ETHETE — A federal crackdown on crime over the past two years has improved the quality of life on the Wind River Indian Reservation in central Wyoming, but sustained effort, funding and coordination are necessary to hold the gains, officials told state lawmakers on Tuesday.
Sprawling over 2.2 million acres in central Wyoming, the Wind River reservation is home to both the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes. It’s the only reservation in the state, and has seen more than its share of horrific crimes over the years.
Speaking at a criminal sentencing in Cheyenne early last year, a federal judge said something had to happen to snap the cycle of excessive drinking leading to violent crimes, often among relatives, on the reservation.
“Somehow, this behavior has to change,” U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson said in March 2011 when he sentenced a young Robert Spoonhunter to 13 years in prison.
Spoonhunter had pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the death of his sister, 13-year-old Marisa Spoonhunter, of Ethete. According to authorities, after a night of drinking in a trailer on the reservation, Robert Spoonhunter choked his sister and threw her into a weight bench, injuring her head, when he found another man having sexual contact with the girl.
Now authorities including U.S. Attorney Christopher “Kip” Crofts, whose office prosecuted Robert Spoonhunter, say they’re seeing concrete changes.
“Things are better, there’s no question about it,” Crofts said Tuesday. He was among many federal, state and local officials who testified to a joint meeting of the judiciary and tribal relations committees of the Wyoming Legislature.
Crofts, who grew up near the reservation, said he believes continued federal support for law enforcement there is absolutely essential.
Wind River was one of four reservations nationwide that the federal government picked for a recent two-year law enforcement push that saw additional officers from agencies such as U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Park Service stationed at the reservations. Marisa Spoonhunter was killed in April 2010, early in the federal effort.
While the initial federal law enforcement push ended late last year, it gave the BIA breathing room to beef up its standing police force at the Wind River Agency from half a dozen officers a few years ago to 21 currently. Plans ultimately call for hiring for a force of 34 officers.
Reports of crime dropped on the other three reservations the federal government targeted during its 2010-11 Safe Indian Communities initiative. But reports of violent crime went up 7 percent on the Wind River Indian Reservation.
Crofts and others say reports of crime increased because residents discovered that if they called for help, they were likely to get it.
Will Matthews, chief of police for the Wind River Agency, testified to state lawmakers Tuesday that there’s clearly been an improvement on the reservation. However, he said the early months of the federal law enforcement push were marked by residents’ concern that officers were culturally insensitive.
Federal officers, who were brought in on short rotations from around the country, were unfamiliar with sweat lodges and other Indian ways, Matthews said. He said officers commonly misidentified bundles of sage and other plants that Indians sometimes carry.
“Initially what we were running into was seeing bags of sage, and their presumption was that it’s marijuana, and of course it’s not,” Matthews said.
Going from six officers to more than 30 during the surge, Matthews said an increase in crime reports was inevitable. “With having that many officers, we did see that initial spike in crime because it was being addressed,” he said.
Rep. Patrick Goggles, D-Ethete, is the only American Indian in the Wyoming Legislature and lives on the reservation.
“There was some gap in cultural sensitivity,” Goggles said of the federal officers who first arrived on the reservation. “But once we got past that part, and got people aware of certain things, it started to go a lot smoother.”
Goggles said he appreciated the law enforcement surge as a local resident. “You started to feel a little bit safer in the community,” he said.
Before the surge, Goggles said he commonly didn’t drive on Sundays because it was so common to encounter drunken drivers on the reservation’s roadways and it was nearly pointless to try to summon law enforcement help.
Gary Collins, tribal liaison between the Northern Arapaho Tribe and the state of Wyoming, also said he believes the federal effort has paid off.
“We’ve made a lot of progress in so many areas, we still have a lot of questions and problems, but they are so different than they were 20 years ago,” Collins said.
The increase in law enforcement has resulted in a reduction in fatal car wrecks, Collins said. Officers are now arresting many drunken drivers before they have fatal accidents, he said.
“The cars are now being towed in, in one piece, whereas a couple of years ago, they were crumpled beer cans, they were horrendous car wrecks,” Collins said.