November 27th, 2007 04:20 EST
A Day in the Life in Indian Country
The two FBI agents pick their way carefully through the sweltering storage shed full of pawned merchandise. They are trailing the owner as he explains that he hasn’t seen the $20,000 worth of missing saddles and tack stolen recently from a riding program for kids on the Rocky Boy reservation.
Meanwhile, the tribe’s police officer—Grace Her Many Horses—is looking over his collection for potentially stolen Native American artifacts. With cash in short supply here, some tribal members resort to pawning personal possessions—even the occasional family treasure.
The two agents—John Quinlan and Jon Edwards of our Havre office, who cover Fort Belknap and the nearby-Rocky Boy reservation—have the lead in the case because they are investigating a federal offense: a major theft on a reservation.
Yet, as is true throughout Indian Country, the agents and tribal police are working as a team. “We’d fail without partnerships,” says Quinlan, a former homicide detective in Florida. “The officers are almost always members of the tribes, so they have the trust and rapport that we don’t as federal agents. They can open doors.”
They also know the behind-the-scenes information that is so helpful: who is friends with whom, who might be nursing a grudge, who might know something. “It takes years for us to learn those kinds of relationships,” Quinlan says. “The tribal police are like our institutional memory.”
These police, who typically handle misdemeanors like public intoxication and petty theft, aren’t our only partners in Indian Country. We also depend on:
- Tribal judges, who can help us by releasing those serving a misdemeanor sentence in exchange for their help on future FBI cases;
- Federal probation officers, who know when someone is about to be released from prison back into the community or if someone has violated probation and is a potential threat;
- State, county, and other local police, who might help investigate crimes off the reservation and who participate in joint task forces for drugs and violent crimes;
- The U.S. Attorney and assistant U.S. attorneys who prosecute the cases we investigate;
- Health care professionals, especially from the Indian Health Service, who report cases of suspected abuse and provide services to victims; and
- FBI victims specialists, who provide witnesses and victims with support services.
These partnerships, though sometimes complex, enable different strengths to be brought to the table. Someone arrested by tribal police, for example, might be more willing to talk with an FBI agent about the case. And sometimes, relationships can be too close for tribal officers—who don’t want to play favorites.
“As outsiders, we have a certain objectivity and a reputation for fairness,” says Edwards. “To us, it doesn’t matter who is in what tribe. We just want justice to be done.”
In this case, justice may have to wait. The agents—with the help of Grace Her Many Horses—continue the search for the missing equipment but concede it may be gone for good. They believe they have found at least one person responsible for the theft, but they have not recovered any of the saddles. It's a blow to the riding program, run by the tribe to help kids connect with their heritage and pass the time during the slower summer months. Still the agents press on. They know it’s not only about finding some stolen saddles, it’s about building hope for the future.