Brave Heart Women Fight to Ban Man-Camps, Which Bring Rape and Abuse

Mary Annette Pember

Traditionally, membership in the Dakota women’s Brave Heart Society required a formidable spirit. These women carried the dead warriors from the battlefield and tended to the funerary treatment of the bodies; they also took on the task of comforting the families of those who’d walked on and helping them to go forward.

Not much has changed for the Brave Hearts in the last 100 years, except that these remarkable women have reorganized themselves into a modern-day version of the traditional women’s society in order to take on a new challenge to their families: sex trafficking and sexual violence. The surge in this threat, they say, is brought on by the predatory economics of the mining and pipeline industries in South and North Dakota.

Women of the Brave Heart Society and the Ihanktkownwan (Yankton Sioux) Treaty Council hosted the recent Protect the Sacred Conference at the Fort Randall Casino in Pickstown, South Dakota. The conference was further entitled, “Protect the Women and Families from the KXL [Keystone Pipeline system] Violence! Say no to Man Camps in Oceti Sakowin Territory!”

The Keystone Pipeline is part of a system through South Dakota that will transport oil sands from Canada to the refineries in the Gulf coast of Texas. Organizers of the Protect the Sacred Conference say that if President Obama approves the project, TransCanada will bring in thousands of transient workers to rural South Dakota to construct the pipeline. The company plans to house the mostly male employees in temporary housing compounds, commonly called “man camps.” According to conference organizers and advocates, man camps give rise to violence against women and families and increase sex trafficking, especially among Native women, who already are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than their sisters of other races.

During the two-day conference, Native and non-Native speakers graphically tied together their common concerns regarding the environmental, social, sexual, tribal and social justice effects of extractive industries such as fracking and pipelines.

Lisa Brunner, White Earth Ojibwe, Program Specialist for the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center described the wide-ranging impact of extractive industries such as oil fracking and pipelines as predator economics at its worst.

“They treat Mother Earth like they treat women... They think they can own us, buy us, sell us, trade us, rent us, poison us, rape us, destroy us, use us as entertainment and kill us. I’m happy to see that we are talking about the level of violence that is occurring against Mother Earth because it equates to us [women]. What happens to her happens to us... We are the creators of life. We carry that water that creates life just as Mother Earth carries the water that maintains our life. So I’m happy to see our men standing here but remind you that when you stand for one, you must stand for the other.”

Faith Spotted Eagle, Ihanktunwan (Yankton), a member of the Brave Heart Society likens the specter of man camps to the U.S. militarization of the Plains during the 1800’s, when U.S. Army forts fostered the systematic sexual brutalization of Native women by soldiers.

Advocates Melissa Merrick from Spirit Lake and Sadie Young Bird from Ft. Berthold described the unprecedented rise in domestic violence, sexual assaults and sex trafficking in their communities since hydraulic fracturing or fracking technology brought about the oil boom of 2008 in the Bakken formation. They said there has been a doubling and tripling number of sexual assaults, domestic violence and sex trafficking incidents in North Dakota since 2008.

According to a story in the Bismarck Tribune, North Dakota’s Uniform Crime Report shows that violent crime is up 7.2 percent in the state and a record 243 rapes were committed in 2012, up from an already appalling 207 in 2011. North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem noted that 12 of the state’s top oil-producing counties accounted for much of the crime. He further noted that police have seen an increase in sexual trafficking, drugs and other organized criminal enterprises in these areas.

Merrick and Young Bird encouraged South Dakota residents to take action against the establishment of man camps in their communities. They noted that the Native communities in North Dakota had neither warning nor any voice in the creation of the oil patch and its associated maladies. “If the man camps come here, all the crime will come along with them,” Young Bird said. “Once they’re here, it’s impossible to stop the chaos, no matter how much support you have.”

Sabrina King, lobbyist/organizer with Dakota Rural Action provided information about the three proposed camps in South Dakota that will each house up to 1,000 workers. The camps would be located in Harding, less than 10 miles from the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation and Tripp County, less than 30 miles from the Rosebud reservation and less than 50 miles from the Yankton reservation. Part of that camp is also located in Zeibach County, the 4th poorest county in the U.S., where 71 percent of the population is Native. The camps will be located on private land that has already been leased. The camps will contain the housing and food/recreation facilities, and are intended, according to Transcanada, to be self-contained. The company will drill water wells where possible, and all waste will be disposed of on-site, if possible. Electricity will come from local sources or diesel generators. There are no specific reclamation plans for the man camps according to King, who also said that such camps present a strain on utility and social infrastructures of the small communities in which they often locate.

She noted that TransCanada has already successfully purchased 99 percent of easement leases needed to build the pipeline through South Dakota. She agreed that the pipeline would likely be a reality in South Dakota unless President Obama takes action against it.

Although U. S. Attorney Brendan Johnson told attendees that his office couldn’t take a stance against the companies that build the camps, the Department of Justice can help prosecute criminals. "The fact of the matter is, when you have large groups of men coming into a rural area, it really increases concerns and we have to be very vigilant about human trafficking in those types of areas," said Johnson. “We don’t want to get caught flat-footed in South Dakota.”

Johnson noted that South Dakota is the first state to use the federal sex trafficking statutes to prosecute both customers (johns) and pimps. He also affirmed his offices commitment to stand alongside of tribal representatives who wish to prosecute criminals in federal court. He noted the attributes of the Violence Against Women Act and Tribal Law and Order Act that will allow tribes to prosecute non-Native perpetrators. The part of the VAWA that provides tribes with provisional jurisdiction over nonmembers in domestic violence cases, however, won’t go into effect until 2015.

In the meantime, advocates like Merrick and Young Bird struggle to offer help to women on their checkerboard reservation of six communities that span over a million acres and border six different counties. Cedar Gillette of the Mandan Hidatsa and Turtle Mountain Ojibwe tribes described the frustration of her work as an advocate for the Fort Berthold Coalition Against Violence. “This work has opened my eyes the lack of documentation of these camps. Emergency services often can’t find their locations and since they are located in isolated and desolate areas, there is often no cell phone service available,” she said.

Advocates say there are two types of man camps: documented and undocumented. “Undocumented camps are often simply 50-100 trailers that a rancher or farmer has set up on his land to rent out and make money,” according to Gillette. These undocumented camps present a special problem for emergency services and organizations such as the Coalition Against Sexual Assault. Since the camps don’t appear on maps and may not have addresses, victims may face additional problems in getting help. She described a situation in which a woman frantically called 911 for help nearly 20 times before she was found, badly beaten, stumbling down the highway over two hours after her initial call. Gillette said the woman’s partner had tried to run her over with his car. She added that since there are no emergency room facilities on the Fort Berthold Reservation, advocates must drive rape victims several hours to either Minot or Bismarck in order to have a rape kit performed.

Gillette, Young Bird and Merrick spoke of the emotional toll working as advocates takes on their own lives. “We have little opportunity to do any follow up with these women. We usually have no idea what happens to them after they leave us,’ said Gillette.

“The trauma that these (oil) workers leave behind will stay in our communities for generations,” Merrick noted.

Spotted Eagle pointed out to U.S. Attorney Johnson and conference attendees that the tribes of South Dakota signed treaties with the U.S. government including the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie that includes the bad man clause that reads, “If bad men among the whites, or among other people subject to the authority of the United States, shall commit any wrong upon the person or property of the Indians, the United States will, upon proof made to the agent and forwarded to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs at Washington city, proceed at once to cause the offender to be arrested and punished according to the laws of the United States, and also reimburse the injured person for the loss sustained.”

“Therefore, I respectfully ask that our treaties be treated as the supreme law of the land that they are,” she stated. “Our grandfathers signed those treaties with the belief that our health, education and welfare would be protected for generations to come.”

"We have lost a lot over the generations to the United States government, so our word to our Congress and our President of the United States here today is, 'We don't want this!'" said Rosebud Sioux tribal president Cyril Scott.

Representatives and advocates from the White Buffalo Calf Woman Society, the Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains, the South Dakota Coalition Ending Domestic and Sexual Violence Against Women, all of S.D, and the Spirit Lake Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Program and the Ft. Berthold Victims Services Program of both N.D. as well as Wica Agli, “Bringing Back Men’s Society associated with the White Buffalo Calf Society also helped coordinate the conference.


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