer and former U.S. Attorney, Tim Purdon.

Purdon has spent much of his law career defending tribal governments in North Dakota.

“Tribes have had governments for centuries and centuries, since time in memoriam, but the governments in the context we see now: tribal councils, things like that, these governments are only 40-50 years old,” he said.

But because of all of the remaining barriers that are a direct result of the U.S. government’s actions, for hundreds of years, Purdon says, the federal government has a responsibility to support them, beginning with criminal justice.

Current U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley says the biggest bottleneck, keeping many major crime cases from even reaching his office, is a lack of officers policing tribal lands — which does not fall under his office.

“BIA is not part of the Department of Justice. For some reason, it’s in the Interior Department. So, we’ve got the FBI resources that work but they work hand-in-glove with BIA. BIA is the first responder,” said Wrigley.

He says on average, law enforcement on tribal lands is staffed at about 30%.

“We would never tolerate that in Bismarck and we shouldn’t, and we should never tolerate it on our Indian reservations,” he said.

In an effort to address the need, U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, along with federal, state and tribal officials, together, announced the opening of a new Indian Police Academy at Camp Grafton in October.

“I think you’ll get more homegrown law enforcement people,” said Wrigley.

Jenna Clawson Huibregtse, the Cultural Liaison Officer for the Highway Patrol, says state law enforcement can get training in North Dakota but until now, tribal and BIA officers have had to go out of state. She hopes it will also be a place for relationship building, between state, tribal and federal law enforcement.

Right now, the Department of the Interior has secured $2.5 million for the specialized training at Camp Grafton. Clawson Huibregtse says there is a long-term picture in mind.

The Tribes have also made huge improvements to public services.

Under Chairman Mark Fox, the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation opened the $24 million MHA Nation Public Safety and Judicial Center. The facility brings law enforcement, the courts, and police under one roof.

Chairman Fox said, before, “We were always renting a facility from the town of New Town, which was unconstitutional and dilapidated.”

Chairman Fox tells me, back then, the Tribe had to send criminals off of the reservation. Now, services are right here, helping to reduce the re-offense rate.

“Part of the problem was the perception by the public. When your law enforcement doesn’t have adequate supplies or vehicles or training, you know, people look down on that. They don’t take law enforcement as seriously as they should,” he said.

And, as of December 2018, the Three Affiliated Tribes no longer has to send its members all the way to Arizona to get proper drug and alcohol addiction treatment. The Good Road Recovery Center is the first and only treatment center that offers inpatient care for tribal citizens in the state, funded entirely by MHA Nation. Chairman Fox says it’s located in Bismarck to give people distance from their current environment, and because the city has access to accompanying services.

In the Turtle Mountains, Chairman Jamie Azure secured $9 million from the Department of Justice for a new jail facility, the Tribe contributing another one million.

“In the past, a lot of the times you would go and say, ‘This is my need, I need it, I want it. You have to help us,’ and pound your fist on the desk. Now it’s 2020 and we use data,” said Chairman Azure.

It’s still in the design phase, but once it’s done, the existing jail will be made into a youth facility for mental health and other transitional services.

“Give a little opportunity, and let’s see if we can change even one future. You know, if you change one future, I don’t care if it costs $10 million, it was worth it,” he said.

At the state Capitol, the lack of Native American representation is being recognized in a new way. In September, the North Dakota Dem-NPL created the Native American Caucus, expressly to give Indigenous people representation in North Dakota politics.

It was brought forth by three women and MHA Nation citizens, including Democratic Rep. Ruth Buffalo, who says it’s been in the works for quite some time.

“We had an elder woman share with us, that she’s been waiting for this to happen for over 30 years. It’s just the beginning of strengthening relationships,” Rep. Buffalo said.

She says it’s growing, with at least 45 members right now and representation from all five tribal nations in North Dakota.

Rep. Buffalo was among a few lawmakers to introduce a package of six bills to combat the prevalence of missing and murdered indigenous women: promoting law enforcement training, beginning to collect data of missing people, and teaching human trafficking prevention and awareness in schools and in hotels.

“Because everyone deserves to be safe,” she said.

The passage of these bills hit close to home for Buffalo. She volunteered for the search party of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, who vanished and was brutally murdered in 2017.

A federal bill named after Greywind, Savanna’s Act, was signed into law by President Donald Trump in October. Similar to the new state law, Savanna’s Act is meant to combat the cycle of violence against Native women and girls. Specifically, it requires this data to be collected and mandates the creation of a standard for responding to these cases nationwide.

The bill was first introduced by former U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in 2017. She tells me, the passage took far too long.

“It’s a tragedy that this was even a question in anyone’s mind about whether or not we should do it,” Heitkamp said.

Heitkamp says the next step is not more legislation, it’s resourcing the FBI and the Tribes.

“I want to see the actual dollars that are going to be deployed to improve the conditions for victims, and to make sure that when someone goes missing or when someone is murdered, the investigation is handled correctly so we can bring people to justice,” she said.

Rep. Buffalo says a lot of these recent changes aren’t to break any sort of record. It’s more like the bare minimum.

“Special attention needs to be given to this issue, especially because we are deemed a protected class because we are, you know, because there are so little of us here today,” she said.

“It’s sad I think because I just think of the families…I think of the lack of respect that the average person has for native women,” said Buffalo, as tears fell down her face.

Looking forward, Buffalo wants to see Native American history required in North Dakota schools in her lifetime. She says she sees the hatred she experienced as a child is still happening today and education is key to better understanding one another.

“Even if it’s two steps forward, one step back sometimes, the arc of tribal sovereignty and tribal self-determination, and the strength of tribal institutions in North Dakota grows stronger every day,” said Purdon.

We’re far from the finish line as tribal, federal, and state governments continue to fight through leftover policies and mindsets from the disestablishment era that existed for most of U.S. history.

As was made clear through this series, that fundamental discrimination is at the core of what hinders Tribes from addressing crime and delivering justice on what’s left of their sovereign land.

As Rep. Buffalo said best, it’s the responsibility of journalists to tell these narratives, often left uncorrected in the tales of U.S. history and buried under the surface of statehood.

Barriers to Justice reports

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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