On February 14, 2014 President Obama began the White House initiative to bring peace to the justice practices of American communities which he named “My Brother’s Keeper.” Today, this initiative continues to address the disparate treatment of African-Americans in America with relation to policing in cities, towns and municipalities throughout the country. “Black Lives Matter,” a movement by the black communities and their supporters, has become a wake-up call for the Department of Justice (DOJ) to deal with the disparity in an “in your face” movement throughout the country.
How does this affect American Indians and why should we get involved in this movement? There are a few reasons why this should be a wake-up call for the disparate treatment of all peoples of color.
There is no doubt that unsolved murders in Indian Country has been an issue since before Anna Mae Pictou Aquash’s hands were severed from her deceased body and mailed to Washington, D.C. for fingerprint identification by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) in 1976. Aquash’s murder was not brought to justice until the new millennium and finalized with the last prosecution taking place in 2008.
In 2001 on the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians Reservation near the Canadian border in Belcourt, North Dakota, George Jeanotte, a Native American male Vietnam Veteran was murdered and to this day, no one has been charged with his murder despite the family of Jeanotte’s pleas to find his killer. The FBI charged the local law enforcement in Belcourt to investigate the local murder, placing a Special Agent located on the reservation in charge of the investigation, which yielded no results in finding the killer of George Jeanotte. Instead of taking a direct approach, the FBI delegated responsibilities to local agents who were unable to solve the crime. To this day, no suspects, only rumors surround the mystery of Jeanotte’s disappearance and the discovery of his remains in a local body of water nearly a year and a half after he went missing.
The differences of the treatment of American Indian cases off of the reservation do not yield any other satisfactory results. In Grand Forks, North Dakota, a young American Indian man, Russell Turcotte, went missing in 2002. Dru Sjodin, a University of North Dakota student, was abducted in 2003 and immediately the Grand Forks community went on high alert to find the young, beautiful, white woman and subsequently to find her abductor who now sits on death row. The police placed bulletin alerts all over the region, search parties sponsored by the police and the UND Campus drove bus loads out to remote locations along the North Dakota – Minnesota border. Russell Turcotte’s family was told they could not hang missing flyers on campus for him due to “policy.” The Turcotte family was not given the same accord as the Sjodin family and does not hold them responsible for the local community’s response to their missing son and wishes that they had been given the same immediate alerts. Grand Forks Police officials cited it was “his lifestyle” that polarized the cases.
Considering that the Bureau of Justice Statistics have not released a report since 1999, there are few and far between moments in DOJ history that surmount to any sort of reformation in the way of diversity, this narrow moment in history is one to join the bandwagon on. DOJ is taking note – sending people – to Baltimore to look into the investigation of the recent riots surrounding the death of Freddie Gray. The death of this one man will surmount to action being taken.
Of course, Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative will take a lead role in this effort up until the Election of 2016 is over. That is why this moment in time, with a black leader who has listened to the needs of diverse people, including taking this commentator’s State of the Native American Report for Barack Obama, Presidential Candidate from the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate’s Vice-President in Sioux Falls, South Dakota during his campaign for Presidency, meaning his outreach at that one moment in time makes it monumental that he stood for Change during that time and if he truly means it, “My Brother’s Keeper” will not only mean that we are reminded of New Jack City and only the black communities will see change as a result of this new Civil Rights movement of accountability, but will mean that it opens the door, once again, for another type of American Indian movement of the contemporary type.
Websites such as LastRealIndians.com are so important in getting the word out on our issues with justice in Indian Country.
It is time, again, for us to band together to suggest ways to improve Indian Country justice at every level. More funding for officers, training for officers, tribal court systems, law enforcement enhancing, will only complete the attempts begun by the passage of the Tribal Law and Order Act.
The surge of political power is upon the American Indian community. The power horse that is the 2016 Election is a time of reflection and to suggest change. The days of western justice are no longer relevant when American Indian Tribes and Alaskan Tribes and Villages are strapped for money to keep communities safe There are trained American Indian law enforcement officials who are not afraid to say “we need help” with the investigation of an American Indian on the reservation. It is often said that a great doctor or lawyer is not afraid to admit when they are out of their expert area and need to consult. Now is the time for American Indian officials to approach the DOJ and be a visible part of the changes coming from yet another chapter in the Civil Rights chapter of American History.
Cornel West, well authored Civil Rights commentator says “Those who have never despaired have neither lived nor loved. Hope is inseparable from despair. Those of us who truly hope make despair a constant companion whom we out-wrestle every day owing to our commitment to justice, love, and hope.”
Monique Vondall-Rieke is a private practicing Tribal Advocate/Attorney who generally practices in the Turtle Mountain Tribal Court Jurisdiction. Ms. Vondall-Rieke served as an appellate justice for four years for the Turtle Mountain Tribal Court of Appeals.