They keep digging new graves for young people on the Red Lake Indian Reservation.
Those who work to combat crime in the northern Minnesota reservation point to a seemingly perpetual cycle of violence. Slights lead to assaults. Assaults lead to shootings or stabbings. Witnesses become victims. Victims become suspects. Some become dead.
Yet federal officials responsible for prosecuting serious crime on the reservation admit they still struggle to do enough about it.
A recent report to Congress by the U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO) showed that violent crime rates on Indian lands were twice the national average but that federal prosecutors declined to file charges in half the cases they saw. Some people, like U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones, hope a renewed emphasis on crime-fighting in Indian country -- including beefing up prosecutions, increasing training for tribal police and courts and improving support for victims and witnesses -- may stem the bloodshed. Few, it seems, are overly optimistic.
"It's tough, tough work," Jones said. "The key to having this effort make a real difference five, 10 years from now is our ability to sustain it. ... This community has had so many promises broken in the past."
Last July, President Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act into law, promising to do a better job fighting, reporting and prosecuting crimes on America's Indian reservations.
Law enforcement responsibility on reservations generally is split: Tribal police and courts investigate and prosecute less serious offenses, while either the federal government or specific counties handle most felony offenses.
At Red Lake, for instance, the FBI investigates and the U.S. attorney prosecutes felonies. At nearby White Earth Reservation, however, Mahnomen County handles many felonies; White Earth officials have asked the federal government to take jurisdiction of at least some felony cases.
The Tribal Law and Order Act not only will beef up federal prosecution -- the U.S. attorney in Minnesota has added a second prosecutor and a tribal liaison to work with Indian Country cases -- it also will allow some tribal police to enforce federal laws on Indian lands. Tribal courts will be allowed to sentence offenders for longer terms than the one year allowed before the act was passed.
But those increased responsibilities will require increased training, hiring and funding, officials say.
"That takes time," Jones said.
More recent headlines show the intractability of crime on the reservation.
rOn Nov. 8, 22-year-old Julian DeMarrias was laid to rest in Redby, Minn., after he was killed in a shootout. A suspect in the shooting, which left DeMarrias' brother wounded, recently was arrested by the FBI.
rCurtis Heinonen, 21, was stomped to death a year earlier. His battered and naked body was found beneath a pile of logs.
Those are the cases that are prosecuted.
According to the GAO report released in December, U.S. attorneys declined 50 percent of cases from Indian reservations over a five-year period. (In Minnesota, it was 36 percent.) But crime rates are 2 1/2 times higher for Indians than the general population. The rates for sexual assault and domestic violence are higher still.
A lack of prosecution can have a chilling effect on witnesses and victims -- making retaliation and new crimes even more likely, advocates say.
Officials say DeMarrias' shooting stemmed from old feuds. Last week, a grand jury indicted two 22-year-olds on charges of murder and assault. Both men are in custody.
Like much of the other violent crime on the reservation, deaths happened because of perceived past wrongs and vengeance, said Clifford Wardlaw, an assistant U.S. attorney who has been the main prosecutor for Indian country felonies for the past few years. Heinonen, also known by the name May, was the third person in his family to die in a year, Wardlaw said.
It's difficult to know what tribal officials think of federal crime-fighting efforts. Several leaders with the Red Lake Reservation did not return repeated calls seeking comment. White Earth Chairwoman Erma Vizenor also did not return calls.
Jones said he is committed to making an impact on crime on Indian lands. As proof, he points to the number of violent crime cases opened since he returned to the office in September 2009. (He previously was U.S. attorney in 2001.) In 2003, the U.S. attorney for Minnesota opened 17 violent crime cases. By 2006, that number was eight. In 2010, Jones said, Wardlaw and other prosecutors opened 35 violent crime cases in Indian country.
Sustaining these efforts, he said, will depend on continued training for tribal police and courts, continued work to close the distance between prosecutors and investigators and continued attempts to reach out to victims and witnesses. It will also take the continued federal financial commitment despite record budget deficits. Jones said it could be tough to sustain such efforts if budgets are cut.
"It's hard," he said, again. "Because you can never do enough in Indian country."
(Contact James Walsh at jwalsh(at)startribune.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)