Sari Horwitz, Washington Post, December 28, 2014
He was a world-famous medicine man, a traditional healer and spiritual leader. Followers would travel long distances to this tiny hamlet on the Great Plains to be in his presence and pray in the darkness with him in a sacred sweat lodge.
But Charles Chipps Sr., a medicine man on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation, had a dark secret, federal prosecutors say.
For years, they allege, Chipps sexually abused and raped girls, including some of his own daughters and granddaughters; many of the alleged victims were younger than 12 and several were as young as 5. A girl from Colorado whose aunt brought her to meet Chipps for spiritual guidance committed suicide after revealing the abuse she allegedly suffered.
The sexual abuse of children has long been regarded as a rampant if largely unspoken problem on Native American reservations, in part a legacy of a boarding school system that was designed to assimilate students and subjected them to widespread sexual, emotional and physical abuse, according to Native leaders and prosecutors. But Chipps’s case, as described in court testimony, is among the most shocking–entailing allegations that a respected elder sexually abused at least six girls.
It is also an illustration of the ways in which the federal, state and tribal legal maze that governs Indian country can complicate the pursuit of justice and, in Chipps’s case, allowed him to go free for three years after he was first jailed.
Child sexual abuse on the reservations is at the root of the many problems that follow for Indian children–depression, alcohol and drug abuse, juvenile detention and suicide, according to Indian country experts. The challenge of getting victims to speak out–common in child sexual assault cases anywhere–is exacerbated by the close-knit nature of the remote communities where they live.
The U.S. attorney for South Dakota, Brendan V. Johnson, said that sexual violence is one of the most common criminal offenses on the nine reservations where he shares criminal jurisdiction with the tribes, but it is extremely difficult to bring charges.
“Victims are placed under tremendous pressure by family members and friends to recant their stories,” said Johnson, who declined to discuss details of the Chipps case. “The complaint will come in, the victims will be forensically interviewed and will provide us with specific facts about what happened and then, months later, will recant their stories.”
The allegations against Chipps have torn his family apart, with some relatives and friends supporting him and others shunning him. Now 67, the medicine man has pleaded not guilty. His lawyer says he is too sick and mentally incompetent to stand trial.
In a brief interview, he declined to discuss his client’s case further.
At about the same time, Heather Dawn Thompson, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe of South Dakota, joined the U.S. attorney’s office in Rapid City. Thompson said she soon became an expert in sexual abuse cases because there were so many of them.
“There are a variety of historical reasons that people point to for this cycle in Indian country, one of which has to do with the federal policy of removing children from their homes and sending them to boarding schools during the late 1800s and much of the 1900s,” Thompson said.
Many studies tie sexual abuse to the intergenerational trauma that began in the secular and church-run boarding schools that Indian children were required to attend. Court documents and lawsuit settlements reveal how the boarding schools, especially in places like South Dakota, were centers of widespread sexual, emotional and physical abuse.
Many of the children who attended the schools are the parents and grandparents of today’s Native American children. “There were individuals who were willing to move out in the middle of nowhere in order to work at boarding schools with these children and there were some who had a pre-disposition for child sex abuse and many of the children were sexually abused,” Thompson said. “Unfortunately, that has become a cycle that was passed down from generation to generation. You compound that with the poverty, socioeconomic and isolation issues in Indian country and unfortunately that cycle has not yet been broken.”