BILLINGS, Mont. — The Northern Cheyenne Tribe is suing the federal government after enduring years of unaddressed violent crime and missing tribal members.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Montana, names the United States, the Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and several leading officials within those agencies as plaintiffs. The tribe is claiming the federal government has breached its obligation to keep Northern Cheyenne residents on the reservation safe, and demands that the DOI and BIA fulfill those obligations.
"Public safety on-reservation is severely compromised due to the lack of meaningful BIA law enforcement presence in our communities," said Northern Cheyenne Tribe President Serena Wetherelt in a statement Tuesday. "Officers often respond to 911 calls too late and even when they do show up, they frequently fail to make reports, secure crime scenes, or arrest people who are actively committing crimes. We are plagued by repeat offenders. Meanwhile, we have virtually no local jail. Our Northern Cheyenne people are in danger due to the inadequacy and incompetence of BIA law enforcement."
Law enforcement on the 444,000-acre reservation is the responsibility of the BIA’s Office of Justice Services, per federal law. Over the past four years, according to the tribe’s lawsuit, repeated requests for the BIA to fill its allotment of officers on the reservation and maintain the jail in Lame Deer have been ignored. Previous tribal administrations have called in the state’s congressional leadership to ask the BIA and FBI to improve their responses to missing and murdered Indigenous people, and their communication with the families of those victims.
The Northern Cheyenne Nation lies within Rosebud and Big Horn counties, which lead the state for people reported missing per capita. In August 2021, according to the lawsuit, federal data showed 17 missing Northern Cheyenne Tribal members. Several homicides during the summer of 2020 prompted then-Northern Cheyenne Tribal President Rynalea Peña to declare the reservation a “lawless land.” That same summer, as noted in the lawsuit, several Northern Cheyenne tribal members formed the Northern Cheyenne People's Camp. The citizen-led police force operated its own phone lines and took calls from residents who didn't trust the BIA to respond soon enough.
As recently as March 2022, according to reports included with the lawsuit, the BIA has only two patrol officers on duty during most shifts. In June of this year, a man was shot dead in Lame Deer. The Northern Cheyenne capital was placed on lockdown during the ensuing manhunt.
The lawsuit alleges those officers who are on duty consistently show a lack of understanding of both tribal and federal law. Officers have also allegedly failed to properly investigate crimes, gather and store evidence, file police reports and some have even failed to appear for Tribal Court hearings. Cases that could have been charged and prosecuted as federal crimes, according to the lawsuit, have been squandered because of the BIA officers’ failure to investigate crimes or complete adequate police reports.
The lack of a functioning jail has also been a further detriment to the functions of the Tribal Court and local efforts to treat drug addiction. The Lame Deer Adult Detention Facility was shuttered in 2019, only to be reopened by the BIA two years later as a temporary holding facility. The current policy for the jail is to only book as many as nine people into the jail on intoxication charges, and they can only be held for up to eight hours. Everyone else arrested in Lame Deer is either booked into Rock Mountain Regional Detention Facility, 56 miles away in Hardin, or sent to contracted facilities in Oklahoma.
The lack of a local jail not only drains the already limited manpower the BIA has available for the Northern Cheyenne, according to the lawsuit, it also keeps those incarcerated in Hardin or Oklahoma from participating in the Tribal Court’s Healing-to-Wellness Program. The majority of arrests made on the reservation are for drug and alcohol offenses.
In May of this year, President Wetherelt sent a final letter demanding immediate action to address these issues to BIA Assistant Secretary Bryan Newland within 60 days. Newland, Acting Deputy Bureau Director of BIA-OJS Steven Juneau and DOI Secretary Debra Haaland are included as defendants in the lawsuit.
With the Northern Cheyenne tribal government having invested an estimated $1 million of its own budget to address the dearth of safety on the reservation, according to the lawsuit, the tribe is seeking restitution from the federal government. The tribe is also demanding immediate fixes to the lack of officers and a proper jail in Lame Deer.
The Northern Cheyenne Tribe previously filed a suit with the federal government in December 2020 in which tribal leadership demanded funding to administer its own criminal investigation unit. After several years of mediation with the BIA, the Northern Cheyenne Investigative Services launched in early 2022 to fill a portion of the investigative needs of the Tribe.