‘Uniquely problematic in reservation communities’: The story of policing on tribal lands

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We begin a week’s worth of special reports, diving into the history of the corrections system on tribal lands 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.

These hurdles that tribal governments, the courts and law enforcement have to jump over all trace back to a history of persecution against Tribes.

We begin where crime first meets the justice system — with police. I spoke with those who know first hand how jurisdictional boundaries, a lack of resources and outright discrimination muddles an officer’s ability to serve and protect.

Meet Amber Johnson. She was a Bureau of Indian Affairs Police Officer for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe for 10 years.

“There are times when I’ve been the only one working a 12-hour night shift,” she shared.

That took a toll on her and after a long career, Johnson retired her uniform.

“This is all I’ve ever known, so it’s kind of tough. I wouldn’t know what to compare it to,” she explained.

There are three separate jurisdictions that enforce three different sets of laws and statutes on tribal lands: state law enforcement (like your county sheriffs and North Dakota Highway Patrol troopers), then there are federal Bureau of Indian Affairs officers like Johnson, and tribal police, who enforce laws and statutes specific to each Tribal Nation.

“I think that’s uniquely problematic in reservation communities,” Bismarck Attorney Tim Purdon said.

Purdon is also the former U.S. Attorney for the District of North Dakota from 2010 and 2015. He has a long history of representing North Dakota’s Tribes in court. He says which law enforcement agency takes charge can be messy. It depends on if the offender is an enrolled tribal citizen, if the victim is or not, where the crime took place and how serious it is.

“When I was U.S. Attorney, there was a crime committed on the reservation. It was a quadruple homicide. Four people were killed in a home invasion, and the four people that were killed were non-native,” Purdon shared.

“…county sheriff, you’ve got state police, you’ve got the FBI, and they don’t know who has jurisdiction to investigate the case, because they don’t know whether the shooter was Native or non-Native. Can you imagine being at the scene of a quadruple homicide and you don’t know which cop, which detective has the authority to move forward with an investigation?”

Purdon says it’s common not to know who a suspect is, making this a regular issue.

Here’s the basic breakdown: In North Dakota, when the offender and the victim are Native and the crime was committed on tribal land, for the most part, that’s the Tribe’s jurisdiction. That is unless the crime falls under the Major Crimes Act, including offenses like murder and sexual assault, then it’s federal. If the offender is Native, but the victim is not, on Tribal lands, the same rules apply. However, if the offender is non-Native, it’s almost always federal jurisdiction in Native Country, unless the victim is also not an enrolled tribal member, then, it’s up to the state police to handle.

A visual representation of jurisdictions. | Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Justice

Finally, if a crime takes place on state land, no matter who the victim or offender is, it’s the state’s jurisdiction.

So, what happens if a law enforcement agency pulls someone over and it’s not their jurisdiction?

NDHP Superintendent Brandon Solberg told me, “I would say in the case of a crime that someone needs to go to jail, for example, we would try to find a way. We would just wait until someone could respond. But in the case of a traffic citation, maybe nothing’s done, the individual’s released.”

The inability to cite, in many cases, comes down to a lack of officers. It’s the same reason Johnson worked long shifts and communication breaks down between jurisdictions.

That’s where Trooper Jenna Clawson Huibregtse comes in. She’s the Cultural Liaison Officer for the state Highway Patrol. Her position was created to open up lines of communication with each tribal nation.

“I always teach tribal jurisdiction in a really brief intro to everyone because I think it’s important for new officers to understand that,” Clawson Huibregtse said.

But it gets murkier because each tribal nation is its own sovereign nation, with its own law enforcement agencies. For example, every tribe in North Dakota does have federal BIA Police, but not all have tribal police, like Standing Rock where federal officers like Johnson enforce both tribal and federal law.

On the Fort Berthold Reservation, home of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, the Tribe manages its own law enforcement through a contract with the federal government.

“Because, basically, we feel we can do a better job than the federal government can,” shared MHA Nation Chairman Mark Fox.

“…and in our case, most particularly, that’s true because we’re able to put more of our own tribal resources in,” tripling the number of officers on the reservation.

Chairman Fox says with the contract signed years back, Fort Berthold retained one BIA Criminal Investigator. Otherwise, the Three-Affiliated Tribes Police Department handles all but state law on its own land.

In the Turtle Mountains, funding and resources are a little slimmer according to Tribal Chairman Jamie Azure.

As a result, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians Chairman said, “BIA still controls, I would say 75%, and 25% is tribal.”

The roughly three tribal officers are housed at a BIA facility, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians Police Department, and they fall under the jurisdiction of a BIA police chief.

“I wouldn’t say they have ultimate authority, but they have more authority than I’m comfortable with,” Chairman Azure added.

Superintendent Solberg says the confusion becomes a liability problem for law enforcement, and the goal is to move away from officers having to ask, “Are you an enrolled member or not?” before helping someone in need.

Progress has been made. At Standing Rock, BIA officers are cross-deputized with the Sioux County Sheriff’s Department, so they can make stops and arrest non-Natives on tribal land.

“But the Sioux County Sheriff, in the reverse, couldn’t act in that way over Tribal members?” I asked former officer Johnson, to which she replied, “Correct.”

MHA Nation has a form of cross-deputization that does work both ways, through an agreement with the McLean County Sheriff’s Office. But the Fort Berthold Reservation spans across six counties, so that agreement only goes so far.

“We used to have cross-deputization with the city of New Town and the City of Parshall, their governments. Then all of the sudden, it was taken away,” Chairman Fox shared.

“They wanted to have the non-tribal cops arrest a Native perpetrator, but when a tribal cop is arresting a non-tribal perpetrator, that wasn’t very cool with them. And so, after about seven or eight years of those, those just fell to the wayside.”

“Our boots on the ground guys. The guys working our agency, do the best that they can. And until it’s out of their hands, they do as much as they can, that they can take care of,” Johnson concluded.

Trooper Clawson Huibregtse is hoping one day there can be agreements between the Tribes, all of the counties they’re in and the Highway Patrol so that no matter where you are, someone can respond. Chairman Fox agrees, adding statewide cross-deputization was brought to the state legislature twice and failed. He hopes the partnership with McLean County will set an example that encourages other counties to make similar agreements with tribal nations.


Clawson Huibregtse’s position at the Highway Patrol was a long time coming. She says the agency realized the need to build more trust and relationships, and in 2017, the Cultural Liaison was created. It was, in part, as a response to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in 2016.

Chase Iron Eyes is a lawyer and activist who grew up on Standing Rock. He was arrested by state agencies on private property, just outside of his homeland, during the protests.

“I was traumatized by the state of North Dakota because of their threats to try to imprison me based on my free speech,” shared Iron Eyes, a citizen of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

Right or wrong, that wasn’t Iron Eyes’s first run-in with state law enforcement. He says these stories trace back to when he was a kid visiting the capital city.

He says when you think back, it’s not all that long ago that the land of the Dakotas was stolen from the First Nation. And even after treaties were made and the right to vote was established for tribal citizens, he says his Native family has always had and still has, a different experience with law enforcement than their white neighbors.

“Me and my friends found ourselves without a ride up there, so we had nowhere to go. So we essentially walked down the middle of the street, until a police officer confronted us. And we told him, ‘Hey, we just, we have no way to call our parents.’ This was before cellphones,” Iron Eyes began.

“And I remember that he called us ”animals.’ He referred to us as ‘animals.’ He’s on the radio talking and saying that, ‘I had to pick some animals off of the road.’ It comes from this tradition of dehumanizing and otherizing and villainizing.”

The discrimination shows in our federal prisons. Standing Rock’s in-house lawyer says, although somewhere around 0.9% of the U.S. population is Native, they are represented twice as often in federal prisons.

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

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