Violent crimes in Indian Country, especially against women, have put a focus on the difficulty of solving crimes on reservations -- an issue that has persisted for far too long.
So it’s encouraging that the U.S. attorney’s office in North Dakota and the FBI appear committed to resolving the Olivia Lone Bear case. Lone Bear, 32, disappeared on Oct. 25, 2017, after being seen driving a pickup in New Town. Her body was recovered July 31, 2018, in a pickup submerged in Lake Sakakawea.
The 10-month search for Lone Bear was frustrating for her family and friends, who felt law enforcement didn’t respond quickly enough and didn’t put enough resources into the investigation. The family organized searches and worked to keep the story in the public spotlight.
Last week, federal investigators briefed the family and released more details on the case -- the medical examiner couldn’t determine the cause of death, and Lone Bear was seat belted in the front passenger seat when found.
“It’s a death investigation, and so I think the most obvious charges that you’re thinking of along those lines are homicide and manslaughter, both voluntary and involuntary charges,” U.S. Attorney Drew Wrigley said.
The FBI doubled the reward to $10,000 for “actionable information” that results in the identification of those involved in Lone Bear's disappearance. Minneapolis FBI Special Agent in Charge Jill Sanborn noted the difficulty of a long investigation in a statement.
“We share the desire to bring closure to this case and peace to Olivia’s family and fully understand the frustration a lengthy investigation can cause,” she said.
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The Lone Bear case illustrates the problems facing law enforcement on reservations. The Bureau of Indian Affairs often lacks enough police officers and resources. It takes time for the FBI to become involved in some cases. In Lone Bear’s disappearance, it wasn’t certain in the beginning that a crime might have been committed.
The Lone Bear family complained that law enforcement agencies didn’t do a good job of coordinating the investigation and didn’t commit the necessary resources to it. These aren’t uncommon complaints on reservations.
Violence against women and children in Indian Country remains a serious problem. Efforts are underway to address the issue, but progress has been slow.
Congress is again trying to pass Savanna’s Act, which seeks to mitigate violence against women. It was originally introduced by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and approved by the Senate. It stalled in the House last year, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, reintroduced it this year. The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, chaired by Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., sent it to the Senate floor last week. The measure is named for Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, from the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation, who was murdered in Fargo.
Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., has introduced the Missing and Murdered Indian Crisis Act of 2019. The bill directs the comptroller general of the United States to submit a report on the response of law enforcement agencies to reports of missing or murdered Native Americans.
Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., offered the Native Survivors of Sexual Violence Act, which allows prosecution in tribal courts of nontribal offenders for sexual assault, sex trafficking and stalking.
Both the Gallego and Haaland bills aren’t expected to pass. Savanna’s Act reflects how time-consuming it can be to pass legislation. It was blocked last year by one member of the House. The Tribune editorial board hopes Congress gives it some urgency and approves it this year.
Congress needs to give more attention to the needs of law enforcement on reservations. This isn’t a political issue; it’s a case of being able to live without fear of rape, assault or murder.