String of deaths prompts calls for action from tribe, senators

This July 31 photo shows Sen. Steve Daines, left, Sen. Jon Tester, center, and Gov. Steve Bullock at a grand opening ceremony for the Montana Veterans Affairs Great Falls Medical Center in Great Falls, Montana. (Rion Sanders /The Great Falls Tribune via AP, File)

Kolby KickingWoman

The Northern Cheyenne’s president and two Montana congressmen are demanding more accountability from the FBI and Bureau of Indian Affairs amid a public safety crisis on the reservation

Kolby KickingWoman
Indian Country Today

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, another crisis has developed on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in southeastern Montana.

Seeking answers and help to an increase in crimes, killings and other deaths on the reservation, the tribe reached out to the state’s congressional delegation asking for assistance in holding federal agencies accountable.

“In the strongest possible terms, I plead for your help to address a public safety crisis on our Reservation which is the direct result of years of inexcusable neglect by the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” Northern Cheyenne President Rynalea Whiteman Pena wrote in a July 24 letter.

In the letter, Pena shares four areas where the bureau has failed the tribe: severely understaffed police, the closure of the local jail, lack of information sharing and the agency’s absence leading to increased crime and vigilantism.

A number of deaths over the course of recent months, including one earlier this week, prompted the state’s senators, Democrat Jon Tester and Republican Steve Daines, to write letters to the Interior Department, FBI and BIA.

Tester said he hopes the agencies give these cases the attention and resources they deserve, while also being transparent about the investigations.

“I have heard from Northern Cheyenne Tribal leadership and multiple family members regarding these recent deaths. The loss of these individuals has rippled through the community as has alarm at the growing number of cases,” Tester wrote in his letter to Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney and FBI Director Christopher Wray. “Tribal leadership and family members of the deceased have raised consistent concerns about the lack of communication from both the BIA and FBI. I urge you to work with the Northern Cheyenne Tribe to ensure family and community members continue to receive regular updates on these investigations.” 

Daines, addressing the death this week of Cory Blackwolf, said an effective solution must be found and that no more innocent lives should be lost.

“Cory was murdered in broad daylight, and his body was taken by his killers and put into a vehicle that quickly sped away,” Daines wrote, noting the crime was displayed in a Facebook video for hours before being taken down.

“These heinous acts and injustices cannot continue to happen and it is imperative that additional resources are promptly made available and you actively coordinate with the Tribe to address this crisis.”

Other recent deaths on the reservation have included Kymani Littlebird, 19, whose body was found at Crazyhead Springs in June. Lonnie Flatness, 65, a Marine Corps veteran, was killed at his Lame Deer home in July. In March, Christy Woodenthigh, 33, was killed by a vehicle, according to Pena. Hennie Scott, 14, was found frozen to death in December.

“Neither BIA nor the FBI have shared with us the results of the investigations of these fatalities,” Pena wrote in the letter to Montana’s congressional delegation.

Sandra Yi Barker, spokeswoman for the Salt Lake City FBI field office, confirmed the FBI and the BIA are jointly investigating Blackwolf’s death but said she couldn’t comment further because the investigation is ongoing.

“As for Senator Tester's letter, we are aware of it but I can’t comment beyond that,” she wrote in an email to Indian Country Today.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs did not respond to an after-hours request for comment Thursday.

A lack of law enforcement presence on the reservation is one of the reasons crime has increased, according to Pena. Oftentimes, one patrol officer is on duty to cover the approximately 690 square miles of tribal land.

The Northern Cheyenne leader says tribal citizens have lost faith in the BIA and that when 911 is called, the wait for law enforcement to show up can be long, or they don’t show up at all.

“Our Reservation is a lawless society,” Pena wrote to the senators. “Drugs and alcohol are used openly and tearing apart our community. Violence has become commonplace.”

In addition to holding the BIA and FBI accountable, the tribe is hoping the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs will hold a field hearing on its reservation to address major crimes in Indian Country.

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Kolby KickingWoman, Blackfeet/A'aniih is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is from the great state of Montana and currently reports for the Washington Bureau. For hot sports takes and too many Lakers tweets, follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - kkickingwoman@indiancountrytoday.com

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