Blogger accuses Spirit Lake tribal chairman of incompetence, having hand in murder
FORT TOTTEN, N.D. - As the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation grapples with how to better safeguard its children from abusers and sexual predators, deep divisions - some going back generations - have shaped the narrative of why and how much the child protection system has failed and whether progress has been made in fixing it.
Reflecting and perhaps fanning those divisions, an off-reservation blogger with ties to Spirit Lake has repeatedly accused Tribal Chairman Roger Yankton and members of his large and influential family of corruption, incompetence, harassment, intimidation - and worse.
"Your chairman is a murderer," a standing blog headline reads. "Good luck with that."
The blogger, who some on the reservation say is a Canadian woman of Sioux heritage using the name Cat West, has for 15 years maintained a website called "Restless Spirit: The Murder of Eddie Peltier."
The 1983 murder of Peltier, a Spirit Lake member and former Devils Lake police officer, led to a long and convoluted case marked by recanted testimony, allegations of witness intimidation and charges of official incompetence and collusion.
Peltier's body was found on a reservation highway, apparently after he was beaten and run over. Eleven men were tried and convicted in connection with the crime, including Richard LaFuente, a Texan of Sioux and Mexican heritage who was visiting relatives at Spirit Lake. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Despite appeals and efforts to secure a new trial, aided for a time by the Innocence Project of Minnesota, LaFuente is the only one of the convicted men who remains in prison. He continues to declare his innocence and refused an arrangement that would have allowed him to go home in return for a confession.
At Spirit Lake, some have long believed that LaFuente and the others charged in the murder were innocent, and that members of the large and influential Yankton clan were involved in the death and subsequent efforts to cover up their involvement.
Others dismiss the idea as political intrigue. James Yankton, a burly former reservation police officer and brother to Roger Yankton, said in 2006, "I have no idea why they continue to accuse me and my brother and my family of Edward's death."
In an interview in his office last week, Roger Yankton also dismissed the suggestion that he and his family had anything to do with it.
"People have rights to express themselves," he said. "I'm not going to allow myself to worry about it because I know the truth. ... I don't bring it to this office."
In a 2006 article in Texas Monthly, writer Michael Hall asserted LaFuente's innocence and the plausibility of the Yanktons' involvement, but conceded neither could be proved.
"Just as there was absolutely no evidence in court against Richard LaFuente except for some wild stories, there's absolutely no evidence that any of the Yanktons had anything to do with Eddie's death - except for some wild stories," Hall wrote.
"We'll never know exactly what happened to Eddie - it's been too many years, and too many people have told too many stories. ..."
On "Restless Spirit," West posts this introduction: "The purpose of this site is not just to harass the murderers and their organization, but to inspire those who are living under their tyranny and abuse to stand up for themselves."
Since the eruption last year of the child protection issue, the site has argued through dozens of detailed posts that the Yanktons have used influence, intimidation and officials' reluctance to reopen the Peltier case to avoid serious examination of child sexual abuse on the reservation, to harass whistle blowers and to handcuff the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's office.
From a blog post dated Dec. 27:
"My purpose here is to make us all aware, therefore better able to prevent or protect ourselves and our communities in the future from the harm that is shaping up and taking form, and which remains relatively unseen behind closed doors where pedophiles rape children, and where our most powerful government agencies refuse to rescue those children or arrest those pedophiles.
"Instead, these powerful government agencies do all within their power to silence the whistle-blowers, harass, intimidate and outright threaten and retaliate against anyone (who) points to where the problem is. And they have been actively promoting this obscenity for over 1 year."
Chairman Yankton said he is aware of the site but doesn't visit it. However, he denied West's claim that he ordered other Spirit Lake Tribe employees not to go there.
"But it is procedure all over that people are not allowed to use their business computers to go to such places," he said.
"We need to stay focused and not be overwhelmed" by such accusations, he said, although he admitted "it does get irritating at times."
At least one other Spirit Lake employee, who objected to what he said was a false allegation concerning him in the "Restless Spirit" blog, said he was irritated enough to contact its Web hosting service.
Paul Hutchinson, a licensed social worker, was hired in September as the tribe sought to bolster its social services programs and avoid having to return responsibility for them to the federal government.
He was dismissed when the BIA took over the primary child protection duties on Oct. 1, but was immediately rehired by the tribe, which retained control of some social services.
Hutchinson said his background - he was an addict for 31 years, he said, but he has been "clean" for 13 - was known when he was first hired to investigate drug issues as they relate to child protection on the reservation.
"I think we're doing an exceptional job working together," he said of the collaboration between tribal social services staff and the new BIA administrators and social workers. "In spite of all the criticism, we are working as a team and in unison."