Native American Rape Survivors Tell How Deck Is Stacked Against Them
WHITE EARTH RESERVATION, Minn.—Candice (not her real name) awoke with a start. Someone was pulling down her sweatpants. It was a male friend.
“Stop!” she shouted.
He kept groping her. She kicked him and he fell off the bed. She dashed out of the bedroom, tripping and tumbling down the stairs. Gripped with fear, she heard his footsteps behind her in the dark and forced herself to stand upright as she staggered out to the porch.
Candice was still intoxicated. She got into her car and drove into a ditch. A white police officer pulled up. She struggled to hold back tears as she told him about the attempted rape.
All the officer saw was a drunk and disorderly Native American woman. He dismissed Candice’s report of sexual assault as a lie she had made up to avoid getting a DUI. He did not take her to the hospital for a forensic exam. The sexual assault was not recorded in his police report.
“The cops didn’t do anything,” Candice said as she recalled the 2008 sexual assault. “What’s the use of even saying anything?”
Candice, 43, had been sexually assaulted on four separate occasions. Her first perpetrator was a family member who molested her behind some trees by a lake when she was 5 years old. She doesn’t remember whether he was arrested. The next three perpetrators were not arrested. Two of Candice’s three daughters have also been raped. Their perpetrators were never arrested.
The Department of Justice estimates that one in three Native American women reports having been sexually assaulted during her lifetime. They are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual violence than women of any other ethnicity in the U.S.
Candice’s repeated encounters with sexual violence are part of what Native American women call an epidemic of sexual assault on reservations.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the White Earth Indian Reservation has a population of 5,044. Twenty-four rapes were recorded in 2015 from the region; 13 in 2014; 12 in 2013; 15 in 2012; and 17 in 2011.
The Mahnomen County Sheriff’s Office recorded no rapes in 2010 and 2013, even though the county consists entirely of White Earth Indian Reservation land.
Rape survivors say these statistics illustrate the indifference by law enforcement to sexual assault.
Of the 28 officers in the White Earth Tribal Police Department, only four are Native American. Most are white. Predominately white police officers from the three neighboring counties—Mahnomen, Becker and Clearwater—also patrol on reservation land.
White Earth Indian Reservation sprawls over 1,300 square miles that stretch across rural northwestern Minnesota. I drive for miles on long rural roads without stoplights or streetlights. At night, the only light sources are the moon and the dancing flames in the distant fields where farmers burn weeds.
Mahnomen County has substantial farmland but very few businesses. There’s a Dollar General, a handful of diners, a Subway restaurant, the Shooting Star Casino and a company that sells John Deere tractors. The Mahnomen County jail was condemned and shut down a few years ago, forcing tribal police officers to drive four to five hours to the next nearest jail whenever those in the two neighboring counties are full.
White Earth is an important reservation to examine, because it has concurrent jurisdiction, defined as “the ability to exercise judicial review by different courts at the same time, within the same territory, and over the same subject matter.” This means White Earth, for the most part, is free from the complex jurisdictional problems that plague most other reservations.
The vast majority of state and tribal courts do not have the legal authority to prosecute serious crimes that occur on a reservation. Most criminal cases that occur on a reservation must go to the feds.
Yet the feds have a staggering backlog of cases. For example, they declined to prosecute more than 65 percent of major crime cases that originated from reservations in 2006, perpetuating an environment in which rapists and domestic violence abusers can act with impunity. This is particularly the case if the perpetrator is not a Native American. Most tribal police departments lack the legal authority to arrest a non-Native American who commits a crime on the reservation.
This is not the case on White Earth Indian Reservation. It received federal jurisdiction in 2013, which means its tribal police can arrest anyone. It also allows the three surrounding state courts to prosecute most criminal cases that originate from the reservation.
Of the nation’s 326 Indian reservations, White Earth is the first of three to receive concurrent jurisdiction.
But rape is still rampant on White Earth.
Todd Thompson’s 17-year-old Native American daughter was raped last December.
“I had trouble contacting tribal police. I don’t feel like I got much support at all, if any,” said Thompson, a 47-year-old personal care assistant on the reservation.
Although official statistics show that one in three Native American women reports having been sexually assaulted during her lifetime, Lisa Brunner, an advocate on White Earth, estimates the number is much higher.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if every woman here has been raped,” she said. “Not just once, but multiple times.” Brunner and her daughter are both survivors of sexual assault.
When I asked Candice how she dealt with the trauma of surviving four sexual assaults, she said, “The drugs numb you.”
Candice said she resorted to meth for a year to cope with her pain. Two of her daughters, also rape survivors, are currently in drug treatment.
Candice’s lined face glistens under an unseasonably hot May sun. She has a habit of rocking herself from side to side. A strand of black hair slips out of her loose bun. She rarely looks people in the eye when she speaks.
“You have a hard time trusting anyone after that. You don’t trust guys. You don’t trust family members,” she said. “You have issues, all the time.”
Her experience is in stark contrast to that of Ryan Seeger, a 28-year-old Caucasian White Earth Tribal Police sergeant. He describes situations in which he believes women “feel guilty about cheating on their boyfriends or husbands and cry rape afterward.”
Seeger admits he had a biased view of Native Americans before joining the police department.
“I didn’t grow up here. I’m not Native American at all,” Seeger said. “I grew up in DL [Detroit Lakes, Minn.]. I grew up always being told, ‘Oh don’t go to the reservation. It’s dangerous up there. If you’re driving through the res, you better lock your doors.’
“It took a little bit of getting used to, to get past the bias that I had because of the way I was raised,” he said. “In all reality … there’s plenty of people on the reservation who are good people … who work and are good to their kids and have good family lives.”
Seeger said he has gotten past his biases. But he went on to express a particularly unsympathetic view of a Native American rape victim he encountered recently at the Shooting Star Casino.
“It was kind of a weird deal. After talking with her, it turns out she’s got a boyfriend from back home. Apparently, earlier in the night she had consensual sex with another guy who is not her boyfriend. Later on in the night, she claims she got raped by this guy,” Seeger said. “She’s possibly got two different guys in her on one night. One consensual and one not. The guy that is supposedly the suspect is married. He has some kids. He has a family.”
Seeger said the alleged perpetrator and his friends were more credible than the victim.
“There’s multiple people in the room. No one heard or saw anything. We knew it happened around six. There were some friends of the suspect. They pretty much said, ‘We left the room at five. There’s no way our friend could have done it. He was literally blackout drunk and passed out hard … There’s no way he could have gotten up. There were other people sleeping in the room.’ They’re like, ‘There’s no way this happened,’ ” Seeger said.
The victim gave a highly detailed account, which is typically a sign that the victim is telling the truth, so Seeger called the county attorney to ask for a third opinion. The county attorney advised him to arrest the perpetrator, which Seeger did, reluctantly. He continues to defend him.
“It was very embarrassing for the guy too, obviously. Here’s the thing: When I look at sexual assault cases, I take them very seriously. I take the accusation very seriously. But I also take in the fact that if the accusation is false and you go ahead and make an arrest, you could potentially have really screwed over somebody’s life,” Seeger said. “Here you got a guy who is a father. Married. This girl who is, whatever, claiming she was raped by this guy. If I arrest this guy, I’m going to have to tell his wife, ‘Hey we arrested your husband for, you know.’ And apparently, this guy is really well-respected in the community. Goes to a lot of powwows. He’s really well known and really well liked. So I take all that stuff very seriously. It’s a very hard decision to make, because on one hand, this very well might have happened. On the other hand, it might not have happened and you could be screwing the guy’s life over. It’s a bad deal. We did make an arrest on the guy. Basically just because of this woman’s testimony.”
Karen Kellerhuis, a sexual assault nurse examiner who has worked in emergency rooms on White Earth Reservation for 30 years, said Seeger typifies the attitudes of both tribal and nontribal police officers, who often question the credibility of Native American women.
Kellerhuis recalls receiving a call from a Mahnomen County officer a few years ago.
“’Is there anybody up there who can help if someone was raped’?” she remembered him asking. “’I’m sure she wasn’t even raped. She’s just making it up. … Well, if you’re going to be there, go get her then.’”
Kellerhuis said that the victim was crying when she arrived at the hospital. She was extremely descriptive as she recounted the rape that occurred at a party, and she agreed to a rape examination.
Victims, Kellerhuis said, are unlikely to complete a rape examination if they are lying about sexual assault. The two- to four-hour exam is invasive and often unpleasant, involving combing and pulling pubic hair, doing swabs around the genitalia and inserting a medical camera to take pictures of genital injuries.
During that particular examination, Kellerhuis found bruises in the shape of handprints on the victim’s legs, as well as vaginal tears—a sign of forced penetration. Her face was red from apparently being slapped by the perpetrator.
Kellerhuis called the officer back and asked him to take a statement from the victim.
“’Oh, did she put on a show for you? I don’t believe her. She wasn’t even emotional with me,’” Kellerhuis remembered the officer saying. “’Are you sure she was raped?’”
“He just would not believe me,” Kellerhuis said. “And that wasn’t the first time that happened.”
Kellerhuis said the police are even more reluctant to believe male rape victims.
She recalls a teenage Native American boy with dark hair and round cheeks who was brought to the Mahnomen County Hospital emergency room in 2014. As he removed his gray sweatpants and blue T-shirt, Kellerhuis saw horizontal scratches on his body, as if someone had sliced him with a sharp object. The word “faggot” was written across his forehead in a red marker.
The perpetrator also wrote “Someone Came Here” on his stomach and drew a red arrow pointing to his penis. Then he turned over. Kellerhuis saw a second red arrow pointing to his buttocks and the words, “I was here.”
“I’m so sorry this happened to you,” she told him. “You are worth more than this.”
Though there were tears in his eyes, he sat in silence as she collected evidence and documented his anal tears.
She saw semen smeared all over his body. She found red and blond pubic hairs on his scrotum. His own hair was black. The evidence showed there were multiple perpetrators.
Yet the tribal police officer in charge of the investigation found it hard to believe that a male could be raped.
“Can you prove he didn’t do this to himself?” Kellerhuis recalled the officer asking. “Do you know whose semen it is? It could have been his own semen. He could have easily done this to himself.”
“It’s not my job to prove anything. My job is to collect evidence,” Kellerhuis said. “It’s their job to investigate. They’re not doing their jobs.
“[The teenager] didn’t know how he was going to live after this. He felt so shameful. Then, on top of that, the officer asked him if he did this to himself,” Kellerhuis said. “He asked me many times, ‘Do you think he could have done this to himself?’ ”
According to Kellerhuis, the problem isn’t limited to the police—there is a systemic bias against Native American rape victims that extends to health care providers.
Kellerhuis worked with one Native American rape victim in 2015 who agreed to a rape examination. The victim, who knew the perpetrator, gave a highly detailed account of the rape, even though she was intoxicated.
Medical providers are required to give rape victims emergency contraception pills and prophylactic antibiotics to prevent sexually transmitted infections. But according to Kellerhuis, the provider responsible for the girl’s health care refused to give the girl any preventative medicine because she was intoxicated.
Kellerhuis recalled the provider saying the assault was the victim’s “own goddamn fault” because she had been under the influence.
“They did not treat her for any [sexually transmitted infections],” Kellerhuis said. “They treated her like, ‘Oh, well. Too bad, so sad.’ ”
“The police don’t care. They act like it’s your fault,” said an elder on White Earth Reservation who wished to remain anonymous for this story. “The cavalry is still here.”
When asked about police response to violence against women, White Earth Tribal Police Chief Michael LaRoque defended his department. “Most of our officers are trained for sexual assault investigations and domestic violence investigations,” he said. “All of our officers are equipped to handle anything.”
“We also have a law enforcement liaison that works with DOVE (Down On Violence Everyday),” he added. “It’s a very successful program. They have domestic violence advocates. They have sexual assault advocates. They have a women’s shelter.”
DOVE and its law enforcement liaison both declined to comment for this story.
Native American rape victims are often reluctant to call the police or press charges because they risk violent retaliation by their attackers or the attackers’ families. Calling law enforcement is frowned upon on many reservations. There is an inclination toward “street justice.”
“They’ll beat the hell out of you for talking to the police,” said a White Earth elder who did not wish to be named because her granddaughter was raped six months ago. “They’ll break your windows. It happens all the time.”
“He threatened to kill me. He said he had guns with the serial numbers scraped off,” said Brunner, a rape survivor and advocate at White Earth. Brunner was describing an incident in which she was too afraid to call the police after her daughter was molested.
“He’d brag to me about how he used to work with drug cartels, about burying people in an Arizona desert,” she said.
According to Marvin Manypenny, a white Mahnomen County police officer raped his daughter in 2002. She had been arrested her for a misdemeanor and raped while she was in handcuffs.
She reported the rape to two departments—the Becker County Police Department and the White Earth Tribal Police Department. Manypenny said neither department followed up with her.
“We raised questions to no avail,” Manypenny said. “We’re still caught up in colonialism.”
Manypenny complained at a White Earth public forum a year later about the lack of response to Native American sexual assault victims—particularly the case if the perpetrator was an officer. The Mahnomen County Sheriff’s Office sued him for defamation.
Manypenny was charged with exposing a particular officer “to hatred, contempt, [and] ridicule,” according to court documents. But a video recording of the forum later revealed that Manypenny had not named any specific officers. The charges were dropped.
Although Manypenny had not named the officer, the Mahnomen County Sheriff’s Office knew who he had been referring to.
The office was aware of sexual assault allegations against this officer, yet he was never disciplined. He is currently a sergeant at another police department.
Manypenny believes the Mahnomen County Sheriff’s Office used the lawsuit as a scare tactic to prevent other Native Americans from speaking out about officers who rape.
“They were trying to shut our mouths,” he said.
A sense of hopelessness is rife among many Native American rape survivors.
“I actually don’t wish to relive that part of my life. … It was horrible enough as it is, and I want that shame off my mind,” Manypenny’s daughter, Danielle Manypenny, wrote to me in a Facebook message. “I don’t believe telling my story is going to do any good for anybody.”
Another former Mahnomen County deputy used his authority to regularly rape Native American women for years before getting fired. He frequently picked up victims in his police car, according to the charges. He sometimes made illegal arrests in order to do so. He was eventually charged with 11 counts of criminal sexual conduct and 29 other charges of brutality and misconduct in 1995—including bribery and unlawful use of tear gas.
Brunner said the slow accountability or complete lack thereof “laid a precedent for the current atmosphere.”
“Women in the community have expressed fear for years when it comes to calling 911, not knowing which officer will respond,” she said.
A sliver of hope has emerged as Native American advocates put their heads together to find ways to address the epidemic of violence against women.
Desiree Coyote, who advocates for victims of family violence on the Umatilla Indian Reservation in northeastern Oregon, said she recently realized that contacting police certifying agencies to hold officers accountable is an effective strategy.
When I met her in Oregon, Coyote, a stately woman with a contagious laugh, told me the Umatilla reservation also has a predominantly white tribal police department.
She recalled an incident in which one tribal officer, who often showed an insensitive attitude toward rape victims, was fired.
At the scene, there was blood on the floor. Shards of glass lay scattered on the ground. The rape victim had attempted to escape by jumping through the window. But the tribal police officer refused to take a statement from her because she was inebriated.
“He didn’t investigate. I call him ‘the lazy officer,’ ” said Coyote, who reported this incident and the officer’s other misconducts to the Oregon State Law Enforcement Academy, which certifies officers and has the ability to discipline.
To her surprise, he was eventually removed from the police department.
“People need to start asking, ‘What is the grievance policy?’ ” Coyote said, explaining that in her experience, police certifying agencies and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are typically responsive to complaints about officers. “I wish I knew about this years ago. A lot of reservations don’t know this.”
The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation is one of eight tribes that gained special jurisdiction under the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013. These tribes can exercise special jurisdiction to prosecute non-Native Americans who commit domestic assault or dating violence or who violate a protection order. It doesn’t, however, help women who were raped by non-Native American strangers.
But the reservation has implemented a number of effective new programs, including a court-ordered Batterer Intervention Program, as an alternative to incarceration.
“We help the offender change his beliefs, not only about women and the roles of different genders, but also having them engaging and reflecting on the choices they make,” Coyote said.
This has been a popular choice in the community, one that protects women from retaliation.
“Most of the time, they’re happy to find some type of help for him. The aunts, uncles, family members, are the same way,” Coyote said. “They like the person. They just don’t like the behavior.”
The Umatilla Indian Reservation has come a long way in rebuilding trust between the police department and the Native American community. Its domestic violence office has experienced a 50 percent increase in calls from the community in the last three years—not because the violence has increased, but because people are starting to trust the system.
Coyote has been sharing what she’s learned with advocates from other reservations.
In May, the Umatilla Indian Reservation hosted “Sliver of a Full Moon,” a play about jurisdictional issues on reservations, chronicling the stories of Native American sexual assault and domestic violence survivors who helped get the Violence Against Women Act reauthorized.
It was the 16th performance by an acting group that has been touring across the United States since 2013. The performers—who are from various tribes across North America—were there to learn from each others’ progress, celebrate what they have achieved and strengthen their belief that they will win more rights for Native American women.
The cast included five Native American women who retold their personal stories.
Billie Jo Rich, a survivor of domestic violence and a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, traveled from North Carolina to participate in the play. She recounted an incident in which her white ex-husband threatened to murder her in front of tribal officers.
“He said he was going to kill me, going to drown me. He once described to two police officers, in great detail, how he was going to ‘put me in the water.’ The police officers stood there and said nothing, like they didn’t hear him. They stared at their feet,” she said. “When you’re in that situation and you know no one is coming to help you. It minimizes you so much. You’re not worthy of protecting. It sends a message to the abuser: You can do whatever you want. That was the worst feeling.”
Melissa Brady, a domestic violence survivor from the Spirit Lake Tribe in North Dakota, sings to fill the silence if one of the performers breaks down crying during the play.
“We try not to cry. We don’t think we’re going to cry. But sometimes those emotions come,” Brady said. “So I sing a song.”
Brunner also plays herself in the production. She received a Bush Fellowship in 2016 to study how other indigenous communities in the U.S. and Canada protect and heal their sexual assault, domestic violence and sex-trafficking victims.
After the performance at the Umatilla reservation, she returned to White Earth with a renewed determination to protect and heal the women in her community. She performed an ancient healing ceremony in her home. Under the dappled light of a setting sun, she burned sage to cleanse herself of negative energy.
A wisp of smoke rose from the blackened sage. Her eyes rested on the row of houses outside her window. On a reservation where everyone knows everyone’s business, she knows that most women on White Earth have been raped. Many have survived multiple rapes.
Brunner fanned the smoke with an eagle feather, spreading its healing scent throughout her house and beyond, into the reservation. She was raped. Her daughter was raped. But she felt, in her bones, that her granddaughter won’t be.
Amelia Pang is an award-winning journalist, formerly with the Epoch Times.