“I was a victim when I was 13, a victim when I was 14 and a victim when I was 34.”—Twila Szymanski, above, in ‘A Broken Trust.’ Now 40, Twila has lived on the Fort Peck Reservation in northeast Montana since she was born and is an enrolled member of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribes. | Photo courtesy of Newsy.

A Broken Trust - Investigation Uncovers a Broken Justice System for Survivors of Sexual Assault on Tribal Lands

Story courtesy of Newsy

  Over the course of an 18-month investigation into prosecutions of sexual assault on tribal lands, Newsy reporters uncovered breakdowns in the federal and tribal criminal justice systems so severe that sexual perpetrators often received minimal or no punishment and survivors were left with little justice.

More than half of American Indian and Alaska Native women report having experienced sexual violence in their lifetimes. Yet, survivors face a unique set of hurdles when they seek justice for an assault on tribal lands. The Newsy investigation “A Broken Trust” takes a deeper look at the impact of a complex, centuries-old relationship between tribal nations and the federal government.

  For the project, Newsy’s investigative team spent time with members of the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes living on the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana and members of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation (also known as the Three Affiliated Tribes) on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. From survivors to police to tribal leaders to federal officials, “A Broken Trust” gives a voice to the people involved in this complex system.

  Documents, reports, and dozens of interviews reveal how the federal government, which is legally required to protect tribal communities, has repeatedly failed to adequately fund and staff tribal justice systems and limited the tribes’ ability to prosecute and sentence sexual crimes to the fullest extent.


“Since the time of Columbus, Native communities have been under nearconstant threat of sexual assault with impunity, the devastating consequences of which continue to this day. Generation after generation of Indian women and children have had to carry the burden of rape as a weapon of war and conquest, followed by thousands of assaults in boarding schools and foster homes. These were the government policies that contributed directly to the destruction of our communities and the ongoing ripple effects that continue to haunt and plague our people. Further, these tragedies have only been compounded by laws which protect the perpetrators while ignoring the trust and treaty obligations for public safety in Indian Country. It is my profound hope that Congress and the federal agencies will work together to provide more funding for law enforcement, social services and community support to begin addressing this pernicious threat to the 573 federally recognized tribes.” 

Among the investigation’s findings:

  • U.S. Attorneys are responsible for prosecuting major crimes committed on reservations. Newsy found that in Montana, the U.S. Attorney’s office declined to prosecute 64% of sexual assault cases across all reservations from 2013-2018.
  • Most tribal nations have no jurisdiction over those who are legally defined as “non-Indians.”
  • And most tribal courts are limited to one-year sentences for any crime, including rape. Records obtained from the Fort Berthold tribal prosecutor’s office, in North Dakota, show their court handed down sentences for only three cases of sexual assault from 2013 to mid-2018. The sentences ranged from eight days to six months.
  • The 2010 Tribal Law and Order Act allowed tribes to enhance sentencing for up to three years, if they meet certain requirements. Yet only 16 of the 319 federally recognized tribal judicial systems have implemented the Tribal Law and Order Act’s enhanced sentencing.
  • Even after the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana implemented enhanced sentencing, tribal prosecutors didn’t file for enhanced sentencing in any sexual assault convictions from 2013 to 2018. The longest sentence was still one year.

  “A Broken Trust’ is available online, and we encourage Indian tribes and advocates to host screenings and discussions of the film during the 2020 Sexual Assault Awareness Month,” says Elizabeth Carr, NIWRC Senior Native Affairs Policy Advisor. “The film sends a strong message on the importance of expanding jurisdiction to cover cases of sexual assault by amending VAWA and lessening the burdensome requirements for tribes to implement enhanced sentencing authority by amending TLOA.”

About Newsy
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