FBI Roles in Indian Country
A Day in the Life in Indian Country
|FBI Special Agent Doug Klein works
violent crime cases on two reservations
In July, we traveled to Montana to spend time with FBI agents who work in what’s called Indian Country—federally established reservations set aside for Native Americans. Today, 114 special agents from 21 different field offices investigate cases on some 200 reservations nationwide. There, we work closely with a range of partners, particularly the tribal police, who know their communities so well. Our exact role varies from reservation to reservation, but we are generally responsible for the most serious crimes, including murder, child sexual and physical abuse, assaults, drugs and gangs, corruption, and major thefts.
As you’ll see, life in Indian Country—where we have been part of the law enforcement picture since at least the 1920s—is often a hard one for Native Americans and for the agents and officers who serve and protect them. But one thing is clear from all the agents we talked with: our work there does make a difference.
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Special Agent Doug Klein sat back on his heels and spoke quietly to the young woman. It was important, he said, that she answer a federal grand jury summons to testify about the brutal beating she allegedly suffered at the hands of her boyfriend.
She looked down at the cigarette burn that partially covered the tattoo of a man’s name on her left hand. “Will he go to jail if I do?”
It was another hot, sunny afternoon on the Northern Cheyenne Indian reservation. Klein—one of three agents who works in Indian Country out of our Billings, Montana, office—paused a moment. Across the dusty street, five kids dropped the hose they were playing with and took turns pushing each other down the road in a wheel chair.
“It depends on a lot of things,” said Klein, a nearly eight-year veteran of the Bureau who cut his teeth working gangs and drugs in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and got his first feel for Indian Country on an Evidence Response Team there. “He might go to jail for a long time. Or he might get a plea bargain and get a lighter sentence.” A friend of the victim pulled back the tattered curtains and looked through the dusty window at Klein and the woman talking on the stoop.
“Indian Country agents are some of the FBI’s most experienced criminal investigators. Agents are required to respond to a wide variety of criminal matters and work them from the ground up, to include conducting victim, witness and subject interviews, crime scene investigations and analysis, fugitive investigations, as well as taking cases through prosecution. Indian Country work can be difficult and challenging but agents who work it have a real impact on the community.”
- Supervisory Special Agent Jennifer Leonard, head of the Indian Country/Special Crimes Unit, FBI Headquarters
“The point is, if you don’t show up for the federal grand jury, the judge will swear out an arrest warrant and I’ll have no choice. I will have to arrest you,” Klein said. “And I don’t want to do that. You’re the victim here.”
The woman had already missed two prior meetings of the federal grand jury in Billings. She missed the last one, she told Klein, because she ran into the parents of her boyfriend the day before she was to testify. She claims they didn’t threaten her.
The woman considered. “I’ll probably be gone by the time he gets out anyway,” she said. “Can I get some gas money?” Jobs—and cash—are hard to come by on the reservation, where unemployment runs above 60 percent. Crime rates are high.
Klein told her he couldn’t give her gas money for the 200-mile roundtrip, but gave her the name and phone number of the FBI’s local victim assistance specialist. The specialist would help arrange a ride, he said. She could also explain more about the grand jury system and what to expect next.
Testifying against a man who beat you severely may seem like an easy call, but decisions like these are more complicated in Indian Country, where relationships are close-knit and victims often know or are related to their attackers. Crime and violence are often cyclical, with victims sometimes turning into suspects themselves.
But Klein’s talk has paid off: the woman has decided to testify. It’s a small victory, but given how complex Indian Country cases can be, he’ll take it. He hops back in his truck and heads to his next appointment.