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Cathy Robbins Thinking Aloud

Dissing American Indians, Part III: Send the cops away

What happens when American Indians call the federal cops to investigate a rape or a murder? Too often, nobody answers. On reservations, when the feds drop the ball, understaffed tribal police departments are unable to cope with the resulting mayhem.

Step back about a 150 years. At that time, white America was mopping up. Settlers, developers, mining and timber interests, and railroad companies were chewing up much of Indian country not just stealing land but also slaughtering bison and destroying other sources of Native sustenance. To stop Indians’ understandable resistance to this wholesale grab, the U.S. government sent the cavalry and finally entered into treaties to end the Indian wars. Indians laid down their arms and gave up much of their lands and resources. In exchange, the federal government set aside some lands for reservations in exchange for food, education, health, and policing for reservations.

But the federal government’s failures in tribal justice are in disarray and constitute yet another sign of disrespect for treaty responsibilities. The struggle between tribal, state, and federal governments over sovereignty has weakened justice. In recent decades, the conservative Supreme Court has regularly ruled against tribes, usually in favor of state interests in all cases relating to jurisdiction over non-member conduct or property within a reservation. The Court’s decisions reflected its decisions generally: the promotion of states’ rights, mainstream values, and “color-blind justice.” But such decisions reverse Congressional intent, which favors American Indian self-determination. A warning from one distinguished judge to jurists representing tribes made sense: “Try not to let your cases go to the Supreme Court.”

The impact of the Court’s disrespect for basic principles of self-government has been widespread. On zoning authority, the decisions have created a confusing and hostile atmosphere that discourages investors, increases tensions between non-Indians and Indians, and complicates the work of tribal, state and local governments. More seriously, tribal governments could not try and punish non-Indian defendants for crimes they committed on reservations, because those cases are under federal responsibility.

These rulings have had a devastating impact on the prosecution of rapes. American Indian women overwhelmingly identify non-Indians as their assailants. Such crimes are normally fare for local government, but in Indian country, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Justice Dept. have jurisdiction. In a shocking shortcoming, the Justice Dept. declined to prosecute two-thirds of such cases.

In 2010, however, tribes thought they could look forward to expanded jurisdictional and judicial authority, when President Barack Obama signed the landmark Tribal Law and Order Act (TLOA). Generally, tribal and federal officials expected that the new law would give police, prosecutors and courts more and better tools, including sentencing authority, to deal with the high levels of violence on reservations. It also provided funding for additional tribal police officers and to reverse what one activist called “a lack of nuts and bolts of law enforcement.”

Finally, the new law was supposed to reverse past practices when the Department of Justice did not aggressively prosecute crimes on tribal lands, an acute problem in cases of sexual and domestic assault. Under TLOA the department is accountable for prosecutions; it must keep records of its activities and share them with Congress.

Unfortunately, as we learned in a New York Times article, the federal government has retreated from its responsibilities under TLOA. It has reduced funding for tribal, Bureau of Indian Affairs and Justice Department policing efforts; cut the size of the federal police force; and initiated fewer prosecutions of felonies. All this has occurred at a time when violent crime on reservations has skyrocketed; homicides rose by 41 percent and rapes increased by nearly 55 percent. At Pine Ridge, which is dealing with an explosion of child abuse and other violent crimes, the reservation needs at least 140 officers on its 3500-square-mile reservation which has 40,000 residents; in 2012 the tribe had 49 officers.

Dissing American Indians? So easy. When they call the cops, just don’t answer.
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