Disparity between tribal and non-tribal law and jurisdiction has created an atmosphere of injustice and danger for Native women and men.
Send someone to Winnebago, to the Dollar General. The garbage bin is on fire!
The cashier smelled smoke, so she dialed 911. Then she cleared the discount store and waited for help to arrive on the Winnebago Indian Reservation on a summer day in 2006.
But 15 minutes later, it sank in that help was not on the way.
“The Dollar General was on fire, and fire trucks never came,” recalled attorney Danelle Smith, a Winnebago who provides legal counsel for the tribe.
The next step was to call tribal police, but the clerk didn’t know the number. So she looked it up and then dialed, the garbage still burning.
Eventually, Winnebago firefighters doused the flames. They traced the delay to the 911 operator, who claimed no one reported a fire.
Attorney Smith ran for the county board that fall after hearing this and similar stories. For example, in the early 1990s, a Native woman called 911 in a domestic violence incident, and an operator told her to call Omaha tribal police instead.
“And when tribal police arrived, they found the boyfriend was non-Indian, so they couldn’t even arrest him,” Smith said.
Once in office, Smith investigated why some tribal residents saw delays when they called 911.
As it turned out, 911 operators screened calls. Some asked whether callers were “tribal,” and some of those Native calls, Smith said, were ignored. This had to stop, she said.
Gayle Dahlman, the head dispatcher, said she “can’t confirm or disconfirm” the practice. Asking for tribal affiliation had to do with jurisdiction, she said.
This happened in Thurston County, and in that pistol-shaped corner of Nebraska, jurisdiction is a critical issue fraught with ill will.
The Winnebago and Omaha tribes both have land here, meaning three agencies – two tribal police forces and Thurston County deputies – are charged with protecting all residents.
Complicating matters further are policies like the Dawes Act of 1887, which sliced tribally owned lands into individual parcels, opening reservations to white settlers.
So today, the county is a checkerboard of tribal and white-owned lands. Tensions occasionally smolder over who controls what, as some territory still remains in dispute.
“It’s a mess here in Thurston County,” said Thurston County Sheriff Chris Kleinberg. “It is so screwed up, no one is benefiting from it.”
The mess thickened in the late 1990s, when Thurston County reorganized its addressing system. The tribes kept their style of addressing, which was incompatible with the county’s refurbished 911 dispatching system, and some Native residents encountered delays when calling for help.
Ed Tyndal, chief of police for the Omaha Nation, said inefficiencies often caused those delays.
“A call comes in from an Indian, and a tribal police officer is a block away, but 911 sends Thurston County” officers, said Tyndall, illustrating the poor coordination. “This directly affects public safety in Thurston County.”
Sheriff Kleinberg and dispatcher Dahlman attribute these scenarios to the tribes’ incongruent address system, which the Winnebago tribe is changing. Without a uniform address system, some calls simply pop up as “tribal community” because the 911 database does not have addresses for those landline phone numbers from the tribe.
So if the dispatcher cannot locate an address and cannot ask whether the caller is a tribal resident, Dahlman said, Thurston County officers are sent to the reservations, even though tribal forces want to handle their own cases.
“So it helps to know whether callers are tribal,” Dahlman said. “But we’re in a Catch-22. What do we do? What don’t we do?”
Matching different police forces to different ethnic groups is secondary to sending help quickly, Smith said. But because tribal courts are based on ethnicity — that is, they are for Indians only — Kleinberg adds that screening for tribal affiliation is an inevitable question in police matters.
“Law enforcement, as a whole, is trained not to segregate by skin color. In this area, that’s not possible,” Kleinberg said. “Depending on what part of the county you’re in, depending on whose land you’re on, depending on what your skin color is – we have to literally ask for someone’s race. I normally wouldn’t care about this. But I have to determine which laws apply and which court you go to.”
He said it is that division, that notion of different justice for different people, that fuels animosity in Thurston County, and it bleeds into the minutiae of everyday life, like 911. Kleinberg, of Chippewa descent, said working in Thurston County has changed the way he views himself.
“As a child, I grew up going to pow-wows and being real proud of the fact that my family is Native American,” he said. “Now I don’t even care about that part.
“It makes me so nauseous, I’m not running in Thurston County again. I don’t want to determine what laws I follow on the basis of skin color. I took an oath that I would not do that. Unfortunately, the laws here say I have to do that.”