Tribal Justice and the Shutdown


The Navajo Nation Council in Window Rock

America’s Indian reservations managed to escape the worst impact of this month's government shutdown—but largely because the crisis ended before a prolonged shortfall of funds might have strained the administration of justice in what are some of the country's highest crime areas.

The majority of reservations are policed by federally trained Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) officers or tribal police, such as on the sprawling, 27,425-square-mile Navajo Reservation which is roughly the size of the state of West Virginia.

Although many services such as home health care for the disabled and elderly, foster care payments, nutrition programs, and daycare were suspended, services such as fire and police coverage were deemed essential—and therefore escaped the effects of a shutdown that left thousands of federal employees furloughed or working without pay.

Violent crime on reservations is two and a half times the national average, with women a prime target. America's reservations are among the poorest areas of the country, with unemployment hovering at 70 percent or more, and chronic problems of alcohol abuse.

That adds a huge burden to tribal justice providers.

For example, just 210 tribal officers protect the more than 100,000 residents of the Navajo Nation, which spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.

They were able to continue working because there was enough money in their coffers to last a month.

Waiting for January

But officials in Window Rock, Ariz., the capital of the Navajo Nation, which receives two-thirds of its tribal budget from the federal government, concede that—with a new set of congressional negotiations on continuing federal funding expected to begin early next year— they may not be as fortunate the next time.

The daily challenges of policing vast tribal lands, which can make a single officer responsible for 70 square miles, are forbidding. On good days, response times are not always defined in minutes—but sometimes in hours or even the following day, depending on the volume or complexity of the previous call.

In surrounding states, where there is already a shortage of law enforcement for non-reservation land, a long-term shutdown could have had major consequences.

The small group of tribally funded officers who compliment the 666-officer Bureau of Indian Affairs police force were hit hard, According to published reports, the Crow Tribe in Montana, the fifth largest reservation in the country, had to furlough its 10 police officers.

Like some other native groups, , the Crow rely on their natural resources to supplement federal funding . The shutdown prevented them from accessing royalties from the tribally operated coal mine, because it comes under federal management.

“It’s our money but we can’t get to it,” said Darrin Old Coyote, chairman of the Crow Tribe told Reuters. “We’re treated as the stepchild of the U.S. government.”

Nevertheless, some tribal officials insisted they were prepared to cope.

“We have a federal obligation to protect the residents of this agency,” said Jose Figueroa, chief of police for the BIA police department on the Crow Reservation.

One area that is a perpetual concern in and around reservations is the astronomical incidence of domestic violence. Native American women are raped four times the national average and 10 times more likely to be murdered.

Sgt. Terry John of the Navajo Nation Police Department said he was relieved that the domestic violence services on the reservation were spared from any cuts or discontinued services since budgeted funds had already been allocated.

“The Indian Health Service on the reservation was hit hard but not the domestic violence services,” he said.

Saving Lives

The Battered Family Services in Gallup, N.M., affectionately called “The Indian Capital of the World,” because of its proximity to the Navajo and Hopi Reservations and the Zuni Pueblo has literally been a life-saver for women and their children who have been put in dangerous situations by a spouse or partner.

Although they have been sweating budget cuts from the state of New Mexico and federal government over the past five years, Executive Director Michelle Touhey said they have not had to reduce services—so far.

“I have spoken to the agents who handle our federal grants and they say we will be receiving them on time, which is typically at the end of the month—but who knows about next month?” Touhey cautioned.

In Phoenix, AZ, the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence was ecstatic in June when Gov. Jan Brewer approved a budget that called for a substantial increase in funding for Child Protective Services (CPS) workers, foster care and other CPS spending, primarily in response to a 32 percent increase in abuse reports statewide since 2009, and a 40 percent increase in the number of children in out-of-home care.

“Tribal area domestic violence providers throughout the country rely more heavily on federal funding because they don't receive state monies, though some tribal area governments do provide funds for these services,” said Jessye Johnson, deputy director of the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

“It varies from tribe to tribe, but without federal funding, they are in jeopardy.”

America’s Indian reservations are typically a compartmentalized out- of- sight, out-of-mind component of the federal government. So it was perhaps not surprising that the machinery of justice on Indian lands avoided Washington's budget crisis.

But next time, “Indian Country” may not be as lucky— especially on the Pine Ridge Reservation of the Oglala Lakota Nation in South Dakota, where the violent crime rate is among the highest in the nation, especially crimes against women.

14 Police Jobs Cut

Following the first sequester in March, the police department here lost 14 personnel with more looming— heightening the anxiety of an already depressed community that has an unemployment rate of at least 85 percent.

Just two people now staff the tribal Victim Services program, which serves a population of 40,000 in an area the size of Connecticut . But program director has already seen her budget plummet.

“We get our funding from the Family Violent Protection Act through the Department of Health and Human Services,” said program director Elizabeth Kingi.

“It's hard enough doing this job where one in three women are attacked, with our limited resources but if we have to go through this again in January I don't know what we are going to do.”

Kingi fields no less than 10 calls per day to provide protection and shelter for women and children, meeting women in emergency room, and transporting them to court and shelters.

She said the reservation has no actual shelter; rather women needing immediate shelter are sent to safe homes where families agree to take them in, or to local motels.

“If a woman needs to go to a long term shelter we drive them to Rapid City, S.D., about 100 miles away,” she said.

It's what may happen in January that truly concerns Kingi.

That's when winters are especially brutal, and people who are confined to ramshackle living conditions erupt in violence when it is fueled by alcohol.

“If we go through a shutdown again in January it's going to affect everyone here,” Kingi says.

“If a woman is sexually assaulted we may not even have a criminal investigator see her in the emergency room.”

Joseph J. Kolb is an instructor in the Criminal Justice program at Western New Mexico University. He welcomes comments from readers.

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