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Native Americans Overrepresented in Prison; Problems with Tribal Police Cited

The Trail of Tears lives on. It still winds its way through dilapidated Native American villages on reservations across the United States that are impoverished, starved of resources and pockmarked by dysfunction and discrimination.

Almost two centuries after indigenous Americans were uprooted from their tribal lands and driven west, the Trail now leads to places like the Rosebud Sioux reservation in Todd County, South Dakota – a vast grassland that covers hundreds of miles, where the tribe sees too many of its members end up in prison.

“I think every family on this reservation has [a relative] in prison,” Rose Bear Robe, 56, a member of the Rosebud Sioux, told CNN in an August 2012 special report. “It’s beginning to be normal now, when people used to be ashamed of it.”

While the U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t provide firm numbers on the Native American population, grouping “American Indian” and “Alaska Native” into one category, 8.9% of South Dakota’s population was reported to be Native American. Yet according to the state’s Department of Corrections, Native Americans represented 29% of South Dakota’s prison population and 38% of its juvenile offenders in 2011.

In Montana, the Native American population is about 7%, but 19% of the state’s male prison population and 33% of its female prison population is Native American. While in Minnesota, the latest Census numbers indicate that 1.3% of the state’s residents are Native American; in January 2012, the Minnesota DOC reported that 9% of its prisoners were “American Indian.”

These disparities and the high rate of incarceration for Native Americans are troubling to all tribes, including the Rosebud Sioux.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” said Rose Bear Robe, who is raising her 4-year-old grandson while his father is incarcerated. “But the kids really suffer because of their fathers being in prison.”

Over-representation among prison populations exists with other racial and ethnic demographics, including blacks and Hispanics. But Native Americans, who represent just 2% of the overall U.S. population, have reasons to believe that the criminal justice system – especially outside of tribal courts – is overly punitive towards them.

“Tribes and tribal people often feel they’re discriminated against,” said John Dossett, general counsel to the National Congress of American Indians. “Someone will leave the reservation, go to town, get drunk, do something dumb and if a white kid had done it, they’d call their parents and take them home. But if it’s some strange Native kid, they’ll put them in jail.” He noted that tribal members wanted to find other ways besides prison to deal with what he termed “social dysfunction.”

Marc Mauer, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project, said the disparity is partly explained by higher crime rates on reservations. But since major crimes and most felonies committed on tribal land are prosecuted in the federal court system, and crimes involving Native Americans committed off reservations are prosecuted in state courts, he thinks racial bias may be involved.

Poverty rates on the Rosebud Sioux reservation are also a contributing factor. Nearly half the people in Todd County – the second-poorest county in the U.S. – live under the federal poverty line. Unemployment within the tribe is over 80%. The connection between race and poverty has been well documented by sociologists, and Mauer believes those factors also have an impact on incarceration rates.

“A lot of factors go into this,” he said. “But still we see a lot of very direct racial outcomes even in the theoretically race-neutral court system.”

The federal government’s response to this issue has been to give money to tribal authorities – to build more jails. [See: PLN, April 2010, p.28; Dec. 2008, p.43]. Some Native American-owned companies have even cashed in on federal funding by acting as fronts to obtain lucrative U.S. Department of Homeland Security contracts to operate immigration detention facilities, which they then subcontract to other companies. [See: PLN, Nov. 2010, p.38].

Bear Robe and other tribal members who spoke with CNN, including a former Rosebud Sioux police officer, also blame the culture of tribal police agencies for higher incarceration rates for Native Americans.

“They use the word around here, ‘target,’” Bear Robe stated. “They target individuals so the cops will go after them.”

One tribal member who was targeted, according to Bear Robe, was her son, Eric King, who is serving a 20-year sentence after pleading guilty to biting his then-pregnant girlfriend in 2007 and assaulting a tribal police officer who responded. But it was the officer who targeted her family and attacked King, Bear Robe said.

According to Bear Robe and a Rosebud Sioux Tribal Council member who visited King in jail after his arrest, King suffered a black eye, bruises, a cut lip and possibly a broken rib during the incident.

The officer was later terminated from the tribal police department, though police officials wouldn’t disclose why he was fired or if he had a personal issue with King. Another officer, who was fired several weeks before CNN began investigating, said personal vendettas certainly existed within the tribal police force. He also claimed he was fired because he began blowing the whistle on cases of police brutality and civil rights and due process violations.

“You’re talking [about] ... spraying handcuffed suspects with pepper spray,” said Calvin “Hawkeye” Waln, the ex-tribal police officer. “Physical police brutality where the officers end up injuring or breaking bones themselves from assaulting somebody.”

There is no question that misconduct involving tribal police officers sometimes occurs. On June 27, 2011, former Rosebud police officer Justin Arthur Beardt, 28, was indicted in federal court on charges of sexual abuse and aggravated sexual abuse, following an investigation by Rosebud Sioux Tribe Law Enforcement Services and the FBI. Beardt pleaded guilty and was sentenced in January 2013 to 132 months in federal prison and five years of supervised release.

An article in the Sicangu Sun Times stated that Rosebud Tribal Police Chief Grace Her Many Horses, at a 2011 Tribal Council meeting, “reported that two police officers were being investigated by Bureau of Indian Affairs Internal Affairs. According to a source familiar with the investigations, a total of five officers were actually under investigation.”

And in the past four years the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Council, which is semi-autonomous, has fired two police chiefs who were under investigation for corruption, including Her Many Horses. When CNN was on the reservation for its special report, it interviewed then-acting police chief Edwin Young, who denied Bear Robe’s and Waln’s allegations.
“I don’t see the corruption,” he stated, adding that some accusations against the tribal police force are “just a misunderstanding or misinformation.” Young, who is from the reservation and has been with the Rosebud police department for 16 years, admitted that the police files prior to two years ago, including those related to King’s case, are now missing or have been destroyed.

“I have no idea what happened to those files. That was the previous administration, the previous police chief,” he said. “And all those, those are gone now ... somehow they destroyed all the paperwork.”

In July 2012, Rosebud Sioux Tribal President Rodney Bordeaux reinstated Her Many Horses as police chief after she had been dismissed 51 days earlier by the Tribal Council due to corruption allegations, including claims that police officers under her command had harassed tribal members and violated their civil rights.

“I would like to change the image of the Rosebud Police Department to a more positive one but this is a challenge because we are not here to be your best friend but we do have to protect you,” Her Many Horses said when she was hired in 2010.

Following her reinstatement, she declined to be interviewed for CNN’s report.


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