LAME DEER — Dozens of Northern Cheyenne who have assumed the role of law enforcement in Lame Deer marched from a camp they’ve kept in place since the rise of COVID-19 to the Little Wolf Capitol Building, demanding support from their leadership.
The march began Wednesday morning, and to the beat of drums and Bob Marley blasting from a speaker, when a string of soldiers in the Northern Cheyenne Traditional Military Societies and their supporters started from the U.S. Highway 212 roundabout.
“We don’t have any of the support, or any of the legal protection that cops do, but we’re doing the same work,” said Justin Simpson, a member of the Elk Horn Scrapers society, who has worked security for the Northern Cheyenne since February.
In March, along with declaring a state of emergency, leadership of the Northern Cheyenne invoked traditional law by calling on the help of the societies, one of the fundamental parts of the Cheyenne government that predates the constitution approved in 1935.
The society members, operating from camps established in Lame Deer, Muddy, Ashland and Busby, began their work in the form of running checkpoints, halting vehicles and asking drivers from outside of Montana to continue through the reservation without stopping. Their duties soon expanded, however, to policing the tribe.
Law enforcement on the Northern Cheyenne is the responsibility of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, with just a few of the federal agents responding to crimes in a nation that spans nearly 690 square miles. Although Lame Deer has a jail, it has not been staffed or used for years. All of those arrested are booked at the Two Rivers Detention Facility in Hardin.
In order to keep contact to a minimum, and stop the possible spread of coronavirus, BIA agents began only making arrests for Class A offenses, violent crimes that include murder, assault and rape.
The warrior societies have since shifted their duties from combating COVID-19 to filling what their members see as a void in adequate policing on the reservation.
Simpson, who said he’s put in hundreds of hours at the security camp since the official enactment of traditional law March 16, said there’s a major call they respond to at least once a night.
“It gets especially bad around 11. Things were quiet when we had the authority of a curfew behind us. Now that it’s been withdrawn, things have fallen apart,” he said.
With traditional law has come traditional punishment. Simpson, designated as a whipping man, has lived up to his title six times. Three times on the same man found intoxicated, Simpson said.
“It’s done with a chokecherry switch, and it’s done without emotion, either across the legs or across the a—. Some people say we’re beating people, and that’s just not true,” he told The Billings Gazette.
Traditional Law also caused a political rift between society members and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe’s president, Rynalea Pena. With her request of aid from the Traditional Military Societies, members asked that she remove herself from any decisions regarding their operations on the grounds of their traditional values. Several of those marching Tuesday said her being a woman, and making decisions for the societies, ran counter to those values.
Although the camps in the three other Northern Cheyenne towns vanished, members still come to the one remaining in Lame Deer, now called the Northern Cheyenne People’s Camp. In July, members cleared out a dilapidated building at the roundabout, and have stocked it with donated food, water and cots to continue what Simpson said is their obligation to the Northern Cheyenne people. A sign posted on the blue building’s side shows the camp’s phone line that’s been used to report assaults, drunkenness and grass fires.
“We’re constantly getting calls. They haven’t let up at all,” Simpson said.
When the marchers arrived at the Little Wolf Capitol Building, security ushered them onto the lawn. Geofredo Littlebird Sr., also with the Elk Horn Scrapers society, brought a document carrying more than 50 signatures into the tribal building for a meeting with three members of the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council.
The document summarized what both the society members and tribal volunteers are seeking on behalf of the council: re-implementing a curfew, wages for those putting in time at the camp and responding to calls, financial support and supplies for the camp, and awareness toward the several violent deaths that have occurred during the past four months.
“This is effectively a lawless land. People know that there’s no consequences. Crimes that were taboo are now normal, and they feel like some kind of invisibility for them. That needs to change,” said Waylon Rogers, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council and supporter of the Northern Cheyenne People’s Camp.
Rogers said that a meeting has been set for Friday, and will include the entire council and society members to further discuss their demands. President Pena declined to comment on the march, or the requests in the document.
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