It was on Thanksgiving night that Eastern Shoshone member Jean Harris’ life took a terrifying turn. She had been waiting for a text from her Northern Arapaho boyfriend of over three years, asking her to come pick him up and bring him home. He’d been staying with his parents for several weeks and she missed him. She put on her clothes, re-applied her makeup and drove from her house in Lander to his parents’ house on the reservation to get him.
When she got there, he was waiting at the gate. But she said he didn’t get in the car.
“He said, ‘babe, come give me a hug.’ I haven’t seen you for a while. So I said, okay. I got out of my car. I went over to give him a hug and as he opened the gate, people came out from behind the trees and started coming toward me,” said Harris, her voice trembling in the telling. “And all I could hear them saying was, ‘light her up! Let’s kill that white expletive. I’m a half-breed,” she explained.
Harris is a small woman, but she fought back. She ran to her car for pepper spray and used it on her alleged assailants. Later, she learned that one was her boyfriend’s new girlfriend. His brothers also joined the attack, five people in all. But the spray didn’t deter them.
“They drug me inside of their property line,” she said. “I curled up in a ball to protect myself the best that I could and prayed that I would make it through.”
She later told police they kicked her and hit her with bricks. Afterwards, Harris called Bureau of Indian Affairs police. It took them an hour to arrive. And when they did, she felt they treated her like the criminal.
“Perhaps the officers could have gotten some more training or at least some reading materials or a briefing about domestic violence and how hard it is to report when the person you love so much hurts you,” said Harris.
At the hospital, Harris found out she’d suffered a skull fracture. But the police made no arrests that night or since. In fact, she said she’s been attacked twice since then and lives in fear that she will again. The county courts issued protection orders on some of her attackers, but she said her case isn’t severe enough for the federal courts, and that tribal courts don’t currently have enough leverage to stop the violence.
Breaking the Cycle
Harris’s case is a familiar one to Eastern Shoshone Councilman: Leslie Shakespeare, who used to be a BIA police officer.
“Seeing that, just on a nightly basis, really got to me thinking,” he said, “well, how do we break that cycle?”
He even saw it in his own life with his sister, whose partner was non-Native. Often, he saw her beaten and bruised.
“I remember being fresh out of the academy thinking I could change the world and arrest everybody’s problems away,” Shakespeare said. “And I remember asking her, why don’t you call the police? Why don’t you do that? And she had stated, ‘well, I did call before’ and kind of gave me a smile and said, ‘nothing is going to happen.”
That was the last time Shakespeare saw his sister. She died under suspicious circumstances related to domestic violence, and her case never made it to court. Shakespeare said that’s because his tribe wasn’t legally allowed to prosecute non-Natives at the time.
So last year, when Shakespeare became a councilman, he decided to act. And the timing was just right. The two tribes were just forming their own joint tribal court system, bypassing the old BIA one. And in 2013, the Obama administration re-authorized the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA. This update to the 1994 law now gave tribes the ability to vigorously prosecute such cases with stiffer fines and sentences, although they still won’t be able to issue felonies, only misdemeanors.
Northern Arapaho chairman Roy Brown sits next to Shakespeare in the council chambers. He said it hasn’t been easy, or cheap. It’s involved arranging for many more prison beds, making sure non-native defendants have legal representation, and that all their attorneys and judges are law-trained. To tackle that last obstacle, they initiated a national employment search. Brown said it didn’t long before those job applications started rolling in. Every single one of them were from Native women.
“It was a welcome surprise, but at the same time it wasn’t surprising because Native women were the ones going to law school and focusing on issues like these,” said Brown.
Now, all the positions have been hired and the Department of Justice is finalizing the paperwork so the tribal courts can start implementing the new domestic violence law. The Wind River Reservation is only the 18th of the 573 federally recognized tribes to adopt it.
“It’s very expensive,” said Caroline Laporte with the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center. “And really it’s not being funded at the appropriate level from the federal government.” She said Congress only budgets $25 million a year to help tribes succeed in implementing it.
But she said, according to a new five-year report by the National Congress of American Indians, VAWA 2013 has been very successful with 143 arrests nationwide, most of them of non-Natives, and 74 of those arrests led to convictions.
“One, non-natives are now hearing, okay, I can no longer get away with this. And two, Native women are hearing, okay, I can’t be abused repeatedly without someone coming to my assistance,” she said.
But, Laporte said, the act needs an update. Tribes still can’t hold abusers accountable if they assault a child, only their partner. And they can’t take cases where a victim was assaulted by a stranger, only if they were in an intimate relationship.
“That’s a big loophole,” Laporte said, “and that’s something that we’re going to try to address this year.”
As for Jean Harris, she has hope the new, tougher law will be enforced in time to help her before her next attack.
“I know it’s a long process, but it makes me feel like I don’t matter,” said Harris. “And I have to tell myself all the time, I do matter. I do matter.”
The Trump Administration is due to re-authorize the Violence Against Women Act sometime this year.