The Oglala Sioux Tribe may be making history as the tribal council considers adopting a hate crime ordinance at their next meeting that extends protections for its lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and queer or questioning or LGBTQ citizens. The law is modeled on the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Protection Act of 2009. If enacted, the Oglala Sioux Tribe is likely the first in the United States to pass such a law.
Comprehensive data regarding law codes for the 573 federally recognized United States tribes is hard to come by. Indian Country Today found a handful of tribes such as the Ely Shoshone of Nevada and Elk Valley Rancheria of California that extend penalties for existing laws such as assault and discrimination in housing and employment to include victims who may be targeted because of their sexual orientation, but was unable to find any tribal law codes specifically including sexual orientation under the category of hate crimes.
The current South Dakota hate crime law does not offer protection under the category of sexual orientation. On July 8, 2019, the Oglala Sioux Tribe became to first South Dakota tribe to pass a same-sex marriage law.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states in 2015, only about 35 tribes have since enacted similar laws according to advocates at Dine Equality.
Monique “Muffie” Mousseau and Felipa DeLeon, both citizens of the Oglala Sioux Tribe helped forward the effort to change the tribe’s marriage law. Born and raised on the Pine Ridge reservation, the married couple described to Indian Country Today how they were repeatedly threatened and “gay-bashed” by fellow tribal members over their sexual orientation. Fearful for their safety, they moved away from the reservation in 2009. Mousseau and DeLeon identify as lesbian.
When same-sex marriage was recognized by the federal government, they contacted the Oglala Sioux tribal government, hoping to be married in their home community. They were disappointed to learn that the tribe didn’t recognize same-sex marriage according to the couple. In 2015, they wed along with six other couples during a ceremony at Mt. Rushmore.
They vowed, however, to lobby the tribe to pass a same-sex marriage law; they traveled to meetings of the nine reservation districts explaining the law to tribal members and eventually gained support according to Mousseau.
After the tribe recognized same-sex marriage, the couple quickly began working to gain support for a hate crime law offering protections for LGBTQ tribal members. Using the same strategy, they were able to meet with eight of the nine districts where they presented data and information supporting passage of the law.
“LGBTQ folks and their families and friends on Pine Ridge often contact us for support and advice after their loved ones are attacked or commit suicide,” Mousseau said.
“Although authorities haven’t been keeping data, we know that many suicides on the reservation are related to gay-bashing and shaming,” Mousseau said.
According to a 2016 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Protection, LGBTQ youth seriously contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth.
The CDC also reports that suicide among Native Americans is 3.5 times higher than those among other ethnic groups. In 2015, the New York Times reported that there were at least 103 suicide attempts on the Pine Ridge reservation during a period of four months among people between the ages of 12-24.
“Our biggest concern is for the health and well-being of our youth,” Mousseau said.
“We need to protect our children. People are always talking about helping our youth. How about our LGBTQ youth? Who’s protecting them? People are gay-bashing and shaming them and telling them they’re wrong,” DeLeon said.
“Support for passing the hate crime law is strong,” said Chase Iron Eyes, public relations liaison for Julian Bear Runner, chairman of the Oglala Sioux tribe.
“We are confident that the council will vote in favor of it,” he said during an interview with Indian Country Today.
Robert Ecoffey, Chief of Police for the Oglala Sioux Tribe agreed.
“I think the law has a good chance of being passed. There is definitely a need for a hate crime law here on Pine Ridge. Some people have been assaulted because of their beliefs and how they live their lives relating to their sexual orientation,” Ecoffey said.
“I have children and grandchildren. I don’t know how they will identify themselves when they grow up but I want to know they will be safe. A hate crime law will offer them some protection,” DeLeon said.
Mary Annette Pember works as an independent journalist focusing on Indian issues and culture with a special emphasis on mental health and women’s health. Winner of the Ida B. Wells Fellowship for Investigative Reporting, Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism, the USC Annenberg National Health Fellowship and Dennis A. Hunt Fund for health journalism she has reported extensively on the impact of historical trauma among Indian peoples. She has contributed to ReWire.News, The Guardian, The Atlantic and Indian Country Today. An enrolled member of the Red Cliff Band of Wisconsin Ojibwe, she is based in Cincinnati, Ohio. See more at MAPember.com.