The Northern Cheyenne Tribe sued the federal government this week, claiming the feds have unlawfully stymied the tribe’s efforts to take over policing responsibilities from the government in the face of longstanding complaints about staffing levels, investigations and crime rates. 

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Billings, claims the Bureau of Indian Affairs delayed and then unlawfully denied the tribe’s application to take over some policing responsibilities on the Northern Cheyenne’s approximately 440,000-acre reservation. The BIA is an agency within the Department of Interior. The tribe relies on the BIA for law enforcement services on the reservation, which it described as chronically inadequate. 

“The Tribe has been dissatisfied with the level of law enforcement service provided by the Bureau for several years and has attempted to work with the Bureau to address the issues, including a lack of qualified officers assigned to the Reservation and a lack of adequate criminal investigations,” the complaint states. 

The lawsuit comes after the tribe and others — including Montana’s two U.S. senators — have complained about high crime rates and too few police officers to effectively respond to calls and conduct investigations. 

According to the BIA, it should have at least 19 law enforcement staff members on the reservation, the lawsuit claims. But over the last several years, an average of fewer than six have been assigned there. At times there is only one officer on duty, the lawsuit alleges, making it difficult or impossible to respond to every call for help. 

In a Thursday statement, Donna Fisher, the tribe’s president, said the tribe and its citizens “have paid the high price of violent crime, including missing and murdered indigenous women, unlawful drug use and distribution, and other crimes” as a result of the BIA’s failure to provide adequate policing. 

“BIA, which is solely responsible for enforcing the criminal laws on the Reservation, has fallen down on this sacred trust and statutory obligation for many years,” Fisher said. 

The tribe’s complaints culminated over the summer when a string of homicides on the reservation prompted Montana’s U.S. senators, Jon Tester and Steve Daines, to urge the federal government on the tribe’s behalf to increase the number of officers and investigations on the reservation and improve communication with tribal leaders and victims’ families. Daines met with tribal leaders in October to discuss their concerns. Tester, in an Oct. 30 letter, asked for an update on what steps BIA was taking to address the complaints. 

A simple way to begin addressing crime rates on Northern Cheyenne land, Tester said, is to increase the number of officers available to respond to crimes and other calls for help — a responsibility he said falls to the federal government.

“We have to have enough police officers on the ground to protect the people … And I think what adds to the situation in Indian Country is our trust responsibility,” he said in an early December interview with Montana Free Press. “We do have an obligation to make sure we’re doing right.”

After the tribe and others raised concerns over the summer, the tribe began working to take over responsibility for criminal investigations and drug enforcement on the reservation from the BIA. Under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, tribes can apply to take over roles, such as policing, otherwise assigned to the federal government. 

On July 20, the tribe sent a letter to BIA stating its intent to apply to assume criminal investigation and drug enforcement duties, according to the lawsuit. The tribe submitted its application Aug. 19. 

But since then, the tribe alleges, the government violated the self determination act by stalling consideration of the application, failing to share information necessary to complete an accurate application, and failing to offer guidance before ultimately denying the proposal on Nov. 17, based on a variety of inadequacies in the application. According to the tribe’s lawsuit, many of the reasons the BIA offered for the denial violated the self determination act.

Fisher’s statement said the tribe is asking the court for an injunction ordering BIA to accept the tribe’s proposals. 

Neither the BIA nor the Interior Department, which is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, immediately responded to emails seeking comment. 

In his Oct. 30 letter, Tester urged the agency to provide any assistance or information necessary for the Northern Cheyenne to complete the application process. 

“Senator Tester believes it’s imperative that the federal government upholds its trust and treaty responsibilities and work hand-in-hand with Tribes to advance self-determination,” Tester spokesman Roy Loewenstein said in an emailed statement. 

Daines, in an emailed statement, said, “It’s unacceptable that the BIA continues to play these bureaucratic games with the Northern Cheyenne.” 

“Montana’s tribes need to be empowered to ensure the safety of their communities,” he said.

This story was updated Dec. 22, 2020, to correct the spelling of Roy Loewenstein’s name.

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Chris covers Native American issues as a Report for America Corps member based in Billings. He also monitors the Montana Supreme Court, federal courts and criminal justice issues. Before joining MTFP in 2020, Chris most recently covered tribal affairs and Wyoming's Wind River Reservation for the Casper Star-Tribune, and has also reported for the Wisconsin State Journal. Contact Chris at caadland@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 4, and follow @cjaadland on Twitter.