As a judge for the Spirit Lake Nation and the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe and a new resident on southwestern North Dakota, I’m witnessing a frightening trend in Indian country. The oil boom is harming Native communities far beyond the Bakken.
Impoverished reservations are flooded with cash thanks to lease money distributed to land beneficiaries on the Fort Berthold Reservation and their descendants living in outlying Native communities.
Western society would tell us that this influx of money should solve all our problems. Native communities in the Dakotas are plagued with extreme poverty and financial support is desperately needed, but on the whole the dirty money spewing from oil wells and flowing onto local reservations is not being invested. It’s not being used to build new roads or schools, to start businesses or to fund vital language-revitalization projects. Instead, it’s going to individual tribal members—some of whom suffer from mental illness and addiction, or simply never learned how to handle large sums of cash. They’re blowing through thousands of dollars a day.
They may be homeless, but they throw parties that end with them being broke after they pass out and get rolled by relatives. A brand-new vehicle is bought and totaled within a week. What could amount to millions received over a short period of time provides no guarantee that the beneficiary’s own children will have their basic needs met. Even worse, predatory outsiders happily take advantage of the situation and reservations do not currently have the infrastructure in place to combat the looming, inevitable crime wave. Tribal law enforcement and courts don’t hold the necessary jurisdiction to keep out, to incarcerate and to punish these outsiders who bring poison and disease into our traditional homelands.
Everyone knows everyone on the Rez, so newcomers stick out. Elders come to me pleading for help—afraid of these dangerous non-Natives from the city. Easily recognizable, they wear flashy clothing and drive high-end vehicles. They sell illicit drugs in the community and when tribal members owe them money, the drug dealers hunt them down on tribal lands, follow them into tribal businesses, and drive onto trust land to threaten their family members. According to reports, tribal police are hesitant to interact with these men. As a judge I wish I could do more to help, other than to call the Feds. We are sovereign nations and should be able to protect our own.
Some of the outsiders coming onto our reservations are pimps and sex offenders. Sexual violence against Native women is already an epidemic. One Native woman in three is sexually assaulted in her lifetime, and although it’s seldom discussed, sex trafficking has been a problem in the Dakotas for years. The oil boom has amplified it. Native women and girls who fall between the cracks are lured by men into sex work, or even sold by male relatives.
Thankfully, Senators Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Jon Tester (D-MT) have called attention to sex trafficking and taken action to combat it, but prevention can’t happen soon enough. As camps brought by Big Oil spring up on treaty lands, we’ll see more sexual violence perpetrated against Native women. The reauthorized Violence against Women Act, which includes provisions for Natives, will assist tribes in fighting domestic abuse and sex crimes, but it doesn’t take full effect until March 7, 2015. Tribes cannot prosecute non-Indian abusers until that date and even then participation is not mandatory.
The Department of Justice’s Office on Violence against Women recently announced the release of three million dollars in grants to aid VAWA with Native provisions. That is seed money, but it won’t be enough, especially if the Keystone XL pipeline is implemented. South Dakota legislators must step up to the plate for Native women and take a strong stance in support of fighting sex trafficking in their state. Sen. Heitkamp (D-ND), Sen. Tester (D-MT), and Sen. Thune (R-SD) should all be questioned as to how they justify backing the Transcanada Keystone XL pipeline when it’s implementation will only make sex trafficking throughout the Northern Plains worse.
Politicians talk out of both sides of their mouths all the time, but that doesn’t mean Natives can’t call them on it and use our voting power to influence their decisions. As the Bakken oil boom peaks and fades, we will continue to see a rise in crime, in substance abuse, in sex trafficking, and in violence against Native women. We must act now to protect Native communities, and work toward educating tribal members on finance management. Above all, we must remember that no amount of money is worth the lives of our sisters.
Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton and Mdewakanton Dakota, Hunkpapa Lakota) is an author, blogger, biologist, activist, judge, columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network, and founding writer with Lastrealindians.com.