EO Media Group
Editor's note: This story is part of an investigative project in partnership with EO Media Group that shows how obstacles to prosecution of violent crimes against Indigenous people in Oregon prompted survivors to use their stories of trauma to empower others and inspired initiatives encouraging change, as well as how evolving policies are shaping the legal landscape. The series also offers an urban Indigenous perspective and examines efforts in Portland to combat violence against Native Americans. Read the entire series here.
Disclaimer: The stories in this series include descriptions of physical and sexual abuse. Underscore's policy is to protect the privacy of survivors of sexual violence by withholding their names. However, the women telling their stories here chose to be named. Resources are available for trauma survivors at the Strong Hearts Native Helpline and the National Sexual Assault Helpline.
Desireé Coyote stared at the red and white confidential envelope she’d spent four days fearing to open. Inside was a police report from 30 years ago detailing the Indigenous woman’s account of a sexual and physical assault.
Until May, she had no idea the report existed.
The police record documented what Coyote told tribal police. Coyote's ex-husband, William Cruz, from whom she had filed for divorce following years of alleged domestic abuse, came to her house on the Umatilla reservation and kidnapped her. She said Cruz drove her up to the foothills of Oregon's Blue Mountains, beat her and sexually assaulted her, according to the report.
She’d lost an earring that night, and she told a tribal officer where he could find it up in the tall grass on the hillside, the report says. A few months later, Coyote heard a knock at the door. The officer returned her earring.
It wasn't the first time Coyote, an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, reported Cruz's alleged domestic abuse to tribal police, she said. But since Coyote is Indigenous and her ex-husband is not, and the reported assault occurred in 1991 on tribal land, federal law barred the tribe or state from prosecuting him. Tribal police forwarded the case to the FBI, according to the police report.
“Nothing happened,” Coyote said with tears in her eyes. Cruz was never charged for his alleged crimes against her.
Coyote’s not alone.
"The United States has done a terrible thing for Indigenous people and continues to do terrible things to Indigenous people." -Desireé Coyote
A study released this year estimated that Indigenous people in Oregon reported experiencing domestic violence over the previous year at a rate more than three times the state’s average. Nationwide, Native Americans suffer higher rates of violence than other Americans.
Violence is more often committed against Indigenous people by those who aren't Indigenous than those who are, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Justice study. Most Native victims of violence, including 97% of women and 90% of men, have experienced violence committed by a non-Native person, while 35% of female victims and 33% of male victims have experienced violence committed by another Native person.
For Indigenous families, the struggle to prosecute crimes committed by non-Natives on tribal land has created lasting trauma. And a lack of crime data, high rates of cases being declined by federal prosecutors and meager resources for help leave some feeling abandoned, a consensus among tribal officials, advocates and survivors.
Violent criminal acts committed on tribal land by non-Natives have historically fallen through the cracks due to a dizzying jurisdictional maze that critics say made Indian Country lawless. Changes to laws giving tribes more authority over non-Native offenders started in 2013. However, those came with a caveat: finding the resources, including jail space, courts and court-appointed attorneys before tribal courts could be authorized to prosecute.
A ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court last month could also shake the legal landscape by giving states concurrent jurisdiction with federal authorities over crimes committed by non-Natives on tribal land, according to legal experts, though others are hopeful the ruling won't make a big difference in Oregon.
Despite painfully slow progress and a growing movement calling attention to missing and murdered Indigenous women, generations of survivors like Coyote have suffered decades of trauma with only each other to turn to.
"The United States has done a terrible thing for Indigenous people and continues to do terrible things to Indigenous people,” said Coyote. “Left to our own ways before boarding school, before fur trappers, this would not exist. Sexual violence would not exist here.”
Critics tie the high rates of violence on tribal land in part to a 1978 ruling, Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, when the U.S. Supreme Court stripped tribes of the authority to prosecute non-Natives. Instead, cases involving non-Natives were forwarded to federal authorities.
But the threshold for prosecuting these crimes is high, tribal and legal experts say. Between 2011 and 2019, the only years for which data is available, federal figures show that the U.S. Attorney's Office in Oregon has declined to prosecute nearly 25% of violent crime cases forwarded by law enforcement from tribal land, while nationwide case declination was around 35%. The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to provide comparative data about declined non-Indian Country crimes, citing Justice Department policy.
The Violence Against Women Act reauthorization in 2013 gave tribal courts authority to prosecute non-Native offenders for acts of domestic violence, if certain conditions were met.
"Before, abusers could do horrible things to their wives, their partners, and run free and nothing would happen to them because they couldn’t be prosecuted by the tribes,” said Rep. Tawna D. Sanchez, D-Portland.
Minimal funding has hindered progress, however, officials said. Only 31 of 574 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. have been authorized to prosecute non-Natives as of May 2022, according to the National Congress of American Indians. Only one tribe — Umatilla — is authorized in Oregon.
Starting Oct. 1, 2022, tribal courts will legally be able to exercise their inherent jurisdiction over non-Natives for additional crimes, including child violence, sexual violence, stalking, sex trafficking, assaults of tribal justice personnel and obstruction of justice.
Most Native victims of violence, including 97% of women and 90% of men, have experienced violence committed by a non-Native person, while 35% of female victims and 33% of male victims have experienced violence committed by another Native person.
Brent Leonhard, an attorney for the Umatilla tribe, says that the reauthorization is another step toward overturning the 1978 case that has prevented tribes from holding non-Natives accountable.
“It'll just show, once again, those who have concerns about Indian Country exercising authority over non-Indians that they’re just wrong, that there isn't anything really to be concerned about,” Leonhard said.
Still, before being able to prosecute non-Native offenders the tribes will need resources — trained law enforcement, developed tribal codes and robust courts — to carry out justice.
“A lot of tribes don’t have their own financial capacity to run this program,” Sanchez said, “and federal resources are relatively thin.”
Since Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, the high court earlier this month placed limits on a 2020 decision recognizing a large area of Oklahoma as unceded Indian reservation land. This gives states the authority to prosecute non-Natives who commit crimes against Native Americans on tribal land.
While state officials in some parts of the country have applauded the ruling, many tribal leaders say the decision strikes a major blow to nearly two centuries of precedent and could imperil tribal sovereignty and further complicate law enforcement on tribal lands.
Umatilla Tribal Court Chief Judge William Johnson said many tribal leaders are still trying to figure out what the ruling could mean, but that it's a reversal of centuries of policy and practice. Still, he's hopeful that Oregon's history — where state authorities have had some jurisdiction on tribal land since the 1950s, and where reservation boundaries are more clearly defined than in other states — will mean the ruling won't have a big impact in Oregon.
“I think it’s a wait and see thing, and we hope it just stays simmering in the background and doesn’t explode into anything else — that’s what I would hope,” Johnson said in an interview after the decision.
Finding a way forward
For families whose loved ones' cases were declined by the FBI, there are unhealed wounds. Mavis MayAnne Kirk of Warm Springs, whose family lives on the Warm Springs, Umatilla and Yakima reservations, and in urban areas of Oregon and Washington, is among those cases and her family has been repeatedly struck by tragedy.
In 1957, a 32-year-old family member, Mavis Josephine McKay, was found dead in an irrigation canal in Washington, and a criminal investigator said at the time that there was “a strong possibility she was murdered,” as reported by the Yakima Herald-Republic. Forty years later, another 28-year-old family member, Lisa Pearl Briseno, went missing. She remains one of the 11 missing Indigenous people in Oregon, according to a February report from the U.S. Attorney's Office.
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The latest tragedy came in 2009, when Mavis MayAnne Kirk died after she was hit by a car following a workplace Christmas party on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, said her sister, Merle Kirk. Family members at first did not suspect foul play. But an autopsy report indicated that Mavis Kirk had been run over twice, and the family later learned that the driver — Mavis Kirk’s boyfriend at the time — asserted his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent in an interview with authorities, Merle Kirk said. That's when the family suspected Mavis Kirk was murdered.
In less than a year, however, the U.S. Attorney’s Office told the family that they would be dropping the case, Kirk said. No one has been prosecuted for Mavis Kirk’s death.
“They made it like she didn’t matter,” Merle Kirk said. “It hurts. She matters.”
A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in an email response to questions about this case that the office "cannot discuss the specifics of investigations that do not result in criminal charges.”
Merle Kirk remains shaken. Every year, she pins red ribbons on every stop sign in the Warm Springs community to remind people of her sister. This year, six days before the anniversary of her sister’s death, Merle Kirk’s daughter had a child. She named her newborn daughter Mavis.
Money for justice
Congress has passed two pieces of landmark legislation providing billions of dollars in federal support for crime victims: the Victims of Crime Act in 1984 and the Violence Against Women Act in 1994. In 2001, Oregon also established the Oregon Domestic & Sexual Violence Services Fund, which began funding 49 nonprofit organizations supporting victims statewide.
Tribal victims services programs rely heavily on state and federal grant awards that are funded by these pieces of state and federal legislation, according to state and tribal officials. But for years, Oregon struggled to connect these resources with tribes across the state, in part because only nonprofits could apply to receive state or federal grant funds.
During listening sessions with tribes in 2010, Diana Fleming, program analyst for the Oregon Department of Justice Crime Victim and Survivor Services Division, and Coyote, who also worked for the state, said many tribes told them they didn’t even know grant funds through the state of Oregon were available to them.
“The bottom line is, yes, we acknowledge that the funding wasn’t getting to tribal nations in the way that we had thought it was,” Fleming said.
It wasn’t until 2011 that the nine federally recognized tribes in Oregon became eligible to receive funding from the Oregon Domestic & Sexual Violence Services Fund and the Violence Against Women Act. Two years later, seven of the tribes could start receiving these grant funds for victim's services — $20,000 per year, per tribe.
In the following years, state and federal grant funds for tribal victim's services would continue to increase. Now, tribes in Oregon can receive $120,000 per year from the Oregon Domestic & Sexual Violence Services Fund and the Violence Against Women Act, and eight of the nine tribes in Oregon can receive an additional $125,000 per year from the Victims of Crime Act.
But advocates say the slow progress and meager funds help explain why it is such a challenge for victims of crimes on tribal land to get support. In Oregon, there is one domestic violence shelter on tribal land.
Voice of resilience
In the decades since Coyote reported the alleged kidnapping to tribal police in 1991, and the authorities did not charge him, Cruz has twice pleaded guilty in federal court to child sex crimes, the latest coming in 2013, when he pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree child molestation in Rhode Island. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
William Cruz declined to comment for this story.
Coyote has shared her story from that night near Deadman Pass in northeastern Oregon countless times. As an advocate for Indigenous survivors of violence, she hoped to amplify injustice and help survivors feel less alone. And yet, as she opened the red and white envelope with the police report in May, she wondered if memory served her right, or if perhaps it had all been a bad dream. She was silent as she read the four-page report in her office in the Nixyáawii Governance Center in Pendleton.
For years, she had said that Cruz did not rape her, that somehow she convinced him to stop and drive her home. But now, the report told a different story. A memory she had long suppressed flooded back.
“I think I chose not to remember it,” she said. “I do think it happened. Because it wasn’t the only time he raped me.”
No matter how many years go by, she cannot forget that night up near Deadman Pass. But that hillside has taken on a new meaning. Each year, on Memorial Day Weekend, Coyote returns to those foothills near the Blue Mountains. There, alongside her daughter and grandchildren, she picks flowers and spreads them on her mother’s grave.
* Lead photo: Merle Kirk, standing at a spot high above her nearby home on the Umatilla Indian Reservation, holds a portrait of her sister Mavis MayAnne Kirk, who died in 2009 after her boyfriend allegedly deliberately hit her with his vehicle on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. Photo by Kathy Aney/EO Media Group
* The logo was designed by Jessica Joaquin, an enrolled member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, who has been a graphic artist for more than 20 years. She has won five Native American Journalists Association awards for layout design and podcasting, and has worked for the Gila River Indian Community and Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.