The Investigative Fund is proud to announce that Kathy Dobie’s investigation, “Tiny Little Laws: A Plague of Sexual Violence in Indian Country” has been named one of four finalists for the Michael Kelly Award — honoring a writer or editor whose work exemplifies “the fearless pursuit and expression of truth.”
“Tiny Little Laws” was published in the February 2011 issue of Harper’s. The investigation took Dobie to Standing Rock, which straddles North and South Dakota, to uncover the plague of sexual violence on the nation’s Indian reservations. As Dobie reports, this wave of violence is due in large part to a lack of adequate policing and a broken legal system that rarely prosecutes sex offenders.
While a memo from the Bureau of Indian Affairs forbade local law-enforcement from speaking with her, Dobie stuck with the story. Through her shoe-leather reporting, she was able to garner interviews with local police, FBI agents, and BIA officers as well as victims of these horrendous crimes. The resulting piece allows readers a rare look at how, exactly, the system fails victims, families, and those who try to help them.
Dobie’s investigation hinges on the voices of those who have been sexually assaulted or abused. Tracking down victims was the biggest challenge in a place where the arrest and conviction rate is so low that, as Dobie puts it, “you could run into your rapist at the supermarket, the gas station, the local school — for years to come.”
Everyone Dobie spoke with on the reservation seemed to know someone who was molested as a child or gang raped at a house party or beaten and sexually assaulted by a boyfriend or husband. She found that the family and friends of sexual assault victims were far more leery about having the victims talk to her than were the victims themselves. Again and again she was told, “Well, I’ll ask her [if she’ll speak to you] but I think she wants to be left alone. She’s just trying to forget it and move on with her life.” And again and again, the victim agreed to speak to her precisely because she hadn’t been able to forget and move on.
Ignored by the police, shunted aside by the courts, often harassed by the perpetrator’s family and friends, these women stepped forward to tell their stories and “testify” in the only way available to them: not in court, because the crime had never been prosecuted, but to a reporter who worked to gain their trust. Many of those who spoke to Dobie were telling their stories in full for the first time.
Getting the story was a slow process that unfolded over many weeks, but Dobie found that the more people she interviewed, the more she learned about the effects of living in a place without justice — whether it was a nurse discussing the use of alcohol and drugs to numb the pain and anger of unhealed trauma, or an auto mechanic describing the system of vigilante justice that has filled the vacuum left by the police and courts.
As Dobie puts it, “Every citizen of Standing Rock was a teacher. I just had to stick around and listen.”
The winner of the Michael Kelly award will be announced at a ceremony in Washington, DC on April 15. More information about the other nominees is available here.