Leslie Ironroad was 20 years old when she moved from one side of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in the Dakotas to the other — the town of McLaughlin, S.D., home to one gas station, one diner and her friend, Rhea Archambault. She roomed in Archambault's spare bedroom.
"I make star quilts, so she was helping me make patterns," Archambault said recently, sitting at her dining room table. "She was just a nice little girl."
One night four years ago, Ironroad left the house to go to a party a few miles away. Early the next morning, she called Archambault's brother in tears asking to be picked up.
"She said, 'Can [you] go get Rhea to come get me 'cause these guys are going to fight me,'" Archambault said. "And so he said, 'Well where you at?' And she was just crying and hangs up."
Leslie never made it home.
When Archambault found her friend in a Bismarck, N.D. hospital, she was black and blue.
"'I said, 'Leslie, what happened?.' She said, 'Rhea, is that you? Turn the lights on, I can't see.' But the lights in the room were on. She said, 'Rhea, I was raped,' and she was just squeezing my hand," Archambault recalled.
Archambault called the Bureau of Indian Affairs police, a small department in charge of all law enforcement on the reservation. A few days later an officer arrived in the hospital room, and Leslie scratched out a statement on a tablet laid across her stomach.
Ironroad told the officer how she was raped and said that the men locked her in a bathroom, where she swallowed diabetes pills she found in the cabinet, hoping that if she was unconscious the men would leave her alone. The next morning, someone found her on the bathroom floor and called an ambulance.
A week later, Ironroad was dead — and so was the investigation. None of the authorities who could have investigated what happened to Leslie Ironroad did — not the Bureau of Indian Affairs, nor the FBI, nor anybody else.
People who know the men who likely attacked her say they were never even questioned.
Archambault couldn't believe nothing came of Ironroad's report.
"She named all the people that were there, the ones that were hitting her, the ones that were fighting her, she named everybody — what more else?" Archambault asked.
This case was not an isolated incident. NPR spoke with at least a dozen people on Standing Rock — rape counselors, doctors, tribal leaders and victims — people who were either assaulted or know women who were in cases where no charges were filed.
The story of what happened to Ironroad, and more importantly what happened to the investigation of her death, is a window into what is happening on Native American reservations across the country. Cases like hers are going unreported, uninvestigated and unprosecuted, according to tribal officials.
The Justice Department found that one in three Native American women will be raped in her lifetime. In many cases, on rural reservations like Standing Rock, NPR found that there aren't enough police to investigate sexual assaults, and few of the cases are prosecuted.
On Standing Rock, there's one person in charge of law enforcement: Bureau of Indian Affairs police Chief Gerald White.
"I consider any sexual assault a serious problem. I mean, we don't take them lightly," White said at the police headquarters on the reservation. "Every sexual assault that is reported to us — we investigate them to the fullest."
When asked what happened in the Ironroad case, White responded, "I looked back and there was nothing that could substantiate that happening. I'm sure she passed away, but as far as her being involved as a victim of sexual assault, I couldn't find anything to support that ... You know, if a person doesn't report, then how can we investigate it, if we don't know about it?"
Overwhelmed and Overworked
Although Ironroad did report her attack to a BIA officer in her hospital room, authorities did not conduct an investigation. Through records, interviews with officials at the hospital, the state medical examiner's office and the police department, and conversations with more than a dozen people familiar with Ironroad's case, NPR learned the officer in her hospital room was BIA police officer Doug Wilkinson.
Officer Wilkinson resigned from the Standing Rock police department two months ago. NPR tracked him down in the small town of Little Eagle, S.D. In a phone conversation, he confirmed the basic details of the story.
Wilkenson said a lot of sexual assault cases like Ironroad's are never investigated. He said he was too overwhelmed and overworked to keep up with the number of calls for rape, sexual assault and child abuse he received each week.
When it came to federal prosecutors, he admitted, "We all knew they only take the ones with a confession ... We were forced to triage our cases."
Wilkenson has now joined a ministry and says he hopes to help survivors through preaching.
"I felt like I was standing in the middle of the river trying to hold back the flood," he says, describing his decade as a federal police officer.
On Standing Rock, there are five BIA officers for a territory the size of Connecticut. On this and other reservations, police are stretched thin and often can't or won't make arrests.
Allocating the Limited Resources
Fourteen years ago, Archie Fool Bear, who sits on the Standing Rock Tribal Council, was chief of the BIA police department on the reservation, heading a force three times as large as today's. Now, he says, tribe members are coming to him with terrible stories of rapes and crimes, even though he can no longer do anything about them.
"We know with that size of force, I know from experience, there are cases that are going to be sitting on the shelf or cases where people don't want to come forward because they have no confidence in law enforcement," he said.
Money for new officers can only come from one place: Washington, D.C. The Bureau of Indian Affairs' director Pat Ragsdale sits in his office just across the street from the White House grounds. Ragsdale says he knows cases may be falling through the cracks. He'd love to have more officers, he says, and expects the situation to improve with $16 million in new funding that the Bush administration has proposed, which would add about 50 new BIA police officers.
Spread among 200 tribal jurisdictions, 50 new officers comes out to well below one per tribe. Director Ragsdale says they plan to cluster the officers on reservations where they are needed the most.
On Standing Rock, getting an officer to respond to a call for help can mean waiting for days or even months. The reservation's only women's shelter is still waiting for police to come after someone cut all of their phone lines two months ago.
The shelter's director, Georgia Littleshield, can attest firsthand to the lack of police response. When her daughter's boyfriend, a non-native, broke her daughter's nose, her daughter filed a report and attached statements and photos from the doctors. But when Littlefield called special investigators the next morning, an officer told her that her injury was not considered a broken bone, but broken cartilage and that the case would not be prosecuted.
"This is a lawless land where people are making up their own laws because there's no justice being done," Littleshield said.
A study from the Justice Department found that Native American women are two and half times more likely to be raped than other women. The majority of victims said they were raped by men from outside the reservation, according to a victimization survey.
Many of those victims wind up at the Indian Health Service Center. When Ironroad arrived at the center, her injuries were so severe that doctors told the ambulance to take her two hours north to Bismarck.
The health center does not have rape kits to collect the vital DNA evidence needed to prosecute attackers. They are also inadequately staffed and cannot spare an exam room for the hour it takes to complete the rape examination.
For that, women must go to Bismarck, but most women don't want to go because they don't know how they will get back home.
Staff physician Jackie Quizno says she sees rape cases several times a month. When she and other doctors turn over their information to the BIA police and federal prosecutors on the women they see, she says nothing happens.
"I have only been involved in one court hearing where I was actually called to testify," Quizno said, who has worked at the center for more than five years.
A Federal Responsibility
Tribal leaders say the Justice Department ignores them, and one of the department's own former top officials agrees.
"Our committee was frequently met with indifference," said Thomas Heffelfinger, who until last year chaired the department's Indian Affairs Committee, which tried to get resources to Indian country. He said department officials "simply don't recognize the magnitude of the problem and the degree to which it is a federal responsibility."
Mary Beth Buchanan, acting director of the Justice Department's Office of Violence Against Women, disagrees. She says Indian sexual assaults are a priority, especially for U.S. attorneys.
"Most prosecutors in Indian country are very committed to assisting in the prosecution of these cases and are very sensitive to the problems associated with crime in Indian country," she countered, citing millions of dollars the department has funneled to a new pilot project to reduce violence and a new study that will examine the rate of sexual assaults on reservations.
However, actual figures are difficult to pin down. Justice officials and local U.S. attorneys say they can not provide the number of sexual assault cases they decline from Indian reservations or even the number of cases they take.
A 2004 study conducted by the department found that the number of suspects investigated by U.S. attorneys for crimes on Indian land declined 21 percent from 1997 to 2000.
On Standing Rock, where the bright green grass seems to stretch as far as the sky, women like Ironroad can live and die without any federal official taking notice.
The tribe's chairman, Ron His Horse Is Thunder, stood on the porch of his log cabin overlooking the plains where his people have lived for thousands of years.
"Rape amongst our people was one of those unheard of crimes, he said. "Not because people didn't talk about it, but at one point in time, it didn't occur."
That is no longer the case, and the chairman says that as long as the tribe must depend on the federal government to police and prosecute people on their own land, anyone who comes here may well be able to rape or assault women, like Leslie Ironroad, and get away with it.
"There's a word amongst our people," he said, pronouncing an Indian phrase. "Simply stated, that we are all related, but it's more than just me and my cousin being related. It means that anything that happens to the tribe or one its members will affect everybody."
Two weeks after NPR began requesting documents and interviewing officials, the Bureau of Indian Affairs reopened the investigation into Leslie Ironroad's death. Officials say the results are still pending.
At 14, Bonnie, a Cherokee Indian, needed a ride home. She grew up near the small city of Talequah, on the eastern side of Oklahoma. A woman she knew from town offered her a ride, instructing Bonnie to wait at her house.
The woman's husband was home, drinking with four of his friends.
"I was in the other room, and they came in and threw me on the bed," Bonnie said. "And they all held me down."
Bonnie never reported the rape. She says she had been told many times by her mother and other relatives that nobody was going to take a case involving an Indian girl getting raped.
"I just didn't figure anyone would believe me — a child against five white men," Bonnie said.
In the years that followed, Bonnie worked as a bartender and struggled to put the incident behind her. She said she would sometimes catch men bragging about similar things they said they had done.
"I've even heard a couple of white men just through the years talking about it, but I never say nothing," Bonnie said.
'Almost a Lawless Community'
Chickasaw Tribal Police Chief Jason O'Neal has heard these stories, too. One day recently at the Chickasaw police headquarters, a call came in from a Native American woman who said she had been raped and didn't know where she was.
Standing in the doorway of the command center, O'Neal looked antsy.
"I know they're working on it — to locate her position and see if everything is OK," he said.
The identity of the woman and her attacker — and especially, her exact location — mean everything to O'Neal. If the woman is Indian on Indian land with an Indian attacker, he can help her. If not, there's often little he can do – and he says that's usually the case. According to a Justice Department report, 80 percent of Indian victims describe their attackers at non-native.
"Many of the criminals know Indian lands are almost a lawless community, where they can do whatever they want," O'Neal said.
In this case on this day, the woman turns up outside of tribal land, which means he cannot intervene and won't know what happened to her.
Situations like this are excruciating for O'Neal and tribal leaders, who are trying desperately to stop sexual assaults after what they say has been years of neglect by federal officials.
Thanks to casino money, the Chickasaws have one of the most well-funded, highly equipped police departments in the state. They have their own emergency command center, as well as more training and officers than most of the surrounding sheriff's departments.
What they don't have, however, is the power to arrest the men raping women on Chickasaw land.
The Complicated Laws on Indian Land
At a gas station just outside Ada, Okla., O'Neal stood next to the ice machine as he tried to explain the intricacies of the law on Indian land.
Beneath the gas pumps and mini-mart is land that has belonged to the Chickasaw people for more than a century.
If a Native American man walks into the mini-mart and steals a carton of cigarettes, O'Neal can arrest him. If a non-native man commits the same crime, O'Neal would let him go and forward a report to the U.S. attorney's office.
When asked what happens to those reports, O'Neal replied, "Well, I really couldn't tell you. I don't think I've ever been called back on one of them."
Tribal police cannot charge non-Indians with a crime on tribal land — only the U.S. attorney's Office can. Tribal leaders say that in too many cases, no charges are filed at all.
But for O'Neal, the layout of the land itself is a problem. Indian land in Oklahoma is a patchwork quilt. The gas station, for example, is tribal land, but the highway that runs adjacent to it belongs to the state. Across the street is the entrance to town, and the building next door is not tribal property.
Unprosecuted Sexual Assaults
The people who pay the biggest price for this are often Native American women, who are two and a half times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other women. In fact, one Justice Department study found one in three Indian women will be raped in her lifetime. Tribal officials say that's because the assaults often go unreported, uninvestigated and unprosecuted.
On many rural reservations, there are often few Bureau of Indian Affairs police officers. But in Oklahoma, many tribes have their own police departments. The law itself is what prevents them from stopping the perpetrators, and without enforcement, many women don't come forward.
To work around this, tribal police can partner with neighboring police departments, but some, like one sheriff's office near Ada, won't sign on, O'Neal said.
"The sheriff had told his deputies that he didn't care if they [his deputies] were lying on the side of the road bleeding to death, they were not to call on our agency to help them," he said. "And you know what, that just goes back to plain old racism. There's nothing else to explain that."
Several sheriffs interviewed by NPR openly questioned the competence of tribal police departments, but they deny allegations of racism. Rather, they say, they don't want to share law-enforcement powers with officers who don't report to them.
An Inability to Punish
Even when tribal police get past their limited powers and land issues and haul someone into court, the inability of the tribes to exact a punishment goes right up the chain.
At the Citizen Potawatomi Nation in central Oklahoma, the tribe has built a courthouse like any other, equipped with benches and a jury box fashioned from wood.
The only people sitting in the defendant's chair, however, are Native Americans. Tribal prosecutors like David Hall are only allowed to handle misdemeanors, like public intoxication, speeding and shoplifting.
"The fact that I am not allowed to prosecute felonies that occur on tribal land irritates me. It angers me. I don't understand that," he said.
Hall said that he can't get federal prosecutors to take the cases he's not allowed to try, including two recent rape cases across the street: one in the parking lot at the casino, and one in the parking lot at the supermarket.
Renee Brewer, who works at the courthouse as a victim's advocate, remembers a case from a year ago. A woman who had been assaulted called the police and told them that her attacker was still hiding in her closet.
"I get there, and there are four different law-enforcement agencies on the front lawn with the victim, arguing, 'Well this is your case, you have jurisdiction of this.' You could go on and on with scenarios," Brewer said. "Then you wonder why these cases are not getting prosecuted — because the United States government made it as difficult as possible for us to handle our own prosecutions on our own land."
Oklahoma U.S. Attorney John Richter said he'll take any sexual assault case from a reservation that he can.
"I'm open for business, willing to take more," he said. "I'm not aware of serious cases that have not been investigated in the western district of Oklahoma. Where we hear about it, we are firmly committed."
But he said that there's no way to know how many Native American rape or assault cases they've tried or declined. The cases are brought to them by the FBI and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Neither agency's Oklahoma office would grant NPR's request for an interview.
If cases are declined, Richter said, it's because many rapes are inherently difficult to try, and federal courts place a high burden on prosecutors for evidence.
"We have to live in the real world," he explained. "Just because a case is not brought, doesn't mean we don't wish a case could be brought."
But federal law-enforcement officials who spoke to NPR believe that U.S. attorneys find the sexual assault cases insignificant compared to their usual work — terrorism, organized crime, drugs, racketeering.
Seeking Comfort in Tradition
A 2003 report from the Justice Department found that U.S. attorneys take fewer cases from the BIA than from almost any other federal law-enforcement agency — a bitter reality for women on the reservations.
Without hope of punishment for their attackers, many women turn within, seeking comfort in tradition, like a ritual called a Sweat Lodge.
At sunset on a recent night in northern Oklahoma, just outside the Otoe-Missouria Indian reservation, Juskwa Burnett hosts a healing ceremony for women who have been victims of sexual assault.
As a fire burns over a pile of large rocks, a prayer man welcomes dead ancestors. The guests are usually women whom Burnett counsels at the community center.
As the ceremony gets underway, guests enter a dome-like structure made of willow branches and covered in blankets. Burnett fills a pipe with tobacco.
The guests spend the next several hours praying, singing and talking about what has happened to them. Afterwards, they head to nearby showers, as an honored man whose Indian name means Little Bear waits for the fire to die.
Little Bear's job in the dome is to douse the rocks to create steam. Night after night, he hears the stories women tell about being sexually assaulted.
"It's a burden when you hear about all these prayer requests, all these things that people are praying about, crying about, things that happened to them sexually," he said. "Sometimes it makes it hard to go to sleep at night."
For Little Bear, the issue is personal, too. When she was just a teenager, his sister was raped on the side of the road by a man in a passing car.
"She was walking home, and a guy raped my sister in the back of a car. Just left her in a ditch," he said. "That's the worst I've encountered with, you know, not even half a mile from our home — almost made it home."