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By Chuck Haga, Forum Communications Co., Published July 21 2012

Indian culture expert: Hurdles exist in protecting reservation children

GRAND FORKS – As a member of the University of North Dakota’s Indian studies faculty, Greg Gagnon used to give students a “pre-test” to see what they knew about American Indians.

Nearly all the students were not Indian, and what they “knew” was that Indians get a check every month just for being Indian, they attend college for free, they are violent drunks and are wealthy because of welfare and casinos.

“The stereotypes have not changed over the years since 1998, when I started doing the assignment,” said Gagnon, 69, who retired from UND in December.

Ignorance about Indians and how reservations work are among hurdles facing the Spirit Lake Nation as it tries to fix problems in its child protection system, Gagnon said, problems that have drawn heavy scrutiny in recent months.

“The reality is there – abuse is a problem, a major problem,” he said. “It’s a problem at almost every reservation in the country. There are cracks – gigantic gaps – for people to fall through. Tribal government is too often crisis government, and that’s true of social workers as well as elected officials.

“It isn’t a personal choice of neglect by the social workers or tribal officials. Yes, you have people drop the ball. There are personal failures. But the system has been set up by federal Indian policy and law, by state activity and inactivity, and these crossing jurisdictions are what the tribe has to figure out. You get into all kinds of major legal problems when you intervene where you don’t have jurisdiction.”

Gagnon is an enrolled member of the Red River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa in northern Wisconsin. Before coming to UND, he lived for 17 years on the Pine Ridge Sioux reservation in South Dakota, where he was academic vice president at the tribal college.

While he makes no claims to be an expert on Spirit Lake, he speaks frequently on tribal law and governance. His book, “Culture and Customs of the Sioux Indians,” was published in 2011.

Not enough police

The unsolved murders of two young siblings last year and the circumstances in the death of a 2-month-old baby earlier this month have been cited by critics on and off the reservation as examples of an ongoing crisis of children at risk there. Federal, state and tribal authorities promised investigations, and some have cited muddled jurisdiction as a contributing factor.

The Tribal Law and Order Act was signed into law last July, as Congress noted that fewer than 3,000 tribal and federal law officers patrol more than

56 million acres, less than half the average law presence in comparable rural areas nationwide. Congress stated that “the complicated jurisdictional scheme that exists in Indian country has a significant negative impact on the ability to provide public safety to Indian communities.”

Indian organizations welcomed the legislation, which “offers a great opportunity to improve the justice systems in Indian country,” according to the Tribal Law and Order Resource Center, a division of the National Congress of American Indians. “But implementation will require significant coordination” by federal, state, county and tribal authorities, and that is likely to take time.

The U.S. attorneys for North Dakota and South Dakota, hosting a workshop last week in Fargo, promised to seek better coordination in the prosecution of crimes against women and children on the two states’ reservations.

“If I were waving a magic wand, I would do more to implement the new federal crime act, which offers the opportunity for cross-deputizing,” Gagnon said. “With tribal police deputized by the state, a tribal police officer would be able to deal better with those jurisdictional issues.”

More than half of the Spirit Lake reservation is non-Indian owned, he said. A good portion of the population is non-Indian and therefore not under tribal jurisdiction.

“Tribal police can’t intervene even within the boundaries of the reservation on private, deeded land,” Gagnon said. “There are lots of those places on every reservation in North Dakota and most of the rest of the country. And the county can’t intervene on trust land,” because it is Indian-controlled.

“You could have two houses sitting together, one tribal and one non-tribal, and they’re under different jurisdictions,” he said. “Given the laws and restrictions that each jurisdiction has, (officers) sometimes can’t legally intervene. There are very few people who have so much courage they just go ahead and do it anyway, and those people don’t last long.”

‘Maintaining a society’

The sovereignty proclaimed by Indian nations and recognized in treaties is a factor in the jurisdictional maze, and Gagnon said it is another part of Indian life poorly understood by others.

“One of the principles held by most people in the world, including indigenous people, is that a nation should have control of its own destiny and should be able to regulate and govern itself,” he said. “What tribes are trying to do is retain what they’ve been able to keep of their sovereignty, and to regain what they can of what they’ve lost.”

That includes Indian children. The state took children away, sending them to non-Indian foster homes and boarding schools through what’s been called the “assimilation” period, or what some Indians call the “cultural genocide” period, Gagnon said.

“The 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act recognized tribal primacy over the disposition of Indian children,” he said. “When social workers wanted to take Indian children and put them somewhere, they had to make an effort to find which tribe the child belonged to and notify that tribe. The tribe has a right to determine what happens to the child in adoption as well as in child abuse cases.”

The 1978 law allows a state judge to intervene with an emergency declaration and direct the placement of an Indian child regardless of what the tribe says. “Sometimes you just have to intervene for the benefit of the child,” Gagnon said.

“Social workers in Grand Forks may see only the child in front of them, but there is this larger issue of taking people away from a nation,” he said. “The nation has an interest in maintaining a society.”

Haunted by history

Another factor complicating child protection and other social services is the funding stream, actually many streams, with some diverted through the state.

“The state has its obligation (of oversight), just as it does to maintain public schools on the reservation,” Gagnon said.

“There are some reservations where you have (Bureau of Indian Affairs) social workers, tribal social workers and state social workers all trying to provide services, operating under three different masters (and) sometimes working at cross purposes,” he said.

Rapid turnover is another problem.

Gagnon said a friend used to boast that she held the record for longevity as a case worker at the Pine Ridge reservation. “She held the position for a year,” he said.

“Overall in Indian country, there aren’t enough social workers who are trained – and also trained to be culturally proficient. That is, they may not understand how the reservation works and the culture,” he said. “You need to know those things if you’re going to be an effective agent for the community.”

It’s not all bleak in Indian country, however, Gagnon said.

“Generally speaking, there has been a steady improvement in the effectiveness of government on the reservations,” he said. “But major legacies continue to haunt us, such as the number of unemployed. With that go the kinds of problems we’ve seen recently in homes at Spirit Lake.”

Not so different

Gagnon notes that those problems – including the neglect, abuse and sexual abuse of children – can be found in other areas where poverty, unemployment and despair are chronic. “We could go to Chicago and Dallas and New Orleans and south Texas and find the same thing. It’s all there, and it’s poverty-related and compounded by alcoholism and drugs.

“Unemployment creates a dangerous social situation for children anywhere.”

Some at Spirit Lake object to the scrutiny they’ve endured in recent weeks, and they feel singled out unfairly. Gagnon is sympathetic.

“Yes, there were these horrendous cases at Spirit Lake,” he said. “But what happened in the same period in Minnewaukan? How about in Devils Lake? How about Grand Forks?

“We have a drug problem in Grand Forks. We have a stable political system, a large police force, but we still have these drug problems. We still have homeless people. Here, we have rich people who can’t figure out how to fix things.”

Reservation politics is often described as byzantine, but conflict and distrust between factions, the rewarding of friends and the refusal to reward enemies is the same as in local politics elsewhere, Gagnon said.

“It can be more intense on the reservation, which operates like a small town,” he said. “But tribal politicians are no more ethical or unethical than members of Congress. Most tribal government officials are doing their best with what they know and the situations they actually can control.

“Corruption – we have that. We have people on the reservations just as venal as non-Indians. But corruption at the tribal level is more visible because it goes to federal court. The Major Crimes Act requires that any felony on the reservation goes to federal court.”


Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald.