Silent Scourge

Scores of Native American women in Minnesota are being victimized—but few offenders are being punished

Before she was 15, Lisa Brunner had been sexually assaulted—twice.

The first attack, by her best friend’s older brother, happened when she was 14. Then, at age 15, Brunner was walking at night in Bagley, Minnesota, when she was assaulted by a boy she knew from school; he forced her to the ground and raped her in the yard of a nearby home.

Brunner never sought help after the assaults: not from police, not from a doctor or counselor, not even from her family. “I never spoke to anybody other than the close friends I had,” says the Ojibwe woman, now 35. Growing up on and around the White Earth Indian Reservation in north-central Minnesota, she had learned that such things weren’t discussed. “I knew then that you didn’t do anything,” she says.

Brunner now works for the Community Resource Alliance, a nonprofit in Callaway dedicated to “reclaiming the sacredness of Native women,” a task that has been painfully difficult in recent years. And though it’s been two decades since she was assaulted, Brunner’s story remains a depressingly familiar one. Even today, thanks to a maddening mix of forces—cultural attitudes, a lack of resources, and a patchwork legal system—justice for most victims of sexual assault on the White Earth reservation remains elusive.

At one time, sexual violence against women was almost unheard of in Native American culture. When white settlers arrived in America, “the role of women in our society was that of life-giver,” says Andrew Favorite, a White Earth reservation historian who teaches Native American studies at White Earth Tribal and Community College in Mahnomen. Women were sacred—and treated as such. Among the Ojibwe, punishment for rape was severe: death or banishment. “The type of violence we have today, it didn’t happen,” says Brunner.

As Europeans colonized North America and assimilated native tribes, however, women’s role in the culture changed, a shift that would later become exacerbated by the poverty and social conditions encountered on many reservations. “Women were no longer revered,” Brunner says. “They were objects.”

Today, violence toward Native American women—whether sexual or domestic—is so prevalent that it stretches credulity. The numbers are staggering. According to a report issued last year by Amnesty International, one-third of American Indian women will be raped at some point in their lives, a rate that is double that of white women. Native American women face the highest rate of violence of any racial or ethnic group in the United States. And among young native women, the third leading cause of death is homicide.

On White Earth, the largest reservation in Minnesota, those numbers may be even higher. Loretta Gjerde, coordinator for Down on Violence Everyday (DOVE)—a program that deals with victims of domestic and sexual assault on the reservation—speculates that as many as half the Native American women on White Earth will be raped in their lifetime. “You hear about it out in the community, but nobody will come forward to report it,” she says.

Part of that reluctance to come forward, says Ben Bement, assistant human services director for White Earth, is due to the culture in tight-knit reservation communities. Historically, it was seen as shameful to admit to being raped. “Native Americans want to keep things more quiet and to ourselves,” says Bement, who is Native American. If someone reports a sexual assault, everyone in the community knows. “It becomes everybody’s business,” he says.

The shame among victims is often more pronounced when the rapist is a husband, boyfriend, or relative. Bement once dealt with a mother whose uncle was molesting her 10-year-old daughter. The mother didn’t plan to prosecute; she was resigned to letting her daughter live through it—just as she had herself.

Among many victims on White Earth, there is also a lack of trust of law enforcement. “There’s a lot of non­reporting problems,” says White Earth acting police chief Mike LaRoque. “They think nothing’s gonna be done.”

Such fears are not without justification. Tribal police forces are often underfunded and undermanned. Though White Earth covers more than 1,000 square miles, the reservation has no jail facility. Until relatively recently, officers could make arrests, but they had no place where suspects could be held until matters are resolved.

Over the years, the tribe has also clashed with local county officials over issues of jurisdiction, leading to confusion and a lack of confidence among victims that justice would be done.

LaRoque admits that rape victims often get frustrated with the system. “They don’t understand that the police are strapped by laws that we have to follow,” he says. “We don’t have the evidence right then and there.” It doesn’t help that when victims do come forward, they feel they are being punished, he says, since they must go through the process of giving a statement, undergoing DNA tests, and, if a case is prosecuted, testifying against the attacker.

Even when a woman does come forward, it can be an uphill battle to secure a conviction against an offender. In Mahnomen County, which, with portions of Clearwater and Becker counties, comprises the White Earth reservation, Sheriff Doug Krier says that authorities following up on reports of rapes often have difficulty determining what actually happened. Because of this, only half of all sexual-assault investigations result in prosecution—a statistic that is in line with national averages for rape cases. “It comes down to ‘he said/she said,’ and you got two people who, hypothetically, have no history and good standings in the community,” Krier says. “It’s kind of like, okay, now who, where, what are you believing?”

Many sexual-assault cases on the White Earth reservation are obscured amid charges of domestic assault. “It’s a lot easier to say, ‘Yeah, I was hit,’” than to say you’ve been raped, says Mahnomen County Attorney Julie Bruggeman.

Often, rape comes to light only after domestic-abuse charges are filed and prosecution is well underway. And if the offender has already pled guilty or been convicted of domestic assault, it’s too late for prosecutors to add sexual-assault charges to the complaint. “If it happened on the same incident as the assault, we can’t go back and charge it out again,” Bruggeman says. “If a domestic assault and a sexual assault happen on one day, we have to know right away.”

Bruggeman says that most of the sexual assaults she prosecutes involve Native American women who are reluctant to talk about sexual assault: “That’s the way the culture is, you know, especially on the reservations.”

Neither Bruggeman nor Krier regularly ask victims in domestic-violence cases if they have also been victims of a sexual assault, however. “We can’t put words in their mouth,” says Krier. (Bruggeman did not respond to phone calls and e-mails seeking further comment on the matter. )

The bottom line is that “probably 1 percent of the sexual crimes go to court” in White Earth, says Bement. “A lot of it plea-bargains out. A lot of it is dropped down to a misdemeanor or never goes to a conviction because of lack of evidence.”

It also means that those who have gotten away with sexual assault assume that they aren’t likely to get caught if they do it again. “Rapists, predators—they are not stupid,” Brunner says. “They know that on our reservation, they could rape with impunity because nobody is going to hold them responsible for it. We can’t touch ’em.”

The Community Resource Alliance, where Lisa Brunner works, is housed in a former schoolhouse. In one of the classrooms, 10 life-size silhouettes stand in a mostly empty classroom. The wooden cutouts are painted red, and they represent the Native American women from White Earth who have died over the last five years because of domestic or sexual violence.

On six of the cutouts, gold plaques are inscribed with the stories of the women they symbolize: One of the victims was 14 when her 21-year-old cousin took her to the woods to rape and kill her. Another woman, Frankie, was shot four times by an ex-boyfriend, who was upset after she broke up with him. Yet another women was beaten so badly by her assailant that she was unrecognizable to her own children—who later had to make the decision to take her off life support.

Four other silhouettes in the room have no plaques. They are unidentified, stand-ins for the victims who don’t come forward, who can’t come forward, who remain silent, who are missing. They hint at the stories that have yet to be told.

Lee Morris is a reporter for the Fargo Forum.