Legal Hurdles Stall Rape Cases on Native Lands

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(Last Updated On: January 9, 2016)

At 14, Bonnie, a Cherokee Indian, needed a ride home. She grew up near the small city of Talequah, on the eastern side of Oklahoma. A woman she knew from town offered her a ride, instructing Bonnie to wait at her house.

The woman’s husband was home, drinking with four of his friends.

“I was in the other room, and they came in and threw me on the bed,” Bonnie said. “And they all held me down.”

Bonnie never reported the rape. She says she had been told many times by her mother and other relatives that nobody was going to take a case involving an Indian girl getting raped.

“I just didn’t figure anyone would believe me — a child against five white men,” Bonnie said.

In the years that followed, Bonnie worked as a bartender and struggled to put the incident behind her. She said she would sometimes catch men bragging about similar things they said they had done.

“I’ve even heard a couple of white men just through the years talking about it, but I never say nothing,” Bonnie said.

‘Almost a Lawless Community’

Chickasaw Tribal Police Chief Jason O’Neal has heard these stories, too. One day recently at the Chickasaw police headquarters, a call came in from a Native American woman who said she had been raped and didn’t know where she was.

Standing in the doorway of the command center, O’Neal looked antsy.

“I know they’re working on it — to locate her position and see if everything is OK,” he said.

The identity of the woman and her attacker — and especially, her exact location — mean everything to O’Neal. If the woman is Indian on Indian land with an Indian attacker, he can help her. If not, there’s often little he can do – and he says that’s usually the case. According to a Justice Department report, 80 percent of Indian victims describe their attackers at non-native.

“Many of the criminals know Indian lands are almost a lawless community, where they can do whatever they want,” O’Neal said.

In this case on this day, the woman turns up outside of tribal land, which means he cannot intervene and won’t know what happened to her.

Situations like this are excruciating for O’Neal and tribal leaders, who are trying desperately to stop sexual assaults after what they say has been years of neglect by federal officials.

Thanks to casino money, the Chickasaws have one of the most well-funded, highly equipped police departments in the state. They have their own emergency command center, as well as more training and officers than most of the surrounding sheriff’s departments.

What they don’t have, however, is the power to arrest the men raping women on Chickasaw land.

The Complicated Laws on Indian Land

At a gas station just outside Ada, Okla., O’Neal stood next to the ice machine as he tried to explain the intricacies of the law on Indian land.

Beneath the gas pumps and mini-mart is land that has belonged to the Chickasaw people for more than a century.

If a Native American man walks into the mini-mart and steals a carton of cigarettes, O’Neal can arrest him. If a non-native man commits the same crime, O’Neal would let him go and forward a report to the U.S. attorney’s office.

When asked what happens to those reports, O’Neal replied, “Well, I really couldn’t tell you. I don’t think I’ve ever been called back on one of them.”

Tribal police cannot charge non-Indians with a crime on tribal land — only the U.S. attorney’s Office can. Tribal leaders say that in too many cases, no charges are filed at all.

But for O’Neal, the layout of the land itself is a problem. Indian land in Oklahoma is a patchwork quilt. The gas station, for example, is tribal land, but the highway that runs adjacent to it belongs to the state. Across the street is the entrance to town, and the building next door is not tribal property.

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