Erin Shanley, Cheyenne River Sioux, was sworn in as Special Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe on March 4. Her appointment by U.S. Attorney Brendan V. Johnson came as a result of a 2012 Memorandum of Understanding between the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the U.S. Attorneys' Offices for the District of South Dakota and the District of North Dakota.
The MOU authorized the hiring of a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney specifically to prosecute violence against women cases, including domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking, committed within the exterior boundaries of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe reservation. In her new position, Shanley has the authority to prosecute those cases in federal court in both South Dakota and North Dakota, as well as in Standing Rock Tribal Court.
Shanley recently took the time to answer some questions e-mailed by Indian Country Today Media Network.
Could you say a little about your background?
My mom’s side of the family is from Standing Rock and my dad is from Fort Peck. But my grandma, Thelma Claymore Luger, is from Cheyenne River and that is where I am enrolled.
Were you raised on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation?
No. I was mostly raised in Grand Forks, North Dakota, but also lived in Poplar, Montana.
Where did you go to high school and college?
I went to high school in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and I went to undergrad at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island and law school at the University of Montana in Missoula.
At what point did you decide to become an attorney?
I decided I wanted to become an attorney when I worked for Ryan Rusche, the Tribal Attorney for the Fort Peck Tribes in Poplar, Montana. He is an extremely brilliant lawyer, a great mentor, and a zealous tribal advocate.
What professional positions did you hold before being appointed Special Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe?
Before taking this position at Standing Rock, I was an Assistant Prosecutor for the Pascua Yaqui Tribe in Tucson, Arizona. Before that, I was a public defender for the Fort Peck Tribes in Poplar, Montana.
How do cases get to your desk? Do you oversee the collection of evidence?
Most of our cases are first handled by the [Bureau of Indian Affairs] police and then later investigated by either BIA Criminal Investigators and/or FBI depending on the circumstances. I work with all three. Sometimes cases are completely investigated by the time I receive them and sometimes they are not. When a person is arrested immediately after or during an incident, then an initial police report and complaint will be submitted to the Tribal Prosecutor’s Office. I will file charges and there will most likely be a follow-up investigation. In serious cases involving bodily injury or physical evidence, the officers and sometimes BIA Criminal Investigators or FBI will follow up with witnesses, obtain medical records, and submit physical evidence to the crime lab. I can take witness statements, but usually that is done by the officers or investigators.
How is the decision on whether to prosecute the case in tribal or federal court made?
Well, generally charges will be filed first in tribal court, particularly if the defendant is in custody. Subsequent charges may also be filed in federal court under the habitual offender statute, if the defendant has two prior convictions for domestic abuse in either tribal or state court. Furthermore, if the incident involved the use of a dangerous weapon or resulted in serious bodily injury, federal charges will most likely be pursued.
What are the limits of your jurisdiction?
I handle all domestic violence crimes committed by Indians within the exterior boundaries of the reservation, regardless of the specific designation. Hopefully, if Standing Rock is able to participate in the pilot project under the Violence Against Women Act, I will also be handling non-Indian offenders. [The 3,600-square-mile reservation includes tribal-owned, tribal-owned allotted and non-Indian-owned land; approximately 14,200 tribal members live on the reservation.]
What are your thoughts on the reauthorized Violence Against Women Act signed by President Barack Obama earlier this month?
I am very excited about the reauthorization, particularly the extension of inherent tribal jurisdiction over non-Indian perpetrators of domestic violence and the amendments to broaden the federal assault statute, increase penalties, and add a provision on strangulation.
My understanding is that the MOU between the tribe and the Department of Justice for your position is unique within DOJ. Why did the SRST ask for a special tribal prosecutor to deal with violence against women?
Domestic violence is a major criminal justice and public health concern here on the Standing Rock Reservation for a variety of reasons. The tribal leaders from Standing Rock determined that they will no longer tolerate violence against women and one way to address the issues was to take a firm stance on the investigation and prosecution of these cases in tribal and federal court.
Do you have any statistics on the incidence of these crimes on the reservation?
The annual caseload for the SRST is approximately 2,000 to 3,000 cases per year, of which approximately 200 to 300 involve offenses against women and children. In 2012, the Standing Rock Tribal Court handled 78 domestic violence cases. Since I started working here in January of this year, I have charged 59 domestic abuse cases. This number is quite alarming, especially when considering the fact that domestic violence cases are one of the most chronically underreported crimes overall.
Is the issue one with which you have had personal experience?
Unfortunately, I have personally witnessed family members and friends experience domestic violence, both physical and emotional, and I have also seen the devastating affect it has on children.
Shanley works out of the Office of the Prosecutor, Standing Rock Tribal Court in Fort Yates, North Dakota, which is the administrative center of the Standing Rock Reservation. The tribal government, tribal court, and many other tribal programs are located there. Her position is funded by a three-year grant from the U.S. Justice Department's Office on Violence Against Women.