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Another Spirit Lake hearing?

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A congressional hearing into child abuse and neglect on North Dakota’s Spirit Lake Reservation was a replay of the same old song: not enough money to address the problem. It’s not that simple.

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This week’s session was conducted by the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs. It continued what has become intense scrutiny of conditions in American Indian country as they affect the welfare and safety of children. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., is a member of the subcommittee. The hearing was useful to keep the pressure on, but no new ground was broken.

Spirit Lake in particular has been in the spotlight because of horrific conditions for children that have led to deaths. A multijurisdictional investigation of Spirit Lake revealed a miasma of pathologies that routinely puts children in harm’s way. Coupled with credible allegations that tribal police and other allegedly responsible officials have not vigorously investigated reported cases of abuse, a preponderance of evidence suggests the situation on the reservation has not improved.

And what’s the response from tribal officials? Chairman Russ McDonald said historic federal underfunding of social services and public safety programs have hindered the tribe’s ability to adequately address needs. As has been the pattern of the past, tribal officials point to everyone but themselves for the dangers tribal children confront every day — and have been confronting for decades.

More money is not the answer. Testimony at the Tuesday hearing indicated that the social ills and law enforcement failures at Spirit Lake have gotten worse because of endemic institutional corruption that is nourished by misappropriation of tribal and federal funds. Throw money down a rat hole, and you still have a rat hole.

Moreover, the rapid turnover of social service workers is not necessarily related to salaries. Rather, qualified people take the jobs with noble intentions, only to learn quickly that tribal politics, a web of family relationships and corruption from the police to the courts stymie meaningful reforms. In other words, working conditions are hostile.

Congressman Cramer can convene a hearing at Spirit Lake every week if he likes, but he and his colleagues would only be reassessing symptoms of deeply rooted malaise. Nothing will happen until causes of the malaise are targeted. And only tribal leaders, who embrace the honest and candid self-determination they say they want, can affect change.

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