When I asked Tim Purdon, North Dakota's U.S. attorney, if the numbers had anything to do with a rise in crime, he first insisted they did not. He believed there was a growing sense among Native American victims that the crimes they reported would be prosecuted, and this encouraged more women to come forward.
But beginning last summer, Purdon noticed a peculiar pattern emerging from Fort Berthold. Many of his filings—a surprising number of them—involved non-Indian perpetrators. "We had five or six in a month," he told me. "Why was this? We realized it's non-enrolled folks moving to the oil patch."
The Bakken oil boom hit western North Dakota in 2008, and for all the hype, there's been little said about the reservation at its center. When I first reported on Fort Berthold in April 2011, the development had barely begun. Since then, thousands of oil workers have rushed onto the reservation, the boom a salve to foreclosure, debt, and the recession's other wounds. Now Fort Berthold really is in the middle of it all, and while the tribe and its members will earn billions of dollars in taxes and royalties before the decade is out, the development, for many residents, is far from a relief.
The immediate side-effects are the obvious ones, and they come with any boom: limited jail space, an overworked police force, a glut of men with cash in their pockets. In 2012, the tribal police department reported more murders, fatal accidents, sexual assaults, domestic disputes, drug busts, gun threats, and human trafficking cases than in any year before. The surrounding counties offer similar reports.
But there is one essential difference between Fort Berthold and the rest of North Dakota: The reservation's population has more than doubled with an influx of non-Indian oil workers—over whom the tribe has little legal control.
I met Sanchez one night last July at the police station. He was 25, tall, and tattooed. He greeted me with a nod. He wasn't from the reservation but had moved there with his fiancée and son. Having worked four years as a tribal officer, he was one of the unit's most senior members. "People don't last long here," he told me. The pay was hardly enough to afford rent, the work emotionally draining.
One morning a few weeks earlier, Sanchez had just come on duty when he stopped a man for reckless driving. "Come to find out, this guy is one of those sex offenders that kills his victims after. It's like, what the freak is going on here? I don't even have my coffee yet."
We drove west out of New Town, over Lake Sakakawea and into the Four Bears campground. In the summers before the boom, families would come from Williston and Bismarck to fish on the lakeshore. Now there were hundreds of trailers hidden under trees and battened with plywood against the coming cold. A year earlier, I had stood in this camp with a mechanic from Washington, a friendly, jovial man, who marveled at the seeming lack of rules here. "Basically," he said, "you can do anything short of killing somebody."
One in three Indian women are raped during their lifetimes—two-and-a-half times the likelihood for an average American woman—and in 86 percent of these cases, the assailant is non-Indian.
When I share this quote with tribal officers, none ever seems surprised. What the mechanic said was not entirely true—cases that fall outside tribal and federal jurisdiction belong to the state. But several officers insinuated that crimes committed on Fort Berthold are often a low priority for deputies and sheriffs, who are already overworked by the boom outside reservation borders.