On an early morning last June, on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in western North Dakota, tribal officer Nathan Sanchez was nearing the end of his shift when he noticed a frantic stirring in the cattails alongside the road. A girl emerged. Her jeans were wet, her halter-top fallen to her waist. Sanchez approached in his car to ask what had happened. The girl, in hysterics, mumbled that she had been raped and took off running.
Sanchez caught her on foot. He saw she was white—not a member of the tribe. “Ma’am,” he recalled saying, though she was only 16, “I know you’re upset, but I need to get you out of here.” He wrapped her in a blanket and led her to the car. Was the man who raped her Indian, he asked? She said he was.
Sanchez met Criminal Investigator Angela Cummings at the police station in New Town, a low brick building that doubles as the Civic Center, and Cummings took the girl into a private room. The victim had run away from Texas to find her father who worked in the Bakken oilfields. He had refused to let her stay with him, and in the weeks that followed, she’d lived with an acquaintance on the reservation.
The night before Sanchez found her, an oil worker at a bar in New Town had bought her drinks and taken her to his camper. She remembered only that several men and a woman were having sex. “Just do it,” someone had said as a man climbed on top of her. Were any of the men Indian, Cummings asked? No, the girl said this time.
Why did it matter? If the girl’s rapist was, in fact, an enrolled member of a Native American tribe, then Cummings had every right to continue the investigation. But now the girl struggled through her shock and inebriation to recall the story: The men, she believed, had been white and Latino. If true, then the right to investigate and prosecute the case belonged not to Cummings, nor to the U.S. attorney, but to the state. “I did what I could,” Cummings later told me, but in the end, she called a county deputy to take the girl off the reservation.