How’re You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Rez after They’ve Seen Skid Row?

Any time we run anything about native Americans, our viewership goes to zero.

— interviewer from 60 Minutes

Every two or three years, as a break from chanting about how everybody in America is free and equal, some intrepid reporter from our mainstream media ventures to talk about the native people who were here 10,000 years before America was officially discovered. There’s rarely anything good to be reported, but if they can come up with something lurid or at least shocking, they can be assured that it will grab the news cycle for half an hour or so.

How about “Rape on the Reservation?” That should entice anyone over 18 to stop channel-switching in prime time. And so it was with Current Television Network, Al Gore’s daring investigative journalism schtick, which actually used that title a year or so ago to talk about a nasty situation in Lakota territory. Rosebud, South Dakota, in that case. At that time, I noted in these pages:

I flicked onto the Current TV Network and caught their major prime time show “Vanguard,” an hour-long feature with the title “Rape On The Reservation.” No kidding, I thought, somebody in the rarefied air of network television has finally got the message.

How wrong I was.

Sure enough, it began with that sterotypical shot of a native village, the stark shabby bungalows, the skulking dogs and grubby children, the wrecked cars parked in the tumbleweed.

The hour-log narrative dealt with gang-rape and murder, tribal cover-up by band council and relatives. Tribal poverty, inadequate tribal and government imposed justice, drugs, debt and delinquency on the rez, unruly youth and powerless elders.

I waited for some mention of the exterior cause, the abominable history of legislation, of church missions and brutal involvement, of a national government that continues to drop the ball even now in all its agencies, bureaus and absentee state involvement, while proliferating the intergenerational genocide that has decimated and conditioned to hopelessness 550 “nations” huddled on more than 300 varieties of ‘the rez.’

I waited in vain.

Absolutely no mention of what caused this totally sick, desolate collapse of a once great culture. We did, of course.

Now it’s over a year later, and here we go again. It’s time again for the media to weigh in once more with a rez shocker to liven up the TV ratings. This is the only way white America can be convinced to look at anything native American. And as long as the media trots out the effects, it’s comforting for the main-stream audience to forget the causes.

Item: “The Bureau of Indian Affairs said Monday that it will take control of social services on a North Dakota reservation, amid concerns from federal officials that the tribe’s mismanagement of the agency led to the abuse of children on the reservation.” (No kidding. — Bill) “The tribe’s mismanagement. The Spirit Lake tribe, 6,600 people living in a remote area of North Dakota has been ‘under scrutiny’ since the BIA reported ‘serious deficiencies in child safety.'”

Actually, they’ve been under scrutiny since John Wayne crossed the Rio Bravo. And it’s nice of them to notice, since those deficiencies have been around since circa 1492.

In the Spirit Lake Case, the Bureau of Indian Affairs sent in what it called a “strike team” of federal officials, including social workers (social workers!) who assessed Spirit Lake’s Tribal Social Services (TSS). Rape and child abuse in Indian country are rarely prosecuted. It’s up to the FBI to decide whether each case is relevant.

Currently, a Syracuse University study detailing a period from 2004 to 2007 found that the federal agency declined to prosecute 50 percent of murder or manslaughter cases in Indian country, 76.5 percent of adult sex crime cases and 72 percent of child sex crime cases. Apparently, evidence is a pesky problem, and cases aren’t always clear-cut. (Read: up to FBI standards.)

A Frontline TV producer named David Sutherland has spent four years following a member of the Spirit Lake nation, Robin Charboneau, as she tried to protect her daughter from abuse. He tells her story in the film Kind-Hearted Woman. In a recent assessment, the BIA found “high-risk findings” that “pose an imminent danger to the health, safety and well-being of children either in placement or referred for protective services.” Everyone — Fed officials, tribal employees and Spirit Lake members — report that the system has continued to leave children at risk.

The ball drops somewhere in the middle of all these authorities, and everybody’s palms turn upward.

The TSS is a tiny agency charged with the welfare of the tribe’s children. It’s run by the Spirit Lake Nation, with the help of state and federal dollars, and reports to the tribal council. Experience teaches us that anything Federally funded is Federally oriented. Oh, yeah, the office is so understaffed that a typical caseload is about 150 cases, compared with about 15-20 cases for a white community’s social worker. Sounds about right. About 50% of all cases where children had been removed from their homes involved sexual abuse.

Sometimes, the TSS recommend placing children in homes without vetting the people who lived there — on occasion, these were homes where registered sex offenders lived or visited.

The infighting among tribal council, the TSS and the Fed agencies is a regular routine, with whistle-blowers being reprimanded by tribal council and one nurse being fired for reporting a case where a TSS case worker had a rap sheet including a felony relating to child neglect.

Thomas Sullivan, the regional administrator for the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, wrote a letter reporting that “many children” at Spirit Lake “have been abused and are at continuing risk of further abuse.” He blamed the tribal authorities and federal and state officials for not taking action.

As always, emphasis is on the seemingly insoluble problems on the rez, not on how it got that way. And as long as the conditions, the attitudes and the government policies that created the situation continue — and the Obama Administration hasn’t done Thing One to change our 18th Century attitudes — “how it got that way” will prevail.

Meanwhile, back at the rez, tribal councils imitate the politics of their white mentors, the UN Rapporteur (rapporting on indigenous people) “addresses” the problem and writes reports, the UN passes resolutions that everybody signs, earnest academics construct theoretical models, and the Feds send in the FBI “strike teams.”

And Al Gore’s Channel tells it like it is. Just the facts, man.

Bill Annett writes four newsletters: The Canadian Shield, American Logo, Beating the Street, and The Oyster World. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Bill.