When I think of murder mysteries about American Indians, I think of Tony Hillerman’s novels, set on a New Mexico Navaho reservation. New Mexico is not one of the states that assumed partial legal jurisdiction over reservations within its borders under a 1953 federal law known as Public Law 280.
Because New Mexico has no legal jurisdiction over the Navahos, Hillerman was able to make his protagonists tribal cops. In other states, reservations usually must rely on state and county law enforcement and courts—but not always successfully.
In a few states, reservations provide their own criminal law enforcement and criminal courts unless the federal government steps in, which apparently it tends to do, especially when women, children, and other especially vulnerable people are involved (family court issues), when a capital crime has been committed, or when a federal law has been violated.
Sidebar: Civil law issues are particularly murky on reservations. For the most part, civil issues within the tribes are handled by tribal courts, but, when a non-Indian is involved, the jurisdiction is often disputed. I suspect this is one of the reasons so many tribal leaders these days are lawyers (more later).
What Goes Wrong on Reservations?
In 2004 the Bureau of Justice Statistics published a study of justice in Indian Country (with statistics for the years from 1999 to 2002). It claims that Indians are victims of crime far more often than any other group. It also notes that about 15% of the inmates in federal prisons are Indians, even though Indians comprise only about 1% of the nation’s population.
Sidebar: A few days ago I stumbled across a pre-publication report that claimed these statistics were grossly wrong, primarily because many Indians do not self-identify as such. The pdf of the report has since disappeared from the web (or I can’t find it, in any case). So, while I suspect this is true, I have only the BOJS study to refer to now.
The upshot of the BOJS report is that reservations have inadequate funding for law enforcement. It urges further research to determine how the government can improve the situation.
Much as I like data collection and statistics, I am extremely skeptical of any such venture, because I don’t believe the federal government has any idea what Indian Country is or how many tribes there are or how many people are really American Indians “entitled to federal benefits.” If they did, they would post a list of reservations, tribes, and their populations on the Bureau of Indian Affairs website.
The most thorough information I have found is at WikiPedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Indian_reservations_in_the_United_States#Reservations
But I defy you to read that article and tell me how many Indian reservations there are on federal lands versus reservations on state lands or how many tribes there are.
And if you read the BOJS study (above) I defy you to tell me which reservations are under federal criminal jurisdiction, which are under state criminal jurisdiction, or which are entirely under tribal criminal jurisdiction.
Juvenile Justice on Reservations
One statistic is particularly troubling and confusing—juvenile justice and detention: “Table 34. Tribal juvenile jail capacity, number in custody,offense seriousness, and staff, by State and tribe, 2002.” According to the study, in 2002 almost 200 juveniles were being held in a tribal detention center, of which about 10% were arrested for serious crimes. There are 70 jails in Indian Country managed by tribes and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, of which 10 are designated as “juvenile detention facilities.”
By this the BOJS means, I assume, that the jails are in no way under state jurisdiction. As a result, Indian juveniles are not subject (apparently) to prosecution as adults in state courts. So, a juvenile who commits murder or violent rape must be released into the general reservation population at age 18 or 21, I suppose. Since recidivism rates are high on reservations, most such individuals are likely to offend again. This could be one of the many things that go wrong on reservations.
Fundamentally, the treatment of school-age American Indians is what really goes wrong. Opportunities for a high-quality education are severely limited on reservations. According to the Manhattan Institute, only 54% of American Indians graduate from high school and only 38% are college ready at the time.
Sidebar: I question the 54% high-school graduation rate. Elsewhere I have read that only 50% of all students graduate from high school. The Manhattan Institute in the same article claims that 70% of “all high school students” graduate. So I suspect the American Indian statistic also refers to “all American Indian high school students” who graduate, which means there is a percentage of American Indian children who drop out before they even reach high school.
Just as troubling is the existence of “tribal colleges.” For decades other minority colleges have solicited other races. For example, you will be hard-pressed to find a college that identifies itself as a “black college.” Instead, they call themselves “historically black.” Any college that touts itself as serving only a single community has no place in higher education. A good college certainly may be founded to promote research into and learning about a specific culture or creed, but a ghetto focus does not empower learners.
That’s why it’s a miracle that in 2002 less than 200 American Indian juveniles were in jail. Half the juveniles on reservations are dropouts. 25% or so of reservation high-school graduates are not ready for college, which probably means many reservation high-school graduates can’t get into any college other than a tribal college.
Which brings me back to Tony Hillerman. . .
Hillerman did not identify himself as an American Indian, although in photographs he looks as if he must have Indian ancestors. His biography parallels my father’s: both were born about the same time in Oklahoma, both graduated from high school there, went to the University of Oklahoma, joined the army and fought in WW II, and then returned to graduate from college. My father, too, did not identify himself as Indian, even though he knew his mother was Cherokee/Choctaw.
Both men escaped Indian Country through education.