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Chuck Haga, Forum Communications, Published October 25 2012

Tribe targets violent reputation with conference

SPIRIT LAKE NATION – With grim autopsy photos, recordings of bungled 911 calls and security video of a man strangling a woman to the point of unconsciousness in a casino parking lot, two Bureau of Indian Affairs police officers sought to make a point here Thursday:

A victim of domestic abuse or violence, fearing angry retaliation, may say her husband or boyfriend “choked” her, Officer Sterling Reed said, but choking is not the same as strangulation.

A stranglehold about the neck can leave a victim unconscious in seconds and dead in minutes, he told about 80 social workers, victim advocates and others during a two-day “Awareness and Healing” conference.

“It’s not just a slap in the face,” he said.

Social workers and advocates can help law enforcement, Officer LaRon Greywater added, by careful listening and close observation – and by use of precise language.

“A lot of victims don’t like to open up to police,” she said.

The conference, which continues today with presentations on child protection, family violence and other issues, is part of the Spirit Lake tribe’s response to highly publicized concerns about child welfare on the reservation. What some have called a child protection crisis led the tribe on Oct. 1 to surrender responsibility for foster care placements, child abuse investigations and other services to the BIA.

Tribal leaders, insisting that many of the allegations made by people within and outside Spirit Lake were either exaggerated or fabricated, say they are determined to resume management of social services on the reservation.

Working together

“We’re all talking with each other more now, to see if we can prevent gaps,” said Shirley Cain, chief judge of the tribal court system, referring to tribal law enforcement, social services, housing, health and other agencies that participated in the conference.

Also, she said, the tribe and the BIA “are trying to work together, to communicate better.”

The tribe is drawing on its culture and traditions to combat alcoholism, drug abuse, child abuse, domestic violence and other persistent problems, she said.

“Our culture says it’s not OK to hit another person,” Cain said. “It’s not OK to not take care of your babies.

“We’re doing good stuff. We’re doing really good work. I want the world to know that we really love our children here.”

Living in spotlight

Cain and others decried “the unbelievably negative media attention” the Spirit Lake reservation has received in the past several months, “from as far off as the New York Times, and even international.”

Linda Thompson of the First Nations Women’s Alliance, a statewide advocacy group for Indian women, agreed that the media attention has taken a toll. “These people are pooped,” she said. “They don’t know how to respond to it all.”

But she believes conditions are improving for children and vulnerable adults at Spirit Lake.

“We know what’s going on in our community,” she said. “We have issues with violence. We are doing as much as we can with the crisis portion of it, providing safe places, healing and wellness programs and education.

“We are dedicated to the well-being and protection of our children.”

Spirit Lake still lacks the resources it needs to adequately staff child protective services and get at chronic underlying causes of child abuse and violence, Cain said.

Chuck Haga writes for the

Grand Forks Herald

“I’d like to have a substance abuse counselor and a therapist right there in court,” she said. “But we don’t have the money.”

That has been a frequent lament from Tribal Chairman Roger Yankton. But he said the conference, sponsored by Spirit Lake Victim Assistance with support from the tribal court, will help people in various tribal agencies better understand their roles and how they fit with others.

“Everybody’s been pounding on us,” Yankton said, referring to questions raised following a series of critical reports filed by the BIA and other federal officials.

“They say, ‘Do this, do that.’ But only we can change things here,” he said. “It’s our community.”


Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald