Article — From the February 2011 issue

Tiny Little Laws

A plague of sexual violence in Indian country

( 3 of 11 )

“You’re in the middle of nowhere,” the young receptionist at Standing Rock’s Prairie Knights Casino and Resort told me when I arrived on the reservation, sounding like any bored teenager living in a small town. It was a moonless night, and the forty-five-minute drive from the reservation’s northern boundary near Mandan, North Dakota, to the glittering casino on top of a hill revealed nothing but empty blacktop bordered by a whirling darkness. The hotel lobby was deserted but the casino hummed. Taped to the front desk was a notice: attention hunters do NOT clean your birds in the lodge rooms or in the bathtubs. Pheasant season had just begun; young white hunters and older white gamblers, most of them retirees from North Dakota, had booked the rooms, but in the casino a mix of whites and Native Americans worked the slot machines.

When morning came, I was surprised to find a treeless, undulating grassland stretching for miles under a bright blue sky. Huge bales of hay sat on the camel-colored hills and herds of cattle, horses, and heavy-shouldered buffalo grazed the land on either side of the main road that crosses the reservation from north to south. The Missouri River was up and running again after eight years of drought, and it wound along the eastern edge of the reservation with a lazy luxury, the lacy tops of trees that had sprouted up during the long dry spell just visible in the center of the wide river, waving as they drowned.

The reservation straddles the North and South Dakota state line, spans two time zones (Central and Mountain), and is the size of Connecticut. Five thousand members of the Sioux tribe live here, Lakotas and Dakotas, as well as a few thousand non-Sioux people. Half of the population is under twenty-five years of age. The life expectancy of a Native American living in the Dakotas is eleven years less than that of an average American. You can travel around the reservation for days and never see an old man.

The smaller communities on Standing Rock—Little Eagle, Bullhead, Solen, and Porcupine—are basically clusters of trailer homes and pastel-colored one-story houses assembled on streets—some paved, most not—and set down in the middle of this swelling sea of grass. Fort Yates, situated on the banks of the Missouri, is the seat of tribal government and headquarters of the tribal council, the courts, the police department, the jail, Sitting Bull College, the only hospital on the reservation (which is run by the Indian Health Service), and one of the reservation’s two supermarkets, the White Buffalo. The town was named after Captain George Yates, who was killed in the great Sioux victory at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, in 1876.

When Sitting Bull and two hundred of his followers surrendered to the U.S. Army in 1881 they were transported to Fort Yates from Fort Buford on a Missouri River steamboat. Nine years later, Sitting Bull was killed by Lakota policemen during an arrest ordered by Indian Service Agent James McLaughlin, the supervisor of Standing Rock. McLaughlin was determined to put an end to the Ghost Dance religion with its belief that one day all the dead Sioux would be resurrected, as well as the vanquished buffalo and the wild, unbroken prairie, first by awarding provisions only to the “better disposed Indians” while starving the others (such as Sitting Bull and his followers), and then by arresting the fifty-nine-year-old chief.

McLaughlin died at the age of eighty-one and was buried on the South Dakota side of the reservation in a town that bears his name. Today the main street of McLaughlin, South Dakota, features a gas station set alongside railroad tracks, a Boys & Girls Club, an Indian Health Service clinic, one bar with a pool table, and, tucked down a side street, a shelter for abused women named after Pretty Bird Woman, who was raped and then beaten to death by a fifteen-year-old boy in 2001.

’s last article for Harper’s Magazine, Crimes Against Nature, appeared in the July 2008 issue. She is a reporting fellow with the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute

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