In a novella I wrote, “Where Custer Last Slept”—the title referring to the town of Busby on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation where Custer camped before his last infamous day on the Little Bighorn—I detailed the gruesome murders of a couple of teens whose killer is not brought to justice, prompting a group of friends to take matters into their own hands.
That story is part of “Off the Path,” a Montana-based anthology of American Indian writers.
At the beginning of the story, a 16-year-old is stabbed dozens of times at the conclusion of a graduation party. The female narrator and her friends agree there is nothing they can realistically do about it, despite how bad they feel for the kid. Her reason for not reporting the crime to authorities is that any potential murder case would probably get botched by the FBI—which handles major crimes on Indian reservations but seems so indifferent to reservation murders—and the killer would be free to retaliate against them.
When a second murder inevitably happens, the narrator notes: “at the time it seemed there was no law but what we made it in the Wild West. The police stationed in Lame Deer hardly ever drove through Busby. The FBI took over hardcore cases, but what did some FBI agent who hated being marooned on a rez in the first place care about the local populace?”
In an interview about the “Off the Path” anthology last fall with Chérie Newman, host of Montana Public Radio’s “The Write Question,” I was asked about where the violence and darkness surrounding that particular storyline stemmed from. I said reservation murders and the lack of convictions had long plagued my conscience. On my Northern Cheyenne Reservation alone, it was reported locally that there have been some 42 unsolved murders and suspicious deaths since the late 1970s.
(What I didn’t mention in that interview is that when I was a teen in the late ’90s, I remember reading a short newspaper blurb about another teen from my reservation who had been stabbed something like 50 times. Not long after that, there was a similar crime that also merited only a blurb. I was always aghast that no one had been arrested for those heinous crimes and that the murderer was still theoretically about.)
Although I’m known as journalist who often writes on Native-related issues, it was that fictional story that struck a nerve with so many people, because it illustrated how often reservation violence carries no consequences.
I’ve had Natives not just from the Northern Plains and Canada, but places like the Navajo Reservation, relate to that story fully, telling me it haunted them long after reading it because they knew of people who were murdered in almost the same manner. Suspects were never charged, or they only served very short sentences because they could simply claim they were drunk and escape responsibility.
I said to Newman, “Someone told me, ‘You captured the hopelessness of the situation, in that they wanted to do something but can’t.’ And that’s why they just had to take matters into their own hands even though they’re just normal kids.”
To further make my point, I mentioned the death of a young Northern Cheyenne woman, Hanna Harris, a 2010 graduate of Billings West High who was brutally beaten and murdered after being sexually assaulted. Although her killers were eventually caught, hundreds of people in Lame Deer marched for her and other overlooked victims in a “Justice for Hanna” rally that highlighted the lack of FBI resolve and commitment regarding serious reservation crimes.
Despite its being a clear-cut case of murder, Garret Wadda was sentenced to just 10 years last week for his role in the killing of Harris. Wadda’s common-law wife, Eugenia Ann Rowland, was sentenced in February to 22 years for her role in the murder.
Rowland told her former sister-in-law in 2014 that she awoke to screams from Harris, whom Wadda was trying to rape. She said she went to help Harris, but when Harris struck at her, Rowland and Wadda both beat her to death.
Harris was murdered on the morning of July 4, 2013, and her body was found four hot summer days later, badly decomposed. The defendants pretended to help look for Harris in a search operation.
Wadda pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact for dumping Harris’ partially clothed body at the Lame Deer rodeo grounds after the murder, and the story of his role in the beating was not mentioned at his sentencing hearing.
Rowland’s attorney, Robert Kelleher Jr., argued in court that Rowland shouldn’t have a sentence longer than the 10- to 15-year sentence being proposed for Wadda as part of a plea bargain. “Not to be glib about it,” Kelleher said of Wadda, “but he’s getting away with murder.”
At his sentencing, Harris’ mother, Melinda Harris, told Wadda: “I don’t know how you were raised, but you don’t rape women, you don’t kill them, you don’t hide them, you don’t bury them. People say if you want to get away with murder, go to the reservation. I think it’s true.”
At the same hearing, Harris’ father said that unless a sufficient sentence was given, family members would probably “take care” of Wadda themselves. The family clearly was unhappy with Wadda’s 10-year sentence.
Unfortunately, I personally know where the Harris family’s anger stems from. I’ve been there, too, and I know the frustrations of reservation injustice. In fact, in another “Off the Path” story I wrote:
“What made me always mad enough to commit vigilante justice was imagining what really happened: my baby brother being blasted at close range by a high-powered rifle, unable to walk with a shattered pelvis as he begged some unsympathetic loser on a lonely, cold, Indian Reservation prairie to please take him to the IHS hospital before fading away.”
That prose is the short version of the actual details of my brother’s death on the border of the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations several years ago. Even though the FBI agents investigating the case knew he was shot intentionally, and told me as much personally, federal prosecutors were reluctant to charge the killer with murder. They let his B.S. story slide and gave him two years.
The defendant claimed my brother was accidentally shot inside a truck as he removed his rifle for target practice. But the angle he was shot from—and especially the blood trail 20 yards from the truck—didn’t match the story at all.
There was also a terrified female witness to my brother’s death who would have been key for prosecutors. They found her in the middle of nowhere miles from the crime scene on that cold December night without adequate clothing after she had apparently run in fear for her own life. However, she did not want to want to go to court or even give a statement. I can’t fault her for that.
Luella Brien—a Crow tribal member, fellow “Off the Path” author and former Billings Gazette reporter—said in that same interview with Chérie Newman: “People don’t like to testify; people don’t like to give their deposition because oftentimes the feds will just plea it out. And why put (oneself) at risk for retaliation when the person isn’t going to get first-degree murder, but second-degree manslaughter?”
Without the witness testimony, as I noted in a previous Last Best News column, most reservation deaths “are simply pleaded down to manslaughter charges so the FBI … can keep its nearly immaculate conviction rate intact, with minimal time committed to an investigation.”
As in any profession, there are genuinely good FBI agents who do their job and do it well—including the main agent who investigated my brother’s death—but the general Native population’s perception, based on their experiences, is that the feds are always dismissive of them. They know that even if someone is arrested, the punishment rarely fits the crime and only people involved in drugs are ever given lengthy prison sentences.
Since 2009, the family of Steven Bearcrane-Cole has been looking for justice. Bearcrane-Cole, a Crow tribal member, was shot between the eyes in 2005, and the coroner ruled that his death was a homicide. His family has fought the FBI with a lawsuit, claiming that an FBI agent assigned to the case failed to properly investigate the death. A non-tribal member and co-worker shot Bearcrane-Cole on the Leachman Ranch, which is within reservation boundaries.
The lawsuit claims the supervising agent in charge refused to do anything but the “most cursory investigation despite compelling facts,” resulting in a ruling by the feds that Bearcrane-Cole was killed in self-defense.
Among the dubious facts of the case was that the shooter claimed Bearcrane-Cole came at him with a knife. But the ranch foreman said the knife found on him wasn’t even there when the body was discovered. About a month earlier, several witnesses heard the shooter claiming he was a sniper and could kill someone and make it look like an accident.
“We were told to gather more information and we did,” family member and attorney Jean Bearcrane told Indian Country Today Media Network in 2011. “They still did nothing. How many non-Indian families have to do their own investigations and plead with the FBI to do its job?”
In the lawsuit—which the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 said could proceed after the FBI tried to get it dismissed—Bearcrane-Cole’s family said the FBI not only neglected their case, but “consistently closed cases involving Indian victims without adequate investigation, especially sexual and other assaults involving Indian children and women.”
In February 2012, in a New York Times story headlined “Higher Crime, Fewer Charges on Indian Land,” Timothy Williams reported that according to federal data, the FBI declined to file rape charges on reservations 65 percent of the time and 52 percent of the time for other serious crimes. So, there’s a two-thirds chance that even if someone presses sexual assault charges, they’ll be left at the attacker’s mercy after nothing is done.
The compounding threat of retaliation on behalf of a perpetrator looms large and very real among victims who actually file charges. Women without a strong local support system often say it’s why they’re afraid to press charges when they’re sexually assaulted. What if the family or friends of the assailant come after them for “snitching” if the attacker is actually sent to jail? That’s a scenario the witness of my brother’s death would have faced.
“A lot of people believe that justice is never served on the reservation, so why try to help it?” Brien said. “It’s a huge issue and there’s so many layers and it’s difficult to explain quickly, but that’s how it kind of boils down.”
Just about every family that’s lived on a reservation for a long time could tell of a crime involving a family member or friend in which justice was never served. But the despite the grim statistics; despite the seeming desolation of the situation, despite the growing anger and despite the frustration and lack of answers, out of the darkness of Hanna Harris’ death, I believe, arose light.
Although I don’t pretend to have known Hanna personally, after reading the news of her murder my tears fell for her because I knew she was someone’s sister, someone’s daughter, someone’s granddaughter, someone’s best friend, someone’s niece, and a child’s mother.
She was one of my fellow beautiful Morning Star People who shined on even in her tragic passing as we united to protest an unjust justice system not only for her family and our tribe, but for all Indian reservations with similar stories. Because of Hanna, young and old Cheyennes of all ages proudly marched through Lame Deer, defiant against the bad spirits that tried to drag our people down. They prayed together with a cause, they prayed for those overlooked victims who had walked on in the past, and they prayed together for our future.
“A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it is done—no matter how brave its warriors or how strong its weapons,” a Cheyenne saying goes.
In passing from her time on Earth, Harris will be remembered for giving a voice to the voiceless and turning people who were once considered faceless statistics into people who laughed, cried, breathed, loved and were loved. She died a fighting Cheyenne who continues to live with us in spirit while helping to keep the hearts of our people high above the ground.
Nea’ese (thank you) to Hanna for not only humbly representing us in our continued struggles for justice, but for being the beautiful personified face of our hope.