Remembering Jancita Eagle Deer

This morning I awoke thinking of Jancita Eagle Deer. I am sure she is watching us, from the other side, the side of the spirits. She is watching as Congress debates the Violence Against Women Act, and hoping someone remembers her.

Jancita was a Lakota woman from the Rosebud reservation. In l974, Eagle Deer testified that William Janklow, [her legal guardian as a child] had raped her on a ride home from babysitting for the Janklow family. The incident had occurred in l967. Rosebud Tribal Judge Mario Gonzalez, wrote that Ms. Jancita Eagle Deer testified under obvious emotional difficulty that she had been raped by William Janklow, and that he threatened her life with a gun. Portions of her testimony were corroborated by her high school guidance counselor , her foster parents, a rape examination, and a BIA investigator. The evidence was enough to disbar William Janklow, but he was never convicted of the crime. The Rosebud Tribal Court had no jurisdiction.

Jancita Eagle Deer was killed by an oncoming car near Aurora, Nebraska while outside of a vehicle on April 4, 1975. She had been apparently walking in the middle of the highway when she was hit. The circumstances were mysterious. She died only a few months after she had testified in Rosebud Tribal Court against William Janklow, over 200 miles away from her home.

On November 2, 1974. William Janklow was elected South Dakota State Attorney General. Janklow’s star continued to rise, and in l978, he became a two-term governor , known for turning South Dakota into the “Mississippi of the North”. Under Janklows’ political leadership, South Dakota was renowned for it’s poor treatment of Native people and seizure of Native lands and jurisdiction. After serving additional time in the House of Representatives, and in jail for vehicular homicide, William Janklow passed away in 2003. At every turn in his career, Native people rankled at his rise in power, and the lack of justice for Jancita.

In the least, Jancita’s story reminds us why the Violence Against Women Act deserves passage.

The House of Representatives continues to debate the question of tribal government jurisdiction over non-Native perpetrators of violence against Native women if the crime occurs in Indian country. It’s an interesting case of the un-equal protection under the law, as Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs Chair Maria Cantwell remarked. , “We cannot vote for an amendment…. that basically strips the rights of Native American women and treats them like second-class citizens. Nor can we just go silent on what is an epidemic problem in our country.” The bill passed through the Senate, after a lengthy debate, and now, these issues remain a high concern to many Republican representatives. To the Native community, the debate remains a clear example of a discriminatory legal system. Indeed, since the Supreme Court’s Oliphant decision stripped tribal communities of much jurisdiction over non- tribal members, many reservations are now the residence to large non Native populations. In contrast, Native people are prosecuted under both tribal and non tribal law, and often constitute a disproportionate percentage of the prison population . In short, Native people are subject to the laws of a different political entity, but non Native criminals find themselves without legal repercussions in Indian country.

Take a North Dakota reliving of history, in fiction and in law. Louise Erdrich’s latest magnificent book- The Round House speaks to a similar case, and the entanglements of laws and lack of justice in the case of rape of tribal women. In one facet of the book, Jancita Eagle Deer bears an uncanny resemblance to murder victim Mayla Wolfskin. “ She worked for that one governor, you know, He did all those bad things. Nothing stuck to him.” Of course, Erdrich writes fiction, and issues a disclaimer. The truth, however, is often a mirror to fiction.

Presently, 34% of American Indian and Alaska Native women will be raped in their lifetimes; 39% will be subjected to domestic violence in their lifetimes; 67% of Native women victims of rape and sexual assault report their assailants as non-Native individuals, and, on some reservations, Native women are murdered at more than ten times the national average. Not good. This set of facts is paired with unfortunately high declination rates: U.S. Attorneys declined to prosecute nearly 52% of violent crimes that occur in Indian country; and 67% of cases declined were sexual abuse related cases. Pretty much the luck of William Janklow.
I asked Lisa Brunner, Executive Director of Sacred Spirits, a national tribal organization working on these issues, about these issues. Brunner explained that some of the concern stems from a lack of understanding of tribal jurisdiction, in some cases, tribes will, in fact not have criminal codes which allow this legal process. Brunner suggests that the answer was to fund the tribal process, and educate the non Native population. The answer was not to put more funding in non-Indian jurisdictions, as declination rates for prosecution remain at over 62% in rape and sexual assault cases.

As well, there are safeguards built into the provision which ensure that all rights guaranteed under the Constitution are given to non-Native defendants in tribal court. Further, the special domestic violence jurisdiction is narrowly restricted to apply only to instances of domestic or dating violence where: 1) the victim is an Indian, 2) the conduct occurs on tribal lands; and 3) where the defendant either lives or works on the reservation, i.e., where the defendant has significant ties to the community.
In their letter to Congress, the National Council of American Indians patiently explained, that Indian tribes are not a racial class, but are …”a political body – so the question is not whether non-Indians are subject to Indian court – the question is whether tribal governments, political entities, have the necessary jurisdiction to provide their citizens with the public safety protections every government has the inherent duty to provide.”

As Cantwell testified, "The notion that this is somehow abrogating individual rights just because the crime takes place on a tribal reservation is incorrect. So I ask my colleagues, do you want to continue to have this unbelievable growth and petri dish of crime evolving? Because criminals know, when you have a porous border that is where they are going to go."

Jancita Eagle Deer deserved justice that she did not receive. It is almost forty years later, and there should be no statute of limitations on justice. The Violence Against Women Act would provide a process for justice and a deterrent for all women. I remember Jancita and hope her story from the next world is heard.

Volunteer Donate Apply For Grant