A New York Times article published today, “A Tribe’s Epidemic of Child Sex Abuse, Minimized for Years,” exposes the devastating prevalence of child sex abuse and rape on the Fort Totten Reservation in North Dakota and the alleged efforts of tribal leadership to hide the abuse.
The article comes shortly after a U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) announcement that the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) will take over the Spirit Lake Dakota Nation’s social services system, including the care of its sexually abused children, on October 1.
The tribe’s decision to “voluntarily retrocede its social services program” to the BIA, according to a DOI press release, was reached after years of insufficient efforts by tribal and government law enforcement officials to properly investigate cases of child sex abuse and rape, and failure to prosecute offenders.
The Times article identifies several convicted rapists, most of them repeat perpetrators, who remain free and some of them still in custody of children. Among them: Joseph Alberts, 59, who plays Santa Claus for the tribe. Convicted of rape in 1983, Alberts served 18 months in prison. In 1986, he was found guilty of committing lewd acts with a child under 14 on four different occasions. For those crimes, he served only one year.
Molly McDonald, who was a tribal judge until March, told the Times that police investigated sex crimes against children only if a victim requested hospitalization, and tribal leaders often attempted to influence judges’ opinions improperly.
While there is no defense of any tribal neglect to protect the Spirit Lake children, relinquishing power to the federal government may not be the best answer, says Raymond Foxworth (Navajo), in an Indian Country Today Media Network op-ed.
Foxworth underscores the irony of putting power in the hands of those who “have historically initiated purposeful acts of abuse and neglect against Native children….”
He references the personal and cultural destruction inflicted in boarding schools and government homes, and the resulting historical trauma “that is still alive and well in Native communities and continues to manifest itself in many destructive ways.”
Foxworth explains that “forcing the Spirit Lake Nation into receivership, stripped of their self-determination contracts” may not be a good solution or in the best interest of Spirit Lake children. “Thus, this raises the question: Who will speak for Native children?” he asks.
“Children are the ones that carry on our traditions, knowledge and are the future of our nations,” Foxworth says. “Until we put them at the forefront of our discussions and agenda, they may be vulnerable to several levels of government abuse and neglect and may be the catalyst to force Native receivership.”